What’s Wrong with a Bit of Tribalism?

It appears the most progressive members of society are in a frenzied rush to homogenize all the world’s people.  They want to eliminate any sort of ethnic identity.  Their assertion is that ethnicity is at the root of all the troubles with the world.  The assumption is this will create a world where someone’s appearance or religion or ethnic origin is indiscernible from the next person.  A world where ethnicity, race and even physical appearance will be blended into a human race devoid of differences.  Skin color, eye color, physical stature, facial features will all disappear as differences into a homogenized, androgynous, atheist global persona.

This may indeed be a cure for all that ills the human species on this planet, or it may not.   They speculate the need for constructs like religion or sovereign states would fade away.  Without those constructs war among “tribes” would be devoid of purpose as tribes would only be an artifact of ancient history.  That “tribalism” is the root of evil as it may be described.

This notion of tribalism as a source of evil is one conceived of, or fashioned by, Former President Barrack Obama in his public addresses on tribalism.  Here’s an example from the Chicago Tribune.


Obama warns against ‘a crude sort of nationalism’ or ‘tribalism’ taking root in the U.S.

President Barack Obama warned Tuesday that Americans and people around the world “are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism, or ethnic identity, or tribalism” taking root amid the populist movements that are gaining currency around the world.

“We are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism, or ethnic identity or tribalism that is built around an us and a them, and I will never apologize for saying that the future of humanity and the future of the world is going to be defined by what we have in common, as opposed to those things that separate us and ultimately lead us into conflict,” Obama said.

“Take Europe,” he continued. “We know what happens when Europeans start dividing themselves up and emphasizing their differences and seeing a competition between various countries in a zero-sum way. The 20th century was a bloodbath.”

“In the United States we know what happens when we start dividing ourselves along the lines of race or religion or ethnicity. It is dangerous. It is dangerous, not just for the minority groups that are subjected to that kind of discrimination, or in some cases in the past, violence, but because we then don’t realize our potential as a country when we are preventing blacks or Latinos or Asians or gays or women from fully participating in the project of building American life,” he said.

“So my vision is right on that issue, and it may not always win the day in the short term in any particularly political circumstance, but I am confident it will win the day in the long term,” Obama added. “Because societies which are able to unify ourselves around values and ideals and character, and how we treat each other, and cooperation and innovation, ultimately are going to be more successful than societies that don’t.”1


Given a broader perspective, tribalism can be defined in more than one way and devoid of evil intent.  Former President Obama’s notion revolves around specific aspects of tribalism (race, religion and ethnicity) that certainly have been an incendiary force or cause of conflict, war and bloodshed between “tribes”.  Yet there are also some real positives in tribal affinity. 

On a very personal level, members of a tribe e.g., Scandinavians, Jews, Slovaks, Native Americans, Chinese, Mexican, among many, many others, find natural attraction in couples’ relationships, and a sense of personal security, among tribe members.  The notion of security is proven and profound. The attraction is deep-seated and multi-faceted.  It is physiological and psychological. 

In this excerpt from a piece on Psychology Today.com “Are We Attracted to People Who Look Like Us?”2, the reality of who we are attracted to and why, finds some scientific basis. 


As it turns out, then, we are much more likely to fall for someone who looks like us or our opposite-sex parent. This may indicate that our incest taboos are social constructs instituted to prevent people from following their instincts. However, there are other explanations of why we are attracted to people who look like us.

Researchers at the deCODE Genetics company in Reykjavik, reporting in a 2008 issue of Science, found that marriages between third or fourth cousins in Iceland tended to produce more children and grandchildren than those between completely unrelated individuals. The researchers suggest that marrying third and fourth cousins may be optimal for reproduction because this degree of genetic similarity may produce the best gene pool. Sibling and first-cousin couples, were they to mate, could have inbreeding problems, whereas couples genetically far-removed from each other could have genetic incompatibilities. Third- and fourth-cousin couples, though, tend to be genetically compatible while having no serious inbreeding problems.

At first glance, such findings seem to go against the so-called “Westermarck effect,” which posits that people who grow up together are disposed not to fall in love with each other after they reach sexual maturity. But the Westermarck effect—based on a series of studies done by Finnish anthropologist Edvard Westermark—actually is consistent with the recent findings—living in close proximity is no doubt the decisive factor for desensitization in terms of sexual attraction, not the degree of the individuals’ resemblance.  in fact, the Westermarck effect has been confirmed, in the Israeli kibbutz system of communal living, in which people who grow up together are typically not directly related to each other and do not look alike. And consider how traditional sim pua marriages, mostly dating from pre-modern Taiwan, also confirm Westermarck’s theory: Sim pua means “little daughter in-law.” In the system, a female infant is given to a family to be reared as their own daughter. When she grows up, she is to marry a son in that family. But sim pua marriages have produced a low fertility rate, a high divorce rate, frequent adultery, and lack of sexual attraction. In some cases, the son or “daughter-in-law” has refused to marry their destined-for spouse. So, the degree to which a couple resembles each other could be a defining factor in relationship satisfaction after all.2


Not to say this is an absolute, and more frequently than ever successful trans-tribe relationships are occurring.  Without a doubt, when the possibility presents itself, do what makes you happy.  One of the most important and unique American constitutional rights is the pursuit of happiness.  But, none of us should be made to feel as though we are Neanderthals because we have strong positive feelings about our connection to our tribal origins.  We are attracted to who we are attracted to, simply as that.  We are attracted to potential partners for any number of possible combination of reasons.  For centuries attempts to force couple relationships, for political alliance or cultural reasons, nearly always end in disaster and unhappiness. There appears to be strong evidence that this tribal affinity thing is a significant force in who we love, who we are comfortable around, who makes us feel safe and with whom we procreated.   

This homogenized, borderless, raceless, religion-free society some desire may be coming our way as humans.  Those in the media and the like, that produce the images we all see every day, wish to portray us as well down that path.  It just isn’t so.  It will have to overcome many millennia of tribalism, deeply seated in our very being, to become the dominant human condition globally.




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