Skyspace, James Turrell, Bentonville, Arkansas

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We Love Our Tribes

The truth is, we love our tribes. We give the names of tribes to some of our most iconic and adulated teams—the Cleveland Indians, the Florida State Seminoles, the Atlanta Braves. We regularly organize our most important work activities into teams, and indeed, grouping a few dozen unrelated individuals into operational units is common in our educational, recreational, military, and even spiritual expression and organization. Think also of the esprit de corps of the army company, or of the Jewish teen describing her latest beau as “MOT” (member of the tribe). We observe that teams and tribes are ubiquitous in modern society, whether based on activities, beliefs, or, perhaps most significant, on genetic linkages that are very old. Indeed, scientists are finding increasing evidence that these self-selected group organizations are to be found in all societies and may very well be central in the emergence of our species.

Students of human nature have tended to initiate their studies by considering a person in the island-like solitude decried by John Donne. In the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau emphasized the individual in the state of nature and celebrated the noble savage and the tabula rasa, while rejecting the concept of private property. He reminded the reader that “you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” These romantic views are contrasted with the conservative Thomas Hobbes, who claimed that the state of nature must inevitably be a war of all against all. In such a condition there would be no arts, no letters, no society . . . just “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

For much of the early twentieth century, the individualistic, alpha male concept dominated the vision of primate social organization. Highly congenial to the authoritarian hierarchy of Western culture, this theory was relatively uncontested by available scientific data. Following World War II, astonishing breakthroughs by Jane Goodall with chimpanzees, and observations by numerous other students began to differentiate the characteristic lifestyles of the various primates. Sharp contrasts and anomalies were observed within the individualistic, male-dominated power hierarchy. Female hierarchies were noted. Murder and warfare were seen. Tool use was observed. A wide array of differing group-focused social and family organizations were discovered in both human and nonhuman primates.

Tribe-like groupings, while still poorly understood, seem to go back at least seven million years after the chimps and ape-men diverged from gorillas. All of these primates, and, indeed, other species, demonstrate examples of altruism and empathy in the wild and in captivity. Preoccupied by the idea of the self-centered alpha male, the quasi-scientific field of sociobiology emerged and found its most crystallized expression in Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976). I mention this contested work because it illustrates the enormity of the disagreements and debates among scholars over the competing theories of the selfish gene on one hand and genetically transmitted altruism and tribalism on the other. These battles were intense, extended, and vituperative. During the narcissistically preoccupied 1970s, the proponents of the selfish gene view seemed dominant. But by the late 1990s, more thoughtful scholars, headed by Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson, seem to have carried the day in winning acceptance of the adaptive phenomenon of group selection and tribalism in the elaboration and transmission of altruism. Indeed, only in the past few months has one of the great mavens of modern biological science, Edward O. Wilson, finally validated the role of group selection as a crucially important element in human evolution, mitigating his previous support for sociobiology. This conflict between the selfish versus group elements in human nature helps us understand the enormous resistances generated by these studies and how deeply they go into the core of Western conventional wisdom.

Another interesting development has opened new vistas in the field. Recently, scientists have progressed in studying the longevity of ancient humans. Using new techniques of tooth analysis, they have learned that for the first several million years of early human existence, survival slowly increased, but life spans beyond the age of fifteen or twenty were rare. Individuals surviving until the grandparental age of thirty years old represented less than 20 percent of society. There was little opportunity for much more closely related family contacts to share practical information and hand down generational wisdom—the components of tribal wisdom—simply because people did not live long enough.

Then, only about forty thousand years ago, things changed dramatically. Longevity rapidly increased, with 60 percent of the population surviving to grandparental age. This change was accompanied by the appearance of the unmistakable signs of modern humans. This included body decorations, grave sites, religious artifacts, musical instruments, and advanced tools. Although the complex factors behind these new developments have not been exhaustively studied, the evidence strongly suggests that cultural changes (and not biological mutations) were responsible. In any event, it is clear that longer lives led to more people, more children, more invention, and better transmission of important technological and geographic knowledge. Grandparents were now around to help with child care, contribute their own children, and help with the invention of the innovations of the Upper Paleolithic. There was a marked acceleration in the rate of evolution, due to the efficiency, interconnection, and creativity made possible by the role of grandparents.

Tribes, however, preceded these relatively recent changes. In their earliest form, they shaped the lives of the Common Ancestors perhaps six or seven million years ago. They initially amounted to little more than a mutual tolerance of other breeding groups in the immediate area and seem to have come into existence as a result of another profoundly significant ape-man development: pair bonding. Charles Darwin had correctly predicted that as more “missing links” were found, the specimens would have smaller canine teeth. He reasoned that human ancestors, unlike baboons, did not require large canines to fight off sexual competition because their groups were somewhat stabilized by the appearance of pair bonding. As predicted, fossils of a teenaged female were found in 1995 and dated to 4.4 million years ago; in addition to evidence for a bipedal gait, the girl also had very small canines, signaling a major change in lifestyle. As Frans de Waal notes: “Of three main characteristics of human society—male bonding, female bonding, and the nuclear family—we share the first with chimpanzees, the second with bonobos, and the third with neither . . . our species has been adapted for millions of years to a social order revolving around reproductive units—the proverbial cornerstone of society for which no parallel exists in either Pan species.”

Tribes integrated with the increasing complexity emerging from pair bonding. It is likely that recognition of fatherhood and other kin recognition was supported by the bonded groups and led to the recognition of wider, in-law or extended family relationships. These innovations contributed vast potential and complexity to the formation of tribes and played a role in larger populations, greater survival, and increased opportunities for cultural innovation. Thus, the unique acquisitions of “cooperative breeding,” strong pair bonding, and the emergence of increasingly complex and cooperative tribes were decisive in the emergence of Homo sapiens.

Yes, we love our tribes, especially because they help make us who we are.