Human nature is the composite of human instincts. One such instinct is sex; another is tribalism.
What is tribalism? How did it evolve? Individuality vs. community—are humans fundamentally selfish or fundamentally social? What is more important: social constructs or human nature? And what does all this mean for our political disagreements? Below you find the answers to these five questions.
1. The altruistic basis of tribalism
Tribalism, the human tendency to be loyal to a tribe, opposes egoism, the human tendency to be selfish.
Everybody knows, of course, that most acts of loyalty are selfish. We are loyal because we want others to be loyal to us. We help our tribesmen because we want them to help us. We act for the good of the group because we want to rise in status within that group. It seems like we can always look beneath our ‘altruism’ to find pride, honor, reciprocity, and the will to power.
Yet there are soldiers in war who throw themselves on grenades to shield their comrades, who risk being shot to rescue a wounded ‘brother’ from the battlefield, and who take on a potentially lethal mission to liberate a buddy from captivity.
That is true altruism, rooted in tribalism, and although “the form and intensity of altruistic acts are to a large extent culturally determined[,] the underlying emotion, powerfully manifested in virtually all human societies, is what is considered to evolve through genes” (E. O. Wilson, On Human Nature, p. 153).
2. How could altruism evolve?
The basic unit of evolution is the gene. Genes are selfish: all they ‘care’ about is survival; to survive is their only ‘purpose’. Biologically, a human being is merely a vehicle for genes to replicate themselves. The process of natural selection sorts out the vehicles that are the fittest to accomplish that job. Their fitness allows them to survive and to produce healthy offspring so that their genes can live on.
Does this mean that human beings are perfectly selfish, just like their genes? After all, “people governed by selfish genes must prevail over those with altruistic genes, [so] there should also be a tendency over many generations for selfish genes to increase in prevalence and for a population to become ever less capable of responding altruistically” (Wilson, p. 153). True selflessness does not seem to be an evolutionarily stable strategy.
But people are not as selfish as their genes. They can be altruistic, truly selfless. The reason for this is kin selection. Because a man shares most of his genes with his relatives (kin), it is in his genes’ interest that his family survives and reproduces, too.
By extension, a man shares a large portion of his genes with his tribe (extended kin), so it is in his genes’ interest that also his ethnic family survives and reproduces. That is how tribal altruism could evolve. When men of a tribe compete against each other, they will be selfish. But when men of a tribe compete against other tribes, they can be altruistic.
3. Between individualism and collectivism
Most animal species can easily be categorized. Honeybees and jellyfish, for example, are social species: their collectivistic instincts make them strongly altruistic—”all for the hive/colony!” Sharks, on the other hand, are a self-centered species: their individualistic instincts make them strongly egoistic—”all for me!”
Homo sapiens, by contrast, is a much more complex species. Humans have both individualistic and collectivistic instincts. Egoism and tribalism are both in our DNA. Due to natural selection, we are selfish by default. But due to kin selection, we have also the capacity to be altruistic.
Human beings obviously occupy a position on the spectrum somewhere between the two extremes, but exactly where? The evidence suggests to me that human beings are well over toward the individual end of the spectrum. We are not in the position of sharks, or selfish monkeys and apes, but we are closer to them than we are to honeybees in this single parameter. (Wilson, p. 158)
As it has been more adaptive for us to err on the side of individualism, that is precisely what most people tend to do in most cases, even if they delude themselves and others that they only care about the good of their community. (Self-deception, by the way, has been selected for by evolution because it makes us better at deceiving others; see Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools.) Only when one’s family is at stake does genuine self-sacrifice emerge:
Human altruism appears to be substantially hard-core when directed at closest relatives, although still to a much lesser degree than in the case of the social insects and the colonial invertebrates. The remainder of our altruism is essentially soft [i.e., motivated by selfish interests]. The predicted result is a melange of ambivalence, deceit, and guilt that continuously troubles the individual mind. (Wilson, p. 159)
In absence of a potent cultural ideology, selfish interests commonly trump ethnic interests. We see this in immigrants assimilating to the host culture, in former migrants emphasizing either their racial roots or their new culture depending on how it benefits them socially, in all interracial marriages, and in class struggle. Being a ‘race traitor’ does not go against human nature, because egoism is a substantial part of it. Yet neither does being a racist, because tribalism is a part of human nature, too.
4. Cultural implications
Whether racism or anti-racism is more natural depends fully on the biological context, that is, on the threats to and opportunities for one’s genetic interests in a given environment. But why should we care about what is natural anyway? Should we not rather focus exclusively on culture? E. O. Wilson disagrees:
Can culture alter human behavior to approach altruistic perfection? Might it be possible to touch some magical talisman or design a Skinnerian technology that creates a race of saints? The answer is no. […] Can the cultural evolution of higher ethical values gain a direction and momentum of its own and completely replace genetic evolution? I think not. The genes hold culture on a leash. The leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool. (Wilson, pp. 165, 167)
In addition to this general biological limitation, we must also not forget that the human nervous system with its capacity to experience pain and pleasure was shaped by evolution. Our biological nature structures our experiences of well-being as well as our motivations to act. It would therefore be unethical to neglect human nature in favor of radical social constructionism.
5. Political implications
All major political disagreements seem to ultimately stem from the complexity of human nature. Left vs. right, globalism vs. nationalism, capitalism vs. socialism, feminism vs. traditionalism—all these conflicts trace back to our conflicting intuitions about whether human nature is individualistic or collectivistic. In reality, it is both, though more on the individualistic end of the spectrum.
Our mammalian condition to prioritize personal reproductive success over tribe and family suggests that individual freedoms (human rights) make sense, yet we also need democratic freedoms (civil rights). Our calculating selfishness suggests that globalist tendencies make sense, yet we also need to empathetically protect nationalist interests. Our unity in egoism suggests that capitalistic economism makes sense, yet we also need to tribally consider social welfare. Our individualistic predisposition suggests that feminism makes sense, yet we also need to traditionally foster gender roles.
While this may look like an irresolute centrist‘s path of mediocrity, no other path factors in the complex reality of human nature. So, shall moderation be our highest virtue, or does it make us ideological cowards? (Also, keep in mind that ‘natural’ does not necessarily equal ‘good’.)