Are We Communitarian By Nature, or Merely Tribal?

image above from the wild human initiative

This month, Aurélien has wandered a bit afield and speculated on the fundamental nature of the human animal. I think most of us can agree that the cult of rugged individualism that has prevailed in the west over the past century, encouraging the unrestricted pursuit of selfish goals and zero-sum-game self-interest as virtuous, is in no one’s best interest, except perhaps the hawkers of weapons, fashions, and identity politics.

We could never have survived this far as a species if we were, by nature, preoccupied with our personal welfare to the exclusion of that of other humans. We lack the speed, the teeth and claws, and other attributes needed to thrive as solitary creatures.

So we have, of necessity, evolved to live in groups. The question is whether this is an ideal way of living for humans (one that will make us happier than any other possible way of living), or whether it’s an unhappy compromise. Nature is replete with examples of species that seem perfectly happy to live in large groups, where the individual is, when necessary, willing to sacrifice its life for the collective good. And there are many examples of other creatures where there seems a permanent tension between its members, as if they would actually prefer to live alone but know they can’t survive that way. And there are examples of yet other creatures that coexist only with their mates and unfledged offspring, and only then as long as they must to ensure the survival of the species.

Which are we, I wonder? Most of us in the west have been taught that non-western cultures are inherently or culturally more collectivist in nature and behaviour, where the options of any individual are limited (to a lesser or greater degree) to those that the collective considers beneficial to the whole. So for example in some countries arranged marriages are normal and accepted, with individual preferences only a peripheral consideration. In some countries military or similar service to the collective is mandatory and rarely questioned. And so on.

Aurélien’s answer is that we are essentially a tribal, rather than either a communitarian/collectivist or individualist, species. Here’s his definition:

The tribe is initially an extended kinship group, tracing its origin from one individual. The further back the tribe can trace its lineage, the larger the tribe and the stronger its position… In such a society the only people you can really count on in an emergency are those with whom you enjoy a sense of group solidarity, and in the first instance they are those who have blood ties (thus, incidentally, the importance of female chastity.) [to establish paternity with reasonable certainty]

Yet these ties are not equally strong at all levels. The famous Beduin saying “myself against my brothers, myself and my brothers against my cousins, myself and my brothers and my cousins against the world” is often seen as an example of progressive solidarity, but of course the logic applies in reverse as well. I take the part of my brother against my cousin, my cousin against my second cousin, my relative five generations removed from the founder against my relative six generations removed, without any real choice, and unto the death if necessary. The answer to Carl Schmitt’s question: “who is my enemy?” is, potentially, anyone at any time.

Such a political system is essentially anarchic, and all that really holds an extended kinship group together is ties of blood and the impulsion towards survival against mutual enemies. There are no universal normative “laws” as we would understand them: murder or robbery of outsiders is honourable and praiseworthy. Tribes are rough democracies, where no-one really has the power to enforce obedience.

I think, if this is true, this is a rather sad commentary on the nature of our species. There are other species which rarely fight among themselves, and which are more than willing to sacrifice their own welfare, and even lives, to better the lives of their community-mates. The stronger and older members of these species “circle around” the more vulnerable members, ready to face any dangers that may arise. The precarity of all members of the community is thus equalized.

By contrast, it would seem, humans wall ourselves off with our immediate blood kin, and indifferently abandon everyone else to fend for themselves or die.

I’m not sure we’re actually that heartless towards our fellow creatures, both human and more-than-human. In Beyond Civilization, Daniel Quinn says this about human tribal cultures:

Tribal life is not in fact idyllic or perfect or noble. But wherever it’s found intact, it’s found to be working well – as well as the life of geese or raccoons or lizards – with the result that the members of the tribe are not generally enraged, rebellious, desperate, stressed-out borderline psychotics being torn apart by crime, hatred and violence. What anthropologists find is that tribal people, far from being nobler, sweeter or wiser than us, are as capable of being mean, unkind, short-sighted, selfish, insensitive, stubborn and short-tempered. The tribal culture doesn’t turn people into saints. It enables ordinary people to make a living together with a minimum of stress, year after year, generation after generation.

My sense is that we’ve been conditioned to act in the violent, selfish ways we see all around us today because our horrifically over-populated, over-crowded, civilized societies, dependent on fragile and scarce resources, are perceived to never have enough to comfortably go around. So, like rats in a crowded laboratory cage with too little food, we have become hyper-stressed, driven by the fear of losing or not having enough, and hence our inherent generosity, altruism and biophilia has been trumped by the perceived need to put ourselves and our immediate kin first, lest we all perish.

For many of us today, the loss of a job, or our good health, or our home, would be absolutely and immediately disastrous, likely putting us in the streets; our ‘community’ members are too busy coping with their own precarity to do more than shrug if that were to happen to us.

