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An Informal Theory of Tribalism, Part 1: Background

I’m much of the way through an excellent book: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, whose previous works on my shelves here include How The Mind Works, The Language Instinct, and The Blank Slate. The book’s dual mission is to demonstrate with hard research and reliable numbers that violence in human societies has declined and continues to decline, and perhaps to explain why. So far I’m persuaded by the first element of its mission. The second, well, I’m not as sure–but I’m also not finished with the book. However, I’ve read enough to recommend it, assuming you don’t mind long, dense books that require focus and an open mind to get through. The Better Angels of Our Nature provides solid backing to the impression Colin Wilson gives in his 1984 tome A Criminal History of Mankind: that the past was a bogglingly cruel and violent place, not only in certain parts of the Earth and in certain societies, but everywhere. Today, by contrast, we live in the safest and most peaceful era in human history. The improvement has not been linear, but graphed over centuries (and not merely years or decades) it’s been steady. This is counterintuitive if anything is. Still, the citations Pinker presents are beyond my ability as an amateur historian to challenge. Much of his thesis involves things I’ve not read of in detail before. Pinker’s description of the widespread practice of infanticide in our past is especially chilling. I may recognize the evolutionary logic for some of it, but the repugnance nearly all of us feel when contemplating the idea reflects how far we’ve come.

In short, we are not fallen angels. We are risen apes.

I’ve had a suspicion for quite a few years that the root cause of human cruelty and violence is tribalism. Pinker’s book provides more evidence that I was right. He cites a number of causes of violence, but most of them are either the consequences of tribalism, or tribalism outright. Furthermore, tribalism is something primal, something we inherited from the killer primate ancestors we share with creatures like gorillas and chimpanzees, who are enthusiastic and highly calculated murderers of their own kind. We see it in our own historic records as far back as they go, and also in the societies of aboriginal peoples who have avoided contact with modern societies until recent times. (Jared Diamond has written much about his experiences with recently contacted tribes in the new Guinea highlands; see The Third Chimpanzee for a sample.)

It’s easy for those of us in the Intellectual Elite to cluck and roll our eyes at any suggestion that tribalism is still with us. Don’t. What we’ve made great progress suppressing are warfare and murder, mostly by sheer dint of will enforced via societal pressures against fountains of violence like polygamy (polygyny, more precisely) and honor cultures. We’re still having trouble with deeper evils like idealism, but idealism is not a consequence of tribalism. (It certainly takes advantage of tribalism, as Marxism did with great success in the past hundred-odd years. Let’s not confuse the horse with the rider, even if both need shooting.) Tribalism is very much with us, and whereas it causes less murder than it used to, it still shapes our thought and our societies in ways that should give us pause. It generates hatred like nothing else out there, and enslaves even the brightest of us.

The quickest way to find evidence is to read the comments sections of forums covering anything less technical than the alignment of IF strips. Everyone knows what flamers and trolls are. They’ve been around since there were online forums. I saw them in my bang-path days in the early 80s. Anonymity amplifies the temptations to flame and troll; see the very brilliant take that Penny Arcade has on the topic. I was a little surprised to see how much the psychology of flaming and trolling is rooted in tribalism. As with a lot of insights, once I knew what to look for I saw it everywhere. I’ve actually engaged the trolls here and there, to see how they react to certain kinds of provocation. (If you ever stumble across any otherwise uncharacteristic or inexplicable posts of mine online, it’s almost certainly me poking a troll with a stick and taking notes.) I now think I know enough to summarize my research and toss out an informal theory of tribalism, especially as it applies to our online world.

The series here will not be contiguous. It’s a difficult thing to write about, and I have other topics on my do-it list, most of them more fun if less provocative than this. I do want to ask that you put on your Cloaks of Heroic Courtesy before you click the Comment link. I always welcome thoughtful and polite discussion. However, if you insist on flaming or trolling, I have a perfect opportunity to tap my pointer on our virtual blackboard and use you as an example: “Kids, here’s still more evidence supporting my theory. Let me explain what’s going on in this comment…” Be the student. Don’t be the lesson.

