Transcending the Tribe

Animals are programmed to gather in groups. A pride of lions, flock of sheep, pack of wolves, murder of crows.

Early humans gathered in groups for many reasons: to control superior hunting grounds, a clean water source, protective cave system or fertile farmland. When other groups would come to try to take advantage of these resources, the tribes would fight, with the assets going to the tribe who managed to kill more of the other tribe through brain, brawn, or greater numbers.

The winning tribe, with food, clean water and shelter, survived, thrived and reproduced while competitive tribes struggled or perished. The Law of the Jungle was the only law: a bigger, stronger group could take what they pleased from a smaller, weaker group. Very quickly, humans learned that being part of a tribe was essential to survival–and, the bigger the tribe, the better.

Tribal warfare was important to evolution, since killing other tribes ended their genetic lineage, and increased the number of offspring of the fiercer tribes. Humans today are amazingly sophisticated animals, at the very top of the food chain; intelligent, agile, adaptive, and warlike–the product of hundreds of thousands of generations of selective breeding.

At the head of each tribe was an alpha male, with superior attributes: taller, stronger, and smarter; and since he had greater reproductive access to females, the human race, generation by generation, became taller, stronger, smarter, and fiercer.

Tribes were more efficient and successful when the alpha male made all final decisions, whether settling a dispute among tribe members or organizing strategies to win wars against other tribes. Members of the tribe worshiped their leaders, acquiesced to them omnipotent powers, and immortalized them in paintings, song, prose and poetry (still true today). Once tribes grew past the point where a single alpha male could rule the whole tribe, he would appoint a circle of lieutenants to help.

These tribal instincts form an intrinsic part of the foundation of modern human behavior. The concept of “Us” and “Them”, and the need to belong to a tribe, is as fundamental as, and indeed, inextricably linked to, primary instincts for survival and reproduction.

All the tribal paradigms, from having an alpha male (or, in rare cases, an alpha female) and a small circle of powerful, wealthy leaders in control of a tribe, to “groupthink”–where tribal members all adopt the tribe’s ideology uniformly, are as prevalent today as they were 10,000–or 100,000 years ago.

Even though our brains have evolved to be capable of rational thought, our bloodstreams course with chemicals honed over eons to compel us to behave in a way that furthers the triumvirate of instinctual imperatives: survival, reproduction, and tribal warfare. This trio of fundamental motivators is represented by the three drivers: fear, lust and prejudice.

Ponder the words of Genghis Khan:

“The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms.”

To put in simply, Khan was saying: it is very satisfying to fulfill one’s instinctual programming. Kill enemies, take their possessions, mate with their women. Survive, reproduce, fight and win. It just feels right.

(Because of Khan’s reproductive access to thousands of females, it is estimated that today, 1 out of every 12 men in Asia are his direct descendants.)

It’s interesting that that social laws in the Ten Commandments are precisely positioned against this trio of evolutionary imperatives: “Thou shalt not, kill, steal or commit adultery.” Those laws directly counter the impulses to kill enemies, take their possessions, and mate with their women.

Human history is a story of tribal warfare, starring the alpha males that led them. The Persian tribe vs. Roman tribes. Egyptian tribes enslaving Jewish tribes. Christian tribes vs. Muslim tribes. American settler tribes enslaving African tribes and wiping out Indian tribes, the British tribe colonizing an empire of other tribes, the Nazi tribe trying to wipe out the Jewish tribe, the American tribe vs. the Soviet tribe, the Blazer tribe vs. the Bulls tribe, the Democratic tribe vs. the Republican tribe.

Tribal warfare in its multifarious forms have been responsible for virtually all the human-caused misery and suffering in history.

In modern times, tribal warfare includes racial, national, religious, sports, and political forms, all with their alpha leaders, warring to prove who is superior. Tribes are well branded, each with their colors, flags, sayings, music and symbols that resonate with our deep, prehistoric tribal instincts.

The first time I started watching competitive sports regularly, I lived in Portland, and the Trailblazers were in the NBA playoffs. As I watched each win, I was impressed with the primal high generated by these powerful, primordial chemicals boiling in my bloodstream. At times, when the other team would go on a big run, when a huge lead would slip away, or we would lose a game, I became depressed, angry, and felt stirrings of violence. After a major comeback and win by “my” Blazers, I was on a supreme high, yelling, cheering, high-fiving, laughing, strutting, ridiculing the other team. We all worshiped Clyde Drexler, our team leader, while the Chicago enemy worshiped their alpha male, Michael Jordan, and seeing them meet in battle fulfilled an ancient instinct in which I had not previously indulged. In this case, the enemy prevailed and won the war of the Finals, and all of Portland was filled with an unspoken, glum disappointment that permeated throughout the community, while the Chicago tribe reveled in triumph.

People who excel in persuasion and manipulating people’s emotions, whether filmmakers, top marketing executives, or politicians, have an advanced understanding, whether conscious or unconscious, of how to stir up powerful subliminal primal motivations in their listeners. Movies that focus on survival are popular. Movies focusing on wars between tribes are extremely popular. And movies dealing with… ahem… “reproduction” (or vaguely related activity) have also been known to make a buck or two.

Alpha males throughout history, from prehistoric tribal leaders to Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, from Stalin, FDR and Hitler to JFK, Reagan and Obama, have had the ability to deliver speeches in such a way to trigger the release of copious quantities of these powerful primordial chemicals into the bloodstreams of listeners to summon levels of loyalty that are rationally incomprehensible. They are able to pluck the strings of our DNA programming at will, like a master violinist playing a Stradivarius. And, being still a primitive race, fresh out of the jungle, we are mostly unconscious of the ancient programming which drives our daily perspective and choices.