As Aurélien points out, despite the prevailing neoliberal ideology of “radical individualism”, most of us take pains to find and join groups with which we feel affinity and sometimes security — religions, political parties, gangs, sports fan groups etc. And there is an enduring sense (among most of us anyway) that our societies should also have practices and institutions in place to protect the weak and vulnerable (what Aurélien calls “Stuff That Should Be Done By Someone”). Though now, thanks to a combination of resignation to the permanence of precarity and the advance of neoliberal ideology’s propaganda, it’s become more like “Stuff That Should Be Done By Someone, if we can afford it, and don’t ask me to help, I’ve got my own problems.”

The consequence of this, he says, is the inevitable breakdown of our societies — the social collapse that usually accompanies economic and political collapse. “[Our current] society is like a broken porcelain vase: you can never put it back together as it was, and fatuous ‘community-based’ initiatives dreamed up by governments can never succeed in the absence of actual communities.”

He asserts that we’re now scrambling to re-establish neo-tribal groups that can actually help us, and that requires taking power from dysfunctional and ineffectual ideology-bound governments and transferring that power to the neo-tribes (nuclear families, churches, and even militias, vigilantes and other neo-tribal groups enforcing adherence to their groups’ often-rigid ideological moral codes).

Many of the dystopian “cli-fi” books envision a future where such violent, adversarial, neo-tribal groups fill the power vacuum left by economic and political collapse. They may have it right: Some kind of order will be attempted when the alternative is continuing chaos. It’s the lowest rung of the rope ladder above the snarling alligators, so it’s likely to be tried first.

But I’m not entirely convinced that we are by nature the kind of my-blood-kin-against-all-others inherently violent tribal species that Aurélien describes. As I have often asserted, I think our evident violence, xenophobia and tribal “selfishness” are reactions to the current circumstances of fear, scarcity and precarity that is epidemic in our current civilization as it accelerates into collapse.

I think there’s another “human nature” that reveals itself in situations of abundance and freedom from fear — one that is more broadly collectivist (because it can afford to be), generous, and altruistic, even self-sacrificing. I’ve witnessed that nature in a lot of human behaviour, and, when the opportunity is there, it keeps on shining through.

I guess this is the joyful pessimist in me: I think collapse will completely change how we all live well before the end of this century, and it will continue for a long time — centuries and perhaps even millennia, before population returns to sustainable levels and the ecological disasters we have unleashed work their way through. These are likely to be ghastly, hard and brutal times, though even during this long collapse we are going to witness some of the awesome, generous human behaviours, individual and collective, that my grandparents told me about in their stories of how communities faced the Great Depression together.

And I have to believe that, a millennium or more from now, what will emerge from the ashes of collapse will be small, thriving, peaceful, local human societies that are communitarian more than they are either tribal or individualistic.

A species constantly killing each other (and the rest of the living world) en masse makes no evolutionary sense. A species reconnected to the wonder and oneness of all life on earth, intuitively maximizing the pleasure and minimizing the pain of the entire ecosystem, seems to me to be a far better ‘fit’, in the evolutionary sense, than the rogue species of belligerent, unhappy, destructive creatures that we have, I think only temporarily, become.

I suspect my belief in this, and in our species’ true inherent nature, puts me in a small minority. And I’m less confident of this than I used to be. But I’m content for now to just chronicle what I see and sense, and try to understand it, and leave most of the speculation and judgement to others. In any case, I don’t think we have any choice about any of it.

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2 Responses to Are We Communitarian By Nature, or Merely Tribal?

  1. V Amarnath says:

    I always use the word fairness instead of selfishness and altruism. The latter two are the products of civilization. Fairness involves give and take and survival often depends on it.

    I have observed the behavior of children when my son grew up. Although he is Asian Indian with dark skin, white children in our neighborhood played with him without any reservation. When he was around three I took him to a birthday party for a boy with Down’s syndrome. In the backyard celebtration I could spot the afflicted children among the ‘normal’ group. But, for the children it did not matter. When I walked my son back, I asked him whether he noticed any differerence in the behavior of some of the kids in the party. He answered, “No difference.”

    In my opinion, first cousins againts second and third is crude and does not happen in an emergency when cooperation from people with different skills are needed.

  2. Ray says:

    We can only speculate and project our bias as to what we belief is the “true” human nature.
    Evolution usually tries out most accessible scenario’s at a given time. That what works reasonably well has a high likelihood of being selected, whether extreme eusociality, individualism with strong
    brood care and everything in between.
    We humans have probably the potential to quickly switch our form of social organization depending on the changing circumstances. If the surviving humans lack the potential to react fast enough in finding
    a workable social re-organizationd in the
    coming planetary upheaval, I think our species is toast.

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