Stories Of How We Cope With Chaos : Throughline What happens when teenagers are shipwrecked on a deserted island? Can you find the fingerprint of God in warzones? Why was the concept of zero so revolutionary for humanity? A year into a pandemic that has completely upended the lives of people around the world, we look at how we cope with chaos, how we're primed to make order out of randomness, and why the stories we're taught to believe about our propensities for self-destruction may not actually be true.


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Chaos is an unpredictable force we all collide with.

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: When I think about the word chaos, I usually think of external forces that are...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Tornado coming.

WU: ...Imposing chaos...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Get in the shelter. There's a big tornado heading this way.

WU: ...Explosions, or what happened last March when the coronavirus really took off.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The national weather service of Omaha has issued a tornado...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Bargain hunters at this Georgia Walmart wrestling over pots and pans, the commotion veering out of control.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking non-English language).

DANIEL KLEPPNER: There are some systems which are unpredictable. If you try to predict the future mathematically, you'll find that the system just behaves wildly.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I imagine, like, running late to something, and you run to your car, and you fumble for your keys. You get your keys in the car. And, like, something is going off. And, like, maybe the stereo is, like, playing super, super-loud and, like, it hurts. And you're just trying to turn the stereo off and, like, get the car going. And then you get, like, a phone call from someone you don't want to talk to. But, like, actually, oh, wait, I have to talk to this person because, like, oh, my God, work.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: The feeling of experiencing a panic attack for me is very much similar to what I think chaos is like.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: You're worthless. You're worthless. You're worthless. You're useless. You're useless. You're useless.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Breathing gets very shallow.

WU: Things just kind of start to slow down.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: My vision starts to...

WU: ...Get kind of blurry. I can't really think.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Sometimes I'll hear, like, a really intense ringing in my ears.

WU: I can't get away from the ringing.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: My logical side of my brain is, like, trying to tell my body and my emotions, like, you are not in danger right now. Nothing's hurting you.

You are not in danger right now.

That dissonance to me...

You are not in danger right now.

...Feels like chaos.

You are not in danger right now.



Humans throughout history have grappled with the chaos in their minds...


ARABLOUEI: ...And the environment around them....


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Why is there life?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Do you believe in God?

ARABLOUEI: ...Looking for ways to understand and control it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: The purpose of science is to determine how the heavens go. The purpose of religion is to determine how to go to heaven.

ABDELFATAH: But what if chaos isn't just danger or fear or confusion?


TREAT WILLIAMS: (As Xander Drax) There is opportunity in chaos.

ABDELFATAH: Chaos can sometimes unleash something new - a revolution that creates a better system, an accident that leads to penicillin, an unexpected encounter that inspires new art, literature or music.


ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And I'm Ramtin Arablouei. A year into a pandemic that completely upended the lives of people around the world seems like a good time to reflect on chaos, this unpredictable force that cuts across time and place.

ABDELFATAH: So in this episode, we're going to experience a few stories of people who found order in the chaos - a group of kids shipwrecked on an island in a real-life "Lord Of The Flies," a mathematician who created something out of nothing. And we'll begin with a Marine who couldn't stop seeing patterns. Producer Jamie York has that story when we come back.

CARA HELFORD: Hi. This is Cara Helford (ph) from Boise, Idaho, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE. Thank you guys for all you do.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Part 1 - The Fingerprints of God.


DAVID MORRIS: Have you ever been blown up before, sir? Everything was fine until it wasn't. Apophenia - finding patterns where there shouldn't be patterns.

JAMIE YORK, BYLINE: David Morris grew up in Southern California, steeped in the military.

MORRIS: My dad was a Vietnam vet. I went to a military school. You know, I spent eight years in uniform, including four years in the Marine infantry.

YORK: Being a Marine, David says, was about training.

MORRIS: They have to train up hundreds of thousands of people to function in a standardized way.

YORK: Which means...

MORRIS: The military is kind of a checklist culture or an accountability culture. And so they lay things out for you so that you follow procedures, you follow tactics as they're spelled out in manuals and as you're trained in the field.

YORK: David finished his stint in the Marines in 1998 without seeing any combat. Then in 2004, he decided to go to the first real active warzone he'd ever been in. He went as a journalist to a corner of Iraq that was only getting more and more dangerous.

MORRIS: It was one of the first embeds I had done, and I was out with this very well-respected Marine unit known as 1st Force Reconnaissance Company. It's a really elite group of highly trained Marines. And we went out on patrol in a Humvee.


MORRIS: And I remember it was a Thursday. This master sergeant who was the patrol leader - and he was sitting in front of me in the Humvee. This guy just started looking around, and he was like, it just doesn't feel right today. It just feels off. He didn't mention any specific reasons. He just noticed that it seemed kind of quiet and that he felt off in some way. And then later in the patrol, a Humvee ahead of us was hit with an IED. And that's stuck with me because I didn't really - this person clearly was noticing things that were invisible to me...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: This doesn't feel right to me.

MORRIS: ...And maybe invisible to other people in that unit.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: It just feels off.

MORRIS: But for whatever reason, he was able to pick up on some sort of micro events outside of the Humvee out in Husaybah, this town we were in.

YORK: David's training told him not to think too hard, fall back on procedure, checklists, muscle memory.

MORRIS: And it turned out he was right. And so that always stuck with me that he knew something without knowing why he knew it or how he knew it.

YORK: Then here's this master surgeon reading micro events...

MORRIS: ...Noticing with a sort of intangible, intuitional pattern recognition.

