Tribalism is a Great Filter that threatens the longevity of the human species — if we are to avoid extinction, we must overcome it.
This article will span a few topics which intuitively, at first, may not seem directly related.
Nonetheless, we will try to demonstrate how they are — and how that fact, and these connections are existentially important to all of us.
Let’s begin with a definition:
1. The state or fact of being organized in a tribe or tribes.
2. DEROGATORY — the behaviour and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group. — “a society motivated by cultural tribalism”
The problems with the second part of the above definition are easy to understand. In our extensively connected modern world, where we can video call someone on the other side of the planet, living in a country with a completely different language, culture, and ingrained, more subtle beliefs about the right way to act as a human — tribalism is an obvious inhibitor of our ability to understand other humans, who did not grow up in the same environment as we did, and may not think as we do.
But the first definition is the most neutrally factual, and the state it describes, while it has been true for the entire history of the evolution of the human species, remains true today. As of the time of writing, in 2021, Common Era, humans — at least in the first world — live in habitats constructed of brick and stone, plugged in to pipes that bring clean, drinkable water on demand, flammable gas for heating and cooking food. Alternatively, food can be delivered to us, by actions that can involve as little as sedentary scrolling through interactive images and text displayed on a small, electronic black box device, powered by the grid which also delivers electricity into our homes, on demand, to fuel our modern lives of relative comfort and luxury.
Let’s briefly visit another definition, which may not be familiar to everyone — that of a black box…
In science, computing, and engineering, a black box is a system which can be viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs […] without any knowledge of its internal workings. Its implementation is “opaque” (black). The term can be used to refer to many inner workings, such as the ones of a transistor, an engine, an algorithm, the human brain, or an institution or government.
(definition credited to Wikipedia — another marvel of our modern world)
Our devices are not true black boxes to everyone, of course. But to many of us, who have not studied science or engineering extensively enough to understand how these modern marvels work — they essentially are. Picture a neolithic hominid — or even an early human, 50 to 100 millennia ago (~100 000 years BCE — Before Common Era — or Before Christ, if you prefer). When we shared the world with other non-human, ape-descended bipeds, homo neaderthalis, homo florensis, homo denisova.
A fully charged smartphone, presented to an early hominid, would be a truly black box piece of magic. They could conceivably learn to use it —assuming certain apps preinstalled, and the existence of a similar device in the possession of another highly intelligent ancestral specimen of the homo genus. Obviously in the absence of a broadcasting mobile network, device-to-device video calls, the ability to take and store pictures, and transmit them to another — the mechanism behind this would be so far beyond what they understood of their world, that it would appear to be magic.
This is an aside, however, that we will come back to — and of course, the oft-cited Arthur C Clarke quote — “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” very much applies. But the important takeaway here is that— relatively speaking — we live in a magical world.
But, it is not magical for everyone. Tribalism still plays a very prominent role in how we organise our world. Individual nations enforce tight control over their borders. Standards of living between these nations vary so hugely that in a sense — each one is experiencing a different era in time. To travel to — or to live, or be born within — the third world, is to be born into humanity’s past, just as to travel to, or live within the first world is to exist in a magical future.
This is a problem. But to solve it requires a deeper analysis of the reasons for these tribal instincts that prevail, still, in an age of science, reason, and — for those lucky denizens of the futuristic societies of planet Earth — abundant access to the entire sphere of knowledge of all humankind.
Tribalism exists because, from an evolutionary perspective, it is advantageous to have a tribal instinct. This fact is almost tautologous and requires no real explanation, because if it were not true, then we would not be tribal, would not live still in tribes, divided, fearful of the stranger. This is how evolution works. Disadvantageous traits are selected out, the carriers of these traits die out. Advantageous traits persist — until the advantage they once provided disappears.
This is happening now. Tribalism no longer serves us — and it is highly likely that this is a conflict eventually faced by all life that evolves high intelligence such as our own (of course, we don’t really know how intelligent we are relative to the rest of the universe — only that we are, seemingly, the dominant species on planet Earth not due to any other features of our relatively fragile bodies, but due to the capacities our brains give us to think abstractly, and reason).
Let’s visit our next concept that is important to understand.
Great Filters and The Fermi Paradox
The Fermi Paradox is an often misunderstood but essentially just a neutrally observational statement about the apparent absence of other intelligent life in the nearby observable universe.
It says, essentially — if the universe is so big and old, where are all the alien civilisations?
