Even before the reaction to Tr*mp’s election brought renewed attention to the famous dystopian classics like Nineteen Eight-Four [that’s the proper, bibliographic, title; ‘1984’ is a sort of nickname] and Brave New World, I had contemplated returning to some of these classic novels that bridge the literary and SF worlds, part of my program to revisit classic SF novels that inform my grand project via my ‘provisional conclusions’.

And even before the Orwell and Huxley novels, I decided, a good place to start would be that perennial highschool assignment, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It’s always been in the back of my mind as exhibit A to PvC #9: “In the event of any kind of species ‘reset’ … humankind would be left only with the evolutionary motivations given toward tribalism, the value of narratives over evidence, and the susceptibility toward supernatural perceptions, that preceded them – i.e., baseline human nature, optimized for animalistic survival.”

Lord of the Flies doesn’t exhibit that full range, but it does illustrate the erosion of social community into tribalistic savagery.

The book is so well-known I needn’t provide more than a cursory summary. Published in 1954, it describes a planeload of kids, all boys, all British, whose passenger cabin [apparently not the plane itself] crashes on a remote Pacific island, with no adults. The main characters, all about 12 years old or younger, are fair-haired Ralph, who assumes command with a totemic conch; fat Piggy, with asthma and specs; red-haired Jack, leader of a group of choirboys; and Simon, one of the choirboys who suffers some medical condition, perhaps epilepsy. The initial goals of the boys include building shelters and maintaining a fire at the top of the island’s mountain, to generate smoke and attract rescue. But there are rumors of a ‘beast’ on the island, and rivalry grows between Ralph and Jack.

(The book is just barely science fiction, in that it implies an atomic war that has both stranded the boys on the island and inhibits their rescue.)

A dead airman from some overhead battle parachutes onto the island, at night, and when glimpsed by the boys seems to confirm rumors of a ‘beast’. Meanwhile Jack and his choirboys become hunters, withdraw their group from the others, wearing clay warpaint, and become termed ‘savages’ in the book’s narrative.

Simon, the mystic, has a (perhaps epileptic) vision of a “Lord of the Flies”, a dead pig’s head mounted on a spike, that speaks to him of the real beast within them all; later, Simon ascends the mountain, discovers the truth about the dead airman, and descends to the beach to tell everyone about it, just as the hunters are reveling in meat and dance and chants — “Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!” — and, mistaking him for the beast, attack and kill him.

With Piggy’s specs the only source of generating fire, Jack’s forces raid Ralph’s friends on the beach, and then reject Ralph’s appeal for civility by rolling a boulder from their “castle rock” [fun fact: thus the name of Stephen King’s production agency] that kills Piggy. Ralph realizes he is their next target, and wakes in the morning to discover the hunters have set the entire jungle on fire, to smoke him out. He flees through the burning forest, landing on the beach, to discover a Naval officer there, rescue having been attracted by smoke from the fire.


The book is popular in high schools because of its startling theme — being stranded on a desert island away from adults seems a lark, but it quickly turns sour, then savage — and for its relatively easy parsing into symbols, via the characters, the conch, the social roles. I remembered all that.

What struck me this time (the last time I read the book was in 1991) was that it’s a book full of mysterious passages. Some of these make more sense later on; others just provide perspective in a way that is only tangential to the book’s theme. These include:

  • The end of Ch3, a detailed passage about how Simon crawls into the bushes, to be alone, for the first time, and you don’t quite understand why;
  • p103-104 [page numbers are in the ancient Capricorn Books edition that I have, as yellowed as the internet image of the book I found and is pictured above, in which the entire text of the novel goes only 187 pages], as Ralph recalls his family’s house on the moors, and his childhood comforts;
  • Most especially, a long passage in which Ralph, on the far side of the island from the reef, looks out onto the ocean, p102:

    Down here, almost on a level with the sea, you could follow with your eye the ceaseless, bulging passage of the deep sea waves. They were miles wide, apparently not breakers or the banked ridges of shallow water. They traveled the length of the island with an air of disregarding it and being set on other business; they were less a progress than a momentous rise and fall of the whole ocean.

