Tribalism – our fatal flaw?

There are a few good “isms” (altruism being the slam-dunk winner) but, let’s face it, most of them are bad. Cannibalism, nepotism, alcoholism, fanaticism and terrorism are examples – and in the “prejudice/bias” category we have racism, sexism, and (newly invented) ageism and weightism. But the worst ism of all is tribalism.

Tribalism, in fact, is at the root of most of the prejudice/bias isms, making a particular persuasion or characteristic into a virtue that makes a “tribe” of all holders/believers of that persuasion or characteristic. Add another ism, extremism, to the mix and we have all the ingredients for very bad behavior.

There was a time in man’s past when tribal behavior was an asset to humanity. Fifty thousand years ago, when humanity was huddling in caves, close to losing its battle for survival, tribal loyalty was the glue that held small groups together. Later, it created an atmosphere of trust so that sociable behavior and division of labor was possible. The scene was set for cooperative behavior and skills-driven work assignment. Hunters harvested meat, farmers cultivated crops, fishermen fished and women cooked and took care of the children.

The other side of the tribalism coin, however, has always been distrust of those outside the tribe, leading to endless wars born of fear and ambition. Over time, tribes grew by conquest and nations came, and then empires. Over more time some of the rough edges of tribalism were modified and civilized, but tribal behavior survives today with new labels such as cultures, ethnicity, race and religious creeds. People still gather into “us” and “them” groups and the old habits of fear and distrust of “them” persist.

In the sphere of religion, tribal positions are taken by thousands of denominations and sects. The ism family of religions includes Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Sikhism, Wahhabism, Raelism and even Satanism. Extremism, including fundamentalism has made many of them into monstrosities that do far more harm than good.

In some spheres we have innocuous isms that are merely descriptive. In the arts, for example, we have impressionism, modernism, cubism and pointillism. In politics we have conservatism, liberalism and communism. Add tribalism to politics, however, and then we can have aggressive forms that escalate to become hate-filled cancerous threats to our humanity. Hitlerism, Stalinism, Marxism, Maoism and McCarthyism will go down in history as marking the worst of times for our species.

The great evil, tribalism, divides us into an insane patchwork of warring factions. Hatred, manifesting in wars and terrorism is constantly flaring across the factions. Frequently the wrong that inspires the hatred was committed hundreds of years ago. When Yugoslavia was freed from communism in 1990, naive observers expected good things. They expected that the people involved would savor their new freedom and goodwill would rule. Instead, the newfound freedom was used to release centuries-old tribal hatreds that had been kept in check by force – and Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims and Christians exercised their rights (rites?) of tribal hatred. The term “ethnic cleansing” was added to everyday lexicon and all of us, calling ourselves “humanity”, were shamed.

When tribalism was an asset, many thousands of years ago, we benefited from it in our fight for survival. We won that fight and the human population exploded from a founding core 50,000 years ago of less than 2,000 to 7 billion today. But our “success story” is flawed. The growth in population is itself a major problem. At the end of the 18th century, the world’s human population was under 1 billion. By the end of the 19th century, it had grown to 1.65 billion. A hundred years later, at the turn of the last century it stood at 6.5 billion and is projected to reach 9 billion by 2040.

The stress on Earth’s infrastucture is escalating and the grotesque difference in personal wealth between the haves and the have-nots in the world is a powder keg waiting to explode. While many in the affluent, developed countries are living in luxury, others in third world countries are living in desperate poverty, dying of starvation and falling victim to diseases that could be treated by drugs easily available in the richer countries. Solutions to these problems will require a global, long term, view – and tribalism blocks the way.

We take pride in our species’ rise to dominance on this planet as an “intelligent species” but, in fact, by the measure of evolution we were “born yesterday” claiming a mere 50,000 years of existence and perhaps 40,000 years of dominance. Compared to the two million years that dinosaurs ruled the world, it is a momentary blip on the evolutionary charts. In fact, if we fail to “grow up” and overcome our tribalism we will be doomed to extinction and will take our place in the fossil record as one of the most short-lived species in our planet’s history.

