I Sure Hope This Is Correct..

Most of us have participated at some point in the (largely unanswerable) debate about “nature versus nurture.” Are humans hard-wired to do thus-and-so, or have we been socialized into a culture that expects/rewards it? I recently came across an article addressing a related issue: is our evident tribalism, our “us versus them” default, genetic? Or is it attributable to culture?

Here’s the lede

More than 200 million people were killed in the 20th century due to war and acts of genocide. Many of these conflicts were rooted in ethnic, national, religious, political, or other forms of identity-group conflict. The 21st century is already filled with similar horrors. For many scholars and much of the public, this pattern of between-group conflict emerges directly from humanity’s deep, evolved sense of “us” vs. “them.” To state it simply, human nature is “tribal.” It’s how we built cities, nations, empires. It’s also how each one of those things has crumbled.

But this is not true. Human intergroup conflicts and how they relate to human nature are neither about being “tribal” nor about some evolved, fixed hostility between “us” and “them.”

The argument isn’t that humans don’t create divisions/antagonisms with those they encounter; clearly, “we have the capacity to classify and develop mental shortcuts to use classifications once we have created (or learned) them”. The point is, however, that categories like “us” and “them” are flexible. They need not set up what the author calls “a conflictual relationship.” Neurobiologists have determined that the biological bases of that classification process aren’t “hard-wired.”

Rather, our neurobiology reflects a highly flexible system that can represent the self and others. Additionally, how “us” and “them” are divided can shift quickly and dynamically. This is a very different reality from the assumption of a natural, inherent “us vs. them” mentality.

Scientists have also found that humans have the capacity to have “harmonious interdependent relationships that cross group boundaries.” (Sociologists call those relationships “bridging social capital.”)

Decades of study of intergroup dynamics in primate societies, human foraging groups, and small scale societies reveals that natural selection has shaped a greater reliance on tolerant between-community relationships in humans than in any other primate species (or possibly any other mammalian species).

Even the argument that the “us vs. them” mode of existence came into being with the evolutionarily recent advent of agriculture, cities, states, and nations is not correct. Humans are neither Hobbesian beasts nor Rousseauian egalitarians; we are a species that is characterized by between-group relations that are complex and dynamic, good and bad. There is no doubt that between-group conflict had a role in our evolution. But the fossil and archaeological evidence casts substantial doubt on whether such conflict was prevalent at the level and pervasiveness to support an “us vs. them” human nature argument.

The author takes offense at the use of the term “tribalism” as a shorthand for the “us versus them” thesis–a use to which I plead guilty. He points out that the term “tribe”  identifies a societal structure that is “older,” more “primitive,” and less civilized than European forms of society, and argues that the term thus carries misleading historical and cultural assumptions. I’m not sure I agree with that characterization, but I do see his point.

But that does not mean humans are naturally peaceful or always getting along. No other species creates cash economies and political institutions, changes planet-wide ecosystems in a few generations, builds cities and airplanes, arrests and deports its members, drives thousands of other species toward extinction, and intentionally hates and decimates other groups of humans. But why all this is the case is not a simple “us vs. them” story.

The author argues that invoking the notion of “tribalism” for the world’s problems is misleading–it suggests that our conflicts are pre-ordained by our hard-wiring, when the various ways in which we “slice and dice” our fellow humans is far more malleable. We are not biologically-impelled to fight those who are dissimilar, and we are capable of defining and redefining those dissimilarities in a multitude of ways.

Today, conflict between groups, peoples, and identity clusters are entangled with extreme economic inequality and the ongoing violence of nationalism, religious conflict, racism, and sexism — all complex realities with histories, dynamic social processes, and multiple, often different, factors shaping outcomes. There is no simple “natural” explanation for the messes we create.

Ultimately, it’s the culture that determines whether we prize co-operation or conflict.


  1. Cooperation is a response to conflict, not an alternative to it. Rather than cooperation, patriarchal cultures respond to conflict with domination. In her book The Chalice and the Blade, Dr. Riane Eisler discusses the historical context of partnership vs. domination and elaborates even further in her 2011 TED talk on how we can restructure our economic policies to reduce conflict at every level, from domestic violence to international wars.

