Are We Born Tribal?

This is one of the first Myelinated posts I discovered when I wandered over to Steve Greene’s joint:

I heard about this study on a podcast a while back, but I really like this nice summary in the Atlantic.  Short version: in watching a puppet show, babies preferred puppets that were mean to puppets that were dissimilar from themselves.  If the baby preferred graham crackers they were happy to see a puppet being mean to a green bean preferring puppet.  And vice versa.  Oh, we’re mean from the beginning, us humans.

Interesting to be sure.

30 responses to “Are We Born Tribal?

  1. pino, you’re on point here. I think tribalism is inherent in human societies. It starts no doubt as a survival thing. For millennia we’ve expanded the definition – from tribes, to towns, to cities, to nations. And of course, as groups got larger, we all got farther away from our leadership.

    It’s a hell of a balancing act we’ve been managing over our social evolution. But we do pretty well with it, we grow in our tolerance for ‘others’ etc. I look at the eternally warring ‘tribes’ in many part of the middle east and then look at the developed modern countries and I think we have it right. Can’t have 7 billion humans devolving back to that.

    Coincidentally, I was chatting with a real idealist yesterday about his ideas about we humans and what we do vs what we should do (in his vision), I told him he leavve three important things out of his reasoning: 1) the human tendency to tribalism, 2) human nature, and 3) the human instinct to exploration.

    Interesting subject.

    • I think tribalism is inherent in human societies.

      I think so too.

      I remember reading somewhere that people would “tribe up” until the tribe numbered like, 40-50 people, and then form new tribes.

      I told him he leavve three important things out of his reasoning: 1) the human tendency to tribalism, 2) human nature, and 3) the human instinct to exploration.

      I’m glad to hear you say that; I feel the same way.

      I resonate with liberal’s desire to pass laws that make people “behave”. I just think that human nature renders such attempts as moot.

    • Yeah, this is quite the messy issue. My native continent of Europe is one of previously warring tribes, and I obviously prefer the current peaceful situation there. Yet ironically, it appears that the very ideas of democracy and tolerance of others are being increasingly threatened by the influence of fundamentalist Islam–the tradition of those warring tribes from the Middle East–leading me to the uncomfortable question: does a certain degree of tribalism also bring strength with it? I have no clear answer to that–I will have to keep watching what happens in Europe in order to find out 🙂

      • does a certain degree of tribalism also bring strength with it?

        I think it does.

        I love my “tribe” and will work hard to see it succeed, even sacrifice my short term benefit for the larger good. The danger begins when the tribe becomes too big…

        I live in Carolina, so, when California begins to require that I contribute to their welfare without reciprocity, the tribe breaks down.

  2. My brethren are not monolithic. Nor are yours. Nor are you or I. Lately I think I’m noticing a wider embrace of certain libertarian principles among Dems. It was always there with most social issues (stay out of my bedroom! mostly), but it seems broader now. That may be the logical step toward turning the party in a somewhat different direction (about as fast as a battleship).

    The party split deeply in the 60’s after the Voting Rights legislation with the Dixiecrats just leaving altogether and moving to the GOP. And there were cracks in the late 60s too (see 1968 convention) and then Clinton veered to the ‘new Democrats. Still the party pretty much held together. And I think that may be happening again. We’ll see . . ..

    • My brethren are not monolithic. Nor are yours. Nor are you or I.

      I know, but the “labels” are out there.

      Lately I think I’m noticing a wider embrace of certain libertarian principles among Dems.

      Most excellent news!

  3. Pingback: pino asks “Are we born tribal?” | Whatever Works

  4. Humans are indeed born tribal, no doubt in my military mind whatsoever. My favorite author on the subject is E. O. Wilson who most lately wrote The Social Conquest of Earth, in discussing which a NYT reviewer said,

    “. . . More important, humans and certain insects are the planet’s ­“eusocial” species — the only species that form communities that contain multiple generations and where, as part of a division of labor, community members sometimes perform altruistic acts for the benefit of others.”

    • Humans are indeed born tribal, no doubt in my military mind whatsoever.

      I agree; it seems very straight forward.

      in discussing which a NYT reviewer said,

      I like it!