The answer to this question is of course, not yet known, there are many possible theories, but to delve too deeply into them is beyond the scope of this article. One such potentiality, however, is that various Filters — some, more difficult to pass than others — these are Great Filters — serve as a natural inhibitor to the proliferation of intelligent life, or even to the long term survival of intelligent life.
We know these Filters exist, since life has evolved in the universe on at least one planet — our own — and this was not guaranteed in the early evolution of our solar system, nor is it guaranteed to last very long in cosmological terms.
That being understood, let’s unify the points of this discussion.
The Dichotomy of Sentience
If humanity is to survive — to avoid inevitable extinction, we must collectively come up with a solution to the destructive capacity of our tribal instincts. We have enough understanding now of the reasons why we think the way we think, and behave the way we do, that even though, truly, the study of human psychology and the human mind are sciences in a very early stage, compared to what they might conceivably become — we are capable enough now to decide how to change ourselves.
The usual rules of evolution no longer apply to us. This is the advantage of high intelligence — we can override our basal instincts with top down control from the neocortex. This is difficult to do, and it is a rare specimen of human being for whom this does not need to be practised, and learned.
The emotions, feelings, desires, and whims that often control our actions originate from a subconscious place, from regions deeper and older in our brains, and it is all too easy to mistake them for a rational assessment of reality. But they are not reality.
Our Minds Lie to Us
Again — our emotions and feelings are not necessarily real— our minds lie to us. But these feelings, feel very real. It is not easy to accept them for what they are — no more than an object in consciousness. An object external to us, not a part of us.
If we encounter a fallen tree on a path, are we offended by it? Hopefully not, we accept is as a part of external reality, not under out control, but to be dealt with as needed. But if we encounter a troubling thought — a difficult emotion, such as anger, fear, or grief — are we offended by it? Do we forget ourselves, and try to escape it, avoid it, react to it, act on it, or deal with it whatever way we can? For most of us, if we are truly honest with ourselves — our feelings are more real to us than the objects we perceive with our senses. But in reality, they are less real — they are constructs, a part of the simulation of reality that our mind creates for us to live within.
Our brain itself is a physical object, and the sensations it generates are immaterial — but most importantly, they do not come from us. We are the observers of the objects in our consciousness, and this world includes sensations from within our minds, just as much as a fallen tree on a path in the world in which we live.
So, we come back to tribalism. Almost everyone, if they are honest with themselves, can invoke a sense of tribal instinct within themselves. In the more enlightened, rational parts of our present day planet Earth, extreme iterations of tribal instinct are rightfully shunned as aberrations, shameful delusions originating from the darker elements of our human nature. Discrimination based on race is the most obvious, dark example of the problems that happen when tribal thoughts are allowed to proliferate unchecked. We start to believe that we are not only different to another group, arbitrarily defined — but superior, and better.
Evidence does not support this. But even if it did — this would not excuse the subjugation of other tribes to fuel our own selfish goals.
Nation states, divided by arbitrarily defined borders, governed with different laws, separated by ancient cultural traditions — are iterations of tribal instinct that continue to hold us back as a species. Patriotism — while it has value, in some ways, that cannot be denied — is easily perverted into the kind of destructive, separatist instincts that threaten our survival.
Species themselves can be considered to be other tribes, in a sense, and the subjugation of other species of evidently high intelligence — whales, imprisoned in water parks for human amusement, elephants separated from their families and transported to live in cramped enclosures — again, for human amusement. These things are iterations of interspecies tribalism, and are likely to be wrong.
This is most true when looking downwards along the tree of sentient cognition. Mice, for example, and our experimentation on them, is arguably a dark stain on the progression of human technology and science. But — consider also, that we live in a universe with no other signs of life except that on our own planet, and on this planet, we are the only species so far to have arisen, in several billion years of evolution, with the capacity to defend the light of sentient life from the destructive forces of a vast and inscrutably chaotic universe. Does that excuse the infliction of suffering on our fellow living beings on planet Earth? I will not try to answer that question, but will leave it for your own consideration. Most likely, it does not excuse it — but for life, conscious, sentient, intelligent life to survive — it may be necessary.