  2. “Ultimately, it’s the culture that determines whether we prize co-operation or conflict.”

    I still am puzzled to my core at HOW the Europeans of the 1930’s and 1940’s could so quickly decide to participate in the brutal execution of their neighbors. Little kids and old ladies shot in the head by their neighbors. If it could happen then and there, It could happen here and now. Ken Burns really scared me. There is a lot to learn about humans in his latest film.

  3. Laurie, thanks for the reference to Dr. Eisler’s work…I look forward to listening to her TedTalk.

    But only tribalism can explain the disdain that the Hoosiers have for the Boilermakers and vice versa and I’m convinced it’s hardwired in our DNA.

  4. Our hate for Purdue was learned behavior, Patrick. It just comes naturally as we develop in Indiana.

    This “debate” is academic speak begging the need for interpretation to the people in languages we can understand. Personally, my eyes roll back into my head when I read, “all complex realities with histories, dynamic social processes, and multiple, often different, factors shaping outcomes.”

    We aren’t automatons stuck in one mode. We have the capacity to change, although listening and watching some people, it might require electro-shock therapy.

  5. Dr. Eisler’s work proves that over-intellectualization of human frailty can lead to incorrect summations. No, fossil and archaeological evidence does NOT save humans from being inherently tribal and violent toward one another. Marauding chimpanzees form tribes too and seek out other chimp tribes and kill them. Guess with whom humans share 95+% of their genome.

    More simply put, we cannot continue to whitewash who and what we are as a species. Those tools and weapons found around the world that date to almost a million years can just as easily be used to kill the food necessary for the tribe’s survival as they can be used to defend against other tribes trying to poach those same food sources. Human behavior today does exactly the same thing, except we’ve added all the other excuses to try to eliminate those other tribes.

    A better, more sound explanation is in Rebecca Costa’s book, “The Watchman’s Rattle”. I’ve cited this work before. Another of our blog buddies has read it and agrees with the premise that humans have evolved much faster socially than they have biologically. Our “hard-wiring” is still knapping flint spear points while we perfect nuclear holocaust.

    A thermonuclear solution to grievance will be the ultimate tribal experience: We’ll make ourselves extinct by killing ALL the tribes. Too bad there won’t be any Ph.D.s around to explain that little oopsie.

  6. I go with Professors Rogers and Hammerstein – “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”. In my naive younger days, I followed Professor Sterling and his Twilight Zone episode in which scientists, concerned about nuclear war, “faked” an attack on the Earth from outer space to unite the world. Professor Burns recent program put that to bed!

  7. Vernon’s comment about the genetic similarities we have with chimps is correct, but most sources of that figure do not mention an important complication. In fact, the composition of our and the chimps’ RNA molecules are about 97% the same, but there are some important differences. In a number of places, the order of the nucleotides (chemicals from which the genes are constructed ) are reversed, which one source speculated is the reason we cannot breed with chimps. Another difference is that in a number of places, there are breaks in the sequences of the nucleotides in our or their genomes which are not in the other’s. The overwhelming similarity is due to the fact that we and they had a common ancestor several million years ago (I forget the number), but the details of the genomes make clear why there are so many differences.

  8. Pascal,
    Thanks for the input. I did not know that granular detail about the nucleotides. But certain “hard-wired” behaviors we still share. In fact, agonistic behavior exists in virtually all animals when put under stress…whatever the cause. Survival behavior is necessary for each species to remain able to reproduce: the whole point of life.

    But modern humans also differ from our relatives and ancestors in that we’ve created massively more complex societies to further our survivability and our ability to reproduce. We’ve done such a wonderful job of it (defeating disease; killing or caging our predators; building walls, etc.)that humans are now the most populous mammal on the planet…and getting more populous every day in spite of our attempts to kill each other. So, fratricide, it seems is inherent after all in primates.

    The irony is the invention of the weapons of mass genocide. Hitler used an insecticide gas to kill millions of humans for the sake of his insanity. Who will be the knucklehead who unleashes the nuclear genie on all living things this go-round? The whole world wonders.

