The Evolution of Human Ethics: Comparing “Lord of the Flies” and Chimpanzees
(a term paper written ca. 1998)
In William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, English schoolboys are stranded on a deserted island without adults during a war. They try to create a society, but the society they create strongly resembles what today is a commonly perceived view of non-human primate societies. Written at least partly as a response to an 1875 novel of three boys shipwrecked on an island, Golding’s novel demonstrates a number of changes in some people’s views of humanity from 1875 to 1954. It’s necessary to note, however, that as the knowledge about primate societies has increased, some of the societal ideas demonstrated in the novel are no longer widely accepted. Lord of the Flies is a novel firmly entrenched in the time it was written, and gives us a reasonably accurate view of how “civilized” humans view “uncivilized” societies.
In 1875, four years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s “The Descent of Man”, R. M. Ballantyne’s novel The Coral Island was released. In this novel, three shipwrecked young boys not only create an environment similar in many ways to that of the English gentry, they also manage to defeat pirates by virtue of their moral strength and convert the local cannibals to Christianity. Basically, the three boys never lose the values and morals of their society, even when the society itself is taken away.
In 1954, William Golding’s novel was published. Whereas Ballantyne’s novel was written during a time when human evolution was not widely accepted, Golding’s novel was written during a time that produced the term “killer ape” to describe humans. The society created by the schoolboys resembles the societies created by apes such as chimpanzees in many ways. At the time, this was not thought of as a good thing. Golding himself once described his novel this way: “The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature” (Golding 189). Although the actions of the boys (from an ethological perspective) are not necessarily “defects,” this judgment is passed on them by the author. Whether such actions are defects or not is a complicated question. First, the society of the boys should be examined.
Rank and Order
The struggle to become leader is one of the first key points of the novel. There are two main contenders for this position, Ralph and Jack. Their struggle has parallels with the struggle of two apes to become alpha male. Ralph has the physical characteristics of a leader-type, tall, straight, strong and handsome. His father is a Naval commander, so he could be said to be an alpha male’s son. This may have been an advantage, based on studies of rhesus monkey hierarchies by John H. Kaufman: a young male who achieved a fairly high rank very quickly was the son of the alpha female and a brother to the current alpha male. In Kaufman’s words, this is “an example of a son of a high-ranking mother achieving high rank early and easily” (Kaufman 77). Finally, when the group is gathered, Ralph is the one who gathers them by using the conch shell. Jack, on the other hand, though tall, was thin, bony and ugly. He was, however, already in charge of a group of boys and wore a cap with a golden badge and a long black cloak with a silver cross on it. Both boys wanted to be leader. Although it was a vote, the two had certain elements in common with two males vying for the alpha male spot. Both mounted displays for the rest of the group, Ralph with the conch and Jack with his cap and cloak and the choir marching in a military fashion. In the end, Ralph was chosen because the previous “alpha males,” the adults they had been following, used megaphones to order the boys and Ralph’s conch display resembled the megaphones so much that the boys followed him.
It’s interesting to note that alliances played a part of the jockeying for the alpha male position. Jack had the, albeit unwilling or lukewarm, support of the choir. Ralph’s support came from everyone else, including the mass of “littluns,” the small children who actually wielded no real power and were lowest in the hierarchy of the boys. Many times in ape societies, low ranking members support alpha males against their competitors.
After Ralph’s selection as chief, the first thing he did was to go to Jack and make peace. Many primates also have reconciliations after a challenge is made. In general, if the reconciliation is successful, the hierarchy is stable for another while. If the reconciliation is not successful, more trouble is soon to follow. This first reconciliation between Jack and Ralph is successful. Later on, though, Jack mounts more challenges to Ralph’s leadership. There are at least four more distinct challenges to Ralph’s authority as leader. Each of Jack’s challenges involved certain display rituals to attract attention to him as the leader. These displays ranged from exuberant shouts after the successful hunt of a pig, to painting his face with a mask. With each challenge, Ralph is able to maintain leadership, but by a slimmer and slimmer margin. Eventually, Jack mounts one final challenge which, though it fails, spurs him to leave the group and form his own group.
