Rutger Bregman published a very interesting piece in the Guardian a couple of days ago. In it he relates the story of some Tongan children who were stranded on a desert island, after being shipwrecked whilst escaping from their dreaded school meals. The children were there for over a year and cooperated well together, building friendships and working together to overcome the trials that they faced.
This is in stark contrast to the most famous, fictional, story of children being stranded on a deserted island The Lord of the Flies. In William Golding's account, the boys fairly quickly descended into brutality and a breakdown of any cooperative structures.
The Lord of the Flies is often held as a cautionary tale about the dark evil at the heart of humans, though it has been pointed out that Golding's intent was more to point to the wickedness of the English public school system and the type of people it produces(1). Thankfully such things are not with us anymore...oh...
This story does also raise an interesting question for political theory, and sociology really, on the question of what people are like, specifically what are they like absent authority, going back to the classic debate on states of nature and the social contract. In particular, is this a point for the ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau?
Thomas Hobbes had opened the arguments by claiming that people were naturally selfish and fearful which led to fighting. No cooperation was possible and their lives were 'nasty, brutish and short'. Hence what was needed was a powerful state that would police people's lives. John Locke was next, holding that people were selfish but, like a good capitalist, this was a good thing and it did not preclude cooperation. Rousseau, then, is often held as taking the opposite extreme, that people are naturally good and it's civilisation that causes the problems.
Hobbes it seems has mostly won out in his view, given that most everything is built around the idea that people are naturally untrustworthy and need supervision. It is however, often forgotten that Hobbes was not writing without influence: despite talking about the state of nature most of his ruminations were actually a product of witnessing the English Civil War (where most of this brutality was), alongside rather propagandistic accounts of the lives of Native Americans. Locke likewise can't really be understood, particularly his bizarre argument around property ownership, without the context that he was trying to justify expropriating land from the Native American people.
But is it actually Rousseau who was right all along? Despite how he's often portrayed, he wasn't the naive believer that in the state of nature (2) everything was fine and dandy. He thought people could fight and be self-interested, as well as cooperate. Rather his point was that civilisation, and particularly perhaps Western civilisation, produces the vileness and brutality that we associate with that condition. It was not, after all, the 'savages' that created Atlantic slavery and its barbarity (Rousseau's example if I remember correctly), or the massively destructive wars of our era or genocides of populations. This was, rather, coming from the supposed high-points of civilisation.
The Bregman story, however, seems to give the point to Rousseau. It's not the case that no challenges arise or fallings out happens, but that overall people are capable of getting along and cooperating. And its worth noting that they were not 'uncivilised', of course, because the Tongan boys had their own education from their parents and culture. It's only when particular kinds of civilisation arrive that status inequalities and brutality becomes a thing.
It's not to say, of course, that people are naturally good. One of Rousseau's points is that notions of 'good', 'bad' etc. are products of civilisation and have no meaning before that. Hunter-gatherer societies are not nirvanas and come with their own issues and problems. But it is always worth revisiting just what our societies believe in and just what sort of monstrosities creep in under the banner of 'being civilised'. In particular, the one thing that comes out of this is that culturally we appear to have a belief that the more brutal something is, or the more horrible it is, the more 'true' it must be(3).
Rousseau, then, seems to have the best of it; both for Golding's intent with The Lord of the Flies and Bregman's story of the Tongan children.
(1) There is still a veneer of 'savagery is only a short hop from civilisation' that underlies it though, so I don't think that point is too far off the mark
(2) A supposed state before society arose. It's historically impossible, but it's used by political thinkers as thought experiments (John Rawls having perhaps the most famous contemporary version). Whether it tells us anything useful or not is a moot point.
(3) See for instance the dismissal of Keynesianism and the belief in austerity, which is based on little more that it seems fanciful and wishful thinking to believe that the poor shouldn't get a kicking and endure pain to alleviate a crisis.