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category: Culture

Biologist E.O. Wilson on Why Humans, Like Ants, Need a Tribe

Post: April 6, 2012 6:08 pm
Author: E.O. Wilson         Source: The Daily Beast

Have you ever wondered why, in the ongoing presidential campaign, we so strongly hear the pipes calling us to arms? Why the religious among us bristle at any challenge to the creation story they believe? Or even why team sports evoke such intense loyalty, joy, and despair?

The answer is that everyone, no exception, must have a tribe, an alliance with which to jockey for power and territory, to demonize the enemy, to organize rallies and raise flags.

And so it has ever been. In ancient history and prehistory, tribes gave visceral comfort and pride from familiar fellowship, and a way to defend the group enthusiastically against rival groups. It gave people a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world. It made the environment less disorienting and dangerous. Human nature has not changed. Modern groups are psychologically equivalent to the tribes of ancient history. As such, these groups are directly descended from the bands of primitive humans and prehumans.

The drive to join is deeply ingrained, a result of a complicated evolution that has led our species to a condition that biologists call eusociality. “Eu-,” of course, is a prefix meaning pleasant or good: euphony is something that sounds wonderful; eugenics is the attempt to improve the gene pool. And the eusocial group contains multiple generations whose members perform altruistic acts, sometimes against their own personal interests, to benefit their group. Eusociality is an outgrowth of a new way of understanding evolution, which blends traditionally popular individual selection (based on individuals competing against each other) with group selection (based on competition among groups). Individual selection tends to favor selfish behavior. Group selection favors altruistic behavior and is responsible for the origin of the most advanced level of social behavior, that attained by ants, bees, termites—and humans.

Among eusocial insects, the impulse to support the group at the expense of the individual is largely instinctual. But to play the game the human way required a complicated mix of closely calibrated altruism, cooperation, competition, domination, reciprocity, defection, and deceit. Humans had to feel empathy for others, to measure the emotions of friend and enemy alike, to judge the intentions of all of them, and to plan a strategy for personal social interactions.

Read more at the Daily Beast


Post: April 7 2012 2:52 am By: Lesley

It worries me that in this piece Ed Wilson does not sufficiently stress the flexibility of our social identity.  The problem we always have is that, if we are not careful, people will think that if it is “natural” to be something - in this case “tribal” - it is OK.  Will people now think that racism, ethnocentrism, class warfare and a whole bunch of other nasty things are somehow justified?  The fact is that people can learn to be sufficiently objective to allow members of different groups to interact to the mutual benefit of both.  People hold multiple social identities and happily switch between them.  We should be trying to learn to be better at this and to figure out how to generally promote tolerance.

Post: April 8 2012 10:45 am By: Michael Blume

@Lesley, as to the importance of education, I couldn’t agree more. And I enjoyed to note that you constructed another (tribal?) ‘We’ in order to formulate our shared Duty. grin