Next: What tribalism is.


  1. I have to wonder if the overall reduction of tribalism – that is, an ‘other’ it is perfectly ok to hate, kill, etc – might not be one of the things that engenders serial killers – that is, they’ve been charged up with homicidal rage by (usually) horrifically cruel backgrounds, but civilization insists that there are no others. Therefore the budding young serial killer concludes that in fact, everyone is the other on some subconscious level.

    What reading I’ve done on the subject (I’ve not started Colin Wilson’s history of Crime yet – I’m still digesting his thoughts on the occult) suggests you don’t see serial killers until a given civilization can take for granted its day-to-day needs and hasn’t any major wars to fight. eg: late 19th century London, which gave birth to Saucy Jack, and the plethora of them who have been active in America, particularly in the relatively peaceful late 70s to early 90s.

    Just a somewhat tangental thought.


    1. I also wonder if we only began to notice serial killers once the general background level of societal violence fell below a certain level. Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century shocked me when I first read it. So much for peaceful peasants sowing their fields and singing songs around the fire. With Bishop Henry Despenser filling the Lollard Pits with dead Lollards, I doubt Jack the Ripper would garner much attention.

      Colin Wilson analyzes the serial killer phenomenon, but I don’t know if it’s all as complex as he makes it sound. (He’s still worth reading.) Today especially, we tend to find serial killers and take them out before they get especially serial. Those with long records could just have been lucky, and in the generally peaceful life in Western democracies today, they stand out.

  2. Joe Goldthwaite says:

    Tribalism is alive and well. The most obvious example is our current emigration policy. I was born and raised here in Arizona. I can travel anywhere in the country and get a job. Unless I commit a crime it’s no one’s business what I do or where I go. Now if I had been born a few hundred miles further south to some poor Mexican woman I wouldn’t be allowed to come here at all. We don’t want *those* people coming over here, taking our jobs and ruining our culture. They’re not like us.

    You can make the argument that their culture is less honest and has a higher crime rate but all those arguments come down to judging an individual based on the group they’re in.

    Many of the people from the south who want to come here are honest and hard working. They just want a better life and they’re being denied the opportunity not because of the person they are but because of the tribe they’re from. To me that’s wrong. People should be judged based on who they are and what they’ve done.

    And don’t say that they’ve broken the laws because they’ve come here without jumping through our hoops. I don’t believe that our current emigration laws have any more moral basis than the laws that sent Rosa Parks to the back of the bus.

    You mentioned polygamy as one of the sources of violence. If you want a good book that challenges our culture’s sexual mores and attitudes I’d recommend Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. It’s not something to read if you want support for our Judeo-Christian based sexual attitudes. It makes a pretty strong logical case that our pre-historic ancestors lived more like the Bonobos. There may be more sources of violence in our current sexual attitudes than just polygamy.

    1. I think you mean “immigration” here, and it’s not a topic I want to discuss right now.

      As for Sex at Dawn, I finished it about six weeks ago, and was underwhelmed. Wishing we were like the bonobos does not mean we are like the bonobos, and I see a lot more wishing in the book than hard proof. Against it I would put books like Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee and Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade, at least on human origins and ancient human habits.

      As for whether wholesale female promiscuity would make men less violent (probably the theme given most attention in Sex at Dawn) I grant that it’s possible, but I see no evidence that it’s ever happened on a significant scale in human history. Women are certainly more polygamous than we’ve traditionally stated that they are, but it’s polygamy with a method, and nothing like what Ryan & Jetha are talking about. For a good popular treatment see Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen, which deals with sexual strategies in evolution and describes the logic and the tension between overt monogamy and covert polygamy.

  3. Joe Goldthwaite says:

    You are correct. I meant immigration. I had to look it up. In the five decades of reading everything I could get my hands on, I never realized the difference. You learn something new every day.

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