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Living Lightly column

Science versus Tribalism

By Lauriston Muirhead, Wodonga Albury Towards Climate Health (WATCH)

Fossil evidence and observation of modern primates indicate that humans and our ancestors have lived in family groups or tribes for millions of years.  The greatest punishment was always to be excluded by your tribe. Group living is better than individual living in almost every way – hunting, gathering, defending etc. Trying to survive as an individual led to a short, lonely life and therefore minimal passing on of the genetic traits that would select for individualism.  We have evolved to be tribal.

Tribalism worked well until our tool making ability started to have impacts beyond the tribe. In the last few hundred years, our tool making ability has led to our domination of the planet.

It has taken less than ten thousand years to move from sticks and stones to metals, plastics, wheels, wings, rockets and electronics.  Instead of shouting to a hundred people, one person can whisper a broadcast to billions.  Instead of crossing a continent in months, we cross the planet in hours.  Instead of punching someone, we can kill millions at the touch of a button.

Even though tribalism is now redundant, because we are no longer hunters and gatherers, our brains are still hard-wired (evolved) to be tribal.  We choose people of the same coloured skin/political party/religion/footy team.  We adopt the ways of our “tribe” and, above all, we adopt the groupthink of our tribe — so we do not stand out in case we are excluded.

Science — learning by observation and experiment — is so relatively new, we have no evolutionary response to it.  Therefore it is often easier to believe the ideas of our “tribe” rather than those of scientists, even though science, by definition, is the best version of truth available as supported by evidence.

This makes it hard to have national or international agreements on anything, yet now we must, if we are to survive.  Just as when we were hunting or gathering, we have to agree on what we need to do.  Our tools are so powerful now we can alter the earth itself.  We can do it in seconds by nuclear holocaust or over decades through manmade climate change.  It is essential that we use our conscious minds to overcome the tribalism of our instinctive minds.