What is of most value, truly? Survival — by experiments on mice, forced to suffer for a purpose they cannot hope to understand — or even monkeys, animals seemingly closer to us in the nature of their minds, and therefore — possibly — their internal worlds — comes at a cost. If we were, collectively, to suppress our instinct to acquire knowledge, even at the cost of sacrificing other lives — even human lives, at times, as in medical experiments, or any number of traumatic scenarios that require the sacrifice of a few to save many — we would not be where we are, and we would, more importantly, not be capable of protecting the Earth from an asteroid strike, a nearby supernova, an unfortunately directed gamma ray burst, or an aberrant superflare from our fortuitously benign sun.
Life on Earth might perish — inevitably, even absent any unexpected threat from the vastness of space, in the absence of a species capable of protecting against the natural aging of our life-giving parent star, the sun — in roughly a billion years or so, the luminosity of the sun would increase to such an extent that liquid water could no longer exist on the surface of the Earth, and life on Earth would be no more.
Humans, likely, deprived of their instinct to sometimes kill or be killed, would go extinct far sooner. The desire to protect ourselves, or rather, our local group of familiar other humans, friends, family, local but friendly tribes that we might tolerate for mutual benefit while always being slightly wary of them — again, was, and in some ways remains an evolutionary benefit to us. But this is an expanded definition of tribalism that is not necessarily relevant to this discussion, and is presented only to emphasise again the evolutionary need for tribalism, and the problems we would have had without it. I hope also, in some ways, to induce interesting questions in your mind, dear reader, about what is truly important in this reality. Is life inherently something of value, to be preserved? My own view is that it is, even though life comes with much suffering — suffering is a part of the nature of being, to paraphrase the words of a certain Buddha.
So let us return to tribalism between humans.
In our evolutionary history, tribalism served an important function — fear of the other allowed conflict between rival groups to play out, and thus, evolutionary dead-ends were extinguished, and those that showed promise, were victorious, and would thrive.
At least, this is how it works in theory. In reality, chaos played as big a role as anything else. A tribe fortuitously driven to develop agriculture, organised systems of commerce, and technology, simply by the environment their ancestors were fortunate enough to emigrate towards — found themselves immediately at a huge advantage to those tribes that had no need of organised agriculture, protocapitalist systems, or complex machines.
At least, in the material world of tribal conflict and animal drives to aggression and dominance, this is true. In the immaterial, more intangible world of ideas, or hypothetical thought experiments, perhaps, in an experiment set up by a curious god, where two tribes of quite separate innate cultures were transplanted into the same environment — with the same knowledge, and understanding of that environment — then the only true difference between those tribes would be how they viewed reality.
Of course — the circumstances that a tribe evolves within, influence their perception of reality, so this hypothetical is also imperfect — let it serve therefore only as another thought experiment with no definitive answer — but it demonstrates that there are many ways to experience and view reality, and some are more or less conducive to certain ends. And let’s remember, the end we are looking for here is the long-term survival of intelligent life, and ideally — human life.
What is true — undeniably — is that tribalism provides a motivation for conflict, which, as tribes grow in size, becomes war.
When a species develops the capacity to build technology that threatens the very biosphere they depend upon, the danger of war becomes more than a natural evolutionary mechanism for survival of the fittest in a chaotic natural world — but a real existential threat to that world. These threats have been created by humans, and are playing out right now. Pollution, the poisoning of our atmosphere and our seas — industrialisation of the carnivore side of our omnivorous diet, over-hunting, over-fishing, the savage barbaric nature of dragnet fishing, whale hunting, destruction of the rainforests — these things are existential threats to the human species, and life on Earth itself, that continue to play out.
They pose a grave danger to us all, even before we consider the spectre of nuclear war — there are enough nuclear weapons on Earth to induce an extinction event on par with that of the asteroid strike that wiped out the dinosaurs.
High Intelligence is a Great Filter
And so, we can unify this discussion. Tribalism is innate, in some form, a survival instinct to all social species with nervous systems and the apparent capacity to make decisions. High intelligence, rare as it appears to be, is an extremely advantageous trait which imbues those species that possess it with the potential to reshape the world, and themselves, as they see fit.
But, high intelligence is not necessarily rational. Indeed, it is impossible that it would be, because of the way evolution works. The brain was not designed top down, but evolved in layers, and the earlier, deeper layers, closer to the brainstem, our “reptilian” brain, if you like — are not rational, or capable of complex, abstract reasoning. The layer above that, our mammalian brain, the cerebrum, provides another layer of abstraction, for more complex social interaction, more complex decision making abilities. And finally, above that, is the human cortex, and most recently the neocortex — higher level control systems that can think in the abstract, build simulations in truly computational neurons to help us shape our actions.