YORK: It was a kind of sixth sense, an X-ray vision. And David wanted it, too. And he thought maybe if he really studied it, he might be able to develop it.

MORRIS: Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of patterns in what might be unrelated things, unrelated data.

YORK: He'd read about this kind of pattern recognition. And in the master sergeant, he thought maybe he'd just seen it in action.

KATY WALDMAN: So let's say you are hunting. You're in a meadow, and the grass starts to rustle. You have two choices. You can either think, oh, you know, I heard that rustling a few minutes ago, too. Now it's a little bit louder. I think I detect some kind of pattern here. Perhaps a leopard or something, some predator, is getting closer to me. And then you can run away and hopefully save your own life. If you don't really put those pieces together - the rustling five minutes ago and the rustling now - if you just assume that it's by chance, that it's the wind, you don't run from the possible predator, and you die.

YORK: And let's say you're hunting a million years ago, you're a very early human ancestor, and you read the pattern incorrectly, which means that not only do you die, but...

WALDMAN: Your genetic material does not get perpetuated. I'm Katy Waldman, and I'm a staff writer at The New Yorker.

YORK: Katy wrote about apophenia and about David Morris a few years ago.

WALDMAN: We evolved to see patterns - just to sort of default to seeing patterns because it helped with our survival.

YORK: Read the pattern right, and you live long enough to have kids, who will also hopefully read the pattern right and live long enough to have kids and so on and so on until you're the parents of a master sergeant or Marine-turned-reporter.

MORRIS: I think at core, one of the reasons why humans are so successful from an evolutionary standpoint is that we make patterns where there might not be patterns.

WALDMAN: We have all inherited a real hunger to see order in what could be chaos...

YORK: The only problem with this inheritance from our ancestors is that there are so many rustles in the grass. Multiply it by a million years, and our brains are trained to see patterns and err on the side of survival. But, of course, not every rustle is a predator, and not every rustle is even a rustle.

WALDMAN: ...And to weave stories out of just a lot of information.

YORK: Maybe you've wondered if all the red lights are against you as you struggle to get somewhere on time or why you're always on a losing streak playing literally any game of chance against your niece. Maybe it's just me, but these are patterns that appear when the stakes are low.

MORRIS: Anybody who's been in a war and lost a friend or been wounded has to come to grips with the fact that death, especially in war, is somewhat arbitrary. It's somewhat random. It doesn't - it is kind of like living in this giant mortal casino 'cause the numbers are always running on you, and you never know when the numbers are going to break the other way.

YORK: Looking for patterns, then, when the stakes are high...

MORRIS: Is a way to manage the anxiety of knowing that war and life is, at core, random and that the only real thing in the world is chance.

YORK: Pattern recognition exists on a kind of spectrum. My wondering about stoplights might just be a bit distracting. In Iraq, David became obsessed with the idea that for him and the others around him, the patterns were more visible and more important, either because they kept you safe or because they kept you going.

MORRIS: Yeah. There was this Marine corpsman who told me this story. It was towards the end of this second battle of Fallujah in November of 2004, and this Marine unit had to go back in and do a detailed clear of this building. And as they were getting into a stack outside the building, this grenade rolls out, detonates and kills the first person, the first Marine in the stack. This corpsman told me later that they went back and did the math and adjusted for the time zones, and they realized that this Marine had been killed at the exact same time that his son had been born in the United States.


MORRIS: I don't know exactly what that means, but it seems to indicate that there's some sort of force guiding the life and death of all those people in Iraq. And this is what I find kind of frightening is that, you know, I think people oftentimes do this sort of after-the-fact pattern recognition. And they look for symmetries, and they look for echoes in their experiences that relate to some other part of human existence or some other pattern that they've perceived. And we make these connections. And it's - and I think there's almost a compulsion aspect to it, this desire to reach out and, like, touch and turn and observe your odds.

YORK: It wasn't just other people. David went to Iraq in 2004 and in 2006, then in 2007.

MORRIS: People started to question me on why I kept going back. I was there voluntarily as a reporter. I could leave whenever I wanted to. And one of the reasons I kept going back was I recognized I was getting close to the war, and it was speaking to me in some way on some almost mystical level. And because I was living and everyone there was living closer to death, that my perception was somehow heightened.

YORK: By this time, the strategy in Iraq had changed, and a new counterinsurgency manual directed soldiers to pay attention to what were called atmospherics - micro events.

MORRIS: And I began to wonder, based on events that I experienced and close calls that I had, I began to hope irrationally that I could see some sort of fingerprints of God or fingerprints of the universe in my experiences.


YORK: Seeking the fingerprints of God - apophenia. And at the far end of the spectrum...

WALDMAN: Being overwhelmed by the connections among disparate things. So it's not just, you know, noticing and maybe taking a bit of pleasure in it, but you're actually - they all seem so powerfully meaningful that you kind of don't know how to function. The stage where really you are hearing voices and static and seeing faces in wallpaper.

YORK: The German psychiatrist coined the word apophenia in the 1950s to describe when pattern recognition became an early warning sign of...

WALDMAN: Schizophrenic disorder. This is also associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. You're kind of in overdrive, seeing patterns where they really don't exist. There are lots of reasons that your brain can be sort of feverish and overheated in this way, but I think one thing that I did hear from a lot of people is that it stops very quickly being adaptive and starts being quite debilitating.

YORK: On October 10, 2007, David went out on an embed in Baghdad.

