The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Thursday, November 5, 2015
Brain / Mind ... Society ...

“Let me let you in on a little secret,” said [former Secretary of State Condoleeza] Rice, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor. “There is no such thing as an international community. There are self-maximizing, self-interested states that will push their interests as far as possible.”

This quote comes from a recent article about Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Bloomberg site. The article says some interesting things about Putin, but the grander implications of Rice’s quote have attracted my attention. That is, for the human race as a whole, tribalism trumps one-world mentality.

The question of whether humans are hopelessly tribal or are moving (however slowly) towards a “one humanity / one planet” mentality is an important one; it ultimately forms the foundation on which every nation, especially the most powerful ones, build their foreign policies. It sets the tone on how we act in getting along with other peoples from other nations. Can we proceed with ultimate trust, or do we need to forever stay on the defensive? The question applies not only at the international scale, but in our own lives today, as we increasingly interact with peoples and groups who have different customs and cultures than our own (whether they currently live within or without our national boarders).

Obviously then, the tribalism question has become a political one. Liberals say that tribalism is not destiny. Here’s a good quote from Rosabeth Moss Kanter in the Huffington Post:

Some social scientists say that in-group/out-group biases are hard-wired into the human brain. Even without overt prejudice, it is cognitively convenient for people to sort items into categories and respond based on what is usually associated with those categories, a form of statistical discrimination, playing the odds. Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banajee is a pioneer in the quick judgment school of research, arguing in “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People” that stereotypes are pervasive and hard to overcome. It is one easy step from categories to pecking orders.

But it is important to not stop at analysis of unthinking instincts, lest we miss the other side of the story. Human nature also allows us to think our way out of blindspots. Tribalism is muted by other human creations, such as diverse communities with complex structures and more universalistic values. We call that civilization. Tribalism is not inevitable. We can civilize tendencies toward discrimination. But leaders must make it a priority.

Hmmmmm, so it’s up to our leaders, i.e. those who lead our modern “tribes”, to convince us not to be tribal . . . but isn’t there some disincentive here? Are most leaders really altruistic enough to lead us down a path to a place where we won’t really need powerful leaders anymore? Remember that tribal leaders are generally much more powerful than UN bureaucrats . . .

We’ve already considered the Republican-flavored pessimism of Condoleeza Rice, but here is another taste of the conservative view, from Canada’s National Post:

The reason many of us post-9/11 hawks had such high hopes for these campaigns is that we shared George W. Bush’s sunny claim that “Freedom is universal. Freedom is etched in everybody’s soul.” It turns out that’s not true. As [Rutgers scholar Robin] Fox notes, freedom and individualism are relatively recent development[s] in human history. Tribalism, on the other hand, is a deeply rooted instinct that has been “etched” on our evolutionary psychology since simian days. Even in Western societies, you can still see it rise to the surface when tensions flare.

Is there something about Islam that serves to lock in mankind’s inherently tribal instincts? Perhaps. The word Islam translates to “submission.” And empirically speaking, there seems to be something within the faith that discourages individualism and the democratic freedoms associated with it. On the other hand, the non-Muslim nations of sub-Saharan Africa are every bit as tribalized as the Muslim nations of North Africa and Asia.

Ah yes, the modern-day tribalism accusation against Islam. But at least the writer here admits that Muslims don’t have an exclusive license on tribal governance and social patterns. We have it right here on display in our modern Western societies, as well as in sub-Saharan Africa. Just read about the recent American tragedies in Ferguson, MO, Baltimore, MD, Charleston, SC, etc.

What is the academic take on humanity and tribalism? Here are some interesting lines from an article by E. O. Wilson, the famous biology Professor Emeritus from Harvard University —

People must have a tribe. It gives them a name, adding to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world. It makes the environment less disorienting and dangerous. The social world of each modern human is not a single tribe, but rather a system of interlocking tribes. People savor the company of like-minded friends, and they yearn to be in one of the best — perhaps an elite college or the executive committee of a company, a religious sect, a fraternity, a garden club. The goal is to belong to any collectivity that can be compared favorably with other competing groups of the same category.

If the propensity toward in-group bias has all these criteria, it is likely to be inherited and, if so, can be reasonably supposed to have arisen through evolution by natural selection. Other cogent examples of prepared learning in the human repertoire include language, incest avoidance, and the acquisition of phobias.