But the neocortex is a patch applied to an ancient and imperfect machine. The deeper workings of our minds are still very, very animal. So while at the same time our rational minds can reshape our world, subvert nature to our will — our irrational, subconscious tendencies to tribal conflict continue to divide us, and most importantly, create a dangerous conflict that inhibit our ability to truly unify as a species — and threaten to cause us, collectively, to act in a way that will ensure our own extinction.
Humanity are a resilient species. A nuclear winter would likely not wipe us out, and neither would a catastrophic change in climate, or the devastation of our food supply. But it would set us back, and it would be harder to rebuild. The fossil fuels that we used to quickly industrialise our world while inadvertently poisoning it have been used up. The metals that we mined to build our incredible machines have been severely depleted. And we do remain under threat from events that we would have no hope of defending against — again, asteroid strikes, unexpected supernovae, and others. In the time it took to attempt to rebuild civilisation, it is equally possible that another species would emerge that truly threatened us — or a plague that we had no hope of controlling.
Equally, the balance of the ecosystem of the Earth is likely more fragile than we think. Multiple extinction events in Earth’s history demonstrate this, with fluctuating oxygen levels in the atmosphere, pathogens that wiped out a large percentage of trees, periods of volcanism that also induced mass extinctions and changed the composition of the atmosphere. The window in which we can ensure our survival in the longer term may be short — and we may not get another opportunity if we miss this one.
This is likely true for any intelligent life, anywhere. Thus, this is a potential Great Filter. High intelligence becomes incompatible with more ancient tribal instincts, leading to the self destruction of that species, and the continuation of evolution along another path, without advanced, energy hungry brains, versatile manipulator appendages, and an environment in which these things matter.
Great Filters are not impassable barriers
Despite all this — it’s important to understand that our current situation is not the fault of any one person, or group of individuals. It’s simply a natural progression of evolution on our home planet. It could have conceivably gone other ways, in other realities — other branches of the multiversal quantum wavefunction, so to speak — but in this one, it did not, could not have, and therefore blame is not helpful. But Great Filters are not impassable barriers — we know this because this is not the first.
The first Great Filter, most probably, was the abiogenetic event that spawned the first self replicating molecules on an ancient Earth out of previously inanimate matter. This seems to be something that is not common, given we have never been able to replicate it artificially, and it does not appear to have occurred — as far as we can tell — on any other world we have explored. Of course, the reason for this is that many of those worlds appear quite hostile to life, at least as we know it. So perhaps the first Great Filter was the formation of a planet like Earth, out of the protoplanetary disk of a young Sol — by which is meant, of course, the sun, as it formed 5 billion years ago in a stellar nursery, that nebula itself perhaps of a more rare mixture of elements that would one day be imbued with the kind of self awareness that we experience moment to moment.
In any case, the solution here is obvious. Practically implementing it is a hard problem to solve. Humans are the dominant species on planet Earth. Earth is our shared home. Now, we need to immediately cease all international conflicts, start working to share resources equally among all human beings, and start working to dismantle international borders, such that we all live by the same laws, can travel freely without fear of persecution in one place for one’s sexuality, for example, race in another, gender, perhaps — or fear of being watched, having access to outside information sources limited— all things that do happen in today’s world, although for the sake of not fuelling division in an article explicitly arguing for the dangers of it, I will not mention the names of those nations in which these problems exist. But there are many. Of course, as a balance to that admittedly Westernised perspective on who is to blame — again, something we should all try not to do, hard as it is — we need to create a world where resources are not hoarded by those with power, those who already have enough — despite the suffering of those who have no power, and have nothing.
We need to defend and fortify the Earth against both threats that we have created, and threats that — if they do not come for centuries — one day will. A type of virus or bacteria will evolve that is truly threatening. An extinctor-level impactor — if not now, in a few thousand years — is likely to threaten life on Earth again. Climate change, can and will happen naturally. There will be unexpected threats from new technologies as they develop. But when these things happen — we need to be ready.
We need to defend and fortify the human species itself. New technologies and advances in genetic engineering will allow us to rewrite ourselves to be more resilient to disease, live longer, healthier, happier lives. We will — eventually, presumably — be able to modify our minds so that we are better able to accept others as part of the human tribe, better able to surpass our animal instincts to violence, self-interest and greed.
