Can humans go feral?

Posted on  by Matthew Wright

There was a story in the Guardian the other week about a real-life ‘Lord of the Flies’ adventure: six boys, hoping to escape life in Tonga, ended up cast away on a desert island for 18 months in 1966-67. They survived: and they did not become animals. On the contrary, they maintained the values and ethics of their upbringing. It kept them alive.

William Golding’s 1951 novel Lord of the Flies, which I was forced to read at school, emerged from the western effort to explain how the Nazis had gone so far off the moral rails. Was civilisation merely a façade, easily lost? The idea had been bubbling along in western thought well prior to that, of course, but explaining it gained a level of urgency after 1945. Where had the death camp guards come from, for instance? How could any human, other than schoolteachers, simply drop the values of kindness and compassion and turn into a cruel, sadistic monster?

It turned out anyone could do just that: all that had to be done was create an institution (such as a school, or a death camp) where one group was defined as having total power over the other. The institutional rules became an enabler; and bingo. Experiments in the early 1960s suggested that people got a sense of worth out of being able to hurt others; and more, it made them feel good.

Golding took this in a particular direction with a ‘thought experiment’: a group of boys lost on a desert island without adults. They didn’t take long to become selfish individualists with no sense of moral compass. This, Golding implied, was true human nature. It was controversial. Robert A. Heinlein countered it in his 1955 novel Tunnel in the Sky, one of his ‘coming of age’ young adult stories which had the same basic concept of kids adrift in isolation as Golding’s. But Heinlein’s kids never lost moral compass, or the need to maintain the values of civilisation. The scenes at the end [spoiler alert!] – where the media actively misrepresented what the survivors had done in order to perpetuate the myth of kids falling into savagery – were a particularly pointed rip on Golding’s approach.

I have to wonder whether both missed the point. The argument boiled down to whether rule of law, government, and moral compass involving due care for others was a façade that had come with organised society; or whether it was innate. In the mid-twentieth century, this concept was coloured by Age of Reason suppositions about ‘progress’, and particularly the ‘advance’ of humanity from ‘primitive’ cave-savages to ‘sophisticated’, civilised humans. Even in the mid-twentieth century, those ideas were changing; but the broad framework remained a powerful constraint.

Since then it’s become clear a wider array of forces are at work. One suggestion, flowing from ‘evolutionary biology’, is that humans are innately geared to work in kin-related communities that top out at perhaps 150 or so, and it is to these scale groups – at most – that people show altruism, loyalty and kindness. Other groups are just that: ‘others’, who need not even be defined as human. There is growing evidence, indeed, of hunter-gatherer age warfare. And, of course, there were mechanisms within those kin-related groups that created a contested ‘pecking order’, in which techniques such as bullying were successful strategies.

Agricultural and later industrial societies have larger scale, but – the argument goes – human nature can’t evolve so quickly. The rules of society – laws passed by governments, social niceties and so forth – help. So do groups; employment, in clubs, sports teams and so forth, with which people identify. So does prosperity: if everybody has plenty, nobody fights each other openly over resources. Humans, in short, domesticated themselves.

But that can fail if society is frightened or under stress, or if one group is dispossessed to the point where they have nothing. Then, the local ‘group’ becomes the sole point of loyalty. And if that mind-set spreads far enough, anarchy follows. It can happen in organised society: look at Mogadishu in the early 1990s, which was dominated by rival gangs and where law and order had broken down entirely. UN forces sent to help keep the peace had to use armoured vehicles to protect themselves. I recall interviewing some of the New Zealand contingent during my journalist days: they were shocked at the brutality, including a moment when one kid slaughtered another, right in front of them, over possession of a shovel the first kid had stolen from the outside of their vehicle.

Human nature finally revealed…

The problem is that this sort of behaviour has been happening to some extent in western societies as economic iniquities grow. There are urban areas even in New Zealand where even an accidental glance at somebody is often received as a mortal insult that has to be violently avenged. And New Zealand always classes itself one of the luckier countries.

The word for a domestic animal that has returned to the wild is feral. And that seems a fair description of some of the behaviours I’ve been seeing in our society, including online where anonymity and insulation from any direct consequence become enablers for appalling conduct. What worries me is that when things reach such a state it doesn’t take much to tip everything over. Look at Europe in the early nineteenth century: a cauldron where the first burst of unregulated capitalism allowed the rich to transfer all the wealth to themselves, and where the poor were blamed for their misfortune and then left to fight over what was left. Worked a treat until 1848. That was when the pitchforks and torches came out.

The current pandemic probably won’t trigger such a crisis. But its consequences might. What concerns me is that the neo-liberal system won’t change and will simply carry on with the path that has led to elements of society going feral in the first place. If there’s any way to guarantee trouble, that’s it. I guess time will tell.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020


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