Groupism — the elementary drive to form and take deep pleasure from in-group membership — easily translates at a higher level into tribalism. People are prone to ethnocentrism. It is an uncomfortable fact that even when given a guilt-free choice, individuals prefer the company of others of the same race, nation, clan, and religion. We would be well advised not to belittle this inclination. It may seem trivial, but shifting tribal instincts from the very real battlefield of war and mutual human destruction to sports arenas and video games actually represents civilizational progress.

Hmm, Professor Wilson doesn’t seem very optimistic that human-kind can shake the shackles of tribalism anytime soon. In fact, one of the biggest innovations of modern life appears to be that it allows us to become members of multiple tribes! But Wilson does seem to suggest that the NFL and other big-sports venues could be at least be a palliative to our short-sighted destructive tribal tendencies.

You might next wonder, what does Wikipedia have to say about human tribalism?? OK, let’s check:

[T]ribalism is oriented around the valences of analogy, genealogy and mythology. This means that customary tribes have their social foundations in some variation of these tribal orientations of kinship-based organization, reciprocal exchange, manual production, oral communication, and analogical enquiry. Tribalism implies the possession of a strong cultural or ethnic identity that separates one member of a group from the members of another group.

According to a study by Robin Dunbar at the University of Liverpool, primate brain size is determined by social group size. Dunbar’s conclusion was that most human brains can only really understand an average of 150 individuals as fully developed, complex people (Known as Dunbar’s number). In contrast, anthropologist H. Russell Bernard and Peter Killworth have done a variety of field studies in the United States that came up with an estimated mean number of ties, 290, that is roughly double Dunbar’s estimate. The Bernard–Killworth median of 231 is lower, due to upward straggle in the distribution, but still appreciably larger than Dunbar’s estimate.

Malcolm Gladwell expanded on this conclusion sociologically in his book, The Tipping Point where one of his types – Connectors – were successful due to their larger than average number of close friendships and capacity for maintaining them which tie otherwise unconnected social groups together. According to these studies, then, “tribalism” is in some sense an inescapable fact of human neurology, simply because many human brains are not adapted to working with large populations. Once a person’s limit for connection is reached, the human brain must resort to some combination of hierarchical schemes, stereotypes, and other simplified models in order to understand so many people.

So, for most people, dealing with any more than 250 people requires some sort of mental theory or construct, some way of classifying people. And that’s where the trouble comes in . . .

A professor of anthropology named Travis Rayne Pickering has some happier thoughts about the human legacy of expanding the bounds of human cooperation and overcoming group violence, however. Pickering says that early humans did not completely inherit and adapt the violent behavior of chimps and other primates. For example, the use of spears by early hunter-gatherers is seeking food shows that there is an expanding capacity for emotional control inherent to our species. This control potential allows expanding bonds of trust between humans, going way beyond how chimps interacted with each other (which was generally pretty obnoxious).

Finally, a good summary of modern thought on tribalism is found in a 2014 article in the LA Times by a Harvard doctoral candidate in evolutionary biology, by the name of Luke Glowacki. The title of the article sums it up rather nicely: “Are people violent by nature? Probably. But genes also predispose humans to cooperation and altruism.”

Over the last few years, scientists have converged on something of a consensus: The human propensity for lethal violence against “out-group” members has deep evolutionary roots. Although our peaceful cousins the bonobos are sometimes trumpeted as an example of an alternative evolutionary lineage, their more amicable relationships are not surprising from an evolutionary perspective. Biologists believe that early humans as well as chimpanzees faced resource competition, whereas bonobos had less resource scarcity, which allowed . . . peaceful intergroup relations to evolve.

Archaeology provides an important means to examine violence prior to European contact or colonization. In many cases, human remains provide evidence of warfare’s place in prehistory. Skeletal injuries such as cranial fractures, parry wounds and dismemberment suggest lethal violence was common . . . the fact that we have found so much evidence of [pre-historic] violent conflict is telling . . . burial sites have been found across the globe, including the notoriously grisly 14th century Crow Creek massacre in South Dakota, where the remains of nearly 500 bodies have been recovered.