We may not be alive then — but what is the purpose of life if not to make life better for the generations that follow? They will not thank us for a world torn apart by corruption, tribal conflicts, the inability of humankind to move beyond our animal origins. They will for a world in which humanity exists as one tribe — united against the forces of nature, the hostility of the vast majority of the volume of the observable universe — currently a sphere some 90 billion light years in diameter.
Of course, we will need to venture away from the Earth eventually. Some will choose to leave, and some will stay, and this is fine — we should be free to live our lives as we choose — for the most part. And as the distances between human colonies grow, due to the long travel times inevitable between distant stars — colonies of entities that have modified themselves to be different to the humans we know and recognise will exist, and inevitably, sadly, tribalism will happen again, because an interstellar empire is a hard thing to maintain as a contiguous entity, and unlike Earth, the psychological impact of living in quite alien environments, even in quite alien bodies, will create barriers that are harder for us to see past. But we still need to try.
But until then, what can we do?
Recognise your animal instinct to tribalism, judgement, and fear of the other, disdain and disgust for individuals or cultures that you do not understand. Recognise this, and then resist it. Remember — your mind lies to you. You have more in common with another human being — any human being — than almost anything else in this vast universe. Try to understand this by reason. People do not choose to be who they are. You did not choose, even if you think you did — that is a delusion of the ego. You are who you are by blind luck, good or bad, and that is the same for every other human that you meet.
Recognise and resist prejudice and judgement. This applies not just to individual humans — although it is a start — but to different cultures. The influence of the culture we grow up in on our psychology is immeasurable. Recognise it in yourself — and understand why you think the way you do. Recognise it in others — and understand why they think the way they do. Recognise the value in different cultures to your own, and do not judge the differences, but try to understand them.
Understanding, of course, is step one. And recognition of the reasons for another person being the person that they are, or another culture evolving the way it did, is not an acceptance of any negative aspects of that culture.
All beliefs are not equally valid. All cultures are not equally valuable to the future of the human species, to the future of life itself.
Some cultures, some ways of living, some ways of viewing reality are better. Remember the goal here — we want to ensure humanity, and indeed, life itself, prospers into a glorious utopia, where the baseline level of living is one of luxury and ease, for every human being, courtesy of just being human.
Not every culture, and not every belief system will lead to that goal — but condemnation, conflict, punishment and hatred, even war — these things are equally dangerous. The solution is not going to be an easy one — people cling to their culture like it is sacred, their ingrained prejudices like they are indisputable facts. Religion is a topic that could span a whole other article — so I will skip over it here — but it essentially falls under the same umbrella as culture anyway.
Ultimately, try to accept others for who they are, and enact change via soft applications of the power of your incredible human mind. Harder approaches may sometimes be necessary, true. But whenever possible, be kind to people, accept everyone. Recognise your own biases and resist them. Recognise the biases in others and accept them. Keep your higher mind self aware at all times, and observe your inner world and the objects in consciousness that do not serve the continuation of the human race — observe, understand, accept, and let them go.
Meditation helps, do it every day if you can.
When you have some experience with this, practice Mettā — let’s reference another definition, again from the modern marvel that is Wikipedia:
Maitrī (Sanskrit; Pali: mettā) means benevolence, loving-kindness, friendliness, amity, good will, and active interest in others.
The cultivation of benevolence (mettā bhāvanā) is a popular form of Buddhist meditation.
Be kind to others, ultimately. Remember, while there are close to 8 billion humans alive today, there will likely be countless billions more to come. The quality of their lives depends on our actions today. Your actions do matter — you can influence their fate. If you had a button you could press that would immediately ensure the longevity, luxury, and happiness of countless trillions or more sentient beings in the distant future — would you press it? If you consider yourself a good person, hopefully, you would.
The actions you can take to counter tribalism in your life, are that button. Press it, whenever you can.
Do your best — that is all any of us can ever do. But if we cannot overcome the tribalism innate to us — none of us will survive, or the future will be a far darker place.
You can change that, and you will, with your actions, whether you realise it or not. Humanity can overcome this. Fortune awarded us the experience of being alive, and the dominant species on a planet with the resources to develop incredible technologies to improve our lives, and the lives of every other living being we share this world with. Let’s not squander that fortune.
May you all be happy. May you all be well. May we overcome this Great Filter on our path through time, and be ready to face the next one.
Thank you for reading. I don’t know you — but I love you, fellow human.