  9. Todd; Patrick used the word “disdain”, not “hate”. Disdain, “to regard with contempt, reject as unworthy”. Claiming to be a journalist, you should know the definition of words and terms you spew to the public. Please do not include us in your view of Purdue; those who agree here will speak out for themselves. I regard the local Republicans with disdain for allowing Gov. Mitch Daniels to appoint enough Board Members to Purdue’s faculty to be rewarded with his appointment as president of a highly acclaimed university.

    “Ultimately, it’s the culture that determines whether we prize co-operation or conflict.”

    I grew up in a staunch Republican family living in a “culture” of racism, bigotry, antisemitism and didn’t understand it as a child. Asking why are the Catholic children not allowed to talk to those of us who didn’t attend their church or school and why are Black children living 2 blocks from the neighborhood school not allowed to attend were never answered satisfactorily? I never felt as if I belonged where I was planted to grow; at age 85 I am still the outcast. Do they feel “hate” or “disdain” for me? It matters not to me; just as their views matter not to me. Is it my “nature” to oppose (conflict) peacefully? I certainly cannot claim being “nurtured” as child, adult or now among the oldest generation; they don’t pay my bills and there are no laws against my personal views…YET. I guess that means I go along with it being my “nature”.

  10. THIS IS THE MOST Exciting Forum!
    Sheila, thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU.
    Definitely agree with:
    “Ultimately, it’s the culture that determines whether we prize co-operation or conflict.”

  11. I am a bit amazed, almost dazed in fact, that no one has brought up the at least centuries if not millenia long practice of divide and conquer by the rich (I could include government, but they have long been close to the same. One of the people funding the social media hatred using anti CRT, SEL, DEI, LGBT memes and arguemnts is Robert Koch. These are all attempts at keeping us divided so that we are so busy hating one another that we don’t really notice how they are walking away with all the money and power, or if we do notice, we can’t pull everyone together to stop them. And the right wing rich are also funding the many right wing “think tanks” propogate in various forums these hateful ideas. And it’s a major failure of the news organizations that they almost never talk about where this is coming from. The folks in my area who are propogating these ideas certainly aren’t coming up with them. I’ve argued with them on social media here in Hendricks County, and trust me, most of them aren’t real bright. FIghting the right wing Republicans is a necessary tactical struggle. But the war that has to be won is the war against the right wing rich.

  12. Perhaps one day, we’ll have the answers. The problem as I see it is that we are all human and subject to the weakness and strengths of humans, which are many. I have just spent 10 days observing that crisis obliterates the need for differentiation by race, color, creed, or political affiliation. Nobody asks who you vote for as we all pitch in to help whoever needs it.

  13. Hypothesis:

    We are each born with certain attributes (nature), gender being the most prominent, and into circumstances, the place and time being most influential (nurture). The combination of those two things determines what we experience subsequently. Who we become is based on our conscious and subconscious memories of all of those experiences (culture).

    We use the term “culture” generally to describe averages of groups of people but there is no reason to believe that we are not each defined by our own personal culture, which can be averaged with others, sort of like us, to represent group cultures.

    We naturally assume that the better parts of our lives are normal and the worst parts are anomalies that we have to temporarily put up with. As our lives have improved by progress that assumption grows more prominent in our personal cultures.

    Part of our personal culture is what we observed in people who we deemed to be like us in terms of resolving conflict on a scale typically defined as flight (fear) to fight (anger) amplified or attenuated on a scale from functional (rational) to dysfunctional (criminal).

    That combination of things results in total human diversity. I have never met anyone just like me and neither have those I have met. We both however established relationships based on how we are similar and different.

    All of that results in both the best and worst of being human, Putin to Pope John, Trump to Biden, Kim Jong Un to Zelenski.

    At the moment the world is riled by the end of an era and transition to the next driven primarily by our numbers, the rate of turning natural resources into waste, and the consequences of turning earth’s climate back into what it was 350M years ago when solar energy became stored in fossil fuels that we in modern times unlocked. We all react according to our personal cultures.

