2019-08-21

We Need a Tribe

Things get difficult sometimes. We need the tribal connections that modern life precludes. Thus we are left often alone, “like a motherless child.” And what we do encounter of other people may be negative: there is a fear of difference in the land that is further tearing us apart. We are in a difficult time – have been, really, for about 12,000 years.

Here’s the thing: we need a tribe. We crave the face-to-face community – groups of up to 150 where everyone knows everyone else, everyone is accountable to everyone else, every one is known, and everyone belongs. We keep each other in line, which meets our need for connection and interaction, which gives our lives meaning. Here’s part of how it works:
“When a person does something for another person – a prosocial act, as it’s called – they are rewarded not only by group approval but also by an increase of dopamine and other pleasurable hormones in their blood.” (Sebastian Junger, Tribe)
Some of us can get that rush from abstract charity, but most of us need that face-to-face contact with those with whom we are devoting cooperative labor.
“Group cooperation triggers higher levels of oxytocin, for example, which promotes everything from breast-feeding in women to higher levels of trust and group bonding in men. Both reactions impart a powerful sensation of well-being. Oxytocin creates a feedback loop of good-feeling and group loyalty that ultimately leads members to ‘self-sacrifice to promote group welfare,’ in the words of one study. Hominids that cooperated with one another – and punished those who didn’t – must have outfought, outhunted, and outbred everyone else. These are the hominids that modern humans are descended from” (Junger 27).
Yet modern society isn’t tribal. It’s vast, it’s anonymous, it’s full of strangers. We ourselves are cogs in an incomprehensibly large economic system in which disposable producers make disposable products for disposable consumers. This is not the world evolution made us for.

Millions of years of evolution selected us to be social, caring for and protecting the tribe. As Sebastian Junger notes:
“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
In the 1700s, the European colonists and Native Americans were never far from each other. The colonists, we know, were commercial and industrious. The indigenous peoples were communal and tribal. Colonial society was wealthier, more advanced. The Europeans had more stuff, more powerful tools, could do more things, and they were always working on getting still more.
They were making "progress" happen. Yet something weird was happening. From time to time a European would “go native” – defect from white society and go live with a native tribe. This never happened the other way around. Not that our European ancestors were terribly welcoming overall, but there were some attempts, say, to welcome Indian children into colonist towns and homes. They never wanted to stay. In 1753, Benjamin Franklin wrote:
“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.”
In 1782, six years after the colonists had declared their independence from Britain, Hector de Crèvecoeur wrote,
“Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those aborigines having from choice become European.”
Tribal life was 95 percent of human history, and it meets the needs we evolved to have.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors
“would have practiced extremely close and involved child care. And they would have done almost everything in the company of others. They would have almost never been alone.”
Almost never alone. We traded that for more individual autonomy and choice and privacy, for being left alone – being left . . . alone.

Was it a good trade? We gained wealth. We lost our strong tribal connectedness. We pay the price in that loss and in higher rates of depression. The World Health Organization reports that people in wealthy countries suffer depression at up to eight times the rate of people in poor countries.

Consider fraud as an indicator of our modern disconnection from one another. Defrauding these government programs such as unemployment assistance, welfare, Medicare, and Medicaid costs us over $100 billion a year. Insurance fraud takes $300 billion a year. The rich do more fraud than the poor, measured in dollars. Fraud by American defense contractors is estimated at around $100 billion. Securities and commodities fraud – insider trading, kickbacks and bribes, false accounting – and illegal banking practices triggered the recession of 2008, total costs of which have been estimated at $14 trillion.

Hunter-gatherers had the same impulses to seek material gain at the expense of the group, and, indeed, ultimately at the expense of their own well-being – but they lived in small groups where almost everything was open to scrutiny, and tribes devoted considerable energy to monitoring one another to ensure equity. The group’s survival depended on equal resource distribution to keep everyone alive – which was crucial because, unlike in modern society, everyone was needed. It was a lot harder to get away with cheating.

Junger writes that in these communities,
“authority is almost impossible to impose on the unwilling. Males who try to take control of the group – or of the food supply – are often countered by coalitions of other males. This is clearly an ancient and adaptive behavior that tends to keep groups together and equitably cared for.”
Transgressors against the tribe’s norms were punished by public ridicule, shunning, and ultimately assassination of the culprit by the entire group. Infractions commonly punished included freeloading on the work of others, bullying, and failure to share.

People everywhere in all times have faced temptations to dishonesty – but long ago we had social structures that were more deeply connecting and that made cheating more difficult. Modern society is based on hierarchy. Our hunter-gatherer forebears had leaders, but those leaders had to be in a caring and accountable relationship with those they led. Then, about 12,000 years ago, that changed.

The rise of agriculture was a package deal that included domestication of such animals as the cow and the pig and some others, along with the cultivation of crops, most importantly grains: wheat, barley, rice, and maize. Only with the rise of agriculture did the centralized state become possible. Only grain crops have a set annual harvest time and are
“visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable’.” (James C. Scott, qtd in John Lanchester, "How Civilization Started," New Yorker, 2017 Sep 18)
Thus reliance on grains made a workable taxation system possible.
“The taxman can come, assess the fields, set a level of tax, then come back and make sure he’s got his share of the harvest.”
That’s what led to the birth of the state:
“complex societies with hierarchies, division of labor, specialist jobs (soldier, priest, servant, administrator), and an √©lite presiding over them.” (Scott, New Yorker)
This system required huge amounts of manual labor, which was often forced. With agriculture came the first slavery. Agriculture allowed support of large standing armies, transforming war from feuds between clans into mass slaughter. No wonder Jared Diamond called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in human history.”

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