MORRIS: There was a patrol going out from the 1st Infantry Division out of - in this neighborhood of Baghdad known as Saydiya. About halfway through the patrol, we got this radio call that said, hey, there are some buildings on fire. There's a neighborhood that's on fire at the edge of your patrol route. Why don't you go check it out. So our patrol turned down this street where the houses were burning.

As we drove into it, it kind of felt to me like we were driving into this cave or almost this underworld. There was this canopy of smoke that we drove under, so the light changed. It suddenly got gray and black. And as we drove down the street, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the tank at the head of the column, they radioed back and said, hey, we just drove into a cul-de-sac; everybody needs to do a U-turn, and let's get out of here.


MORRIS: And I remember the Bradley started to turn around, which if you've ever heard a tank pivot, the treads are incredibly loud and scary - that noise kind of sort of echoing off of the buildings. My Humvee started to do a three-point turn. We went into reverse and then immediately ran over an IED, which blew up the rear half of the Humvee and lit the Humvee on fire.


MORRIS: And I remember the explosion, and I remember my ears ringing. And I looked over to my right, and the soldier next to me was - I couldn't see his face anymore because there was just smoke pouring into the inside of the Humvee. And I remember yelling at him, and he didn't seem to hear me. And later I learned that he'd lost his hearing temporarily, along with everybody inside my Humvee.


YORK: In damaged vehicles, they limped back to base. Everyone was fine. A little over a week later, David was back in Southern California, going over and over what happened.

MORRIS: The day before, I had been sitting in this Humvee with a different group of soldiers from a different platoon, and it was a typical boring day in Iraq. And one of the soldiers looks over at me, and he asked me - he was like, have you ever been blown up before, sir? And it was just a kind of a casual question. And I remember my mouth kind of flopped open 'cause I didn't - I wasn't going to answer that.

YORK: In 2015, David wrote a book called "The Evil Hours."

MORRIS: "A Biography Of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder."

YORK: And it starts like this...

MORRIS: (Reading) Prologue - the warning. Have you ever been blown up before, sir? Everything was fine until it wasn't. Apophenia - finding patterns where there shouldn't be patterns. These were the words I wrote in my journal on October 9, 2007, the day before I was almost killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. The last line I wrote in the days afterwards. Later, I went back and underlined it in a different-colored ink, as if to emphasize that I'd come back to it in a different state of mind, as if I were leaving a clue for some future version of myself.

I think there's something about people who are traumatized that there's a kind of therapeutic value to look back and try to kind of create some sort of factual scar tissue, connect up the pain. The greater the pain, the greater the trauma, the greater the need to make sense of it. Going to Iraq did not show me God's fingerprints, but I noticed that humans have this really intense need to make meaning out of, possibly, a meaningless universe.

YORK: In his book, David quotes the writer Isak Dinesen - all sorrows can be born if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.


MORRIS: I teach fiction and write fiction. There's this compulsion, this human compulsion, to tell stories about everything. You know, the first books that we have in the Western tradition, you know, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," are about making order out of war. We are the pattern-making species. We're the storytelling animal.

WALDMAN: It's funny how something that we do - perhaps for very practical reasons, evolutionarily speaking - has become so entwined with, like, our spiritual selves and our storytelling selves that it is satisfying, not just on a kind of biological level but on an emotional and psychological level. It's akin to writing. It's akin to dreaming.

MORRIS: There is a positive form of apophenia that I think humans engage in 'cause we seem to need to find order in everything.

WALDMAN: Well, yeah, that and also, like, the most entrancing patterns are the ones that are always a little bit out of reach and a little bit at the edges of our vision. And so I think a pattern that you can see when you're reading the book is a pattern that is too simple. And the best books gesture, maybe, at some kind of order. But if you ever really grasp it, then the author, I think, hasn't done a good job because, of course, in our world, if there is a pattern, it is so much more elusive and so much more complicated than anything that we can write down.


ROB: Hi. This is Rob (ph) from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Part 2 - A Thin Veneer.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1, BYLINE: (Reading) What are we - humans or animals or savages?

RUTGER BREGMAN: I was around 16 years old when I first read "Lord Of The Flies."

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Reading) And the air was cool, moist and clear. Even the sound of the water was still.


BREGMAN: It starts with a plane that goes down somewhere in the Pacific and with a group of British schoolkids shipwrecked on an island and basically descending into savagery.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Reading) Kill the pig. Cut her throat. Spill her blood.

BREGMAN: They try to build this sort of democracy, but when it comes to, you know, practical things like maintaining the fire, for example, they totally fail. You know, the boys start fighting. They're really scared of some supposed beast, some horrible being on the island.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN, BYLINE: (Reading) Kill the pig. Cut her throat. Spill her blood. Kill the pig...

BREGMAN: Piggy, whose - you know, he's the heartbreaking figure. He's smart. He's a little bit fat. And everyone bullies him basically very quickly. And he clearly sees what's coming.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: (Reading) Maybe there is a beast. Maybe it's only us.

BREGMAN: At the end of the novel, he's dead, along with two other kids.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: (Reading) We did everything adults would do. What went wrong?


BREGMAN: I remember feeling cynical and maybe a little bit depressed. But I also thought, OK, this is probably what real kids are really like and how they would behave if they would get the chance. It was only years later that I thought again about "Lord Of The Flies," and I wondered why was it - was I so eager to believe that? Why was "Lord Of The Flies" such an incredibly successful novel? Why did it resonate so much? And obviously, I also started to ask the question, well, what would really happen?


