TRIBALISM, OUR ACHILLES’ HEEL
Achilles was the product of Thetis, the Greek goddess of water, and Peleus, human king of the Myrmidons. Achilles had human and divine qualities, much like other beings that sprang from part human and part God origins. Gods and goddesses of the distant past often came down from Mount Olympus to mate with humans. Our more modern Gods have evolved considerably since sex is such a slimy business, the newer, more acceptable version of human and god mixtures is through Immaculate Conception, entirely avoiding the sex part. Getting back to Achilles, his mother the goddess of water, dipped him into the river Styx which made his body impervious to any human weapon. (Although no one knows for sure if a Kalashnikov or AK-47 would have pierced his divinely inspired body armor). Nevertheless, there was one part of his body that was vulnerable, his heel. That was the part that Thetis held tight, so he would not slip into the dark waters of the Styx. The heel then did not get fully covered by its waters. That was his “Achilles heel” that eventually led to his demise when Paris, the Trojan who stole Helen, and started the Trojan War, aimed a poisonous arrow that hit Achilles in his vulnerable heel.
So, what does Achilles’ heel have to do with tribalism? It is our Achilles Heel! Tribalism is the way of thinking and behaving where humans develop strong bonds to other humans based on a variety of criteria: kinship, proximity, appearance, skin color, hair style, dress, hand-shakes, religion, political inclination, ethnicity, nationality etc. These bonds can become stronger than any other bonds, to the extent that it leads to feelings of superiority of my group over yours. My school is better than your school. My football team is better than your football team. My race is superior to yours. My religion is the true religion, and yours is false.
Tribalism had its heyday. It gave a survival benefit to small groups. Australopithians that banded together and acted as a unit had a better chance to find food, ward off aggressors, and build shelter. It served us well in the savannas of Africa. We roamed those grass lands and once in a while came upon grass fires that left roasted antelope just for the taking. We changed our diet from roots and berries to meat. With that change of diet not only did our caloric consumption increase, but the quality of food shifted to more protein, the stuff we are made of. With the passage of one or two million years, our brain size increased from about 600cc to double that ca. 1200cc. We now have a better internal computer, with millions more circuits and a lot more storage that can retain much more information, all of which make us think better. Instead of waiting for natural events to bring us roasted antelope we harnessed fire, learned how to till the ground, and domesticated cattle, horses, cats, and dogs. Now we don’t have to hunt and gather any more. We just go out into the back yard, pick out a couple of chickens, cut down a bushel of wheat, and voilà Chicken Mc-Nuggets are born.
Tribalism is the way to go in the village setting. It organizes people to divide labor, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need (Karl Marx). This division of labor makes for a much better organization to fight the good fight of survival. It is perhaps best developed in the insect world. Bee hives and ant hills are the epitome of division of labor with each ant or bee knowing exactly what their job is in the large sphere of things. There is no fight about what is yours and what is mine, nor where my job ends and yours begins. Each insect is totally altruistic. Each worker does her (males are killed soon after mating with the queen) job regardless of personal concerns, fatigue, and discomforts, not even the ultimate sacrifice is questioned. There is a price to pay for this, however. The tribe comes before everything else. The individual does not have the right to think, do, act, or live without taking into account what is best for the group. Autonomy, freedom to do, think, and pursue happiness must be subordinated to the wishes of the group. That is the price the member of a super-organism must pay, as is the case is in ants and bees, and it is the same price you must pay to be a member of a tribe, as is the case in human beings. Should a stranger wander into the nest, that spells immediate extermination for that life, just like in the gangs of South-Central LA.
All tribes’ political structures are set up similarly, whether in the hive, ant hill, a gang, a church or political party. There is unquestioning loyalty to the hierarchy. The individual’s needs and wants are subordinated to the greater good. Survival of the group is the mantra. What is good for the group is virtuous, what is good for the individual is evil. If you are a Crip, then Bloods have to be exterminated. If you are a Nazi, then Jews must suffer the same fate. If you belong to the radicalized Islamist tribe, then any cartoon that depicts the prophet Mohammed in a perceived blasphemous way must be answered by wiping out Charlie Hebdo. The leader is the ultimate authority and must be obeyed. The rules of the tribe must be followed without question. If the liturgy (propaganda) does not make sense to you, you must suppress those feelings and accept on faith that this becomes the truth for you. If the book says Thetans must be exorcised from your body by auditing (Scientology), then you get audited. If Jesus made an appearance in the Americas shortly after the resurrection (Mormonism), so be it. If it is your duty to convince others that there is but one God and that is Allah, you must do it even if you have to behead a few infidels and shoot a few cartoonists to achieve your destiny (which includes 72 virgins in paradise if you die in battle or martyrdom). If the host and wine of communion actually turns into the flesh and blood of Jesus, for you it does just that.
