Tribalism vs. Globalization

Originally written and posted Sep. 24, 2001

[Recent events engaged Jim Fitzgerald and myself in email converation during which the basis for the following essay emerged. Most of the ideas are Jim’s thinking, elaborated, clarified, and otherwise edited by me. Still, send flamemail to me.]

The conflict between America and its allies and bin Laden and the other Islamic terrorists is really a battle between a new and an old adaptive strategy, tribalism and globalization. When the human race was young, small, widely dispersed, and challenged by basic survival, tribalism was an adaptive device that helped people cooperate to reduce risk. With tribalism you get an in-group/out-group mentality that is a liability in the current diverse and densely populated world. The Taliban represents this old adaptive model–tribal, closed, rigid–and they are railing against what are really evolutionary changes in cultural systems. When the tribes are separated with infrequent contact, everything’s ok. Maybe a few skirmishes when they do come in contact. When the tribes are forced to live together, though, life gets complicated.

Globalization, and not just in the economic sense but rather meaning the interconnection and interdependence of groups across national and other boundaries is the latest and so far highest level of human cultural evolution. In this general sense one might call it one-worldism except that few voices are calling for a single world government. This development values the diversity of individuals and encourages the contributions such diversity brings; it finally rings down the curtain on the view that just because someone does not belong to “my” group that person must be bad, wrong, put down, converted, or killed. We see remnants of tribalism in the Western nations in the campaigns of the anti-globalization protesters and our own religious fundamentalists (Falwell, McVeigh, Farrakhan), so this is not just another name for the division between fundamentalist Islamists and the rest of the world.

An anthropologist might view the world this way: Behaviors persist over the long term because they have some adaptive latent effect. Just what happens when a behavior is no longer adaptive is less clear but is most likely some transient response followed by disappearance of the behavior in the long term. Putting a quantity to the length of long term is difficult, as is understanding the nature of transient response. The transient response, historically, appears to be violence.

An anthropology professor at UC Santa Cruz once said that warfare was a form of rejection of the enemy’s cultural values. Consider current and past wars, including terrorism, in light of this assertion and see if it holds up. The reasons why we went to war against Japan and Germany during WWII are clear, but Vietnam is less obvious. We went to war against Iraq to move them out of Kuwait because we had a treaty with them and because the flow of oil is strategic to us. We went to war against Panama because they were enabling the Medellin Cartel to flood us with drugs.

Warfare between tribal groups in the distant past was probably an adaptive device as well. Cultures are conservative devices, the cultural systems of each group, and when taken as an indivisible whole constitute an adaptive mechanism for the group and preserve economically appropriate behaviour. When one unique culture comes into contact with another, cultural sharing could weaken the belief system and the associated economically appropriate rituals, leading eventually to the demise of the tribe. Therefore, warfare against out-groups would preserve the integrity of the cultural system, and improve the chances for survival for the individuals in the group. With widely dispersed groups this is actually a good thing; it’s likely that different systems are required to adapt to differing economic environments, as different species do as well, so a little warfare following contact and then separation is a good thing. That said groups can and do borrow selectively from each other, which has occurred for thousands of years without always causing violence: the spread of agriculture, writing, spices, technology, and even ideas and religion as in the case of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.

Those cultures that accept diversity, in the most universal sense of the word, will survive. Those that do not accept diversity will be engaged in conflict and will not survive, or alternatively, if humanity does not have that capacity, none of us will survive. Thinking out loud, perhaps there will be conflict on such an enormous scale that population will revert to 2000 year ago levels with the whole process then to repeat until humanity is able to get past it.

If we don’t learn to live together in a connected global community we will destroy ourselves. That is the next step in our evolution. We hope we can do it.

p.s. An inspiring essay that touches on the topic as well is Steven Denbeste’s What are we fighting for? (