BREGMAN: My name is Rutger Bregman. I'm a historian and the author of the book "Humankind: A Hopeful History."

ABDELFATAH: Once Rutger Bregman started thinking about that question...

BREGMAN: What would really happen?

ABDELFATAH: ...He couldn't stop thinking about it. And he wondered if chaos was inevitable.

BREGMAN: I'm obviously a proper historian, so I started on Google. So just type in the words - like, real-live "Lord Of The Flies," kids on an island.


JONATHAN KARSH: Previously on "Kid Nation."

JIMMY FLYNN: I think I'm going to die out here 'cause there's nothing.

KARSH: Forty gutsy kids set out across the desert to build a world of their own.

BREGMAN: Now, what you first find is a lot of stuff about horrible reality shows.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #6: This is to prove that kids can actually take control and work together in cooperative ways.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Michael, Michael, Michael.

BREGMAN: But after a while, I stumbled upon this blog that told this story about six kids that supposedly shipwrecked on an island near Tonga, which is an island group in the Pacific Ocean, and survived for more than a year. And then I thought, but why isn't that super famous? Why don't we all know about that? Because if that really happened, that is - that's huge.


ABDELFATAH: Google searches turned into newspaper archive binges. The blog said this happened around 1977. So Rutger kept digging, looking for a clue about who the boys were, where exactly they'd landed, what they did to survive - something.

BREGMAN: But I couldn't find anything in the archives from the '70s. There's really nothing. And then what happened was just pure dumb luck. By accident, I was searching in an archive of old newspapers, but I was looking in the '60s. And I had typed in - instead of 1977, I had typed in 1966. And then boom - there it was on my screen, an article from The Age, an Australian newspaper, that said that six kids have been rescued from an island called 'Ata by a captain named Peter Warner and that they had survived there for more than a year.

ABDELFATAH: A breakthrough. He had a date, a location and a name - Peter Warner.

BREGMAN: One of the first things I discovered is that this Peter Warner guy seemed to be coming straight out of a novel. He's the son of Arthur Warner, who was sort of the Rupert Murdoch of Australia back then. He was an incredibly powerful media magnate, basically. And Peter didn't really like that, and he said when he was 17 years old - he said, you know what? I'm going to run away from home. I'm going to sail the seven seas.

ABDELFATAH: Rutger was getting to know Peter and the six kids on the island - Sione, Luke, Kolo, Tevita, Fatai and Mano - through old articles and photos, two-dimensional recollections.

BREGMAN: And then I thought, wait a minute. This really happened, and maybe I can track them down.

ABDELFATAH: He figured if the kids were around 13 or 14 when they were shipwrecked...

BREGMAN: Now they must be in their early 70s.

ABDELFATAH: And Peter Warner...

BREGMAN: Must be around 90 years old now.

ABDELFATAH: He started cold emailing people in Australia who might know Peter, and eventually he found someone who did. So he bought a ticket to Brisbane, Australia. He made it to Peter's house and found him more than willing to share his story.

BREGMAN: And he also put me in contact with Mano, one of the real-life "Lord Of The Flies" children. Together they told me the whole story, basically, of what happened and how they survived.


BREGMAN: So here we have six kids from a British boarding school in Nuku'alofa, the capital of Tonga. They're fed up with school. They think it's really boring. And they say, you know what? We're going to go on an adventure. They borrow a boat, and with this boat, they have the plans of going to maybe New Zealand, but they haven't really prepared all that well.


BREGMAN: The first night they end up in a storm.


BREGMAN: The boat gets pretty much destroyed, you know? It's this wreck. And they drift for eight days without food, without water. You know, it's horrible.


BREGMAN: But then on the eighth day, they suddenly see land - this very small island, 'Ata, that has not been inhabited for, well, more than a hundred years, actually. And so they basically shipwreck there. Don't imagine this lovely island with sandy beaches and, you know, lovely trees, et cetera. It's this rock that sticks out of the ocean. It's an incredibly tough environment. And they just started collaborating in an amazing way.

So they worked together in teams of two - two to be on the lookout for ships continuously, to tend to the garden because they sort of started planting food and crops, et cetera, and two to cook. That was sort of how they worked. Did they have fights? Well, obviously they had. But what's really amazing here is that when there was a fight, they had this policy that one would go to one side of the island. The other would go to the other side of the island. They would cool off a little bit and then, after a couple of hours, come back and say sorry.


ABDELFATAH: Month after month went by like this - the kids working together to survive. And then one day they spotted a boat in the distance - Peter Warner's boat. He'd sailed to Tonga to ask the king for permission to fish for lobster. The king refused, so Peter decided to cast his nets just outside the boundaries of Tongan waters.

BREGMAN: And then suddenly one of his crew members said, I think I hear something. And Peter said, no, no, no, that's just birds. There's nothing. He says, no, I think it's really human voices.

ABDELFATAH: Kids' voices.


ABDELFATAH: They approach the island cautiously. After all, what was a random group of kids doing on this remote island in the middle of the ocean? And finally, Peter came face-to-face with the kids.

BREGMAN: And they said, hello (laughter). We estimate we've been here for more than a year, and can you take us back? Now, Peter didn't believe it for a minute. He really didn't believe it. But he said, you know what? I'll check the story. He used a two-way radio to call with Nuku'alofa. And he said to the operator, OK, I've got six kids here. They're part of the St. Andrews School. Can you check with the school if they're really missing these kids? And the operator said, OK, please standby, I'll come back to you. Twenty minutes later, operator comes back all tearful and says, you found them. These are our kids.

