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December 09, 2004

Maladapted to our Habitat

For millions of years we lived in tribal units, stretching back in time far beyond the origins of our species, and continuing almost up to the present. A mere 10,000 years ago, all our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. Probably, most of our ancestors were still hunter-gatherers only 5,000 years ago. But even after that date, we lived in small villages - from a social point of view not too different from a hunter-gathering tribe. Modern life, intimately bound to the social milieu of the city, became the native habitat of the majority only about a hundred years ago, and then only in the most technologically advanced countries of the world. It is a profound change for mankind that after millions of years of evolution for tribal life, we find ourselves in an habitat that doesn't support it.

It is my opinion that many of the psychopathologies of the modern world result from the breakdown of the tribal unit. We are highly adapted to tribal life, and only by understanding this fact, and what it implies, can we understand human nature. The bottom line is this: we are profoundly maladapted to our habitat. Symptoms of our maladaption include feelings of ennui, isolation and depression, so common in our society. From an evolutionary perspective, these are clearly disadvantageous. Who is more likely to survive and reproduce a depressed, listless individual, or a happy, energetic individual? Clearly, these problems are severely selected against, and indeed in tribal societies living close to our original habitat these problems are rare. It could be argued that these feelings are adaptive responses to negative environmental factors, like pain, which would cause us to avoid them. But my observation is that people who suffer from these problems usually have no idea as to their cause, or what to do to overcome them. In my opinion it's more properly seen as a spurious emotional response to unexpected circumstances, much like a computer program given unexpected input the output is spurious because the inputs haven't been accounted for.

It is well known that our taste for sweets and fats, an advantage in a world poor in these nutrients, has lead, in lands of plenty, to the current epidemic of obesity. We have no natural restraint (or not enough) to keep us from overeating simply because this circumstance was too rare to make developing such restraint evolutionarily advantageous. Something similar has happened to the social nutrient of the tribe. It used to be geography that circumscribed the tribe, and economics which bound it together. Tribal units were physically isolated from one another, villages were distant, and cooperation essential to survival. (The distances need not be great, I think a half-hour walk is enough.) Now the speed of our cars, the density of our cities, and the complexity of our economy have erased these boundaries.

From my vantage point, these things seem obvious (though not necessarily true!), probably because my vantage point is unusual in the modern world: it is distinctly tribal. My ancestors have been urban for thousands of years, and it is perhaps because of this that they developed cultural defenses to high-density living, creating a tribal life through cultural institutions. (Or perhaps not, in any case, the institutions exist.) But let us examine more closely the psychological notion of a tribe. A tribe is a group of people who act, to some degree, altruistically. Barring unusual circumstances, any group of people whose members interact with each other, will become a tribe. The commenters of this blog are a tribe: I am quite sure that they are more likely to be altruistic toward each other than toward people chosen at random. But from a psychological point of view, that is not the defining characteristic. Rather, the most important characteristic of the tribe is that it gives the individual an identity. People who have a weak identity are likely to do crazy things to get one, like become a Nazi, or just become depressed. On the other hand, one who is immersed in his tribe lives with a certain kind of tranquility, a life without the modern plagues of ennui, isolation and depression, though it may be full of ordinary boredom, loneliness, and unhappiness. (The difference between the two: one is chronic, the other causal hence adaptive.) When I look out at modern life, the closest thing to a tribe that I see is the workplace - and this is a poor substitute for the real thing, like eating cake instead of food: filling but not nutritious.

Given enough time, I suppose that humankind could evolve from dogdom to cathood, become a solitary creature that meets only to work and mate. I don't think this is likely. Another, easier, strategy is available: to augment our genes with memes, and create tribes strong enough to withstand the hardships of our habitat. I think the change will become clear in the next few generations. We are already seeing it now.

Some candidates for the tribes of the future: Observant Jews, Evangelical Christians, Mormons, Parsis (though I hear that they're having a problem with fertility, an essential feature for survival), Sikhs, Jains, Marwaris (certainly other Hindu castes as well, that I don't know about), Japanese (I have heard that the true religion of Japan is Japanism), Falun Gong (other Chinese sects?), Druse, Ismailis (I would include Islamists, but my impression is that they're not demographically well-defined - maybe Islam as a whole should be on the list?)... Others?

Cross-posted at Rishon Rishon.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 02:51 AM