Today, politics in the U.S. is mainly a tribal battle. Warriors who have pledged their loyalties to the flag of their tribe celebrate wins and bemoan losses just like any ancient (or modern) warrior fighting to the death for their standard, or rabid sports fans screaming for their team to “kill the enemy”. The leaders of one’s tribe can do no wrong; the other side can do no right. “Our side” is “the good guys,” and “their side” is the “bad guys.” We are superior, and smarter. They are inferior, and foolish. Sound familiar?

Politicians attack the enemy tribe by saying things that when considered rationally, are completely ridiculous, yet they elicit a wave of emotional, blood-boiling support from their tribal worshipers. Alan Grayson says “Republicans want people to die” and the worshipers cheer. Sarah Palin says Obama is “setting up death panels” and the worshipers cheer.

The Bill Mahers, Keith Olbermanns, and John Stewarts rant and rave about “teabaggers”, while Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Glenn Beck yell “socialists”, bringing listeners’ bloodstreams to a boil, whether for or against, in their mission to boost their show ratings and generate billions in advertising revenue for their corporate media parents.

It is obviously in the self-interest of politicians, corporate media, and the corporate/government complex that U.S. citizens huddle into two warring tribes, and, true slaves to their DNA programming, fight tooth and nail with each other over issues that have become cut and dried soundbites rather than the complex, multifaceted issues they actually are. Our primitive instincts urge us to make it simple: you are either “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” You are either for, or against, “health care reform”. You are either Red or Blue, Liberal or Conservative, Democrat or Republican. Your tribe is good. The other tribe is evil. Winning is everything.

While the CIA and military contractors gleefully carry on their global rampages costing millions in human lives and trillions in taxes (yes, during both Republican and Democratic adminstrations and Congresses–get it yet?), while big pharma, health insurance lobbyists and Congress cozy up to enact a bill that will result in huge payouts to record-profit-making insurance and pharmaceutical corporations, while the Treasury and Federal Reserve rout trillions of taxpayers hard-earned dollars to their circle of private banker friends, while the dollar has sunk to four cents of purchasing power since the Federal Reserve Act passed, U.S. citizens battle each other, faces painted in the colors of their tribe, screaming in a mad, foaming-mouth frenzy at the enemy tribe, because every journalist and politician they listen to, every blog they read, every instinct in their guts is telling them that all the problems in the world are the fault of the evil enemy tribe.

The truth is, in a very real way, our problems are almost wholly due to tribal warfare itself.

However, there is hope. Ironically, it is the very same higher brain functions, developed over the eons for the purpose of better fulfilling our instinctual programming, that will empower us to rise above our instincts, to become aware of, and consciously refocus, our instinctual urges in productive, civilized ways, guided by reason and not primal fear, prejudice and hatred.

More and more people are waking up and realizing how they have been enslaved by their tribal instincts in the past. People are starting to understand that tribal groupthink by nature is an impediment to further progress for our civilization. Every day, people free themselves from the tribal shackles of their past and choose to lead life as a unique person, not a slave to their instincts, but a master of them. Through reflection, meditation and mental discipline, It is possible to achieve a state of unbiased open mindedness, where one evaluates each issue solely on its own merits, free from tribal prejudice and ideology.

In the future, our society will not be two tribes at war, but a rich diversity of individuals, each one of us with our own unique viewpoints, dreams and priorities, free to pursue happiness each in our own ways. In this enlightened state, we will no longer feel compelled to try and force others to adopt our priorities, our values, or our way of thinking, but instead, will respect all viewpoints and all people, and leave others alone to be free to do what they wish.

This may seem like a strange, foreign concept. How can the world get better unless my tribe can win the war and force everyone else to think like we do? The answer is, the world will only get better when we transcend tribal thinking, and protect each individual’s right to live life as they choose.


4 thoughts on “Transcending the Tribe

  1. Excellent and astute observations Josh.

    I find that I have less and less patience with people who refuse to think for themselves but rather rely on parroting whatever clever soundbite they can remember. It’s intellectually lazy. We are so fortunate to live in this country that was founded on individual rights and freedoms. It requires constant vigilance to preserve those rights and freedoms; however, because of human nature it’s easier to let someone else ‘take care of you’ in exchange for perceived protection within the ‘group’.

    There are no easy answers or quick fixes. People need to become educated. Unfortunately, it can be hard work and might interfer with the latest episode of ‘Dancing With The Stars’ or ‘American Idol’.


  2. Hi Josh, I have trouble with this one. It gives too much weight to genetic determinism. As a biologist I reject the term “instinct” unless it solely means “the natural actions of biological tissue and structure” such as opposable thumbs, burping, blinking, knee jerk response etc. Something as complex as warfare, or following one leader or another, or being a leader of a group, cannot be an evolved trait. Ayn Rand and others have made the point that human ignorance of the physical world left them intellectually adrift, with many fears of real things, real actions and real relationships that they could not understand. It was necessary to band together, because many friendly humans do a lot to ensure your survival. Groupthink, i.e., collectivism, helped knit the group together, and was _expected_! And so, cultural & survival pressures influenced a band member’s thinking… from childhood. The witch doctors and Attilas mastered its use.

    • Interesting… but I do think certain behavioral traits are inherited, it is the only theory which explains how animals (including humans) “know” how to do certain things without ever being taught.

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