ABDELFATAH: Peter was in shock.

BREGMAN: Here are six boys in perfect condition, you know? They're very muscular. They've got their own badminton court. They've got their own gym with curious weights that they've designed on their own. Obviously, they're bored witless, and they really want to leave the island. But they're doing fine, like, unbelievable.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (As characters) Kill the pig. Cut her throat. Spill her blood.

BREGMAN: In almost every single way, the real "Lord Of The Flies" is the opposite of the fictional "Lord Of The Flies."

ABDELFATAH: Like, the polar opposite. Instead of complete chaos, there was collaboration, community.

BREGMAN: Is this nurture? Is this nature? You know, I think the cultural dimension is incredibly important, obviously. I mean, these are Tongans.

ABDELFATAH: And Tongans tend to know a lot about things like plants and fishing. And religion likely played a role, too.

BREGMAN: That was important, you know? It gave them structure. They started every day with singing songs and prayer, et cetera.

ABDELFATAH: Point is, yes, there were other factors at play. And, yes, this is just one story of one group of kids on one island. But then again, the fictional story about a group of kids on an island has influenced how we think about human nature for decades.

BREGMAN: If children around the globe still have to read "Lord Of The Flies" in school, then they also deserve to know about the one time that real kids shipwrecked on a real island because that's a very different story.


ABDELFATAH: The fictional "Lord Of The Flies" was published by William Golding in 1954, on the heels of World War II and the Holocaust. A book that frames humans, young boys, as awful savages? In that moment, who could argue with it?

BREGMAN: There's a really good biography written of William Golding by John Carey, who had access to his memoirs. And he paints a picture of a very troubled man, basically. He was probably traumatized by the Second World War. He said he understood the Nazis because he was of that sort by nature. That's his quote. And as a teacher, he did some quite disturbing things. So he liked to experiment on his kids. He liked to divide them in groups and set them up against each other.

ABDELFATAH: His deeply pessimistic view of human nature is part of a larger narrative in Western society that some call veneer theory.

BREGMAN: Which is this idea that our civilization is only just a thin veneer, only a thin layer, and that when something bad happens, we show who we really are, which is beasts, animals, monsters, and that civilization is just this veneer and that human nature itself is selfish and violence and aggressive, et cetera. Now, that idea comes back again and again and again in our history. You find it among the ancient Greeks, among the Orthodox Christians, St. Augustine, you know, one of the church fathers talking about the concept of original sin, among the Enlightenment philosophers, it's embedded at the heart of capitalism.

You read the founding fathers of the United States. John Adams once wrote an essay with the title "All Men Would Be Tyrants If They Could," and therefore, we need to build this system with all these checks and balances, et cetera. They didn't believe in actual democracy. They were very afraid of real democracy. So yeah, it's very deep within us.

ABDELFATAH: Throughout his book, "Humankind: A Hopeful History," Rutger offers examples like the real "Lord Of The Flies" that challenge veneer theory.

BREGMAN: In anthropology, in archaeology and sociology, in history, even in economics, it seemed to me that experts from so many different fields were moving to a more hopeful view of human nature.


BREGMAN: Here's the rule that you see confirmed again and again in history. It's that crises tend to bring out the best in people.

ABDELFATAH: Take natural disasters, for example.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: Get into shelter, there's a big tornado heading this way.

BREGMAN: You might get the impression that when there was an earthquake or a pandemic or a tsunami or something like that, that everyone starts looting and plundering and we descend into savagery. What really happens - and we know this from, like, more than 700 field studies that by now have been done by the Disaster Research Center that show again and again and again that after a disaster, you get an explosion of altruism - people from the left to the right, rich, poor, young, old, working together to save as many lives as possible.

ABDELFATAH: Rutger says our instinct to help goes back a long, long time.

BREGMAN: So one scientist here called Christopher Boehm, he's done this huge study and looked into more than 300 hunter/gatherer cultures from around the globe and noticed that they all sort of have the same political structure, which is what he calls a reverse dominance hierarchy, when the group controls the leaders. And the leaders have to be very humble because if they're not humble enough, then the group cracks down on them.

ABDELFATAH: So the old story of the hyper macho caveman calling all the shots...

BREGMAN: ...Who, you know, drags his wife to the cave and is a very - this very masculine figure...

ABDELFATAH: ...Doesn't seem to be true.

BREGMAN: In reality, you know, nomadic hunter/gatherer, probably, like, the proto feminists. And if you're really arrogant, you know, you're not going to have a lot of women who like you, and you're not going to have a lot of kids. That's basically (laughter) how it works.

ABDELFATAH: In other words, nice guys don't finish last.

BREGMAN: So imagine you're a nomadic hunter/gatherer in the jungle or on the savanna, and you want to survive. How are you going to survive? Well, you need one thing above all else, which is friends, you know? You need others because, you know, there are going to be bad days in the hunts, for example. You're not going to get as much food, and then you can rely on others.

ABDELFATAH: Think about that for a second. Rutger Bregman is arguing that our ancestors survived because they were really friendly.

BREGMAN: You could call it survival of the friendliest. For millennia, it was actually the friendliest among us who had the most kids and so had the biggest chance of passing on their genes to the next generation. So they start building this collective culture and this - building this cumulative knowledge. And this is what civilization is.

ABDELFATAH: But, you might be thinking, if human history is really a story of friendliness and collective culture, why does it feel like it's a story of chaos and competition? Like, maybe veneer theory makes sense. Rutger points to a few different reasons.