Hierarchy is established among the older children, the “biguns,” although there are actually several separate lines of hierarchy. On one side are Ralph’s followers, Piggy, Simon and the twins. On the other side are Jack’s followers, his hunters, the most notable of which is Roger, his second. The biguns are, of course, dominant over the littluns, demonstrated by Maurice and Roger walking through the sand castles created by Henry, Johnny and Percival, three littluns. Even the littluns begins to test their position at their own level. Henry, a little older and bigger than Johnny and Percival, was the leader of that small group. Then, when Johnny found out the sand in the eyes would make Percival cry, he happily threw sand in the air to make Percival cry again, a sort of play that appears to be the first stirrings of social hierarchy among the younger group members.
The are several ways that societies try to smooth out the problems that arise between individuals in a society. Societies have rules. Some of the rules are imposed by individuals. Some are apparently evolved rules for the treatment of fellow members of the group. Each of these types of rules is seen in the novel and in ape societies as well. Rules require enforcement. In this, the role of the alpha male as peace-keeper is shown.
The first type is clear. In ape societies, a mother imposes the rules for obtaining access to her infant. This is usually done through a form of positive and negative reinforcement. If another ape approaches or handles the infant incorrectly, the mother becomes angry. If the other ape does the correct things for handling the infant, the mother allows it. In this way, the mother imposes the rules. (It must be noted that whether or not intentionality is a part of this rule-setting is, as yet, unproven.) In the novel, Jack creates rules that must be followed as part of his society. In the course of the book, he punishes a member of his “tribe” for breaking one of the rules (although we are not told what the rule was). This is one thing that it seems Ralph was not able to do as part of the society he led. In a way, it seems that the society of boys needed rules to be set and enforced.
Other types of rules are less definite in the novel. This may be due to the small amount of time that passes in the novel, in that the society hasn’t yet figured out all of the things it needs to do to survive in this new environment. Also, as an incomplete society (no adults, no females), it may not contain all of the necessary components for a balanced means of ensuring the continued survival of the group. Still, given these limitations, the group in its later form (ruled by Jack) has demonstrated an ability to maintain group cohesiveness and ensure the survival of most or all of its members. Some of the rules that seem to come from our pre-homo sapiens ancestors include the sharing of meat from the dominant group members to the subordinate ones, especially children. This was shown when Ralph and Piggy arrived at Jack’s feast and saw that everyone had received a share. Jack then converts most of the remaining boys to his group by promising them meat on a constant basis. The group had determined that the gift of meat was one of the conditions that a leader had to meet and Ralph did not do this. Jack did, therefore they agreed to follow Jack. Chimpanzees, too, are shown to share any prey that they capture. In Good Natured, examples are given of the adult male chimpanzees who hunted together in a group, giving a share of the meat to the females and the young, but not to other adult males. (In the novel, Jack gives meat to Ralph and Piggy as well.) Sharing itself is also a sort of group enforced rule among apes. Basically, if an ape shares with others when it has food to share, then other apes will share with it. If it does not share with others, then others may refuse to share. This reciprocity rewards sharing among a group.
As an adjunct to the rules, there is the question of memory and how this affects the breaking of rules and the attempts to hide these infractions from more dominant members of the group. There is a scene in the novel in which Roger is throwing rocks near the small children, but not at them, because of the rules that society had taught him. The rules are remembered, even in the absence of “higher ranking” humans such as the police, teachers and parents mentioned by the novel. Eventually, the rules are broken or changed, as shown when Roger rolls the heavy rock down to kill Piggy. In a similar way, apes are seen to know what the rules are, such as the alpha male’s “rule” that only he can breed with females. An example given in Good Natured shows that if the alpha male leaves, then the subordinate males will try to mate with the females. However, their remembrance of the alpha male’s rule is shown in the example of the rhesus monkey named Hulk, a beta male, who was observed checking to make sure that the alpha male was still in another section of the habitat before completing the mating.
