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The nature of our species

There are two popular stories making the rounds about the nature of our species. One is fiction; one is non-fiction. One comes from 1951; the other from 1966.

The 1951 story is about a handful of well-educated British boys who, surviving a plane crash, end up on a small, uninhabited Pacific island. With no adult supervision, they made their own rules. Months later, when a British officer discovered them, they had regressed to a cruel survival-of-the fittest, every-boy-for-himself state. Three of them had died.

The 1966 story is about six boys from an Anglican boarding school who “borrowed” a fisherman’s boat and took to sea, got lost and, after eight days, shipwrecked on a deserted island far from home. Months later, some of their parents gave up hope and conducted their sons’ funerals. The boys actually were doing quite well. They were looking out for each other, “all for one and one for all.” When they quarreled, the quarrelers went into “time out” for four hours and then came back together and apologized. Fifteen months after they got lost, they were all found safe, sound and thriving.

The story from 1951 is fiction. William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” became a 20th century classic, required reading in many schools. Golding’s message was “the darkness of man’s heart” and how “man produces evil as a bee produces honey.”

The story from 1966 is non-fiction, well documented in interviews with the lost boys and the sailor, Captain Peter Warner, who found them.

Biologist Frans de Waal calls Golding’s view the “veneer theory,” the idea that, if you scratch the surface, our bestial, piranha nature will surface.

How do veneer theorists explain a scratch named plague or tornado that exposes and unleashes, not depravity, but a tsunami of kindness, cooperation and generosity?

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