THE TRIBE AND INTERNATIONAL POLITICS

Copyright © 2003 - 2004 by John Carroll



We primates don't live alone if we can help it. Chimpanzees live in groups that behave differently. Gorillas have their own social system, and gibbons live in family units consisting of one male, one female and juveniles Each of those arrangements evolved, along with the animals' bodies, by getting genes efficiently copied into new animals. Humans evolved under the same kinds of pressures as the other primates, and we have our own patterns of social behavior. We belong to all sorts of groups ranging in size from two friends to families, to organizations the size of China or India. There are little groups of people who form photography clubs or poetry clubs or bowling teams. There are political parties, labor unions, government agencies, remedial reading groups, high school bands, trade groups, religious groups, tribes, chiefdoms, nations, empires, alliances of nations, and subgroups within larger units. Some anthropologists seem to think we can set up our social groups any old arbitrary way, and with a couple of exceptions they may be right, but two groups show up in very similar form in every culture, and when that happens, we have to suspect a considerable degree of hard wiring.

The family is one of those groups, but it's the other one -- the tribe -- that concerns me now. The tribe, shouldn't be confused with the nation, which is a relatively new invention we lived without through most of our evolution. The nation is a formal organization like Nigeria or Thailand, but the tribe is just the "us people," and may have no formal organization at all. The nation may be home to several tribes (e.g., the Ibo and Hausa of Nigeria) or one tribe may live in multiple nations (e.g., the Tutsi tribe in Rwanda and Burundi). And in some nations almost everyone belongs to the same tribe, as in the United States. The tribe has two jobs, to protect the "us people" and their resources from outsiders and to get resources for the "us people" from within the tribal area, and from other tribal areas whenever that's feasible.

An example of tribalism in action is the American response to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. American tribespeople compete with one another for resources. For example, ranchers in Montana fiercely resist attempts by government in Washington to control their uses of federal lands, and by and large, they don't think very highly of the people who live in New York City, much less the bureaucrats in Washington. But when New York and Washington were attacked, those Montana natives, as well as people all over the country perceived it as an attack on "us" by "them." Across the tribal territory people expressed sympathy for the victims and demanded revenge. Like them or hate them, the Bureaucrats and the New Yorkers were "us people," and all Americans go to their defense when they're attacked.

At first glance, tribalism seems a strange loyalty. Why care about the fate of people we don't know or like who live thousands of miles away? What's in it for us? Why would we go to war to defend such people? It doesn't have to make sense in terms of immediate profit and loss, but in evolutionary terms it's worked. You're tribal and I'm tribal because our tribal ancestors, human and otherwise, managed to pass their genes on to our generation while their nontribal competitors went extinct. So we're wired to be tribal animals, and sometimes to act in tribal ways that don't seem to make sense.

Like every other universal human behavior, living in tribes is about reproducing genes, which is to say it's about gathering resources and mates, defending them against competing humans, and using them to place new copies of one's genes into new and viable humans. It's not hard to think of ways in which tribalism might have done this for our ancestors. Consider the economic situation of hunter-gatherers who depend on meat from relatively large animals for much of their fat and protein nutrition. One hunter kills a medium-sized antelope. That's too much meat for his family to eat before it spoils. But if many families share the meat, then nothing spoils, and any time any hunter brings in an antelope, everybody eats. As a result, all who share the food have a better chance to copy their genes. Or consider a world of individual families or extended families in which a few families affiliate as a tribe of "us people" to get resources for themselves -- and the hell with everybody else. They start ganging up on outsiders, driving them out of the territory or killing them, picking them off one-by-one. They constitute a formidable group of enemies, and the only ways its victims can deal with it are to flee, to join the aggressive tribe, or to form their own tribe that behaves in the same cooperatively selfish way. Once the first tribe arrives on the scene, the rest of the species has to become tribal or go extinct.

The fact that we're tribal doesn't mean we don't compete, even violently with fellow tribespeople. We quarrel over mates (check the divorce courts) and resources (check the court records for burglaries, grand larcenies, or murders related to theft). We compete at all levels within the tribe. The UAW competes for resources with other unions and with manufacturers, and leaders in both business and labor have been known to try to feather their personal nests with resources stolen from the people they supposedly represent. Recent corporate shenanigans come to mind. The Montana rancher fights the government in Washington. But most of our criminals, and virtually all of our ranchers, businessmen, labor leaders, and other Americans defend the tribe when it's attacked by the "them people."

And if tribes compete with one another in everything from trade to warfare, they're not above a bit of cooperation, either. For instance, when one tribe becomes too menacing to its neighbors, neighboring tribes form alliances for mutual protection -- NATO, for example. Take away the outside threat, and the alliance goes with it, as former members begin taking resources from one another. Tribes also form potentially peaceful economic alliances when the job to be done is too big for individual members of the alliance to handle by themselves, which is what the European Union is all about. It's not a tribe, or even a nation, but an alliance. Take away the benefits of an alliance, and members will defect. There's not the emotional bond among allies that there is among members of a tribe, and alliances form and break up with relative ease. The Soviets, for example, switched alliances during WWII, joining the Allied side when their German allies turned on them.

Like alliances, nations don't hold the emotional sway of the tribe, either. Take away the benefits of citizenship and people will defect to other nations, but will almost always retain their original tribal emotions. The "us people" will still mostly live in the old country. That's why some of my friends who came to the United States from Vietnam in the wake of the war there still feel they want to go home to the old tribal people and the old tribal ways. And my Salvadoran friends want to go home to El Salvador and their people.

Tribes are extremely stable but quite not infinitely so. They can break up, as perhaps the Korean tribe is doing now, because the two sides are separated by a nearly impenetrable border with cultural changes not passed readily from one side to the other. The U.S. was settled by members of the British tribe, who split off to found the American tribe and exclude the British from their southern New World resources. New tribes also form from smaller ones, as the Irish tribe formed from independent tribal kingdoms in an effort to resist the British invaders who were stealing resources from all Irish tribes. Had the British left quickly, the Irish tribes would have again concentrated on competing with one another. But the British stayed on for centuries and old tribal bonds of the kingdoms gave way to a loyalty to a single Irish tribe.

People can and do move from one tribe to another. In hunter-gatherer times, tribes traded women. A woman was exchanged for another woman or something else, or she was stolen in a raid, and became part of a new tribe. Tribes always had room for new women, but not for new men. I go over the reasons for this in some detail in Biology and Politics. And women had children and husbands in the new tribe and usually made the tribal transition themselves, though perhaps with great difficulty, and sometimes they just couldn't make it. I'm reminded of an educational TV program years ago in which an anthropologist visiting the Yanomamo in the jungles of South America married a Yanomamo woman and brought her back to the States, where they produced two children. From time to time they'd return to visit her people, and the last time she decided to stay with her people when her husband and children returned to the United States. For her, the transition was impossible. In the modern world, a few escape the tribal pull, but only a few. Most of us join the "us people" we grow up with without even realizing it and never look back. And that biologically-generated loyalty is why world politics plays out as it does, as you'll see over and over in my other commentaries.

Return to Home Page