Both the society of boys in the novel and ape societies also show a sort of guilt or shame response when their rule-breaking is followed by an encounter with an alpha male. In experiments with captive ape societies, males who mated with females when the alpha male was away were observed to act more submissive and to try to avoid the alpha male. When the ship captain, an alpha male who outranks both Ralph and Jack, appears at the end of the novel, the boys become quiet and obedient. When he asks which boy is in charge, the reactions of the two “alpha” boys differs according to their past actions. Ralph has no trouble stating that he is the leader and explaining things to the captain. His own disobedience was minor compared to the others. Jack, on the other hand, who led the boys who had thrown off every rule, remained silent.
Peace-keeping is important to any society that has rules. Part of the enforcement of rules is the ability to terminate hostilities between group members. If hostilities continue, other rules get lost in the course of the ongoing aggression. Apes have several ways of reestablishing order between group members. Alpha males do so by displays of aggression and violence, or sometimes the threat of violence. Examples given in Good Natured showed some males who needed only to look at fighting group members to stop hostilities. Others mounted energetic displays by charging in between combatants. Still others would strike any group member who continued fighting. Other groups members could also aid the cessation of hostilities. Examples were given of females banding together to stop an alpha male from possibly killing another male, thus providing a check on the alpha male’s power. In other ape societies, grooming often takes place between former combatants as a way to restore the hierarchy and calm each other. Sometimes, one combatant’s kin will groom the other combatant to help normalize relations. The actually mechanics differ among ape species, but all have some way of keeping the peace. In the novel, Jack is the only effective peace-keeper. Ralph tries to rule by common sense, which has little effect on the boys who are only six to twelve years old. When rules are broken, he tries to appeal to their sense of order. Jack appears on the scene already in control of a group of boys, the choir. When they break ranks, he uses his commanding voice to order them back into line and they obey. Later, when he is the “chief” of his own group of boys, he uses violence and the threat of violence to keep the boys subordinate to him and obedient to his rules, whatever they are. What is missing is any sign of an alliance of boys to counter Jack’s nearly absolute power. Still, at least during the course of the novel, he maintains order in the group he leads, and the rules he sets are obeyed.
There are other, less explored aspects of the society created by the boys in Lord of the Flies. One is the forging of bonds among the group, through play, through mock combat, and even through emotional contagion. Then there is the way that the two societies, ape and schoolboy, treat members of their society that are markedly different from them in some way. Both the boys’ society and that of the apes show territoriality. The novel also notes how its society treats the littluns, which shows a parallel with some ape societies and their treatment of the young.
A society forges bonds between its members in order to remain a group. These bonds can be formed in several ways. Kinship bonds are common among apes, but bonds also form between unrelated individuals. These bonds are advantageous for any activity requiring part or all of the group, such as hunting or defense. In the novel, only two of the boys, the twins Sam and Eric, have bonds of kinship. The ways in which the boys form bonds mirror those shown by some ape societies. Forging bonds through play is one type. Jack, Ralph and Simon wrestle together while exploring the island. The three little boys mentioned earlier were building sand castles. A similar example is given by Jane Goodall. “Flint, however, with all the energy typical of a human child, played with little Goblin . . . The two chased after each other . . . occasionally they wrestled or engaged in a bout of rib-tickling . . . .” (Goodall 136). Another bonding activity is the sharing of food. There are only two clear examples of food-sharing in the novel. The first is when Simon helps the littluns by getting the ripe fruit and giving it to them (it was too high for the littluns to reach). Similar examples in Good Natured include a young chimpanzee bringing ripe fruit to its aging mother and a caged capuchin with food putting it within reach of another caged capuchin who had not been able to reach the food. The sharing of meat also appears in ape societies and the novel, usually as a way of demonstrating the “owner’s” power and generosity, thus promoting the bonding between himself and the group. I use “he” because all of the examples I’ve been able to find from ape society show that males do all or most of the killing and that the alpha male usually controls the carcass and the distribution of meat. The example in Good Natured of the alpha male Ntologi using this tactic to distribute food to anyone who was not a threat to his position is very close to the scene in the novel in which Jack allows his own followers to share in the pig that they had caught and shares the food with Ralph and his followers with seeming reluctance.
