The Nature of Our Nature

Are humans truly destructive at our core, or is there another story to be told?

By Day 81 of shelter-in-place, I’ve had a lot of time to ponder human nature: I’ve read about corporate executives forcing meatpacking workers to toil shoulder-to-shoulder without any protections from Covid-19 and also about emergency room workers rushing into hospital rooms to save dying patients. I’ve heard about swindlers hawking defective personal protective equipment and chefs working seven days a week to transform restaurants into emergency feeding centers. I’ve seen my own daughters, ages 8 and 10, tease each other relentlessly and comfort each other in ways I never could. As this article goes to press, I, along with millions of others, have watched in horror as a police officer was captured on video extinguishing the life of George Floyd and have seen communities all across the country rise up to demand justice and fundamental change.

Photo by
The history of Easter Island has long been used to reinforce the notion that humans have an inexorable propensity for environmental devastation. Photo by Lee Coursey.

A global pandemic and public reckoning of systemic racism serve as potent reminders that we’re all we’ve got on this tiny blue orb in the universe. And, so, amidst it all, I’ve wondered what do we really know about the nature of our nature? Are the violent cop and the illegal land grabber the true reflection of human nature, and the selfless humanitarian and rainforest protector the aberration? Or is it the other way around?

I was thinking about all of this when I stumbled on the latest book by the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. (He’s the guy who rumpled the feathers of Davos elite last year by daring to suggest they should all be taxed a hell of a lot more). Called Humankind, Bregman’s book explores these thorny questions of human nature.

As he describes in a May Guardian excerpt that went viral, Bregman knew when he started his book that he’d need to tackle one of the tentpole stories of the humans-are-ruthless narrative: Lord of the Flies. The 1954 novel by Nobel Prize–winning author William Golding tells the story of British schoolboys stranded on a deserted island. Whether you’ve read the book or not (I vaguely remember its details from high school English class), you know what happened next: It got ugly. By the time the boys are rescued, three of them are dead — and the narrator laments “the darkness of man’s heart.”

But it’s a novel, of course, a made-up story. What would happen if a band of boys were really stranded on an island, all on their own? Would they descend into the chaos of Lord of the Flies? Those questions led Bregman on a quest to discover whether there was such a story out there, a real one. Ultimately, with some serious sleuthing — and good luck — Bregman discovered the tale of six boys marooned on an island in the South Pacific in the 1960s and discovered after 15 months by an Australian sea captain. What the captain found wasn’t the dark violence of Golding’s novel, but love and solidarity, boys who survived alone through shared work, song, and prayer for all those many months.

On his Twitter feed, Bregman writes how he has been moved by the popularity of his Guardian excerpt: “Wow. Really overwhelmed with the response to my story about the real ‘Lord of the Flies’. So so happy that this extraordinary tale is finally - after 50 years! - becoming famous.”

It makes sense to me why people are drawn to this story now: We are hungry to hear about the good in us at a time when there is so much darkness. We’re hungry for a story of self that speaks to our deeper kindness. We’ve certainly had enough of Lord of the Flies.

At this moment of global pandemic, nested in the other global crisis of our time, climate chaos, there’s another narrative I’ve been thinking about — another one that needs a rewrite. If Lord of the Flies is the dominant tale of humans’ true relationship to each other, the sorry story of Easter Island is the tale we’re told about our true relationship with nature. And it’s not pretty.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard the history of Easter Island used to reinforce the notion that humans have an inexorable propensity for environmental devastation, a notion that makes the potential for us to solve climate change — or, frankly, any environmental crisis — seem that much more daunting. We can’t help it, we’re taught to believe, it’s just what humans do.

The dominant theory of Easter Island — that mysterious speck in the southeastern Pacific Ocean dotted with more than 1,000 iconic tributes to deities — is that the native population decimated the island’s natural resources, driven by a need for food but also by a myopic, and ultimately deadly, obsession. In Collapse, anthropologist Jared Diamond writes, “Eventually Easter’s growing population was cutting the forest more rapidly than the forest was regenerating. The people used land for gardens and wood for fuel, canoes, and houses — and of course, for lugging statues.”

Diamond was drawing on the archeological work of Paul Bahn and John Flenley who wrote Easter Island, Earth Island (just in case the metaphor wasn’t clear already). Bahn and Flenley write: “The person who felled the last tree could see that it was the last tree. But he (or she) still felled it. This is what is so worrying. Humankind’s covetousness is boundless. Its selfishness appears to be genetically inborn.”

Whoa. Pretty dark stuff. This story — that humans a “genetically inborn” with a disregard for the environment around us — is certainly the prevailing message. But what if something else happened on that island so many years ago? Something that cracks one of the most powerful metaphors about human nature and ecological harmony.

Indeed, a few years ago I stumbled on just such a history. Anthropologist Terry Hunt and archeologist Carl Lipo have a different theory about the island, its inhabitants, and those statues. In their book, The Statues that Walked, Hunt and Lipo argue that the archeological record reveals how the island’s palm cover was decimated not by “covetous natives,” but by an invasive rat. And timber wasn’t harvested to roll gargantuan statues along logs. Instead, the statues were moved upright, rocked on sturdy vines. They “walked.” What’s more, Easter Island’s barren, rock-strewn landscape isn’t a reflection of the Tragedy of the Commons. Rather, the rocks are remnants of a sophisticated food cultivation practice called “lithic mulching,” which uses carefully placed stones to prevent soil erosion and create micro-climates. Hunt and Lipo count 2,553 of these formations across the island.

“These findings,” Hunt and Lipo write, “suggest that rather than a case of abject failure, [Easter Island] is an unlikely story of success.” The prevailing story — with its racist undertones of a barbaric Indigenous population driving itself to collapse — comes undone. (There’s a side note here: The native folklore on the island has long told tales of “chiefs and priests imbued with a supernatural power who simply ordered the statues to walk,” tales that had been widely dismissed as simply fantastical folklore. Now, the idea of teetering statues rocking along vines — walking — is backed up by the archeological record.)

Human nature is messy, for sure, but for too long the dominant story of it in the Western canon of literature, archeology, and more has been written by one branch of the human family, codified in novels like Lord of the Flies and in histories like that of Easter Island. It’s a story that tells us we are innately ruthless, savage to each other and the planet.

It’s a story many of us are still raised on. More than half a century after it was published, Lord of the Flies still finds itself in the ranks of the best young adult books of all time — a recent UK poll placed it third among books for students. From textbooks to random websites, we can find the dominant story of Easter Island still reinforcing this notion that the island is a microcosm of a planetary story of humans at odds with nature, unable to contain our destructiveness.

I, for one, am ready for a new story. As I continue to shelter-in-place, and my Twitter scroll fills with more terrifying news of both the pandemic and the weather shocks of the climate crisis, I take solace in this other story of ourselves, one that need not ignore our darkest traits, but that lifts up the intrinsic kindness and environmental stewardship of the human family — a family to which we all belong.

This essay has been updated.

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