BluFioneX/DeviantArt
Source: BluFioneX/DeviantArt

60 years and a handful of days ago, on 17 September 1954, William Golding published his little moral novel, Lord of the Flies. That was roughly 15 years after the author had enlisted in the Royal Navy, and just a decade after the Great War, World War II, had come to an end. The forces of democracy had triumphed. The British, and their allies, had won.

What makes democracy possible? In the end, nothing congenital, of course. Not in the allegory of Lord of the Flies, or otherwise. The boys who were brought by a wrecked plane to Golding’s paradisiacal Pacific island ran the gamut of human traits. Some were blood-thirsty or sadistic; others were fair-minded or smart. But every one of them became more or less of those things as time, and opportunity, wore on. The boy who listened to the voice of reason, and called assemblies by blowing on his conch (“We can use this to call the others. Have a meeting. They’ll come when they hear us”), was the same boy who gave in to his worst instincts, and beat an innocent friend to death (“Kill the Beast! Cut his throat! Spill his Blood!”). The best, and the worst, that’s in any of us, was in all of them.

So what else makes democracy possible? In the end, nothing cultural, either. In the equatorial heat of Golding’s remote spot of jungle, the veneer of civilization wore as thin as English boys’ school sweaters or cap badges. Corrective lenses were broken (“His specs—use them as burning glasses!”); and the assembly summoner was shattered (“We don’t need the conch anymore. We know who ought to say things. It’s time some people knew they’ve got to keep quiet and leave deciding things to the rest of us”).

In the end, the only thing that makes democracy possible is a way out—whether in Lord of the Flies, or in real life. It’s planes, and trains, and the British Navy. It’s the wrecked fuselage that dropped those schoolboys close to Castle Rock. It’s the trains in Ralph’s dreams, that took him down to the cottage in the garden at Devon near the edge of the moors, where he lived with his mother and father and wild ponies and a small library of books—with titles like The Boy’s Book of Ships, and The Boy’s Book of Trains. But most of all, it’s the cutter that showed up, at last, in their Pacific island harbor. “I should have thought that a pack of British boys—you’re all British, aren’t you?—would have been able to put up a better show than that,” the navy officer remarked, and loaded them onto his boat. Democracy is easy, when it’s easy to get away.

Growing up in early 20th-century Cornwall, William Golding was encouraged by his parents to study natural science. He revolted, and read literature at Oxford instead. In a way, he was devoted to both. Lord of the Flies is a brilliantly written book; but its message has a lot to do with human nature, and the nature of animals.

Golding’s flies cluster around the head of a pig that the hunters have slaughtered.  In the Old Testament of the Book of Kings, and in the New Testament of the Gospels, they’re the zebub, or flies, of the Philistine god Baal: Beelzebub, or the Lord of the Flies. When the boy, Simon, looks hard at the pig’s carcass covered with insects, it seems to say this. “Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!” Then, “You knew, didn't you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close. I’m the reason why it’s no go.”

In the natural world, the bugs swarming around the swine carcass on Golding's island would occasionally be social. Flies get together when they’re mating, or cluster around food sources—like the heads of dead pigs. But they wouldn't be quasisocial, or eusocial—like many ants, bees, termites, wasps, and an occasional snapping shrimp, or spider—or us. Quasisocial and eusocial animals live in permanent groups, where dominants mate, eat and rest; and subordinates do most of the work.

On islands, it usually comes to that.

About the Author

Laura Betzig

Laura Betzig, Ph.D., is a Darwinian historian at work on her fourth book, The Badge of Lost Innocence: A History of the West.

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