This sharing of meat is occasioned by the fact that chimpanzees actively hunt and kill their prey. This simple behavior is reflected in the novel. The boys work out a method of hunting and killing the pigs with coordination and growing skill. Young chimpanzees have to learn how to help their elders in the hunt. Jack is the best of the hunters and through teaching and example he manages to teach the other children how to help.
Another parallel between the novel and the various ape societies involves the way in which “odd” members of the group are treated by the group. Jane Goodall’s work has noted how chimpanzee polio victims were treated with fear or aggression when they approached members of their own group. On the other hand, Good Natured provides the example of Mozu, a Japanese monkey born without hands or feet. The monkeys in her group appeared to accept her as one of their members. In fact, an example is given of Mozu joining a second group of monkeys when the original group fissioned into two groups and her own matriline was denied access to the feeding area. This new group eventually accepted her as one of their own. The difference between the two reactions appears to be that the polio caused a noticeable change in the actions and/or appearance of group mates that the others found threatening. Mozu’s appearance (and that of a retarded infant rhesus monkey who was also tolerated) were unchanged since birth. In the novel, there are two cases of group members who were different from the others. Because the group was mostly comprised of individuals who did not know each other from infancy, the actions of the boys toward those who were different compare more closely with the reactions of the chimpanzees to the polio victims. One of the “different” boys was Simon, a boy who fainted often, possibly due to a medical reason, although this was never explored in the novel. The general reaction to him was laughter and some derision by older boys such as Jack. He may, in fact, have been a target for a great deal of hardship were it not for the presence of a still more tempting target, Piggy. Piggy was overweight, asthmatic and severely nearsighted, all of which make him unlike the rest of the boys, who, with a few exceptions, are nearly uniformly average. As the target of derisive laughter, he is almost immediately reduced in status to a very low rank in the hierarchy that is being established. Although Ralph later relies on him for counsel, Jack’s reaction to Piggy’s words is a swift blow. Jack’s aggression and threatening displays towards Piggy isolate him even more from the bulk of the group, who laugh at Piggy even more. In the end, Piggy (who has since lost his only advantage in the group, the eyeglasses for making fires) is killed by another group member, Roger. Returning to the question of Simon, he, too, was killed by the group. In his case, the group had changed so much that they no longer recognized him at all when he burst upon their ritual. Owing to the fact that he was different from them, they killed him, believing him to be the “beast.” At the end of the novel, though, Ralph is also “different” from the rest of the boys. He has remained the same (or perhaps changed only a little) while they have changed as a group. Being different, and being the last opposition to Jack’s rule as sole leader of the boys, Ralph is hunted down. This has a parallel in Jane Goodall’s work as well, when the chimpanzee group she was studying fissioned and then the large group systematically hunted down and killed the other group.
Behaviors Not Seen in Both the Novel and Ape Societies
“The trouble with extrapolating directly from the primates is that we have evolved in so many ways away from them” (Jolly 270). The novel contains behaviors that are, at least as yet, undiscovered in any other primate species. In addition, there are several behaviors of apes that do not appear in the novel.
The most prominent of the behaviors demonstrated in the novel which has no clear analog in nature is the formation of a proto-religion by the boys. It is not yet fully formed in the course of the novel, but it already has several of the elements of a full-fledged religion. It has begun as a cult to placate the “beast.” It has places that are sacred, notably the sight of their fire which has become the beast’s place. It has a leader, Jack, who claims to know what their god, the beast, wants. Jack, the leader of the group, is also subordinate to the beast. As E.O. Wilson puts it, gods are “the hyperdominant if invisible members of the human group” (Wilson, p. 67). The boys have a visible god at first, but though their beast, the dead parachutist’s body, has been removed, we are given the indication that this new religion would continue with the new ritual of human sacrifice if not interrupted.