    This is the perception of wonder, of the mysterious, of the inhuman.

This last recalls to me Einstein’s famous quotation:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.

To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.

I would characterize, or extend, this as: the mysterious is the perception of an order of things that exists independently of humanity, and our wonder about what that order might be. It seems illustrated in Ralph’s perception of the vast, uncaring ocean.

Then of course there is a central key scene, in which Simon seems to talk to the “Lord of the Flies”, a dead pig’s head mounted on a stick and covered with flies. As Simon sees it, “his gaze was held by that ancient, inescapable recognition”, p128.2, and the Lord speaks to him, p132-133, “Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! … You knew didn’t you? I’m part of you?”

This is mysterious, but it’s also pretty plain, and the author isn’t coy in revealing his theme. Another thing I noticed this time are the recurrent mentions of Ralph, ostensibly the sensible leader, feeling that his own thinking is going haywire. p70.7: “He lost himself in a maze of thoughts that were rendered vague by his lack of words to express them.”; p100.1: “A strange thing happened in his head. Something flittered there in front of his mind like a bat’s wing, obscuring his idea.”; p131.4: he is “puzzled by the shutter that flickered in his brain”. He has to keep reminding himself how to think rationally, as his compatriots become more and more irrational.


Two technical comments: first, the island is described as being built of pink granite. This seems unlikely for a remote Pacific island, which are more typically, uniformly I think, volcanic.

Second, I’m sure I read somewhere how Piggy’s specs could not have been the types of lenses that could have been used to focus the sunlight and light a fire.

Story trumps.


Then we come to the book’s central theme, or thesis, which the author spelled out, handily enough, shortly after publication (given in E.L. Epstein’s notes in my edition):

The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable.

He goes on to compare the rescue by the adults from the Naval cruiser with the “same evil” as life on the island, since the cruiser itself is built to act in a larger, global, conflict, to hunt enemies. “And who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?”

Based on the evidence of late 20th century and early 21st century science, though, I think his central premise is backwards, his moral quoted above. The evidence of modern neuroscience, of evolutionary psychology, suggests that this “same evil” is not actually a defect. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

The ‘savagery’ that the boys descend into isn’t “evil” or some kind of primal “sin” – it’s a survival strategy. And it’s present in all of us (just as Simon perceives), along with a vast suite of other survival strategies, built into us by evolution, ready to manifest themselves as needed depending on the circumstances the individual finds itself, whether alone in a jungle or forced to cooperate with a family, a tribe, a larger group. It *is* a function of social and political systems to temper individual selfishness (which survives in everyone, everyone’s temptation to cheat whenever they can, in minor and major ways), which sure enough would erupt in the event of a complete breakdown of social order (e.g. a worldwide catastrophe of some sort).

This survival strategy, this final resort to last-resort measures, isn’t “evil”, except in a context in which it does not apply. It’s what’s needed for individuals stranded in desperate situations to survive, at all, and then to survive and be able to reproduce — which would happen to pass that strategy on. Without it, calm, ‘civilized’ individuals and tribes, faced with circumstances of starvation in the face of, say, an ice age, would have perished. Did perish. The ones who didn’t perish, and are still here, are the ones who had those ‘savage’ resources to stay alive, and perpetuate the race that exists today.

(This reminds me that Golding’s second novel, after Lord of the Flies, was The Inheritors, a fiction of ancient history about a tribe of calm Neanderthals facing the onslaught of Homo sapiens, which might well illustrate the point I just made; but I read that one too long ago, and need to revisit it.)

E.O. Wilson described this tension between civility and savagery as a result of multilevel selection that pits kin selection against group selection – as quoted in this post (scroll down to chapter 3) reviewing one of his books,

Within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue.

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