Human Tribalism


We, humans, are tribal by nature. The archeological evidence from graves and other sites indicates that we have been tribal for a long time. Anthropological studies show there is debate about the effects of tribalism on society. I can't imagine that I could or should argue with the anthropologists. Nonetheless, I have some thoughts on tribalism and how it cuts across virtually everything we humans say, do and believe. Let's first look at a variety of tribes.

The most apparent and pernicious tribalism is around race, although religion is a close second. We come together in all kinds of tribes all the time. Sports teams are a prime example. We gather by the thousands to cheer on our favorite team and boo the opponent in the presence of their supporters. Food; when we go out to an Italian restaurant (or any ethnic or style of food) because we love Italian food, we go in knowing that most people are in our restaurant for the same reason. When we buy a new car, say a Toyota Prius, we are suddenly aware of how many people are driving a Prius, and we are part of that tribe; sometimes, it's the color of the car that causes a feeling of tribalism. Clothing styles, your favorite pub, watching a favorite TV show or movie (and discussing with friends), joining clubs or organizations like the PTA, and playing golf with the same people time after time are all forms of tribalism.

And we are constantly forming new tribes. One of the more recent events is the tribe identifying with the LGBTQIA+. This tribe includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, queer, intersex, asexual, pansexual, and allies. Each of those subsets is a tribe that shares both sexual preferences, philosophies, and all the other attributes of music, food, and religion that typically define belonging to any tribe. While controversial in today's society, the gay tribe is not the first to suffer rejection and will almost certainly not be the last.

One of the most prominent tribes that have been rejected is people of color, especially the African-Americans. Because the slaveholders didn't want Blacks to vote at all, while some in the North thought they should vote, a compromise was reached that stated, "for purposes of representation in Congress, enslaved blacks in a state would be counted as three-fifths of the number of white inhabitants of that state." They were not even considered entirely human, and after some 400 years within our borders, their struggle for equality and acceptance continues to this day. Similarly, women have been fighting for their rights for years. Like people of color, they were considered chattel and the property of their husbands.

In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the revolutionary Fair Labor Standards Act, which banned extreme child labor while setting a minimum hourly wage (25 cents at the time) and a maximum workweek of 44 hours before overtime pay. In 1972, Sweden became the first to legally allow transgender individuals to change their gender. Like the struggle for gay rights, change in social attitudes is typically a long and difficult struggle; we aren't that accepting of other tribes.

We, humans, are constantly joining others with similar likes or dislikes, making us feel like we belong to an exclusive group. And, of course, politics has become a tribal thing almost as explosive and divisive as race and religion. Let's think about tribalism and how it may have gotten started.

We don't really know what early humans thought or said - we don't even know how much language they had; we have to guess what their lives were like based on how we think and act today. Chances are that some humans came together in a tribe at some point, learning from experience that they were stronger as a unit than by themselves; their survival, our survival as a species may have demanded we form into tribes.

There undoubtedly were, as there are today, the resisters, the people who refused to be part ofsome group or accept other groups. Like today's anti-vaxxers (yet another version of a tribe), they were convinced they were better off on their own than throwing their lot in with strangers. But, over time, it became apparent to most humans that there was strength in numbers. Strength to slay mighty beasts, to roll a huge log to use as a bridge, or defend our tribe's territory against other tribes intent on stealing all we had.

Many motivations and threats to survival are a thing of the past, but the instincts we evolved over tens of thousands of years have hardwired a good deal of how we think and behave. We must use our acquired knowledge, education, and experiences to counteract some of these tribal instincts to discriminate against others. Where our existence may have depended on tribalism and discrimination at one time, we have reached a point where those two tendencies now threaten our existence as a species. Just as we did one hundred thousand years ago when we adjusted for survival, we must see the new reality and pivot toward becoming part of the more incredible tribe of human beings.

It's easy enough to write that last statement but much harder to pull that off. No leader will make a speech that changes the hearts and minds of everyone, and no pastor or priest or guru of any kind will fix the problems we see in society today. Each of us has to look at our prejudices and tribal tendencies and make a personal decision to move up the organization chart to higher and higher tribes that are more inclusive of all our neighbors.

Below are a couple of sites that have some good information about tribalism.