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.