BREGMAN: The first one is the kind of information that we get every day - the news.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Good evening. And we begin tonight with the monster hurricane...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: ...Looters of every race and color...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: ...Online sexual predators...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: ...A mass shooting aimed at elementary school children.

BREGMAN: You know, the news is mostly about exceptions, about things that go wrong - corruption, violence, terrorism, et cetera.

ABDELFATAH: Then there's the way we tell history.

BREGMAN: If you think about what history is, it's mainly about wars and plagues. And obviously, for most people throughout history, life was probably quite boring and maybe not very (laughter) worthy to write a book on, but that's sort of a bias.

ABDELFATAH: A bias that benefits some people more than others.

BREGMAN: So cynicism is one of the greatest gifts to those in power because if we cannot trust each other, then we need them - kings and queens and monarchs and CEOs. If I say that most people are pretty decent, then obviously the next question is why do we still need them? You know, we can maybe just govern ourselves and move to a genuinely democratic and egalitarian society.

ABDELFATAH: And yes, humans do horrible things sometimes.

BREGMAN: Let me be absolutely clear here. Humans are the cruelest species in the animal kingdom. We do things that no other animal will come up with. You know, no penguin has ever thought, OK, let's lock up another group of penguins and exterminate them all.

ABDELFATAH: But Rutger says it's important not to oversimplify why those atrocities happen.

BREGMAN: Actually, what we see is that a lot of atrocities in human history are committed in the name of friendliness and groupishness (ph), and you just want to be liked. You just want to be part of a group. Or you just want to be loyal to your own friends. I've got one chapter in my book about why the German soldiers kept on fighting in 1944, 1945, even though it was going to - it was clear they were going to lose the war.

Psychologists really couldn't understand it. Why are they fighting like maniacs and way more effective than allied soldiers? You know, on average, they were 50% more effective in terms of the amount of casualties they caused. And so they started interviewing prisoners of war and discovered that it was not ideological hatred or fanaticism. No, it was kameradschaft (ph) - comradeship.


ABDELFATAH: After the Tongan boys were found and brought back to civilization, they were then thrown into jail.

BREGMAN: Now, that's rather surprising, isn't it?

ABDELFATAH: Remember how they borrowed the boat that got them stuck on the island? Well, the fisherman they borrowed it from was still angry about it, so he filed charges against them.

BREGMAN: What Peter Warner, the captain, decides to do is he thinks, wait a minute, you know, my father is Arthur Warner. He's like this huge guy, also has connections to Hollywood.

ABDELFATAH: So he's like, hey, drop these charges, and let's make a documentary about what happened. Without that connection and Peter's wealth, things might have turned out very differently.


SIONE FATAUA: I am Sione Fataua (ph). Five classmates and myself from St. Andrew's College in Tonga was shipwrecked on this island in June 1965.

BREGMAN: Now, the documentary is a disaster. I've uploaded it on YouTube if people want to see it. It took me a long time to track it down. Just search for real life "Lord Of The Flies" on YouTube, and there you have it.

ABDELFATAH: Right after you finish listening to this episode.

BREGMAN: It's not a very good documentary. It's very short. It's like 20 minutes.

ABDELFATAH: The documentary might have been a flop, but it was the beginning of a lifelong partnership. Peter and the six Tongan boys went on to start a fishing company together. They built a boat named 'Ata after the island where their paths had crossed, and for decades, they sailed the seas as a crew.

BREGMAN: It's a story that that ends in friendship. It begins in friendship, and it ends in friendship.


ABDELFATAH: When we come back, a mathematician who created something out of nothing.

SHAYNA: Hi. My name is Shayna (ph). I am from Northern Virginia. And you are listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Part 3 - The History Of Everything.

ARABLOUEI: Right now, I am and you are surrounded by math.


ARABLOUEI: Like molecules firing back and forth in the air we breathe, trillions of numbers and equations are happening every second.


ARABLOUEI: The phone you're using to listen to my voice, the computer I used to record and produce these sounds - all math, all the time.


ARABLOUEI: It is invisible - we rarely notice it - but math fuels all of our lives. And modern math is the result of a process that began long ago in an ancient civilization by people who probably looked like me.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: (Non-English language spoken).

BOB KAPLAN: Your heredity - you're from - is Sumerians who came up with it first.

ARABLOUEI: This is Bob Kaplan.

KAPLAN: I wrote a book called "The Nothing That Is: A Natural History Of Zero."

ARABLOUEI: And as Bob liked to remind me throughout our entire hour-long interview, the history of math is...

KAPLAN: The history of everything, isn't it? (Laughter).


ARABLOUEI: And the history of everything starts with the sound you're hearing right now - the sound of the abacus.


ARABLOUEI: The first ones probably used pebbles and lines drawn in the dust. Later, they were portable contraptions made of wood and wire and beads. Basically, they were primitive calculators.

KAPLAN: When you were calculating, bookkeeping, the number of sheep brought to the temple, you want to keep a record.

ARABLOUEI: And to keep that record, you'd need a way to count into the hundreds or even thousands - so not something you could really do by counting on your fingers and toes. Anyway, historians aren't exactly sure who invented the abacus, but they do believe that it goes back about 5,000 years to a civilization called Sumer in what's now southern Iraq, Kuwait and Iraq - my ancestors, who invented the first decimal system.

KAPLAN: This brilliant invention of place value notation.

