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The Tribal Problem

Are we stuck with tribal conflicts?

Just as a picture gets divided into figure and ground, we divide the social world into us and them. How does that happen? Did it help our ancestors to thrive? Could we stop doing it in the name of peace and harmony?

Evolutionary Views

One view is that tribalism favors group solidarity in times of war. This idea is supported by tribal initiation of warriors.

Initiations that are more costly and painful generate stronger tribal affiliations (Cialdini,1). (This strange bonding effect of suffering is quite general and applies to shared military experiences, painful childbirth, and embarrassing discussion groups).

What is the evolutionary rationale for such bonding? Perhaps groups who experience very hard times need extra bonding to keep them from splitting up. Tribal bonding likely helps warlike societies to persist through difficult times favoring survival and reproduction.

Evolutionary psychologists often assume that making strong in-group out-group distinctions is somehow encoded in our genotype as a pan-human adaptation but this view has flaws.

To begin with, developmental geneticists find such Darwinian programs biologically improbable and there is no evidence from neuroscientists that they are real (2).

In the particular case of military solidarity, human societies before agriculture rarely, or never, practiced warfare. What is more, their tribal affiliations were weak. Hunter-gatherers had a fluid social structure where individuals could easily leave one group and join another. This practice reduces tensions within groups because the malcontents can leave.

Instead of being a fixed element of human societies, strong tribal passions were a functional response to warlike environments. This general principle holds up for modern ethnic groups and nation states.

Nationalist Incitement

Social psychologists have long known that it is very easy to whip up group conflict but trickier to calm it down. Incitement can be as trivial as giving randomly-selected groups a different hat or badge.

Is such conflict built in to the human brain? Or are people responding to characteristics of the situation? When groups are dressed differently, this generally provides reliable information about some material difference. Perhaps they support different sports teams, or belong to different religions, or come from different countries. There are few real-world scenarios in which we meet randomly-selected groups who are dressed differently. Far from being built into the brain, such phenomena are acquired by social learning.

When groups perceive themselves as different from others, this often sets the stage for conflict and competition. This after all is a key reason why sports teams wear different uniforms.

Ethnic conflicts fall into the same mold. An Orange Order parade in Northern Ireland looks, and sounds, very different from a Saint Patrick's day parade.

Apart from such differences of ethnic and religious identity, Catholics and Protestants lived in segregated neighborhoods with the Catholics being economically disadvantaged thanks to government discrimination. The relative peace of the province today rests partly on a deliberate program of neighborhood desegregation.

A path of integration is also essential in countries like the U.S. where there are large and varied immigrant populations.

The Melting Pot of Immigration

The study of immigrant populations in the US offers insight into how ethnic gaps get bridged over time. One example concerns the Italian residents of Roseto, a small town in Pennsylvania, who migrated together from their native village (3).

This community came to the attention of health researchers due to its health advantage over surrounding towns. This took the form of better cardiovascular health. Roseto residents had the heart health of average Americans a decade younger or more.

What produced this seemingly miraculous delay of the aging process? Rosetans maintained the social life of their Italian forbears. They spoke Italian and maintained the ceremonies and traditional religious festivals of their Italian ancestors. Health researchers concluded that the magic ingredient of Rosetan lifestyle was social support derived from the community with residents dropping in informally to converse in their neighbors' kitchens.

Although this immigrant community had minimal connections with surrounding communities, apart from those of work and business, matters changed greatly over time as subsequent generations became increasingly assimilated following a pattern found in all other immigrant communities.

This process occurs as children of immigrants get drawn in to the lifestyle choices of their peer group in the surrounding community. In Roseto, this involved abandoning the intimate, but cramped, houses of the village in favor of large suburban homes, neglect of traditional celebrations, changes in diet, and complete Americanization of speech, behavior, and interests. It also involved a deterioration in health as cardiovascular problems and related disorders reverted to the national mean.

So tribal barriers are not permanent. They get broken down as the social environment changes.

American history shows that assimilation can be painful and typically requires several generations to play out. Of course, that process continues today.


1 Cialdini, R. (1988). Influence: Science and practice (2nd Ed.). Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.

2 Carroll. S. B. (2005). Endless forms most beautiful: The new science of evo devo and the making of the animal kingdom. New York: W. W. Norton.

3 Barber, N. (2004). Kindness in a cruel world: The evolution of altruism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.