    The rational reaction is to accept that we have created and are creating the need for these changes so the solution is to stop making them worse as well as reorganize how we live in order to adapt to the consequences that there is no going back on. The irrational way is to give in to the animal instincts of fight or flight assuming that our old life is an entitlement that others are trying to deprive us of. Our pervasive, persuasive entertainment lifestyle reinforces one of those approaches or the other because that can be very profitable.

    We are the only resource we have to determine who the next generations become.

  14. I meant to include this quote and the beginning of what I wrote above.

    Supremacy is our ongoing pandemic. It partners with every other sickness to tear us from lives worth living.
    adrianne maree brown

    I would add to Pete’s comment above that I listened to an On Being podcast last night where Krista Tippet spoke wtih adrianne maree brown about the cultural transition that Pete mentioned and is now ongoing. To be found where ever you get your podcasts. And if you haven’t yet listened to Krista TIppet’s interviews, please do. She is a treasure as an inteviewer, I think even better than Terry Gross and Fresh Air

  15. Vernon, Pascal,

    Very good points both of you. The watchman’s rattle is a very good book, thank you for recommending that burn. I’ve had it for about 6 months now.

    Of course I’ve always made my personal opinions well known, and, evolution has way too many?! Because if there was this evolution to a higher plane, how come the lower life forms are still around and not continuing that evolution?

    The hundreds of thousands combinations of amino acids, the millions of different types of proteins made from the chains and combinations of the amino acids which are called polypeptides. this in itself raises many more questions concerning evolution then answers.

    Accidental creation of just one of these amino acid changes almost incalculable, but when you get to the limitless amount of combinations and then the limitless amount of proteins comparatively, one has to figure it really can’t be calculated because it’s impossible. So there must be an intelligent design somewhere.

    That being said, “I know Vern I know,” the emotional range of humanity spans the gamut from love to hate. (Greed, envy, jealousy, anxiety, fear, happiness, excitement, sadness,) you can go on and on.

    Another link to emotion is trustworthiness or trust, or apprehensiveness.

    Those things that people will glean off of others that might not have knowledge but lean towards conspiracy theories that demonize other individuals besides themselves. Hate is a powerful emotion, and it is the core behind all of the grief suffered by humanity. Animals really don’t hate they have instinctive aggression. Humans do not, it’s aggression is learned by association.

  16. Thanks Sheila. Interesting post as usual. As a Jesus-follower, I do not believe that we are hard wired one way or another. We can change. The apostle Paul used the concept of the fallen nature vs the Spirit-driven man/woman for the forces that drive us. Contemplatives talk about the ‘shadow self’, and point out that if we are unconscious about how our shadow self influences us, we will be driven to many kinds of anti-human behaviour unconsciously.

    However, the ultimate question is this: are there absolutes? Most of the posts above make assumptions about what is right and what is wrong. We all do that in our daily lives. But we can only do that if we have a code of absolutes. Why is tribalism wrong? Why is it wrong to kill your neighbour? If there are no absolutes then nothing is wrong. In that scenario, the fallen nature/shadow self will eventually win out and selfishness will have its day with the destruction of all around us.

    And that is the ultimate question that the Bible deals with. And its answer is that there ARE absolutes, because there is a loving creator who has absolutes and created us to recognize them deep in our psyche. This creator (the ‘watcher’) is the ultimate back-stop to our actions, and our ultimate judge. To align with the Supreme Being is to align with absolutes. And these absolutes are ultimately grounded in LOVE. This is the message that the Bible brings; the message that Jesus expanded on and clarified, and the message that the creator wants all of humanity to embrace.

    Yes, we can all change. And we can all ‘love our neighbours as ourselves’, but not without a radical change of hearts. And I am afraid, outside of a miracle, that is not on the horizon for humanity.

  17. Regarding yesterday’s post on Robots – here’s an idea –

    Stop the proliferation of human beings!! Bringing up 1 or 2 kids is enough!!! Better for the environment; better for women; more robots = who cares (they do jobs we DON’T want and are dangerous; better for women; better for women; etc.