If we survive long enough, the day will come when it will be practical for any human being of modest means to board a space shuttle and take in the view of Earth from space. Perhaps, one day, it will be the favourite “school outing” for the children of our descendants. When (and if) that day comes, arguing against tribalism and for unity will be made so much easier. Look down on earth from a mere 100 miles and you see a beautiful globe, predominantly blue with white clouds and green and brown land masses. Nowhere to be seen are any of the artificial boundaries that are rooted in tribalism. No political boundaries, no religious boundaries – just a beautiful planet that is home to that most precious commodity, life.

It will not be easy to put tribalism behind us – but we have to do it if we are to avoid extinction and become future man.

13 thoughts on “Tribalism – our fatal flaw?

  1. i agree with you perfectly but if we could only stop focusing on our differences and rather focus on what we share in common to bring us all together. i believe humans will always have differences because every human has got how he or she sees things, i also believe that we share a whole lot of things in common example we all do not want to feel pain,no human being wants to be sick or ill,we all need love,we all love someone or something….these are all examples of such things we share in common as human beings so lets focus on that.
    Ghana(west africa)

  2. Mr. Obodai

    Thanks for your comment – and greetings to Ghana from Canada. It seems we are on the same wavelength… – and with Albert Einstein who said –

    A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive. (Albert Einstein, 1954)

  3. Peter, really a remarkable accomplishment of intellect, passion, commitment and drive. I salute your determination to collect your own thoughts, buttresed by solid research, and to assemble them in a coherent framework.

    I particularly like your tribal construct and the gathering of the various ‘isms’, from political to religious etc. as a means of getting your points across. I look forward to reading the entire work.

  4. Thanks Rick. Glad you liked it. Keep in touch.

  5. Hi –
    I thought to Google your name, and here is where the search led me.
    There are tribes and there is tribalism. It seems to me that the former was around before the latter, which arose when the population of tribes became high enough that they began to step on each other’s toes. My first take on your essay waas to disagree, but then realized that the problem was more one of sematics than fundamentals. You have thought about tribalism; I have thought about tribes.
    I’ve done a fair amount of musing over tribes and our tribal ancestry and have generally come to the conclusion that modern society and in particular its scale have colluded with our ancestry to make a monster, but that we need to return to the old scale.
    There is one mathematically obvious but otherwise obscure aspect of the scale factor that explains much about what is wrong with us today. It is my impression from having lived with people and wolves, another tribal species, that the “alpha” personality type is largely hard-wired and genetically determined. A single individual or single pair of “alphas” holds a tribe or pack together and gives it necessary decisiveness. Two or more alpha individuals or pairs in the tribe create divisiveness rather than decisiveness. If indeed the characteristic is genetically determined, its frequency will be pretty constant and will determine the size of the tribe/pack.
    As long as populations are low enough that contact between tribes is infrequent, everything is well and good. Tribes remain at their historical low individual populations and low densities so that intra-and-inter-tribal rivalry between conflicting alphas does not get out of hand. But as tribes come closer and congeal into larger communities, problems arise because of an excess of alphas. Alphas are always on the lookout for followers, and the only way the need can be met is through eternal self-defeating growth of the population. So the over-representation of alphas in the post-tribal social structures is the origin of the growth mandate in my view. It is interesting to note that population growth has been much more rapid – not just in absolute terms but in terms of doubling time since the advent of large communities around 10,000 years ago.
    So another way of looking at the significance of our tribal background is that it tells us what is an appropriate scale for our organization.
    If one looks at “isms” and “acys” and “archys,” and how they work at different scales, it has seemed to me for many years that they all work quite poorly on large scales but all tend to coalesce into a hybrid that works quite well at small scales. The small New England village has survived for nearly four centuries and is part theocracy, part democracy, part aristocracy, part anarchy, part socialist, part capitalist, all parts fitting together fairly comfortably. Even corruption and crime have their place, questioning the status quo, but when they get out of hand and prove to be incurable, the perpetrator finds him or herself increasingly isolated and ultimately has to leave.
    But take these concepts and apply them to a large city or a nation where most people are strangers to each other, and none of them will work. So I tend to see no one ism as right or wrong, but the scale as VERY wrong.
    Incidentally, I’ve lived with 2 wolves over the last 3 decades, and have enjoyed comparing their personalities and intelligence with ours, both comparable, I think. We come from a tribal hunter-gatherer background, and they come from a tribal hunter background. The alpha wolf, like the alpha human,seems to be very social, very manipulative, very conscious of power and hierarchy, but there’s a difference, which is that alpha wolves are as likely to be female as male. For some years I had an alpha female wolf and a male golden retriever, and they fit themselves into classic sexist roles except reversed from the human stereotypes: the tall dark handsome powerful female, and the submissive dumb blond male. They fit the stereotypes so well (even in that the retriever allowed his submissiveness and cuteness to conceal his true intelligence) that strangers often reversed their genders in conversation, referring to the wolf as “him” and the retriever as “her.” Rightly or wrongly, I attributed the lack of sexism among wolves to the lack of a historic division between hunters and gatherers in their packs.

