Monað modes lust mæla gehƿylce ferð to feran.

The inheritors - William Golding The Inheritors is a rare attempt to portray the human race from the outside looking in: told from the point of view of a group of Neanderthals having their first, fatal, encounter with this new and dangerously clever species.

As a palaeontological study this book may not be strictly accurate or even fully convincing, but as a prose experiment it's frankly astonishing and exactly the sort of thing top-level novelists should be trying to do. The efforts to give us a sense of how life was lived for a more primitive (sub-)species can be very moving. The extended family unit in the book has a basic language, a sense of common purpose which borders on the telepathic, and an ability – ‘so nearly like thinking’ as Golding puts it at one point – to form mental ‘pictures’ of possible consequences and communicate them to others.

We know, of course, that Neanderthals didn't last, and Golding makes the most of this in-built pathos from the very start. ‘The people’ are painted as a peaceful group, whose primitive, quasi-religious beliefs mean they are reluctant to kill other animals. Their encounter with Homo sapiens will show them that other creatures have no such qualms. Golding's moral – that humans attained their prominence only because they were unusually destructive – can be argued with, but is no less powerful when dramatised like this.

Actually, let me turn that around and say: Golding's moral may be powerful, but it can still be argued with. The book has been rightly praised for its unflinching assessment of the human character, but to make his point he has to ignore those facts that go against it. It's probably disingenuous to portray the Neanderthals as nature-loving folk who abhor murder; what makes humans destructive is not a qualitative difference with other animals, but an intelligence which allows us to be cruel on a much larger scale.

And further: that intelligence also allows us to go beyond animal instinct, which means that as well as increased cruelty there is also sympathy. What bothers me is not the book's argument, which is brilliantly made, but rather a response to the book which assumes that this is the whole story.

Lok's final death-cry will stay with you, and so will the melancholy thoughts of one of the humans, who sails away wondering futilely, ‘Who would sharpen a point against the darkness of the world?’ People who want to look at our species through rose-tinted glasses need these reminders. But equally, those who want to see us as purely cruel and instinctive are taking Golding's message without remembering the crucial point that his species is able to write a book at all, and willing at least to try to inhabit the thoughts and feelings of others. This novel is a dark and wonderful thesis, but its existence holds the clue to its own counter-argument.

Currently reading

Emir Abd El-Kader: Hero and Saint of Islam
Gustavo Polit, Eric Geoffroy, Ahmed Bouyerdene
Progress: 70 %