ARABLOUEI: It's a counting system that uses columns. So the first column is the ones column.

KAPLAN: And the column to its left would be the tens column.

ARABLOUEI: And to the left of that was the hundreds column.

KAPLAN: If you put down three pebbles in the ones column, well, that's three. But three pebbles in the tens column is 30. Terrific.

ARABLOUEI: Terrific. But what happens when the numbers get larger, like in the thousands? You need a way of indicating that there's nothing in some of the columns.

KAPLAN: So the Sumerians came up with taking the symbol for a space, for a divider - a little wedge. That wedge meant nothing in this column. So three dots and then a wedge to its right and then a wedge to its right meant three, zero, zero - ah, 300.


ARABLOUEI: So why is this a big deal? Well, what it did was allow someone - let's say a merchant - to calculate large quantities quickly and accurately. Having this ability in commerce was a competitive advantage.

KAPLAN: I can win my bargaining with you and I can make a profit in my sales if I can calculate a profit and loss more quickly than you can, if I can calculate the value that I'm going to charge for this rug faster than you can calculate its value and depreciation and interest.

ARABLOUEI: The abacus used zero to bring some order to the chaos of commerce. But the zero wasn't just a practical tool; it was a symbol. And that symbol represented emptiness, nothing. And that brought up some very challenging and disturbing questions.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Why is there life?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: Are you saying that there is energy in that nothing, in that space?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: I think it's even possible that space and time themselves popped into existence from nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: If disorder is increasing, how do you ever have order?

KAPLAN: It seems to be laden with extra meaning. It calls up all kinds of metaphysical speculations. Did the world come from nothing, or was it always something? Is nothing the antithesis of something?


KAPLAN: You have endless wrangles in philosophical and theological circles about how we're to understand that simple mechanical, calculational bookkeeping device of zero.

ARABLOUEI: And for centuries, people struggled to answer the deeper, scary questions about zero - really, about the nature of nothingness. And that mystery and danger hindered our ability as humans to take zero as a mathematical concept and figure out ways to use it. It took centuries. But about 1,500 years ago, in the 7th century AD, an Indian mathematician named Brahmagupta was able to do it with a concept called shunya.

KAPLAN: Shunya - zero, empty, nothing...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: When zero is added to a number or subtracted from a number...

KAPLAN: ...But created emptiness...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: ...The number remains unchanged.

KAPLAN: ...The womb from which things come.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: A number multiplied by zero becomes zero.

ARABLOUEI: Brahmagupta saw amazing potential in the emptiness. And if zero were viewed as a vessel for creativity, then perhaps it could play a vital role in mathematics. Maybe it could be a pathway to understanding the basic order of existence.

KAPLAN: That fills the void of zero. It gives something to nothing.

ARABLOUEI: Something to nothing. Meaning to emptiness. Brahmagupta recognized that defining zero as a number was the key to unleashing its power.

KAPLAN: All of mathematics is built on two numbers - zero and one; zero - nothing, one - all, everything.

ARABLOUEI: Brahmagupta's revolutionary use of zero would provide the foundation for mathematics as we know it today. A few centuries after his death, another mathematician, this time in Persia - or Iran - would build on Brahmagupta's ideas. His name was Al-Khwarizmi.

KAPLAN: Al-Khwarizmi comes up with this fantastic idea of letting loose the wolf of a variable in the sheepfold of numbers.


KAPLAN: He says, look; if I take three, seven, nine and throw an X in there and say 3X squared minus 9X plus 3 equals 0, I can find out what value X has. What an amazing thing to do.

ARABLOUEI: Al-Khwarizmi is often called the father of algebra. He used what he called Hindu numerals and the concept of zero to create the first conceptual mathematical equations.

KAPLAN: Setting the equation equal to zero - zero says balance. Everything is going to be balanced.

ARABLOUEI: I know. For many of us, math can be confusing. But what Bob is saying here is that Al-Khwarizmi viewed zero not as emptiness, but as a source of balance, of symmetry. And he used the symbol X as a way to prove his idea.

KAPLAN: X is zero in disguise. It's the sunya. It's receptive emptiness. X is waiting to be filled by the value that will make the left-hand side equal to the zero on the right-hand side.

ARABLOUEI: The equation Al-Khwarizmi created allowed for more sophisticated calculation that could be used in engineering and early forms of chemistry. But it wasn't his invention alone. It was the result of centuries of mathematicians struggling through trial and error, coming up with new systems, building on each other's efforts to take zero from an empty placeholder and make it into a creative concept that could be used to generate balance - to make order out of chaos.

KAPLAN: Like Shakespeare says, by indirections, find directions out. You tack this way, you tack that way, and, ah, suddenly you get it (laughter).


ARABLOUEI: Mathematics would continue to flourish in the Middle East and Asia in the centuries after Al-Khwarizmi. And it would be through conquest and trade that the concept of zero would arrive in Europe.

KAPLAN: I think it came westward in the saddlebags of mostly Arabic travelers on routes to the west, bringing the abacas with them. Keeping it a secret because it gave them the power in calculation over the people they were haggling with, Arabic merchants had it all over the Westerners they came to because they could do calculations with the abacus based on a zero.

ARABLOUEI: But like most secrets, it didn't stay secret long. Near the end of the 12th century, an Italian merchant's son with a personal interest in math traveled with his father to the Muslim world. His name was Leonardo of Pisa or...

KAPLAN: Fibonacci.

ARABLOUEI: ...Fibonacci.

