Are Humans Inherently Evil? History Says No
People's deplorable actions ultimately have more to do with socially induced fears and mistrust than some inherent evil. Fiction and tradition tells us humans are fundamentally wicked, but history says otherwise.
BUENOS AIRES — In June 1965, six boys from St. Andrew's College, an Anglican boarding school in the South Pacific island of Tonga, stole a boat, filled it with snacks and set out to sea in search of adventures.
They wanted to reach Fiji, although none had even considered bringing a compass. The oldest was barely 15 years old. The boys fell asleep and woke up in a storm.
After spending eight days adrift, they spotted a rocky isle, with no idea where they were. It wasn't even an isle, so much as an islet, just a bit of rock. They landed and lit a fire, working to keep it alive until rescued, just like the boys in William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies. In that novel, as we know, the castaways abandon their civilized ways and turn on each other, causing three deaths.
The St. Andrews boys, however, made a pact to protect each other, and kept their pledge for a year and three months. It was a time of anxiety, illness and accidents, as can be expected on an abandoned island.
But a miracle happened when they were rescued by Australian sea captain Peter Warner on Sept. 11, 1966.
This real-life adventure belies the premise of Golding's novel: that humans are bad by nature, and barely keep our inner darkness at bay under a thin veneer of civilization. The boys' Christian education might have helped; for historian Rutger Gregman, author of Humankind: A Hopeful History, human wickedness is learned, acquired in a "nocebo effect" that makes us believe we are doomed to be bad.
Bregman believes instead that goodness is innate to humans, and he finds many historical episodes to show it. I am thinking here of the heroes who entered the smouldering Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011, knowing they would die but intent on saving others. The same may be said of Chernobyl in 1986: Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov and Boris Baranov, the so-called suicide squad, who volunteered to enter a flooded part of the plant and drain it to prevent a bigger nuclear disaster, despite the terrible risk.
Lord of the Flies (1990)
The original trailer of Lord of the Flies directed by Harry Hook
The "nocebo" effect
The neurologist Sigmund Freud believed hereditary factors explain the pleasure some people feel in killing. The Renaissance politician Machiavelli depicts humans as ungrateful hypocrites, while Christianity attributes our wickedness to the original sin of Adam and Eve.
In contrast with history, literature seems only to see the 'nocebo' effect of badness.
Like Golding's novel, the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde depicts the dichotomy of good and evil within the same person. In his novel Outsider, Albert Camus questioned the commonly understood notions of goodness and badness in the behavior of an 'amoral' character bereft of emotions, Meursault.
In contrast with history, literature seems only to see the 'nocebo' effect of badness. I cannot think offhand of a prominent good person in a novel or literary book. There is the prophet Job in the Bible, but he too is marked by original sin.
Yet wickedness, beyond its moral scope or matters of piety, has an immediate impact on trust, which is a fundamental pillar of day-to-day social life. If you think others are bad, how could you trust them and let your guard down?
Distrust creates a society where everything must be verified. Byung-Chul Han, a South Korean philosopher, says the transparent society, paradoxically, creates distrust. For a better society then, let us curb our basest instincts — but also, some of our liberty.
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