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The Great Pause Week 29: In Our Jeans

Once tribal loyalism was baked into our genes there were ramifications.

The whole world is festering
With unhappy souls,
The French hate the Germans,
The Germans hate the Poles,
Italians hate Yugoslavs,
South Africans hate the Dutch,
And I don’t like anybody
Very much.

— Sheldon Harnick, The Merry Minuet, 1949

In social psychology experiments, subjects made aware of a border between insiders and outsiders will rapidly bond with those on their own side and reject those outside it. They’ll judge insiders to be fairer than outsiders. They’ll describe insiders as having “broadly positive” traits and outsiders as possessing “broadly negative” ones. They’ll notice variation among insiders but not among outsiders.

The line between outsider and insider does not have to accurately correspond with shared interests or meaningful characteristics between people on one side and those on the other. Awareness of a border triggers biases regardless. In social psychology experiments, researchers have divided subjects into two groups based on arbitrary grounds such as a coin toss or the color of the t-shirts they’re wearing, or their preferred ice cream flavor, it makes no difference. Subjects will exhibit bias towards those on their side and discriminate against those on the other side.

— Sonia Shah, The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move, 2020.

Is it any wonder then, that when an elderly, overweight, diabetic, stalwart Republican attending a rally is taunted to throw away his or her mask, they do so? Or that they join in a chant to “Lock her up!” at the mention of the former Secretary of State, heedless of chanting’s proven ability to spread the airborne virus? Or that they can completely block the image of bird-caged Latino immigrant children, crying for their parents whom they may well never see again, or cheer on cue when informed, obliquely, they will be losing their health care coverage?

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Belfast 1970 by Fribbler — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The fact that an overwhelming majority of voters in my home state are expected to wait in lines at polls to cast ballots for Donald Trump does not shock or offend me. I grew up during the lunch counter protests. I had a cross burned on my lawn for having had the temerity to rudely question the governor of Alabama. I was in Belfast in August, 1969 when white, middle-class Protestants and their foreign mercenary police took to the streets to assault white, middle-class Catholics like they were the foreign invaders. I witnessed police officers beating a handcuffed prisoner in the Manhattan Tombs, and when I complained to my superiors at the New York Appellate Division I was nearly terminated. I have visited any number of strongly caste societies and been in homes and offices where snobbery and class are de rigueur.

I am all too aware of the policy of the Bush and Obama administrations to inter 22 harmless Chinese Uigher refugees at the extrajudicial Guantánamo torture camp for 12 years, including the 5 years under Obama after Judge Merrick Garland, writing the unanimous opinion of a three-judge panel, had ordered them released. They were unconstitutionally held without any rights solely out of contagious xenophobia.

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But if our tribal instincts become destructive of our tribe — and world — and selves — why? And what is to be done?

Over the last million years or so, humans evolved the ability to learn from other humans, creating the possibility of cumulative, non-genetic evolution. These capacities were strongly beneficial in the chaotic climates of the Pleistocene, allowing humans to culturally evolve highly refined adaptations to rapidly varying environments. However, cultural adaptation also vastly increased heritable variation among groups, and this gave rise to the evolution of group beneficial cultural norms and values. Then, in such culturally evolved cooperative social environments, genetic evolution [of] new, more pro-social motives.
We think that the evidence suggests that after about 100,000 years ago most people lived in tribal scale societies. These societies are based upon in-group cooperation where in-groups of a few hundred to a few thousand people are symbolically marked by language, ritual practices, dress, and the like.
We think cultural evolutionary processes constructed a social environment that caused ordinary natural selection acting on genes to favor empathetic altruism, and a tendency to direct that altruism preferentially to fellow members of symbolically marked groups. These social instincts evolved in the late Pleistocene but the radically new social institutions that have evolved in the Holocene were (and continue to be) both enabled and constrained by them.

— Boyd, Robert, and Peter J. Richerson. “Culture and the evolution of the human social instincts.” Roots of human sociality (2006): 453–477.

As we periodically emerged from glaciations and migrated into more abundant ecosystems, or gradually retreated from frigid regions as Earth entered upon another Ice Age, conflict over land, food, and other resources was always present. In such an environment, smaller, more cooperative groups could outcompete larger, less cooperative, and therefore less clever or adaptive, groups. Communication and willingness to cooperate and strategize provided advantage. Non-cooperators might be punished by reduced status, fewer friends, and fewer mating opportunities.

“Cowards, deserters, and cheaters may be attacked by their erstwhile compatriots and shunned by their society, made the targets of gossip, or denied access to territories or mates,” says Boyd.

…moralistic punishment can stabilize any arbitrary behavior — wearing a tie, being kind to animals, or eating the brains of dead relatives. It does not matter whether or not the behavior produces group benefits. All that matters is that, when moralistic punishers are common, being punished is more costly than performing the sanctioned behavior, whatever it might be.
[Suppose] that groups are made up of close relatives. Selection can favor the genes that give rise to prosocial behavior because the benefits of prosocial acts are non-randomly directed toward others who carry the same genes. Thus, the benefits of the act raise the average fitness of the genes leading to the prosocial behavior, and if this effect is big enough to compensate for the cost, selection will lead to the evolution of the behavior.

Once tribal loyalism was baked into our genes there were ramifications. Care for the sick has been shown to be more effective in family settings than in impersonal clinics. Home birth has fewer complications than hospital birth. Child development improves in extended families. Income-sharing groups out-perform and out-last income-competitive groups during the difficult pioneer phase of community development.

Studies of dog behavior have shown that all domestic dogs, regardless of breed, crave social contact with humans. They will choose affection from humans over food, even when close to starvation. This is as true of packs of stray dogs in the streets of Moscow or Mumbai as it is of pampered apartment poodles. The same cannot be said of wolves, who, even when they have formed a lifetime association with particular humans, will tend to maintain distance except for short intervals of affectionate interaction.

The difference between domestic dogs and their wolf ancestors is a tropism towards trans-species caressing over pack loyalty. Likewise, modern humans are captives to their unique genetic tribal instincts, and will make up some group to attach it to — by skin color, religion, neighborhood, club, shared antipathy, or sexual perversion — to fill that need. Fetishist dominatrices are driven by the same deep urges as nuns of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. So are MAGA-hat wearers, Miami Heat fans, and skinhead bikers.

I used to imagine we could overcome this maladaptive tropism the same way humans control their tendencies towards violence and selfishness in order to live in civil society. We just needed to expand our loyalties from clans, nations and races to all sentient beings, and it seemed to me, in the Sixties, that was precisely where cultural evolution (assisted by mycopharmacology) was pointing us. We just needed to love — or at least extend compassion towards — our “enemies.”

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.

— John Lennon, Imagine, 1971

He’s a Catholic, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jane
A Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew
And he knows he shouldn’t kill
And he knows he always will
Kill you for me my friend and me for you

And he’s fighting for Canada
He’s fighting for France
He’s fighting for the USA
And he’s fighting for the Russians
And he’s fighting for Japan
And he thinks we’ll put an end to war this way

— Buffy Sainte-Marie, Universal Soldier, 1964

The hippies believed there should be no discrimination between people based upon gender, race, color, ethnicity, belief, or social position. The problem is, we hippies see ourselves as tribe. The Woodstock Nation. There is us, and then there is The Man. The Squares. The Establishment.

You can put patches on patches but it’s always there, even in your bell-bottomed jeans.

It’s in our genes.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves….”

— William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene III, L. 140–141

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Emergency Planetary Technician and Climate Science Wonk — using naturopathic remedies to recover the Holocene without geoengineering or ponzinomics.

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