  5. I dislike the term tribal. Individuals enter into alliances to deal with difficult conditions. In our current economic troubles these alliances have more value. Scarce resources make for less acceptance of anyone outside of the group in heredity,appearance, and behavior.

    In wealthier times you find more tolerance for different tribes. You can do without the help of troublesome group members in your own tribe. The modern term is network. You can network further afield and even abandon your former tribesmen for new clans.

    I think I would list lion prides, hyena clans, and chimpanzee troupes in with multi generational, altruistic act performing groups of animals.

    • I dislike the term tribal.

      Well, but it fits.

      In wealthier times you find more tolerance for different tribes. You can do without the help of troublesome group members in your own tribe. The modern term is network. You can network further afield and even abandon your former tribesmen for new clans.

      This may be true. However, we still like to feel a part of a group.

      This is why a group of hairdressers have the same hierarchy structure as a group of corporate managers.

  6. “Tribal” is a good enough word, though it carries an unwarranted connotation of primitivism and weight of thought that it should be “evolved” out of…which is probably the cause of Alan’s issue with the term.

    This is the natural and most healthy state for Man. We’re built that way and were built that for reasons that haven’t changed in the course of our species’ existence.

    • @ jonolan,

      You said,

      This (tribalism) is the natural and most healthy state for Man. We’re built that way and were built that for reasons that haven’t changed in the course of our species’ existence.

      I strongly disagree. Tribalism worked for small groups of humans but it doesn’t for large groups, particularly when those groups are armed and especially when those arms are WMD’s.

      I blame tribalism for all the woes of racism, bigotry and religious persecution, good examples of which are the Sunni/ Shiite/ Jewish messes in the Middle East and the long-smoldering religious conflicts in India, and the Holocaust. The challenge is clear. If mankind cannot overcome his innate tribalism through the power of intellect, then war and all the evils of tribalism will haunt his history until we are either all dead or we all look alike.

      • I blame tribalism for all the woes of racism, bigotry and religious persecution

        I think that you have something there. However, if you can create a stronger “tribe”, those characteristics fade. Think professional sports teams. A Viking’s fan doesn’t care if you are atheist or Christian, black, white or Asian.

        war and all the evils of tribalism will haunt his history until we are either all dead or we all look alike.

        For as long as I can remember, there will only be peace on earth when an alien race threatens our world 😉

        Just a new tribe.

        • @Pino,

          However, if you can create a stronger “tribe”, those characteristics fade. Think professional sports teams. A Viking’s fan doesn’t care if you are atheist or Christian, black, white or Asian.

          Really? I seem to recall there are periodic riots during and/or after some international soccer games involving serious injuries, fires and even deaths. Also, speaking of stronger tribes, Nazi Germany comes to mind and they weren’t too nice to the Jews.

          However, your alien-race example is a very good one. That really would do the trick. Until the crisis was over, that is. 🙄

          • Really? I seem to recall there are periodic riots during and/or after some international soccer games involving serious injuries, fires and even deaths.

            That’s my point. The soccer “tribe” superseded other tribal distinctions. More important than race was allegiance to the soccer club.

          • And that was what I was talking about when said you can’t fight biology, you have to “trick” instead. Tribalism is right and normal. How we define “tribe” is much of the problem.

            As for Nazi Germany – the counterpoint is America of the same time period and, to a lesser degree, the entirety of the Allies.

  7. I read somewhere that the human brain starts to disassociate after about 150 people or so. As in, we can only process so much information and we start to emotionally disconnect when there are too many people around. This pretty much explains why we can walk over homeless people(in major cities) and not really seem to care. Tribalism is probably what helped us when we were in smaller groups. We cared more.

    • Also a good point, T4T, that smaller groups are more meaningful, but I think that misses the broader issue which is mutual dependence on others when threatened by outside forces. The prime example is WW II when ten of millions of Americans all sacrificed side by side (except of course for Japanese Americans 🙄 ).

    • I read somewhere that the human brain starts to disassociate after about 150 people or so. As in, we can only process so much information and we start to emotionally disconnect when there are too many people around. This pretty much explains why we can walk over homeless people(in major cities) and not really seem to care. Tribalism is probably what helped us when we were in smaller groups.

      The power of the tribe rests in the knowledge that another member of the tribe will help you if ever in like condition. As the tribe gets bigger, that social cohesion fades. This is why I have no faith that the people of California will assist me in times of need like my local neighbors, my group of friends or my co-workers.