    I can’t for the life of me understand why any family needs to have 5, 8 or 10 or even 3 kids. That’s nuts. Get a life!! We used to not have a choice – but now we do (birth control, at least) and if it’s Herschel Walker’s kid, he’ll pay!!

  18. I believe that the number of years ago, that we and chimps split from our common ancestor has been put
    at 7 million.
    In terms of cultural learning to hate, I am reminded of a section of one of Jared Diamond’s books, could be “The
    World Until Yesterday,” in which he related the experience, in Papua-New Guinea, of being told by a member
    of an upland group/tribe, that this person knew that if he were to see one of “those” folks, from the river valley, in
    his yard, he’d “know” that that fellow was there for only one of two reasons, either to steal one of his pigs, or
    steal his wife. We have, there, two different groups, on a fairly small island, with great distrust of one another.
    “I sure hope this is correct”, too!

  19. I know this has nothing to do with today’s blog (which was very interesting) but I am compelled to post nonetheless:

    If Herschel Walker beats Raphael Warnock, then I am absolutely ready to give up on you guys down there.

  20. By the time an academic lays down all the “factors” affecting her statements without quantifying any of them, the statements are useless.
    Beware the blank-slaters, who think humans don’t have strong evolved simplifications they have used to survive for the millennia preceding ours. As animals, we blink, and startle and fear the unknown.
    “Others” are the unknown, “We” are the known, by and large, and it doesn’t take much difference to shift categories. Examples abound.
    This is the destructive side of identity politics: for every ally, you risk creating an enemy. Do you think trans people are better off now that they’re in the NY Times?
    Maybe assimilation should be the goal?

  21. Thank you, Sheila for another excellent post.
    I will avoid the theology here.
    Pete- I think you are on the right track.

    I need to remind Vernon – we are equally related to the Bonobo – Bonobos and Chimps live in different environments and have adapted – one hypothesis is that Bonobos have few natural predators and developed their fairly peaceful lifestyle; Chimps have many natural predators and developed a more aggressive lifestyle – it is just a hypothesis, but humans are equally related to both.

    One problem with the social sciences is that individuals (and groups) can develop a framework and then define all observations within that framework. For example – people are inherently selfish and only care about themselves, then their families, etc. based on shared DNA. Ergo, altruism is an illusion because it is just people selfishly helping others that seem to share their DNA. Balderdash.

    Back to my roots – neuroscience – when we are born, the nerve cells in our brains have many more connections then when we are adults. The complexity increases early in life and then decreases. It is estimated that a 2-year has 50% more connections than an adult. Our brains are constantly remodeling based upon experience, pruning unused connections and making new ones.

    This translates into life – we are born with many possibilities (nature) and our minds (brains) change with experience (nurture) and this can go on through our entire life. We have some abilities that have mixed effects. We categorize to make sense of the world; taken too far, this leads to prejudice. At our best, we can revisit our prejudice (knowing LGBTQ people tends to lower negative feelings towards them in some studies), or we have just cherry pick our input to reinforce our prejudices (confirmation bias). Again, we probably all do both, but in different proportions.

    When some grand academic pontificates, declaring that people are such and such, blaming it on genes, agriculture, modern civilization, etc. it makes my want to pull out whatever hair I have left. I probably mentioned this before – for every “man is violent” example, please read the (very boring) Mutual Aid by Kropotkin – an extensive catalog of cooperative behavior from smallest animal to man.

    Here is one example – college, sociology class – we played a game (with playing cards) that was to show that life could be stacked against the lower class (points for the hand held). The “trading period” allowed one person to move up in “class” – at the end, the “upper class” was to make the rules for the second half of the game. The lower classes rebelled and decided we were not playing — the upper class decided (1) redistribute all the cards equally and (2) throw a party.
    It was college in the early ’70s. Cultural — or were certain (egalitarian minded) people predisposed to take a sociology class? Depends on how you want to interpret it.

  22. Douglas Fry speaks of this in his very good book, Beyond War, which I’m reading with my book club. I forwarded this particular blog to all of them. Thank you, Sheila.

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