  6. Nick

    I found your take on ‘what ails us’ very interesting and well put.

    There is no question that over-population is exposing serious behavioural problems. The world that our grandparents’ grandparents lived in was a much better fit to the ‘natural’ (instinctive) behaviour of its human rulers at the time. The question is “which is the fundamental problem – is it overpopulation or is it our species failure to ‘grow up’?”

    Of course, the two are inextricably linked. Enlightened population control (as opposed to war, famine, plague and the like) will only come about if we exhibit a much higher level of real intelligence than we have so far exhibited. Our discovery of contraceptives demonstrates that we are a clever species, technologically speaking (and without contraceptives we would have self-destructed before the turn of the last century) but we have yet to show that we can use our intelligence to become ‘future man’, a version of humanity that has the wisdom and compassion needed to manage the affairs of our species and its home planet so as to survive the next 100 years and beyond.

    In Brave New World Revisited (the author’s critique of his own work 27 years later, in 1958) Aldous Huxley made the point that birth control was self-defeating because it was most likely to be practised where it was least needed. Of course the Brave New World totalitarian alternative of state-controlled baby-manufacture is not a solution either.

    So, back to the premise of my book (Future Man – Extinction or Glory?) we have to ‘grow up’ and fast.

    The alternative is to let our infantile failures decimate our population by man-brought catastrophic events such as wars, global warming, modern-day terrorism or pandemic disease, so that the survivors are returned to ‘the good old days’ – beginning a never-ending (Groundhog Day-like) oscillation between ‘civilized’ over-population and Stone Age survivalism.

  7. Sir, you are right on target! The “us vs them” mentality seems to work well enough for many animals (from fire ants to elephants). The thing is, they don’t have nuclear armaments, chemical weapons, germ warfare, etc. Plus, animals don’t think in terms of “annihilation” or “ethnic cleansing”. It takes a human to think that way.

  8. David,

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, outgrowing our tribalism before we exterminate ourselves with our ever-growing arsenal of terrifying weapons is our “race against time”.

    Evolution is a life or death competition. We won that competition so now our only competition is ourselves… As our numbers grow we will soon come to the ultimate fork in the road. Will we choose to “grow up” and, united, take our species to the next level – or will we choose to fight it out among ourselves. A fight we are certain to lose…

  9. Having become aware of the pervasiveness of tribalism in, frankly, all human modern human cultures, I’ve become bored with about 95% of what anyone has to say or do. Almost inevitably, it has something to do with whatever irrelivant collection of tribes they’ve decided/been conditioned to prefer. I’m tired of listening to telling me about whatever there sport/political/religious/local sacred cow is, and listening to the evil they justify by it. It seems to even spread to gender relations; don’t know why that girl/guy didn’t like you? it can almost universally be depressingly explained by tribalism. Ashamed to say, I personally have exploited tribalism more than once for sexual advantage.

    All of that aside, though, people will not leave tribalism behind because it’s the right thing to do; people don’t like doing the right thing because of tribalism. Barring a massive depopulation and radical social restructing, specifically dealing with how society rewards individuals, the only way you can ween people off of the narcotic of tribalism would be to create a new tribe that despises tribalism. Irony ensues.

