Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas


The Art of Community

We think tribes are dangerous. But could they actually be essential to a functioning society?

Tudge 2 New

I have recently helped to set up the College for Real Farming and Food Culture, the immediate aim of which is to promote the Agrarian Renaissance – a complete re-think of the way we farm and organize farming. This in turn is conceived as part of a grand, across-the-board Renaissance – a complete re-think of everything: farming, politics, the economy, science, and the moral and metaphysical precepts that underlie all the things we do and think about. The stated goal of this whole endeavour is to create “Convivial Societies within a Flourishing Biosphere”. I can’t think of anything better or more important than that.

So it is than on all big issues – nuclear power, the free market, and so on and so on – I tend these days to ask, “Do they contribute to the grand cause of convivial society, the wellbeing of our fellow creatures and the fabric of the Earth?”

And how, by this criterion, should we judge the undoubted propensity and predilection of human beings for forming ourselves into tribes?

In large part, of course, the answer depends on how we define “tribes”. In ancient times, when human beings were fairly thin on the ground, tribes were conceived, largely, in geographical terms. They were the people who happened to live in a particular territory, who grew up together, and in general were of the same ethnic group or indeed of the same family, and evolved common ways of speech and manners and rituals.  Things were never quite as simple as that, of course, because some groups – including those that lived by following herds of grazing animals – were nomadic. Relations between tribes, whether static or nomadic, were sometimes positive, which mainly meant amicable trading, and sometimes anything but.

Nowadays, the world is more crowded and roughly half of us live in cities while most of the rest are farmers. Now, when communications are so much better than ever before and we are dominated by the “global economy”, very few people live in traditional tribes. But we remain very tribal nonetheless. So it is that Londoners, at least in those areas that still have fairly settled populations, tend to divide themselves into neighbourhoods, each with a recognizable character: Brixton, Dulwich Village, East Dulwich, Greenwich, Stepney, Chiswick, Hampstead, and so on. Others tribes are formed through common interest: the Royal College of Obstetricians, small farmers, supporters of Manchester United, Muslims, Roman Catholics or Seven-day Adventists.

But are such tribe-like groupings a good thing?

Well, it depends in large measure how the tribes define themselves. We can draw a parallel between tribes and species.

Biologists have long wondered how it is that species in the wild – even those that look very similar – generally mate only with their own kind. In truth there are quite a few inter-species hybrids in nature. Bread wheat, for example, is a hybrid of three different ancestral grasses, and it now seems that modern Europeans contain quite a few Neanderthal genes. But most mating between animals of different species usually produces no offspring, or else the offspring are in some way deficient, so it’s best to keep themselves to themselves.

The great Harvard zoologist Ernst Mayr suggested that species usually manage to avoid miscegenation because there are mating “barriers” between them. On the whole dogs don’t fancy cats, and vice versa. But in the 1980s the South African biologist Hugh Paterson suggested that this was the wrong way to look at things. Species surely don’t define themselves by their differences, or the “barriers”, between them. They define themselves by what they have in common. Animals consider themselves to be of the same species, said Paterson, if they recognise each other’s specific mating signals.

The same kind of reasoning may define the distinctions between tribes. Are Muslims Muslims because they are different from Christians and from Jews, or because they all follow the prophet Muhammad? The former implies a barrier between the different groups. The latter does not.


"Modern life is not designed to be convivial. In many ways it is designed to be the precise opposite"

Tribalism would surely be a good thing – helping us to create convivial societies – provided tribes are conceived in this positive way: not as being different from everybody else (with the tempting feeling that they are superior) but simply as mutually supportive groups. Convivial society implies that each of us should care about, and feel beholden to, society as a whole. But conviviality also implies (does it not?) that each individual feels personally fulfilled.

Beyond doubt, human beings have evolved to live in mutually-supportive groups. We are not only social, seeking the company of others, we are eusocial (meaning “good and properly social”) – absolutely dependent on others. It is in our psyche to feel comfortable in the company of family and friends (that’s part of what it means to be friends). Thus human beings cannot usually feel truly happy unless they feel that they do indeed belong to at least one tribe (when “tribe” is broadly defined), and preferably several.

Beyond doubt, too, people work most efficiently, at least on a sustainable basis, when they are working cooperatively with others of like mind – when indeed they are operating as members of a tribe. Professor Robin Dunbar of Oxford has shown that tribes actually have an optimal size: that in general we feel most comfortable as members of groups of around 150.

It seems, then, that if we want our societies to function efficiently in material terms and also to be convivial, then we need, perhaps above all, to make it possible for people to live in mutually supportive groups. This includes the middle-sized groups we might loosely define as tribes. It seems in general that individuals feel most fulfilled when they have families, and when families in turn feel part of some larger tribe – village, neighbourhood, whatever.

In modern societies, unlike traditional societies, tribes are of many different kinds. They overlap, so any one of us can and ideally does belong to several at once: a denizen of Didsbury, a school governor, a supporter of Man United, a member of the Bakers, Food, and Allied Workers Union, and an employee of the local bread company. In modern societies, too, the overlapping tribes nest within nations which ideally cooperate so that at least in some respects humanity as a whole becomes a super-tribe, with cross-fertilization at every level: intermarriage, fair trade, cultural exchange, and all the rest. Governance that is truly functional, which comes close to being democratic and convivial, must respect the various groupings at all levels with tribes, variously conceived,  occupying the middle ground.

But the powers-that-be, these days – the oligarchy of corporates, banks, governments like Britain’s, and their attendant, grant-dependent academics – do not, for the most part, think in such terms. For them, governance is top down. They do not seek to foster the kinds of groupings, including tribal groupings, in which people feel most at ease, and work most productively. In the cause of the neo-liberal economy – the perceived imperative to compete in the global market to maximize short-term wealth – companies and farms are encouraged to become as large as possible. Indeed, to become corporates. Labour is supposed to be “free”, with workers encouraged to flit from country to country. Although, on the whole, outright immigration is not encouraged, and foreign workers are commonly obliged to leave their citizen’s rights behind them. Employees cease to be tribal members and become economic units, or as they used to say in the Army, are seen as “details”.

In short, modern life is not designed to be convivial. In many ways it is designed to be the precise opposite: each person perceived as an independent agent, like an atom of carbon, say, flitting from molecule to molecule with no particular allegiance to any of them. All groupings below the level of transnational corporate and the supra-national agency, including families and tribes of all kinds and even nation states, are perceived to clog up the works. No wonder the world is in such a mess.


Read more from this issue of IAI News here: A Tribal World

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