Stuck on the Social Plateau

I’m always amused when I see somebody whose relationship status is set to “It’s Complicated.” More often than not, “It’s Complicated” is a code phrase, a way of covering for a situation that’s actually quite simple. For instance: “I have two girlfriends, but I can’t say that out loud.” It’s not complicated, but it’s gratifying to cover yourself in that label. It makes something shallow sound deep.

We live in a time beset with many troubles: political, economic, racial, climatic. It’s tempting to come up with many complex theories about how these troubles came about, but ultimately, it’s not that complicated. Our most urgent and difficult problems stem from tribalism. People under stress draw back, aligning with their tribal ingroup and rejecting any threatening outgroups. This built-in human tendency makes it easy for demagogues to stir up righteous anger, blaming outgroups for every kind of trouble. Nationalism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, religious intolerance, they all emerge from this deeply human tribal impulse.

This leads to some interesting questions: where did this tribalism come from? How did it evolve in the first place? Why is it so hard to override or rewire? I found excellent answers to these questions in the book The Human Swarm by Mark Moffett. In it, Moffett tackles the problem of how the first human societies originally formed. By societies, he means the big coordinated populations that granted us unstoppable power as a species, that gave us the keys to the planet.

It may seem at first that the key to forming societies is cooperation. But many animals cooperate, and in any event, social structure depends on managing not only cooperation but also conflict within your ingroup. Instead, the key element is identity. Small social groups, like troops of chimpanzees, depend on identity in the sense of recognizing individual members. This is useful, but to scale up to the level of cities and societies, you need to be able to identify your ingroup comrades without actually knowing them. Humans’ big brains became exquisitely skilled at identifying an array of social markers like skin color, language and accent, customs and cultural norms. This is the crucial skill that lets you build economies and armies. I can trust you because you’re like me.

This came to me as a great revelation, because the tribal emphasis on identity that causes us so much trouble now is exactly the thing that made us dominant. The thing that made us strong is now chewing us up, like a kind of autoimmune disease. Tribalism isn’t a quirky side effect. It’s a tent-pole for our species. It will be a hard habit to break.

I think we are sitting at an evolutionary plateau, a social plateau that, thousands of years ago represented an extraordinary advance and break with the past. But now we’re stuck, in need of another extraordinary advance. Must we always require adversarial outgroups to create functioning societies? Or can we find a new, more tolerant social cornerstone to build on? Can we shift our emphasis from tribe to planet? As a planetary megasociety, we have reached the edge of the petri dish. We are now poisoning ourselves with literal pollution and with the ideological pollution of identity-obsessed tribalism. We haven’t changed much yet, which is cause for pessimism. On the other hand, the dangers we face are now so stark that we must change or perish. That’s how evolution works. The scare will do us good. I’ll call that optimism.

2 thoughts on “Stuck on the Social Plateau”

  1. Great post Ned! It reminded me of something I squirreled away once: one history professor’s response to a challenge to summarize all of human history in about 100 words. I couldn’t find the source but I did find the text – here it is (it doesn’t end on the optimistic note yours does – I like yours better for that):

    “First, tribes. Tough life. The defaults, beyond the intimate tribe, were violence, aversion to difference, and slavery. Superstition everywhere. Culture overcomes them partially. Rainfall agriculture, which allows loners. Irrigation agriculture, which favors community. Division of labor plus exchange in trade bring mutual cooperation, even outside the tribe.The impulse is always there though: kill or enslave the outsider. Gradual science from Athens’ compact with reason. Division of labor, trade, the mastery of knowledge plus time brought surplus, sometimes a peaceful extended order, rules diversely evolved, and the cooperation of strangers. But always warring against the fierce defaults of tribalism, violence, and ignorance. No one knows what will happen next.”

  2. Hey, thanks for the note Jay! Ever since “Guns, Germs, and Steel” I’ve been a fan of these grand simplifying narratives that take the long view of history. There’s always subtlety in the details, but there are also big messages at the macro level, if you unfocus your eyes a little.

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