There are a number of elements of ape society that are not examined in the novel. Written in 1954, and with a group consisting entirely of prepubescent or barely pubescent boys, the novel does not deal with sexual behavior. As there are no adults, there are no aged members of the group, so treatment of this type of group member are also not examined. The novel also does not deal with the effects of nature’s cruelty and hardship on the boys. They crashed on an island that apparently has everything they will need to ensure their bodies’ survival. We do not know what they would do if, say, all the pigs on the island died, or if the fruit on the island had a season in which nothing edible was produced. All of these aspects of ape behavior have been explored by researchers, but the ranges between ape species are so great that it would be difficult to determine, if the novel were written today, which species’s traits would be mirrored in the boys’ society.
The Novel and Its Times
The term “killer ape” was coined to describe australopithecus, which in the 1950’s was described as a carnivore. A cave of australopithecine fossils showed that several of them had had their skulls caved in, possibly by other australopithecines. In fact, a researcher in 1959 called this humanity’s mark of Cain, which set us apart from all other animals. The atrocities of World War II certainly favored this interpretation of humanity’s status. It is in this atmosphere that Lord of the Flies was written. Back in 1875, although Darwin’s work was receiving some attention, the widely held belief was that society had removed such influences, that the mark of Cain no longer ruled us. This is why the children of The Coral Island remained Christian, civilized and English.
But it is not merely the fact that in the 1875 novel the children retained their civilized restraints while in the 1954 novel they reverted to “savagery.” The term itself has connotations that are mostly negative. These “defects of human nature,” as Golding put it, are used to show the evil side of humanity. Because of what has been learned by ethologists in the nearly fifty years since the publication of Lord of the Flies, the novel could not be written in exactly the same way today. The children in Lord of the Flies, in dropping the restraints of civilization, show many of the characteristics of other type of primates. Today, of course, we know that our close genetic relatives, the chimpanzees, are also capable of murder, genocide, mutilation and a host of other behaviors that used to be considered the sole province of humanity. Golding’s use of these behaviors to demonstrate humanity’s evil would not be possible today. If the novel were written today, the author would have to be careful to choose those behaviors that are not duplicated by other primates, because it is difficult to convey what is natural as something evil.
William Golding was not an ethologist by training. He was a schoolmaster. Although one could say that he knew how schoolboys behaved, his knowledge of primate behavior in the early 1950’s was, to say the least, limited. In many ways, the book itself is more an allegory of good and evil, civilization and savagery. Were someone to write Lord of the Flies today, the author would have a choice. He (or she) could focus on the question of good and evil by limiting himself to behaviors not duplicated in other primates, or he could focus on the group throwing off the restraints of modern civilization and returning to a more primitive state similar to that of other primates. Fifty years from now, however, someone may look back and compare this new book with what information about primates has been discovered in that time. Even Jane Goodall’s first impression of chimpanzee society underwent changes the longer she stayed to observe them.
William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, although it was not written to be an example of how “uncivilized” human behavior resembles primate behavior, nevertheless contains a remarkable number of parallels. With the exception of some aspects of behavior that are still presumed to have no equivalents in the rest of the animal kingdom, such as the development of religion, and some situations that are excluded from consideration in the novel, such as the role of females and the place of sex in the society, Golding’s society of schoolboys could be viewed as just another society of monkeys or apes. As the future brings us more information about primates, the analogy may become more exact or it may become less accurate. Either way, it is clear that as our understanding of primate societies increases, Golding’s novel can be seen to become more a product of his time, the time of the killer ape theories. His moral judgement on those behaviors which are now seen to be a part of nature are a comment on the fact that we mat not be quite so distantly separated from our animal cousins.
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1954.
Goodall, Baroness Jane van Lawick. My Friends the Wild Chimpanzees. Washington, D.C.: The National Geographic Society, 1967.
Jolly, Alison. The Evolution of Primate Behavior. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972.
Kaufman, John H. “Social Relations of Adult Males in a Free-Ranging Band of Rhesus Monkeys.”
Social Communication among Primates. Ed. Stuart A. Altman. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967. 73 – 98