Tribalism

Tribalism [trahy-buh-liz-uhm] implies the possession of a strong cultural or ethnic identity that separates one member of a group from the members of another group. It is a precondition for members of a tribe to possess a strong feeling of identity for a true tribal society to form. While tribal society no longer strictly exists in the western world, tribalism is arguably undiminished. People have postulated that the human brain is hard-wired towards tribalism due to its evolutionary advantages.

Many tribes refer to themselves with their language’s word for ‘people,’ while referring to other, neighboring tribes with various epithets. For example, the term ‘Inuit’ translates as ‘people,’ but they were known to the Ojibwe by a name ‘Eskimo’ translating roughly as ‘eaters of raw meat.’

The anthropological debate on warfare among tribes is unsettled. While typically and certainly found among horticultural tribes, an open question remains whether such warfare is a typical feature of hunter-gatherer life, or an anomaly found only in certain circumstances, such as scarce resources (as with the Inuit or Arabs), or among food producing societies. If nothing else, conflict in tribal societies can never achieve the absolute scale of civilized warfare. Tribes use forms of subsistence which, though more efficient, cannot yield the same number of absolute calories as agriculture. This limits tribal populations significantly, especially when compared to agricultural populations.

Tribalism has a very adaptive effect in human evolution. Humans are social animals, and ill-equipped to live on their own. Tribalism and ethnocentrism help to keep individuals committed to the group, even when personal relations fray. This keeps individuals from wandering off or joining other groups. It also leads to bullying when a tribal member is unwilling to conform to the politics of the collective.

Socially, divisions between groups fosters specialized interactions with others, based on association: altruism (positive interactions with unrelated members), kin-selectivity (positive interactions with related members), and violence (negative interactions). Thus, groups with a strong sense of unity and identity can benefit from kin selection behavior such as common property and shared resources. The tendency of members to unite against an outside tribe and the ability to act violently and prejudicially against that outside tribe likely boosted the chances of survival in genocidal conflicts.

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’). Malcolm Gladwell expanded on this conclusion sociologically in his book, ‘The Tipping Poin’t where one of his personality 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 Gladwell,  ‘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.

Nevertheless, complex societies (and corporations) rely upon the tribal instincts of their members for their organization and survival. For example, a representative democracy relies on the ability of a ‘tribe’ of representatives to organize and deal with the problems of an entire nation. The instincts that these representatives are using to deal with national problems have been highly developed in the long course of human evolution on a small tribal scale, and this is the source of both their usefulness and their disutility. Indeed, much of the political tension in modern societies is the conflict between the desire to organize a nation-state using the tribal values of egalitarianism and unity and the simple fact that large societies are unavoidably impersonal and sometimes not amenable to small-society rules. In complex societies, this tribalistic impulse can also be channelled into more frivolous avenues, manifesting itself in sports rivalries and other such ‘fan’ affiliations.

In the past 50 years, anthropologists have greatly revised the understanding of the tribe. Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, removed the idea of unilineal cultural evolution from the realm of serious anthropological research as too simplistic, allowing tribes to be studied in their own right, rather than stepping stones to civilization or ‘living fossils.’ Anthropologists such as Richard Borshay Lee and Marshall Sahlins began publishing studies that showed tribal life as an easy, safe life, the opposite of the traditional theoretical supposition. In the title to his book, Sahlins referred to these tribal cultures as ‘the Original Affluent Society,’ not for their material wealth, but for their combination of leisure and lack of want.

This work is for the progression of humanity and the enlightenment of ourselves, such as that advocated by John Zerzan or Daniel Quinn. These philosophers have led to new tribalists pursuing what Daniel Quinn dubbed the ‘New Tribal Revolution.’ The new tribalists use the term ‘tribalism’ not in its widely thought of derogatory sense, but to refer to what they see as the defining characteristics of tribal life: namely, an open, egalitarian, classless and cooperative community. New tribalists insist that this is, in fact, the natural state of humanity, and proven by two million years of human evolution.

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