KAPLAN: Fibonacci means the son of the good old boy.

ARABLOUEI: More like...

KAPLAN: ...Good fellow.

ARABLOUEI: OK. Son of the good fellow.

KAPLAN: That's right.

ARABLOUEI: OK, I got you.

KAPLAN: When he goes to the east and mixes with cultures, he learns about zero.

ARABLOUEI: And his mind was completely blown.

KAPLAN: That's right (laughter). And he called himself Bigollo, meaning blockhead.

ARABLOUEI: If you look at the portraits of Fibonacci that have survived - you can see them on the Internet - you'll notice this wasn't a physical description. It was something else.

KAPLAN: You look at his face, you said, oh, that's the face of an ironist. Yeah, he calls himself blockhead because he knows these things that it's not legitimate to know.

ARABLOUEI: Not legitimate to know - why? Well, this is the 1100s, and much of Europe is completely taken with the idea of holy war against the Muslim world - the Crusades. The Catholic Church basically saw mathematics based on zero as simply...

KAPLAN: ...Dangerous Saracen magic.

ARABLOUEI: Saracen was a term used by Europeans to describe Persians, Arabs, Turks - basically, the brown Muslim people from the east. So the eastern world had learned to use zero to deal with chaos, to create some kind of order. But while that was happening, much of Europe...

KAPLAN: ...Has taken zero to be diabolic and a source of chaos. And the devil is the spirit that denies - negation. And zero is at the head of the negative numbers. Zero is the king of negation. It's emptiness. It's emptying the universe of meaning. That it's the source of meaning misread, mistaken, mis-taken as the source of chaos.

ARABLOUEI: Fibonacci is still considered a key innovator in the history of mathematics. He created Fibonacci's sequence, in which each number in the sequence is the sum of the two numbers before it. So stay with me here. Zero plus 1 is 1. One plus 1 is 2. One plus 2 is 3. Two plus 3 is 5. Three plus 5 is 8. And so on into infinity.

KAPLAN: It's wonderful. It's wild. Each number is the sum of the two before it. Well, da Vinci, 1 1/2 centuries later, recognizes that the pattern of branches on a tree are arranged in exactly that Fibonacci sequence - one, one, two, three, five, eight - because that pattern gives the greatest exposure of the leaves to the sunlight.

ARABLOUEI: Order out of the chaos of nature. Fibonacci put his ideas together in a book called "Liber Abaci" or "The Book Of The Abacus." In it, he argued that Arabic numerals and mathematics were superior to their Roman counterparts. His book had a big impact and probably influenced innovation from other European mathematicians like da Vinci. Yet all the while, he was careful not to get on the wrong side of religious authorities.

KAPLAN: Oh, no, I'm just a blockhead merchant from Pisa. Pay no attention to me. That's OK. But, you know (laughter), the feeling, the compulsion to spread this fantastic discovery and yet not get burned at the stake for it, that's what compelled these real heroes, these really incredible heroes of ours.

ARABLOUEI: Heroes because they risked everything to continue to develop these basic ideas.


KAPLAN: Zero looks like a halo, after all. Isn't it the light around our head that's urging us on, that's shedding light, which if we could just use it correctly, if we could just look with clearer minds, if we could clear our minds, empty them of nonsense, then shunya, the receptive mind, will take in the structure, the nature of things.


KAPLAN: And the wonderful thing about mathematics is it's not some arcane, secret, alchemical process; it's art.

ARABLOUEI: According to Bob Kaplan, mathematics is the art of understanding our own thoughts, how we structure the world in our own minds, something the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant called synthetic a priori.

KAPLAN: Synthetic, we invented. A priori, it comes before thought. It's the structure of our thinking, and we're probing our thought when we're doing mathematics. We're understanding how we think by looking at how we think.

ARABLOUEI: We're discovering what we already know.

KAPLAN: Yes, yes. It's discovering what we discover by.


ARABLOUEI: It wasn't until the end of this journey into chaos that I finally understood what Bob meant by the history of math being the history of everything. Math is just a reflection of our burning need to make sense of the seemingly random, chaotic world we live in. And since our first ancestors walked across the savannas and plains and mountains into places they'd never seen, that's what we've been doing - making sense of the unknown. It's an experience that links each of us at the deepest level.


ABDELFATAH: On the next episode of THROUGHLINE...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: It was called sava (ph). It was called a bribe. It was called a immoral malady. It was called blackmail. It was called flunkyism (ph). People railed against it.

ARABLOUEI: Tipping at restaurants and bars is so ingrained in our culture that it's difficult to imagine a world without it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: Tipping is such an American thing today, right?

ABDELFATAH: But it wasn't always that way.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: It's come full circle because when tipping first came, it was the most un-American thing to have to tip, and now it's the most un-American thing to take it away.

ARABLOUEI: Next week...

ABDELFATAH: The long, bitter fight over tipping in America.


ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me.

ABDELFATAH: And me and...

YORK: Jamie York.

WU: Lawrence Wu.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.




ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to my nephews for their voiceover work.

ZAY, BYLINE: Zay Salman (ph).

TAHA, BYLINE: Taha Salman (ph).

ALI, BYLINE: Ali Salman (ph).


ABDELFATAH: Do you want hundreds of thousands of people to hear you say your name like that?

ALI: Yeah (laughter).

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Victoria Whitley-Berry, Yolanda Sangweni, Beth Donovan and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

ARABLOUEI: Per usual, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, email us at or hit us up on Twitter at @throughlinenpr.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

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