The tribal mind

Several years ago I read a book about the prehistory of Skateholm in Scania, southern Sweden. If I recall correctly it was written by Lars Larsson, a professor specialized in Stone Age archaeology. The location in Skateholm has probably served as a graveyard and a settlement for a hunter-gatherer society. Skateholm is a perfect spot for this kind of living, close to different biotopes – the ocean, the river, the moorland, the forest and so on, which made it easy to get food. And the area was sparsely populated – a few hundred people in the whole of Scania.

Grave, Skateholm, The old man and the child

Later, about 6000 years ago, southern Scandinavia was transformed into an agricultural society and started to rely to domesticated species. The society became stratified and the population dense.

The hunter-gatherer has occupied more than 90 % of human history, and without a doubt our brains are to a certain extent identical with our predecessors. Try this thought: Our brains are shaped for the life in small tribes, to get along with a certain, quite limited group (”us”). The evolution hasn’t developed our brains for the challenges of globalization. Yet. They still cherish the tribe (your friends, family), and the risk to develop xenophobia is clear.

Is it true? Well, I don’t know, but maybe it’s a way to understand the xenophobia that is so obvious in Europe (and of course in other parts of the world) today. The modern, contemporary society has made it possible for people from different areas and with different cultural backgrounds, to live close to each other, in metropolises, which has given us fantastic possibilities – and major cultural clashes. The world has become smaller, and the ethical borders are getting just as obvious as the national borders.

Joshua Greene has written the book Moral Tribes, which deals with questions of this kind. Give up your gut feeling. Give up the gods. And give up what’s called common sense. We need something new.

Joshua Greene

Collaborative skills are necessary for the evolution of humans. The survival of the fittest, and the fittest are probably the individuals with a great ability to collaborate. To get the group to work, some kind of uniting force, a glue, is needed, and according to Greene, this is one of the functions of morality.

The balancing between the individual and collective is regulated by a collaboration between the two basic morality systems: The fast, automatic system (instincts, social power, sexual attraction) and the slow, contemplative system. The systems could be dangerous: They are constructed for cooperation within a tribe or a group. The automatic system warns you for strange things and strangers (xenophobic), the manual works in both directions; we can use our manual system to claim the rights for our group at the expense of foreigners, but also to find solutions and compromises in conflicts between tribes. If you compare with a camera – for most tasks the automatic system is good enough, but sometimes, in certain cases, we need to use the manual mode, to make adjustments. And the manual mode is far more energy demanding.

We have to accept that different tribes have developed different ethical codes. And we are unable to come forward if we rely solely on our automatic system.

The automatic system could be really successful when a hostile tribe is trying to conquer the pastureland of your tribe. But in the globalized world of today, the same pattern could cause huge conflicts. Gay marriages, eating animals, Israel/Palestine, depicting prophets, circumcision, ecology, and so on. The solution, according to Greene, is to establish a global moral philosophy, and the best choice is utilitarianism, which is based on maximizing happiness and minimizing unhappiness. Since the “u-word” is full of negative associations, Greene uses the term deep pragmatism instead.

The other choices – the virtue ethics of Aristotle and the duty ethics of Kant – are both less attractive. The virtue ethics is tribal, and its rules are defined by group members, and Kant is too occupied with intuition. According to Greene, utilitarianism is the only ethic tradition that is able to solve problems in a globalized world where different tribes are colliding and competing.


But utilitarianism is controversial, and every situation has to be discussed. The effects can be absurd. Listen to the two stories below and you’ll get the point:

Story I: Four people need a new organ to survive. They meet a healthy person and claim their right to kill him and transplant the organs. On the plus side: Four saved lives. On the minus side: One dead person.

Story II: Ten pedophiles are out walking. They meet one kid. They claim their right to abuse the child. On the plus side: Ten happy pedophiles. On the minus side: One abused children.

The only solution is, as far as I can see, to use some kind of human rights (or maybe post-humanistic thinking).

There are some obvious problems with Greenes theory, but there are also some really good points: It offers an explanation of the origins of xenophobia and it highlights some of the problems we’re facing in a globalized world. The crucial point is that it’s just impossible to create a common morality. It works well in a laboratory, but it’s impossible in reality. The contemporary world is blended, every individual is a mix of different tribes and identities, you belong to several “we” at the same time.

I definitely agree with Greene in some parts; we succeed if we cooperate, it’s a kind a mutuality with origins in the early history of mankind. And I’m sure that certain kinds of xenophobia partly could be related to evolution. But I would also like stress that curiosity – the attraction to the exotic, the unknown and the frightening – is another fundamental part of the evolution. And this attraction is one of the driving forces for development and change. Xenophobia and curiosity have contradicted or complemented each other during the human history.  

It’s also important to add that morality isn’t a fixed product. Every human interaction is a negotiation about morality – it’s something you do, rather than have. Thus, we can identify three ethic sources – the manual and cognitive, the evolutionary and biological, and the social and interactive.

Allan Ramsay, David Hume

The present and the future needs dialogue and tolerance more than anything. One thing is obvious – the world works better if we collaborate. David Hume has made a famous description of this: Two men are sitting in a boat, they don’t know each other, but they share the same goal – they both want to get to the shore. And even if they don’t share world view, they both know that if they cooperate – start rowing in the same direction and at the same pace – they will succeed.

2016-07-31 || Fredrik Sandblad