04 April 2012

Tribal instinct vs. species instinct

Sociobiologist E. O. Wilson paints a demoralizing portrait of human nature in the latest Newsweek, no matter how much the magazine's editors try to make something cute out of it with illustrations of "tribal" cliques of music fans and their fashions. Wilson contends that the current election campaign has stirred up furious passions, even before one of the major parties has chosen its candidate, because "everyone, no exception, must have a tribe, an alliance with which to jockey for power and territory, to demonize the enemy, to organize rallies and raise flags." Tribalism provides "visceral comfort and pride from familiar fellowship" and, for individuals, "a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world." In the 21st century, Wilson perceives a more complex "system of interlocking tribes" that nonetheless remains tribal, as people find more ways  to form "eusocial" groups -- eusociality meaning membership that is pleasurable in some way for the members. What I find demoralizing about this is the apparent inability of human beings, from what Wilson tells us, to naturally form bonds of solidarity based on simple common humanity. He argues that the tribal impulse is to some extent instinctual, people tending to favor their "own kind" as defined by language or pigmentation, while sports fans and other fandoms are presumably more voluntary -- ideologies may also fall into this latter category of voluntary eusocial enthusiasms. Implicit in this analysis is a hierarchy of signifiers according to their priority for individuals. In such a hierarchy such common human traits as walking on two legs, distinctively human faces, etc., clearly count for less than skin color and language. Perceiving humanity as a common unit is apparently intellectual rather than instinctual, but even ostensibly intelligent people find it easier to transcend superficial prejudices on the basis of selective shared likes and dislikes (fandoms, ideologies) than on the basis of a shared destiny as a species. No such solidarity exists in the animal kingdom, either, I presume, but I would expect that the increasing interconnectedness of human societies and increased population density would encourage the equation of humanity with one big tribe. There is little evidence for such a hopeful view. Even the movement arguably most based on such identification, the socialist movement, too easily succumbed to a tribalism that replaced humans with proletarians and their class enemies.When a time comes when humanity must act as a species for its own survival -- and it would be delusional to assume that no such time can ever come -- will people be up to the challenge? Wilson doesn't give much cause for confidence, but we can hope that his isn't the last word on humanity's potential for humanity.

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