Chapter 11

The Tribe and Modern Society


Tribe – a form of human social organization based on a set of smaller groups (bands) consisting of a small number of people (usually no more than 30 to 50 persons in all) who form a fluid, egalitarian community and cooperate in activities such as subsistence, security, ritual, and care for children and elders, and defined by traditions of common descent, language, culture, and ideology.

The following are direct quotes from the book Tribe, On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger, May 2016, except for statements in italic added. Page numbers added for reference.

Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.

With reference to the Native American Indian: 
For all the temptations of native life, one of the most compelling might have been its fundamental egalitarianism, personal property was usually limited to whatever could be transported by horse or on foot, so gross inequalities of wealth were difficult to accumulate. Successful hunters and warriors could support multiple wives, but unlike modern society, those advantages were generally not passed on through the generations.  Social status came through hunting and war, which all men had access to, and women had far more autonomy and sexual freedom – and bore fewer children – than women in white society. “Here I have no master,” an anonymous colonial woman was quoted by the secretary of French legation as saying about life with the Indians, “I am the equal of all women in the tribe, I do what I please without anyone saying anything about it. I work only for myself. I shall marry if I wish. Is there a single woman as independent in your cities?”

Because of these basic freedoms, tribal members tended to be exceedingly loyal.  A white captive of the Kickapoo Nation who came to be known as John Dunn Hunter wrote that he had never before heard of a single instance of treason against the tribe, and as a result, punishments for such transgressions did not exist. But cowardice was punishable by death, as was murder within the tribe or any kind of communication with the enemy.  It was a simple ethos that promoted loyalty and courage over all other virtues and considered the preservation of the tribe an almost sacred task, which indeed it was.

One study in the 1960s found that the nomadic !Kung people of the Kalahari desert in south Africa needed to work as little as 12 hours a week in order to survive – roughly one quarter of the hours the average urban executive at the time. The “camp is an open aggregate of cooperating persons which changes in size and composition from day to day, anthropologist Richard Lee noted with clear admiration in 1968. “The members move out each day to hunt and gather, and return in the evening to pool the collected foods in such a way that every person present receives an equitable share…. Because of the strong emphasis on sharing, and frequency of movement, surplus accumulation is kept to a minimum.”

The Kalahari is one of the harshest environments in the world, and the !Kung were able to continue living in Stone-Age existence well into the 1970s precisely because no one else wanted to live there. The !Kung were so well adapted to their environment that during times of drought, nearby farmers and cattle herders abandoned their livelihoods to join them in the bush because foraging and hunting were a more reliable source of food.  The relatively relaxed pace of !Kung life – even during times of adversity – challenged longstanding ideas that modern society created a surplus of leisure time.  It created exactly the opposite: a desperate cycle of work, financial obligation, and more work. The iKung had fewer belongings than westerners, but their lives were under much greater personal control.

Among anthropologists, the !King are thought to present a fairly accurate picture of how our hominid ancestors lived for more than a million years before the advent of agriculture.  Genetic adaptations take around 25,000 years to appear in humans, so the enormous changes that came with agriculture in the last 10,000 years have hardly begun to affect our gene pool. Early humans would most likely have lived in nomadic bands of around 50 people, much like the iKung. They would have experienced high levels of accidental injuries and deaths.  They would have encountered domineering behavior by senior males by forming coalitions within the group. They would have been utterly intolerant of hoarding or selfishness. They would have occasionally endured episodes of hunger, violence and hardship.  They would have practiced close and involved childcare.  And they would have done almost everything in the company of others.  The would have almost never been alone.

First agriculture, and then industry changed two fundamental things about human experience.  The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts towards a common good.  And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person living in a modern city or suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day – or an entire life – mostly encountering complete strangers.  They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.

The evidence that this is hard on us is overwhelming.  Although happiness is notoriously subjective and difficult to measure, mental illness is not.  Numerous cross cultural studies have shown that modern society – despite it’s nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science and technology – is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety and chronic loneliness in human history.  As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down.  Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.

According to The Ethics of Suicide: Historical Sources, early chroniclers of American Indians couldn’t find any examples of suicide that were rooted in psychological causes. Early sources report that the Bella Coola, the Ojibwa, the Montagnais, the Arapaho, the Plateau Yuma, the southern Paiute and the Zuni, among others, experienced no suicide at all. This stands in harsh contrast to many modern societies where the suicide rate is as high as 25 cases per 100,000 people. In the United States, white middle aged men currently have the highest rate at 30 per 100,000 per year. According to a global survey by the  World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as 8 times the rate they do in poor countries, and the people in countries with large income disparities – like the United States – run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders.

The mechanism seems to be simple: poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities.

The psychological effect of placing such importance on affluence can be seen in the microcosm of the legal profession.  In 2015, the George Washington Law Review surveyed more than 6000 lawyers and found that conventional success in the legal profession – such as billable hours or making partner at a law firm – had zero correlation with levels of happiness and well-being reported by the lawyers themselves. In fact, public defenders, who have far lower status than corporate lawyers, seems to lead significantly happier lives. The findings are in keeping with something called self-determination theory which holds that human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered “intrinsic” to human happiness and far outweigh “extrinsic” values such as beauty, money and status.