  10. You are right. Creating a new tribe that despises tribalism is the only way. Let’s give it a name… How about humanity?

    In the face of all the insanity that surrounds us today I agree that it is difficult to be optimistic. But there is such a thing as a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. Unless we do something about it, the doomsayers will soon have their way.

    There is no hope for the mindless millions (they will be too busy taking in virtual reality shows and celebrity gossip) but the real tragedy is that those who are aware meekly accept the demise of our species as inevitable. I hold them accountable—which means I hold you accountable.

    For the next generation, (perhaps even two or three generations if we are ‘lucky’) we have a choice. We can change our future. The scientific term for this process is “cultural evolution”. It has worked in the past—and succeeded in cloaking our bestial origins in an outer gown of civility.

    Yes there is a long way to go before we can say that we have really achieved humanity. (Now there’s irony for you—that we choose to use the noun that designates our species as the adjective that idealizes good behavior!)

    But if we use our intelligence to mold a noble future, instead of just cleverly dismissing the notion as a foolish dream, then we can start a self-fulfilling prophecy that takes us to the stars…

  11. Your comment that we should create a new tribe called humanity is “cute”. Unfortunately, those who need to hear these ideas are the ones so vested into their tribal relationships that they would dismiss our exchange of thoughts as the ravings of crazy people. To live in the vulnerable position of not having a tribe to protect your fragile view of reality is terrifying. We do not have the sabertooth outside the cave, but the fear still exists in our primate minds. Those who can appreciate the subject being discussed are already evolving culturally into the “future man” as you call it. Humanity is the mass of “present man” who is, collectively, hiding in the cave, terrified. I have puzzled for perhaps 40 years over the question of how to wake people up. The stumbling block for most people, so it seems from my experience, is that the fears are so deep and the tribal conditioning so pervasive in their minds, removal is impossible without destroying the matrix of their personalities. In-evitably during a discussion with the vast majority of people (again, in my experience) a conditioning barrier will sooner or later be reached, past which the person cannot go; because, to go further means that change in a paradym or world view would be required. That requires honesty. Problem number two – very few people are honest with themselves or willing to be challenged regarding their views of reality. Therefore, I find myself in the unpleasant position of inertia. I have tried for four decades to jolt/ convince/ influence or otherwise appeal to any sense of logic that people may possess. I have now reached the point, like the other David, that I am tired of beating my head against the wall of mindless ignorance. Out of shear exhaustion, I have “withdrawn from the battle”. Am I shirking my responsibilty? Perhaps. I still speak with those who seem open (I am a teacher by profession). However, I am not on a crusade. My lance has broken against too many windmills to continue charging.


  12. You have a way with words.

    I take it that you agree with the sentiments (in the Tribalism piece — but you think it is naive for me to think that the “masses” will pay any heed to my efforts at diverting them from their tribalistic rites of shopping, ranting over their favorite sports teams, and competing with their automotive phallic symbols, etc…

    Well, I confess, then, to naivety. I’ll go further. I do think that you are shirking your responsibility, if you are in agreement with my views, but do not express them, because you are tired of beating your head against the brick wall of incomprehension and apathy. I must admit that forty years is a long time to go unrewarded for your efforts, but I would like to persuade you to resume. There are so few of “the aware” out there.

    When I was writing my first book (I’m working on a second now) an editor upset me by writing on the margins of the first few pages… “who cares…”, repeatedly. His point was that “the reader” (the masses, in your words) would be completely unmoved — even uncomprehending. My response to him was “if I don’t say this, who will?” And I will continue to listen to my conscience—and will continue to feel empathy for the future generations that, I hope, will live to be grateful that somebody spoke for their future…

  13. Peter, I don’t know if you’re still out there and writing, but it must be frightening to see what is transpiring in the U.S. and in some other countries as well. (See Hungary and others). I’m 65 and was hoping in my lifetime to see tribalism fade away but it seems to be making a comeback. We (The U.S.) elected a “chief” 4 years ago that, although his most ardent followers don’t realize it, set this country back at least 60 years if not 100 years. Maybe it will get better.

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