‘We are all in the same boat, in this stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.’
G. K. Chesterton.
Our early ancestors who had the inclination to live in a tribe were more likely to be safe from predators, and less likely to starve. (Those who found food could share with those who didn’t.)
‘The best way to store food is in another man’s stomach.’
Therefore, they were more likely to live long enough to pass on their genes Those disinclined to live in tribes were more likely to starve or be eaten.
So, over time, they evolved the inclination to live in groups, or tribes. (The propensity to live in groups would have evolved long before we looked anything like bipeds.)
Let’s go a little deeper. What specific needs would prompt us to live in a tribe?
1. The need to feel valued by the tribe.
2. The need to feel that we contribute to the tribe.
3. The need to feel connected with the tribe.
All three propensities would provide a ‘social glue’ that would keep us together. When we satisfy those needs we satisfy our ‘deep need to belong’, and we are rewarded with core happiness. If we don’t satisfy them, we feel isolated and anxious. That’s evolution’s way of nudging us to change the situation.
The question might then be asked: in this technological, urbanised western world in which everyone is connected, why are so many of us unhappy?
Let’s examine that.
1. The need to feel valued by the tribe.
In a tribal society it is easy to feel valued because the work done is necessary and visible. Plus, with so few people to compete with, good workers are recognised and appreciated. Further, they would work with friends and relatives, not for employers, so their contribution would mean more. It’s appreciated more.
In our Western world it is hard to feel valued when your employer is focused upon increasing productivity. Even our colleagues may not notice our contribution, or in these competitive times, not want it. And, how many parents truly feel valued by their children, who are distracted by a surfeit of gadgets?
A nineteen-year-old youth charged with arson was asked why he started bushfires, and then helped fire fighters put the fires out. Did he want the recognition? Did he want his name in the newspapers?
‘No,’ he replied. ‘It’s not that. I don’t need to see my name in the papers . . . I liked being needed to fight the fire.’
From the ABC Radio National program, ‘Bush Telegraph’, February, 2007
‘General Willard S. Paul once told me, with perfect sincerity, that the greatest moment of his life had been at the Battle of the Bulge when I put my arm around him and said, “How is my little fighting son of a bitch today?” He said that this remark inspired not only him, but every man in the division, and it is highly probable that it did.’
General George S. Patton, Jr. US Army. (From ‘Patton on Leadership’, by Alan Axelrod.)
2. The need to feel we contribute to the tribe.
In pre-history, everyone was required to ‘do their bit’, and that bit was important. But in our society we don’t come home bearing food, we come home with . . . nothing. Food is already in the fridge, power is at the flick of a switch, and water is on tap . . . A bill payer’s contribution might be significant, but it’s taken for granted.
And, many of us get to see on television people who contribute so much more. That might prompt us to view our own contribution as insignificant.
And, of course, some of us don’t get to contribute. Unemployment benefits nourish the body, not the soul.
3. The need to feel connected with the tribe.
There are no secrets in a tribal society. Members co-operate and share with one another. There are few, if any, class systems to divide people. The strong kinship systems, the community get-togethers and work-togethers allow each person to feel connected with one another. The village really does raise the child!
But in our society we don’t have strong kinship systems; instead we have the nuclear family, and that can bring with it isolation and loneliness. We have class and caste systems that divide us, and wealth inequalities to divide us even more. We focus more on competition than on co-operation. Our lives are full of secrets. We are taught to live privately, to mind our own business, and to keep our assets to ourselves. We barely know our neighbours.
It’s no wonder many of us feel disconnected.
‘We need to belong. The more we feel connected and belonging to a group, the happier we are. Unfortunately, we’ve moved into a ‘nuclear family’ model of culture, in which we’re supposed to get all our needs met by two parents (no more, no less), limited extended family, and the forced situation of various institutions depending on our stage of life (preschool, school, college/university, work, retirement homes – the list goes on.) It’s a far cry from the tribal structure we can still see in some countries like Africa, where children are loved and raised by everyone.’
Q. ‘But Mark, current technology connects us to anyone we want, anywhere in the world!’
Do the people you know know each other? For hundreds of thousands of years our species lived in small communities and each person in that community knew one another. They not only knew each other, they relied on each other. Even the elderly were valued, for their knowledge.
‘When an elderly indigenous person dies, a library is lost.’
An indigenous saying.
People in tribes have real connection. Yes, the connections we have are far more extensive, but they lack substance. They are mere shadows of what could be and should be.
Our close relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, groom each other by picking leaves and lice from each other’s fur. It’s a form of social bonding. Our phone calls and texts to one another are mere primitive technological equivalents. Girls used to brush each other’s hair; now they text. Which do you think would be the more soul enriching?
In short, we evolved innate propensities to prompt us to live in a tribe. In a tribe we can satisfy those needs, but in our civilised Western society, it’s not so easy. Some of us satisfy our ‘deep need to belong’ by supporting sports teams or political parties, or we join clubs, or feel a bond with fellow yachties, or criminals, or ex-patriots. It’s why ‘blood is thicker than water’ and it’s why we draw family trees.
And, our deep need to belong is one reason why so many otherwise smart people believe there is merit in astrology. It’s easy to feel connected with the universe if you choose to believe that balls of hydrogen and helium (stars) light years away contribute towards your personality.
And, our deep need to belong explains why so many people believe that everything happens for a reason. It allows believers to feel they are ‘a thread in the tapestry of Life’, a part of some vast plan. These people are comforted by the belief that life and suffering have purpose, and that what we do, matters.
However, holding absurd beliefs, or being a one-eyed supporter of a sports team, is not the best way to satisfy our deep need to belong. Even being a family member is not sufficient. To feel connected with the tribe we need to feel connected not just with friends and lovers, but with everyone we meet – we need to feel connected with humanity. We need to feel that we belong. We need to feel that we really are ‘in this same boat in a stormy sea’ and that we do owe each other a ‘terrible loyalty’.
Kathleen Puckett wrote in the magazine, ‘New Scientist’, 4th September, 2011: ‘. . . During my 23-year stint as an FBI special agent, my colleagues and I looked into what Kaczynski, McVeigh and Rudolph(three mass murderers) had in common. The results were startling. All three were highly intelligent and well educated, with no previous history of criminal violence. But they all shared a profound inability to forge meaningful relationships. . . . (They were) all repeatedly unable to connect socially to the groups whose ideology they shared.’
If those murderers were unable to forge meaningful relationships, there is a good chance they were also unable to connect well with anyone, and would have been unable to satisfy their ‘deep need to belong’. That wouldn’t necessarily make them murderers, but could there be a connection?
Q. ‘Not all primates evolved to live in tribes. Orangutans didn’t. They are mainly solitary creatures.’
The jungles in Borneo and Sumatra are so thick with trees the orangutans can travel freely, and rarely need to go to ground. That means they are less susceptible to predators (like Sumatran tigers) and less needful of a relative’s warning. Further, they are mainly vegetarian, so they don’t need to share a carcass.
In fact, it’s to their advantage to NOT form groups because food is often scarce in a rainforest. Although they do get together when trees offer an abundance of fruit, that isn’t often. They could not permanently be together without starving.