It appears likely that as societies became more sedentary and hierarchical, there was a sharp increase in warfare as groups lost the capacity to move away from each other in times of conflict . . . social psychologists have documented what seems to be an innate disposition of humans to classify individuals into in-group and out-group members that can form the foundation for divisions leading to conflict. Fortunately [however] the story does not stop there. Warfare is only one part of our evolutionary legacy. The other is that humans evolved to be highly cooperative and responsive to cultural norms, including those that promote peaceful relationships.

Whether our genes lead us to war or peace depends on the particular social environment in which we live. Our genes don’t make us do it. For that we need culture too.

So, it’s not hopeless. If we can develop a culture (or a group of parallel cultures) that span the globe, a culture or cultures which promote harmony, cooperation and one-ness, humans can have then a peaceful and progressive world. But how do you control and foster a culture? Can you develop such cultures and get them to spread and become universal? Without resorting to coercive and ultimately violent methods that corrupt the whole affair (think Soviet Communism of the 20th Century) ? Yes, I’ve heard of social media and its impact on culture, but that gives me ground for both joy and dismay. For now, with regard to tribalism, we remain poised on the brink of hopefulness and hopelessness.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:06 pm      

  1. Jim, An interesting post and one way of looking that how the planet may become “one”. It certainly can be said that just yesterday President Obama proved the social scientists right: He rejected the Keystone Pipeline that was to run from Canada down to Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico. His reasoning for rejecting it was precisely what, if I read them correctly, the social scientists say: The Keystone Project will do the U.S. no good in any tangible economic way; so we will not run the pipeline thru our country; he rejected it. So, the social scientists must be right: Countries only do what is to their benefit and thus tribes will stay tribes. (Perhaps I’m paraphrasing too generally, but I think that’s the general idea.)

    Yet, it seems to me that there’s slightly different, yet basically same, way to look at how the planet may eventually evolve into “one planet” instead of a bunch of “little” countries, each one claiming its own autonomy over everyone else and maintaining it is, of course, so much more right than every other country.

    It’s been my observation that there must be some economic advantage to begin the start of some kind of unification, no matter how initial it may be. I think that Obama’s reasoning in regard to the Keystone Pipeline proves this. Looking at things from an economic standpoint may be pretty close to what the social scientists are saying; but an economic view is just a different approach when it comes to looking at how this “evolution” into a “one world” starts and advances.

    It seems to me that the beginning of anything regarding unification of countries comes with economic necessity. If one looks at how the European Union came about (again, if I have this right), it was a “money/trade issue”; that is, the countries in their need and want to trade and have an easier/better economy for all decided to “go for” the Euro – a money-based reason that would enable trade between European nations to move at a smoother pace.

    It then followed that, if the goal was trade to move at a smoother pace among some of (most of?) the European nations, not only would the money have to be common among the nations (thus the Euro), such things as travel (especially travel) would also necessarily have to have a quicker and easier way to move. So, then a passport/visa type of system, from nation to nation to nation, would have to also be made easier, and has been.

    I’ve never traveled in Europe (a serious lack on my part but something that just has not come up in my life); but if I understand it correctly, it’s now possible to travel on one passport among several European countries. I’ve tho’t that sounds very similar to how the U.S. works when it comes to travel from state to state. (This tho’t makes me wonder how long it will take Europe to become similar to the U.S. and it’s system of states.)

    When it comes to Russia, the country is so large it will take a great deal for the smaller countries of Europe to have any economic influence on that country. (The same holds for Eastern countries.)

    It’s long seemed to me that religion won’t make for “one planet”; but people will happily see a different view of other countries when “money” becomes an issue.

    It’s long seemed to me that the first step in a “one world” will really be something to do with the economy. For instance, if Obama had had a good economic reason for the Keystone Pipeline, he’d have jumped at it in a heartbeat and so would the rest of the country. (Thus, the Keystone Pipeline might have lead to ties with Canada and to a similar kind of Union as Europe has, only ours might be a “North American Union”.)

    Obama even mentioned that unemployment is down and any jobs the Pipeline might bring would not be that beneficial to the U.S.; thus he rejected the project. While a lot of environmentalists were happy that the pipeline did not go thru, when it came down to the bottom line, the reason the U.S. is willing to “save the environment” is an economic one, not one concerned about the environment.

    Qhen it comes to the bottom line, it seems to me that economics will win out every time. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — November 7, 2015 @ 10:48 am

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