Bluntly put, modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values over intrinsic ones, and as a result, mental health issues refuse to decline with growing wealth.

“The economic and marketing forces of modern society have engineered an environment that maximizes consumption at the long term cost of well being,” a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders concluded in 2012.  “In effect, humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight deficient, sleep deprived, competitive, inequitable and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.”

Baby rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers and presented with the choice of two kinds of surrogates: a cuddly mother made out of terry cloth or an uninviting mother made of wire mess. The wire mesh mother however dispensed warm milk. The babies took their nourishment as quickly as possible and then rushed back to cling to the terry clothed mother, which had enough softness to provide the illusion of affection.  Clearly, touch and closeness are vital to the health of baby primates including humans.

In 2007, anthropologist Christopher Beohm published an analysis of 154 foraging societies that were deemed to be representative of our ancestral past, and one of their most common traits was the absence of wealth disparities between individuals.  Another was the absence of arbitrary authority. “Social life is politically egalitarian in that there is always a low tolerance by a groups mature males for one of their number dominating, bossing, or denigrating others,” Boehm observed. “The human conscience evolved in the Middle to Late Pleistocene as a result of hunting large game. This required cooperative band-level hunting and sharing of meat.”

Because tribal foragers are highly mobile and can easily shift between communities, authority is almost impossible to impose on the unwilling. And even without that option, males who try to take control of the group – or the food supply – are often countered by coalitions of other males. This is an early and ancient adaptive behavior that tends to keep groups together and equitably cared for.  In his survey of ancestral-type societies, Boehm found that – in addition to murder and theft – one of the most commonly punished infractions was “failure to share.”  How often does that happen in today’s culture?  Freeloading on the hard work of others and bullying were also high up on the list. Punishments included public ridicule, shunning and finally, “assassination of the culprit by the entire group.”

A cave painting from the early Holocene in Spain shows ten figures with bows in their hands and a lone figure prone on the ground with what appear to be ten arrows sticking out of him.  The configuration strongly suggests an execution rather than death in combat. Boehm points out that among current-day foraging groups, group execution is one of the most common ways of punishing males who try to claim a disproportionate amount of the groups resources.

Boehm’s research has led him to believe that much of the evolutionary basis for moral behavior stems from group pressure. Not only are bad actions punished, but good actions are rewarded. When a person does something good for another person – a prosocial act, as it is called – they are rewarded not only by group approval but also by an increase of dopamine and other pleasurable hormones in their blood. Group cooperation triggers higher levels of oxytocin, for example, which promotes everything from breast feeding in women to higher levels of trust and group bonding among men.  Both reactions impart a powerful sensation of well-being.  Oxytocin creates a feedback loop of good-feeling and group loyalty that ultimately leads members to “self-sacrifice to promote group welfare,” in the words of one study. Hominids that cooperated with one another – and punished those who didn’t – must have outfought, outhunted and outbred everyone else.  For over a million years this genetically evolved and biochemically selected approach, perhaps prominent at the exit of Homo sapiens out of Africa 70,000 years ago, lead to the dominance of this human species and the extinction of others. These are the hominids that modern humans are descended from.

It’s revealing, then, to look at modern society through the prism of more than a million years of human cooperation and resource sharing. Subsistence-level hunters aren’t necessarily more moral than other people; they just can’t get away with selfish behavior because they live in small groups where almost everything is open to scrutiny. Modern society on the other is a sprawling and anonymous mess where people can get away with incredible levels of dishonesty without getting caught. What tribal people would consider a profound betrayal of the group, modern society simply dismisses as fraud.  Around 3% of people on unemployment assistance intentionally cheat the system, for example, which costs the United States more than $2 billion a year.  Such abuse would be immediately punished in tribal society. Fraud in welfare and other entitlements programs is estimated to be roughly the same rate, which adds another $1.5 billion in annual losses.  That figure, however, is eclipsed by Medicare and Medicaid fraud, which conservatively estimated at 10% of total payments – or $100 billion a year. Some estimates run two or three times that figure.

Fraud in the insurance industry is calculated to be $100 to $300 billion a year, a cost that gets passed directly to consumers in the form of higher premiums.  All told, combined public and private sector fraud costs every household in the US probably around $5000 a year – or roughly 4 months at a minimum wage job.  A hunter gatherer community that lost 4 month’s worth of food would face a serious threat to its survival, and its retribution against the people who caused that hardship would be immediate and probably very violent.

Westerners live in a complex society, and opportunity for scamming relatively small amounts of money off the bottom are almost endless – and very hard to catch.  But scamming large amounts of money off the top seems even harder to catch.  Fraud by American defense contractors is estimated at around $100 billion per year, and they are relatively well behaved compared to the financial industry.  The FBI reports that since the economic recession of 2008, securities and commodities fraud in the US has gone up by more than 50%. The recession, which was triggered by illegal and unwise banking practices, cost American shareholders several trillion dollars in stock value losses and is thought to have set the American economy back by a decade and a half.  Total costs for the recession have been estimated at $14 trillion, or about $45,000 per citizen.

