Throughout most of our evolutionary history, we lived in small tribes. The genus Homo is generally thought to have started 2.5 million years ago, with the species Home Sapiens emerging about 500,000 years ago. Contrast that to the 10,000 years or so of cultural history of which we have a record.
The emergence of culture about 10,000 years ago coincides with the receding of the previous ice age. In recent geological time, ice ages have been interspersed with warm periods with about 90,000 years of ice age and 10,000 of warming. The growth of culture and the formation of communities larger than tribes is coincident with the development of agriculture, which allowed for food to be stored for later use, and thus for specialization to occur.
Physical evolution happens gradually, and very little physical evolution is likely to have taken place during the past 10,000 years while cultural and technological evolution has been happening at a extremely fast pace. Some of the deepest ingrained patterns in our brains are still programmed to the tribal world that we inhabited for most of our evolutionary history.
The tribe during prehistory was small enough so that the members of the tribe would all know each other. Your contribution to tribal life would also be well known to everyone else. If you did your part, you could count on others to help you in every way possible. Everyone needed to pull their weight in order to insure survival. News of someone cheating or doing harm to another in the same tribe would quickly be known to all members of the tribe, and I’m sure would not be tolerated. Tribes that were cohesive where everyone pulled together thrived, while tribes without a cooperative effort would soon die out. I believe that it was our cooperation with each other that allowed us to survive while the Neanderthals became extinct.
When we lived in small tribes of hunter gatherers, loyalty to the tribe was of utmost importance. Not only did we need to be subservient to the needs of the tribe, we also needed to be defensive toward those in competing tribes. It was a matter of our survival.
The order of the day was fierce loyalty to the tribe, and fierce opposition to those outside of our tribe. We had to divide the world into “Us” and “Them” I call this Tribalism. The tribal “Us & Them” mentality has some interesting implications when translated into a modern paradigm.
Once we developed agriculture, tribes were more prosperous, and could stay in once place. This allowed them to grow larger. It also reduced the competition among tribes, since each could have there own area. There was much more incentive to cooperate between tribes, and trading between tribes began. Some tribes joined forced, which soon evolved into villages and empires, and eventually into cities and countries.
Yet for all the advantages of cooperation between people, our tribal nature still has great influence. When tribes were small, it was easy to know who was your friend, and who was your enemy. Once our “tribe” grew too big for everyone to know each other, it was no longer clear who was working together with you cooperatively, and who was looking to take advantage of you in some way.
Since we are programmed to be tribal, this creates the choice between looking at others as part of the same tribe, or as looking at other as part of a different tribe. Tribes trust and take care of there own, but ignore the needs of others. Now in modern times, we are still faced with deciding who is “Us” and who is “Them”. Some people want to think that everyone is part of one big human tribe, while others define their tribe in much smaller ways. Each approach has its own problems:
Us is Everyone:
If everyone is considered part of the same tribe, then this creates the opportunity for some to abuse the trust placed in them and take advantage of others. This can lead to crimes as well as gaming the system so that you don’t have to contribute to the overall health of the tribe. This approach produces criminals and freeloaders.
Us is only those in my immediate circle:
If most people are not considered part of the tribe, then it allows one to neglect “other” people. In prehistory, if someone was injured while defending the tribe, then they would be honored and taken care of. They might still be expected to contribute to the tribe’s survival efforts, but there role would be adapted to their new capabilities. In modern society, it allows one to ignore the needs of others, since it’s not my problem (not my tribe). This approach produces discrimination and neglect.
It’s funny that these two approaches seem to mirror the two political parties that dominate in the United States. I probably don’t even have to tell you which party would be the party of inclusiveness (everyone in the USA is in our tribe), and which party would be more aligned with “every man for himself”. It’s also funny because before I explored the issue of tribalism, I always thought of the Democrats and the Republicans as being little different from each other. Now I can see that each is actually rooted in a different response to tribalism. Both responses are flawed in my opinion. Democrats see everyone in the US as being in the same tribe (but not those in other countries), while Republicans define tribe in a much smaller way (family/church), and think of government as inter-tribal negotiations.
Getting Beyond Tribalism
I believe that in order to create a peaceful planet, we need to fully acknowledge our tribal nature, including the tendency for us to divide the world into “us” and “them”. It’s hard wired into our being, and suppression and denial are not an effective way to get rid of this quality. Neither is it appropriate for us to just accept that we are that way and let our habits guide us. The path ahead is more subtle, challenging, and ultimately rewarding. We need to accept that we have this hard wiring, yet at the same time refuse to let it dominate us. We need to be like a recovered alcoholic that will always want a drink, yet chooses not to. Things will not change overnight, but with an acceptance of our nature, our nature will change over time.
In thinking about some of the social problems of the world, and looking at them through a tribal lens, I have the came up with the following approaches. Consider it the start of a conversation, not the ultimate solution.
Dealing with Discrimination:
The roots of racism is tribalism. Dividing the world into “Us and them” may be built into our brain structure in some way, yet it is also somewhat arbitrary who is “Us” and who is “Them”. If the earth were invaded by aliens from another planet, how would a white supremacist then view a black American vs. an Alien? It seems pretty clear that racism is an artifact of our evolutionary history that is no longer needed or useful. Yet we should also know that the roots of this thought process are deeply ingrained and it is only the human ability to step beyond our programming that will allow us to overcome it. Knowing that each of us has the innate capacity to have racist thoughts and maintaining a higher perspective is the key to overcoming racism.
Dealing with Neglect & Freeloaders:
One of the reasons that federal welfare does not work, while church community support does, is the scale of the effort. Welfare should be implemented on a scale small enough to be “tribal”; small enough for everyone to know everyone else. In this small world, being an anonymous welfare recipient is not possible. Ignoring the needs of those in the small circle would also be difficult. The small size of the group allows for an intimate awareness of the lives of those in it, providing both compassion for those that need it, and boundaries for anyone trying to abuse the system.
Dealing with Criminals:
People are not afraid of being criminals because our society is large enough so that they can blend in again after the crime, even if they were caught and punished. I wonder if creating a public database of all criminals would deter criminals more effectively than the threat of incarceration. If someone could look up your name and find out your criminal history, it would be really hard to get a date!