      The social construct works best when there is a sense of obligation coming from the person on the receiving end of largess.

      • @Pino

        Ultimately the strength of the tribe or social construct rests with the individual. I wonder, could the people of California have faith that you will help them? I think if we are loving and caring about our fellow humans then it doesn’t matter whether or not they belong to “our” tribe because, after all, its all our tribe. 🙂

        • I think if we are loving and caring about our fellow humans then it doesn’t matter whether or not they belong to “our” tribe because, after all, its all our tribe.

          Right. That’s where we wanna be and wanna get to. And you and I may agree. However, we’re talking about the vast majority of people, and the whole point of this post is that people don’t relate like that.

          We are tribal.

  8. Like it or not, Jim, tribalism and loyalties to those near to one’s self in as many manners as possible IS what is natural for Man. We’re wired that way at the biological level and we’re not going to get past it….ever. Any attempt to do so is just going to cause greater and greater damage to people’s psyches and damaged psyches produced damaged and dangerous societies.

    Intellect can never overcome biology and evolution well or without horrid consequences. You have to use intellect to trick biology and evolution instead by revaluing the inputs.

    Indeed, most of the problems we have and that you describe are because we tried to overcome tribalism through the power of intellect. We ignored what we were, are, and always will be wired for and bought ourselves a lot of Hell.

    Instead, we should have looked at how to use our intellect to define our tribes in a better way and how to work with, thought not necessarily like, other tribes.

    • I totally get where you’re coming from, jonolan. I submit that your opinion here is consistent with your politics, just as mine is with mine. QED.

      • And I submit that my opinion has nothing to do with politics. It’s based upon science and science alone.

        • The link between this issue and politics, as I see it, is a very important one and Pino’s cogent comment is a good example. He said,

          The power of the tribe rests in the knowledge that another member of the tribe will help you if ever in like condition. As the tribe gets bigger, that social cohesion fades. This is why I have no faith that the people of California will assist me in times of need like my local neighbors, my group of friends or my co-workers.

          Thus, Pino would I assume support a politician who declined to assist people in California and who was strong on states’ rights. A person of more liberal persuasion, perhaps Eurobrat, would likely disagree and, like myself, argue that large tribal size need not be an unrealistic goal. We might point to the browning of America, the homogenization of culture by the internet, and the changing politics of gay marriage as examples of trends in that direction.

          On a more pessimistic note, however, I do acknowledge one more trend that I see as very bad, and that is armed religious conflict. Ultimately, I see religions as the ultimate and the most extreme tribes. It’s a sort of Armageddon, isn’t it? Reason versus religion.

  9. I should add that while I agree that we are tribal, we seem to spend a lot of our time struggling with the conflicting instincts of being loyal to the tribe vs. being a lone individual. Or, okay, I spend a lot of time struggling with those conflicting instincts. I may be projecting here.

    Also, very nice discussion going on!

    • I believe your conflict has a lot to do with the fact that many, like Wheeler, try to force people to go against the natural order of evolution and deprecate the “tribe” in the first place. Also, I think some of it is caused by your forebrain rejecting the more primitive inputs in an attempt to define your tribe differently.

      • Maybe you’re right. My main conflict is that most times, it feels more natural for me to be alone than with others. It’s not that I dislike my tribe so much…I just like doing my own thing. But this may have to do with how I grew up, which then gets into all that hairy nature vs nurture stuff.

  10. I don’t see much here in the way of acknowledgement of the science of biology.

    It is all about getting as much genetic material into posterity. Or how many grandchildren you leave. Tribalism fits right in. In modern societies there is a limit to maximizing your offspring. Also in a crowded world it is counter productive. Helping blood relatives maximizes related genetic material in the Darwinian clash of tribes and clans. It also means aligning with any rising clan to carry your heritage forward.

    Beneath our intellect we are no better than any other creature. Human beings have pretty much won the war against everything else. Like all top predators we now mostly compete with ourselves.

    Intelligence is just another fang or claw in the arms race against ourselves. Our bird of paradise evolution continues on.

    I think it is funny how modern people deny what primitive man and third worlders instinctively know. My tribe going on and yours’ not.

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