Thursday, February 07, 2008

The tribal spirit

According to a study conducted by Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, there is a “cognitive limit (roughly 150) to the number of people with whom one can maintain a stable relationship”. Beyond 150, the human brain must resort to some combination of hierarchical schemes, stereotypes, and other simplified models in order to understand so many people.

This 150 itself can be achieved only under circumstances where more than 42% of the group’s timing was spent on social grooming. That’s why only groups under intense survival pressure, such as subsistence villages, nomadic tribes, and historical military groupings have, on average, achieved the 150-member mark

The Dunbar number of 150 is directly proportional to the size of the neocortex of the human brain. For primates with smaller brains, the number is even smaller. Thus, the tendency to limit group sizes is hard-wired in our brains and, at different stages in human evolution, has manifested itself as a different form of tribalism. Malcolm Gladwell touched on this aspect while discussing social groups in his book, The Tipping Point.

Up to a degree, tribal behaviour needed to be encouraged as it conferred evolutionary advantage on the group. In the past, this helped in formation of small homogenous groups (villages, townships, religious groups, etc) but once the critical number was reached, fissiparous tendencies took over. It could be in the form of fratricidal or territorial battles, religious wars or disputes over languages. History is replete with such examples.

Is tribalism a thing of the past and only to be found in history books?

No. An article by Dave Frohnmayer, President, University of Oregon (written in 1998, I found this by following a wiki link) argues that tribalism is well and alive. And what is New Tribalism? It is the growth of a politics based upon narrow concerns, rooted in the exploitation of divisions of class, cash, gender, region, religion, ethnicity, morality and ideology. A give-no-quarter and take-no-prisoners activism that demands satisfaction and accepts no compromise. It is a raw permissiveness that escalates rhetorical excess sometimes even to physical violence. And it is an environment where our political system of limited government is asked to take on social and religious disputes that the system cannot possibly resolve.

The group size may have exceeded the Dunbar number due to explosion in population, but the behaviour remains.

Thus, when Karunanidhi uses the Tamil card and rhetoric to fan the flames of linguistic fervour, when the Thackerays ( Bal or Raj) invoke the Maratha spirit to drive their followers into a state of frenzy, or when the BJP plays the Hindu vs Muslim game, they are simply exploiting the innate tribalism that is woven into our genes. In short, “the monkey in us” unconsciously responds to these calls of the wild.

Nationalism is also a form of tribalism, but which we need to put up with. It ensures a larger group identity, reduces the number of such tribes globally and provides administrative and logistical convenience. Global trade ought to have provided the impetus for breakdown of national borders and man-made barriers.

Alas, however much Thomas Friedman may rave, globalization of trade and commerce cannot happen when tribalisation of mind-set is rampant.

So, the only development that can bring human beings together is if an alien group from a distant star was to attack Earth. Perhaps then, our tribal instinct will make us cling to one of our kind, against a common enemy.


Unknown said...

forget the real attack.. if this logic were true, then all movies( which are our alternate reality, be it {H,B,K}ollywood), where the human race fights against aliens


Starship troopers
Mars attacks
etc. etc.

should instantly be global hits

what gives?


Anonymous said...

i re-read this and cme back.

Filarial said...

Asimov actually built the progress of his futurological society along those lines- as his stories progressed- people came together as belonging to a continent and the governments being responsible for so and a unified world president-
and then as the other worlds were colonised nationlist sentiments were built on the fact of which planet they settled on-

he developed his society to the point that the origins of earth were lost and then almost came to the point where in human kind would be unified by the confrontation with an alien species..

Revathi said...

How about Tsunamis, Global warming, or like in the movie Abyss?

Anonymous said...

ok my grammer in the above comment is totally wrong.. Sory ..
I meant
*I will re-read and come back.

Well I tried to read it again..

*In short, “the monkey in us” unconsciously responds to these calls of the wild.

Well I don't think so, other than the illogical guys who go around fighting for money.

then if 150 is the limit.. we ought to fight and start killing right away.

Alien attack ?
*blinks in surprise!

yay! MIB style!

You labeled this "boring stuff", oh God it was real boring :)