Only with the help and invocation of faith, believing something that has no basis in fact or proof, can humans overcome logic, common sense, and incontrovertible evidence. It is faith that makes good people do bad things. If your tribe holds the belief that Jews are the cause of all the evil in the world, then it follows that they must be exterminated. If your tribe believes that there is only one god and his name is Allah, it is your duty to convince everyone of that “truth” and if you cannot achieve that, the infidels are better off dead anyway. It used to be, not that long ago, that if you belonged to the tribe that believed the earth is the center of the universe, anyone that came along and claimed that the earth actually revolves around the sun (heliocentrism), those misguided fools had to be burned to death. Faith is held by the faithful to be a badge of honor and to be cherished with pride. To believe something that you cannot and do not know to be true is in fact a bad thing in all of human thought. For example, to believe that poisonous snakes cannot harm you and you can handle them safely has killed more than a few of the faithful. Trusting that prayer will cure illness has led to the demise of numerous believers. Children accept much of everything an authoritative adult says, that is why they are childish. Mentally incapacitated individuals suffer with the inability to tell what is true and what is not and act accordingly. Faith is the essence of belief without substantiation, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Faith nevertheless serves the structure of the tribe very well. It is in fact essential for the survival of the tribe. Without faith the tribe would not even get started, much less continue on. If the Israelites had questioned Moses as to if he really got those tablets from God, after all they did not see the burning bush, and were otherwise preoccupied with dancing around the Golden Calf, Judaism would have ended right there and then. If the individual starts to question the tenants of the tribe, the whole structure of tribal survival is threatened and that cannot be allowed to stand. That individual must be eliminated by whatever means necessary: expulsion, ridicule, shunning, or even death in order to assure the survival of the tribe. Faith is undoubtedly another product of evolution since it is so prevalent and pervasive in thoughts and actions of almost all humans. It is the only human brain activity that can defeat logic and evidence. It alone is responsible for the success of tribalism.
While tribalism was just the right structure for village survival, it turns out to be very bad for global community survival. All you need to do is look at our conflicts in the last few hundred years. It comes down to one tribe fighting another tribe over which god is better, which race is better, which economic or political system is better. We have been a village political eco-system in the not so distant past. The great distances and the lack of communication made for small groups of people that were more or less isolated from all the other communities. In the last few hundred years things have changed dramatically. We can be on the other side of the globe in just a few hours by jet flight, and we can communicate verbally and visually anywhere on earth in just fractions of seconds with video-conferencing. Tribalism, until just recently has served us well. It has been inbred in us for millions of years. It ensured the survival of the toddler Australopith who took the concept that Saber tooth tigers are not a plaything on faith. But in our present environment taking things on blind faith has its distinct drawbacks.
The last couple of hundred years are not likely to wipe out our genetics. In earlier conflicts our geographic challenges and lack of effective weapons have hampered our ability to wipe out the enemy. Sailing ships can only transport so many soldiers. Swords and scimitars can only slice so much flesh, but science has given us much more sophisticated weapons. We can reach the other side of the globe in just fractions of an hour with intercontinental ballistic missiles. One nuclear bomb could wipe out cities like New York or Moscow.
What are the downsides of tribalism? The major human divisions, race, religion, and nationality have all taken their toll. Conflict has by and large set back humanity. The first known Dark Age was at the end of the Bronze Age in 1177 BC. That blotted out the Egyptian civilization, and sent man back from a highly developed multinational ecosystem with trade routes that reached from Africa to Asia, to small groups of humans living in poverty and squalor, until the Greeks resurrected architecture, mathematics, science, and art after a 600 year sleep of mankind. The Greek civilization made spectacular strides in mathematics, art, and astronomy, including the recognition that the earth is a globe orbiting around the sun (Aristarchus and Archimedes). Harnessing the power of steam and wind was the brain child of Hero of Alexandria (10-70 AD). All was to be lost again in the next Dark Age. That can be traced back to September 4, 476 AD when Odoacer, leader of the Barbarian tribes, made Romulus Augustulus (little Augustus, a derisive term) abdicate as the last emperor of Rome. A thousand years of stagnation in human advancement followed, and we sank from marble palaces to huts made of sticks and mud. The strides made by Hippocrates, Aristotle, Archimedes, Galen, and so many others were lost. Luckily, the Islamic world which was much more open to knowledge and progress than it is now, preserved and built upon the wisdom of the Greeks. Through the limited, but long term, mixing of cultures in the Iberian Peninsula during the Arab occupation, some of that knowledge seeped back into the rest of Europe, starting with the intellectuals at the court of Charlemagne. They stole across the Pyrenees to study at the great Arab institutions of higher learning. That kindled the fires of the Renaissance in the early 1400’s. Unfortunately the various wars that raged in Europe and the Middle East cost millions of lives, much suffering, loss of property and dampened and set back the quest for human progress. The Hundred Year War was a tribal conflict between the French and English from 1337 to 1453 and kept the Renaissance from making much headway. Then the Thirty Year War, another tribal conflict between Catholics and Protestants, wiped out 40% of the population of Europe, to add more woe in the early 1600’s.
Ultimately, assuming that ‘my way is the only way’, as I am superior to others, and that certain other groups cannot possibly contribute to the human quest, besides being incredibly egocentric, carries risks that may not be worth taking. Many discoveries and revelations are due to the lone voice in the wilderness, the serendipity, and the dogged persistence of the individual. No one person, race, tribe, religion, or philosophy has the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Rule of the people (democracy) is based on that principle. Life is a quest to get to the top of the mountain. Each of us has a different view of that mountain, and some of us may see a trail to the top that others don’t see. Hitler evicted or killed the Jews in Germany. Among those that fled was one physicist named Albert Einstein, the man who introduced us to the power of the atom. It was the two atomic blasts, one in Hiroshima and the other in Nagasaki that put the final death nail in the power of the Axis. Tribalism allegorically came back to bite Hitler in the ass, even though he was already residing in Valhalla by then, with the German people suffering the consequences. We continue to wallow in tribalism, and it has and will continue to set us back, cost lives, and money. Harmless tribalism, such as school pride, is an acceptable release of this inborn trait. But the tribalism that extends to race, religion, and ethnicity is corrosive, leading us to racism, jihad, crusades, and death. We seem to forget the lessons history has taught us. As said so aptly by Mark Twain, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” If we are not careful and learn how to mitigate this vicious form of tribalism, we will again be struck by that poisonous arrow into our vulnerable heel and be sent back into another Dark Age or maybe even worse.