Most tribal subsistence level societies would inflict severe punishments on anyone who caused that kid of damage.  Cowardice is another form of community betrayal, and most tribes punish it with immediate death. If that seems harsh, consider that the British military took “cowards” off the battlefield and executed them by firing squad as late as WWI. It can be assumed that hunter-gatherers would treat their version of a welfare cheat or dishonest banker as decisively as they would a coward.  They may not kill him, but he certainly would be banished from the community.  The fact that a group of people can cost American society several trillion dollars in losses – roughly one quarter of that year’s domestic product – and not be tried for high crimes shows how completely detribalized this country has become.

During the 1960s senior executives in America typically made around twenty dollars for every dollar earned by a rank and file worker.  Since then, that figure has climbed to 300 to 1 among S&P 500 companies, and in some cases it goes higher than that.  The US chamber of Commerce managed to block all attempts to force disclosure of corporate pay ratios until 2015, when a weakened version of the rule was finally passed by the SEC in a strict party line vote of 3 democrats in favor and 2 republicans opposed.

The American public will probably continue to refrain from broadly challenging corporate leaders who compensate themselves far in excess of their value to society. That is ironic because the political origins of the US lay in confronting precisely this kind of resource seizure by people in power. King Georg III of England caused the English colonies in America to rebel by trying to tax them without a voice in the government. In this sense, democratic revolutions are just a formalized version of the sort of group action that coalitions of senior males have used throughout the ages to confront greed and abuse.  Thomas Paine, one of the principle architects of American democracy, wrote a formal denunciation of civilization in a tract called Agrarian Justice: “Whether civilization has most promoted or most injured the general happiness of man is a question that may be strongly contested,” he wrote in 1795. “Both the most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized.”

When Paine wrote his tract, Shawnee and Delaware warriors were still attacking settlements just a few hundred miles from downtown Philadelphia. They held scores of white captives, many of whom had been adopted into the tribe and had no desire to return to colonial society. There is no way to know the effect on Paine’s thought process of living next door to a communal Stone Age society, bit it might have been crucial.  Paine acknowledged that these tribes lacked advantages of the arts and science and manufacturing, yet lived in a society where personal poverty was unknown and the natural rights of man actively promoted.  In that sense, Paine proclaimed, the American Indian should serve as a model for how to eradicate poverty and bring natural rights back into civilized life.

In 2009, an American soldier named Bowe Bergdahl slipped through a gap in the concertina wire at his combat outpost in southern Afghanistan and walked off into the night. He was quickly captured by a Taliban patrol, and his absence triggered a massive search by the US military that put thousands of his fellow soldiers at risk. The level of betrayal felt by soldiers was so extreme that many called for Bergdahl to be tried for treason when he was repatriated five years later. Technically his crime was not treason, so the US military charged him with desertion of his post—a violation that still carries a maximum penalty of death.

The collective outrage at Sergeant Bergdahl was based on very limited knowledge but provides a perfect example of the kind of tribal ethos that every group—or country—deploys in order to remain unified and committed to itself. If anything, though, the outrage in the United States may not be broad enough. Bergdahl put a huge number of people at risk and may have caused the deaths of up to six soldiers. But in purely objective terms, he caused his country far less harm than the financial collapse of 2008, when bankers gambled trillions of dollars of taxpayer money on blatantly fraudulent mortgages. These crimes were committed while hundreds of thousands of Americans were fighting and dying in wars overseas. Almost 9 million people lost their jobs during the financial crisis, 5 million families lost their homes, and the unemployment rate doubled to around 10 percent.

For nearly a century, the national suicide rate has almost exactly mirrored the unemployment rate, and after the financial collapse, America’s suicide rate increased by nearly 5 percent. In an article published in 2012 in The Lancet, epidemiologists who study suicide estimated that the recession cost almost 5,000 additional American lives during the first two years—disproportionately among middle-aged white men. That is close to the nation’s losses in the Iraq and Afghan wars combined. If Sergeant Bergdahl betrayed his country—and that’s not a hard case to make—surely the bankers and traders who caused the financial collapse did as well. And yet they didn’t provoke nearly the kind of outcry that Bergdahl did. Not a single high-level CEO has even been charged in connection with the financial collapse, much less been convicted and sent to prison, and most of them went on to receive huge year-end bonuses. Joseph Cassano of AIG Financial Products—known as “Mr. Credit-Default Swap”—led a unit that required a $99 billion bailout while simultaneously distributing $1.5 billion in year-end bonuses to his employees—including $34 million to himself. Robert Rubin of Citibank received a $10 million bonus in 2008 while serving on the board of directors of a company that required $63 billion in federal funds to keep from failing. Lower down the pay scale, more than 5,000 Wall Street traders received bonuses of $1 million or more despite working for nine of the financial firms that received the most bailout money from the US government.

As stated earlier on page 30, the fact that a group of people can cost American society several trillion dollars in losses – roughly one quarter of that year’s domestic product – and not be tried for high crimes shows how completely detribalized this country has become.


What about modern crises and the tribal instinct? Read Chapter 12.