Facts So Romantic

When Did Tribalism Get To Be So Fashionable?


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“I against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.”
—Nafisa Haji, The Sweetness of Tears

Last month, I published an article on Nautilus called “Is Tribalism a Natural Malfunction?”. It was a meditation on a series of computer experiments in the study of Prisoner’s Dilemma, and a reflection on what these simulations, and more complex arguments from mathematical logic, might tell us about social life. The groups that formed in our simulation, shibboleth machines, were unable to tolerate others—and eventually became unable to tolerate the differences that emerged amongst themselves.

There were some lovely comments on Nautilus and elsewhere, of course, and the usual rough-and-tumble of Internet argument. What I didn’t expect was the robust defense of tribalism made by educated and apparently intelligent people writing on ostensibly science- and technology-focused sites. (A student in my seminar sent me a link to the Hacker News discussion; a search pulled up similar kinds of discussion on Reddit.)

There is something they want to believe.

The claim these critics made was simple: “Tribalism works.” Theirs was not a lament on the human condition. What they meant was quite a bit darker: that at least some forms of tribalism are good and desirable. Though their arguments took different forms, it was surprising to see the same fallacies appear repeatedly. It’s not usually useful to deal with failures to reason on the Internet. But in this case it’s worth scrutiny because these errors came from those who seemed to consider themselves particularly sophisticated thinkers.

My sense is that these readers—who may be able to think well enough to write good code (say)—suffer from motivated reasoning when thinking about their social lives. There is something they want to believe and, driven by that desire, they select the mental moves necessary to avoid locating contradictions or evidence against the belief in question. I’m also concerned these readers believe that other Very Intelligent People secretly think along similar lines; if these people think similar thoughts about the virtues of tribalism then it’s not worth the effort to consider alternatives.

The readers defending tribalism are (one assumes) not keen to travel to places on the globe where the kinds of violent in-group/out-group dynamics I describe in my article actually obtain—South Sudan, say, or 1990s Rwanda, or the New Jersey depicted in The Sopranos or The Godfather; the worlds that Nafisa Haji contemplates in the epigraph to this piece. But these readers do seem keen on a fantasy that’s become increasingly popular to express: That what’s driving the success of many places on the globe in improving the human lot (see, for example, Max Roser’s “Our World in Data”) is not, say, the cosmopolitanism implicit in science, free-markets, and democratic theories of political participation, but rather (wait for it): racial, cultural, or religious tribalism.

On to the fallacies themselves. They came in three main classes, and I’ll handle them in turn.

Some commenters accused me and my colleagues of concealing the truth: Far from showing that tribalism was a malfunction, we had instead demonstrated its superiority. (On Hacker News, one commenter described this concealment as a form of self-loathing on the part of the “Western, Christian, European” tradition.)

Our cosmopolitan, pluralistic societies today are under enormous strain. But they’re also too large, and too successful, to survive a transition back.

This is a failure of reading comprehension. Both the text and the figure in the piece show clearly the devastating effects these shibboleth machines have, not only on others, but on themselves. After a particular shibboleth machine dominates, the system—thanks to errors induced by neutral drift—enters a period of large-scale instability. Their society (such as it is) collapses as mothers birth daughters who engage in civil war. It’s a generic feature of intolerant systems: unless you switch off cultural evolution itself, a strategy of total war against non-copies will be vulnerable to misrecognition. Imagine a less-tolerant subspecies, which takes less care to avoid killing fellow members of its tribe, emerges; it will outcompete its more cautious brothers, driving them to extinction. (There should be a theorem hidden in there somewhere, though I haven’t gone so far as to prove it.)

These kinds of collapse resemble the narcissism of small differences, dealt with so unforgettably by Monty Python, when the People’s Popular Judean Front battled the People’s Popular Front of Judea. You might also consider the violence and repeated purges that appear during revolutions, or (to take a biological example) the particularly intractable classes of suffering associated with autoimmune diseases.

A second argument, equally fallacious, was that these simulations, by virtue of their being simulations, can tell us nothing about society. Taken at face value, of course, this would imply that no simulated model of the world could tell us anything. It’s a rather bleak view, and one the evidence doesn’t bear out.

What I didn’t expect was the robust defense of tribalism made by educated and apparently intelligent people.

Simulation is a natural extension of what scientists and scholars engage in all the time to build explanations, a species of “what if,” sometimes counterfactual, reasoning about cause. Simulations can be a source of unease as much as insight. They simplify. But a good simulation simplifies in the right way, and tells us a great deal about the essence of the phenomena at hand. At the very least (as the economist John Geanakoplos once suggested about game theory) it’s playing “tennis with the net up.” Simulations place enabling constraints on the imagination. Often, they do much more; in this case, they show us the lengths to which even simple evolutionary systems will go toward creating self-/other-recognition.

(A slightly different complaint is the idea that, because we didn’t hard-code the groups themselves, they can’t be true groups, as if all human aggregations begin with the writing and signing of a social contract. That’s something even Rousseau didn’t believe!)

The Nautilus piece tells a story about a difference-intolerant computer program that exterminates those unlike it, and it likens the program’s emergence to reversions to tribalism in the modern era. Describing this outcome as a “malfunction,” a third argument goes, implies that my colleagues and I support the creation of a dystopian world of forced re-education camps, or even DNA-editing, to breed tribalism out. Think about how weird, and revealing, this response is. It suggests that we (and other readers, perhaps) support the creation of … a difference-intolerant state concerned with the extermination of those unlike it. According to these commenters, calling tribalism a malfunction is actually itself a form of tribalism.

When someone views every commitment through the lens of tribalism, some problems seem easier to cope with, or even disappear entirely. Terrorism is no longer a threat to the values that sustain our most successful societies. It’s now an obvious move in a game of racial or religious war (and one you might consider trying yourself, on different targets). Understanding the complex feelings we have of watching our past become past while looking forward to an uncertain future where we may or may not have a place, also becomes simple: Cultural change is bad when it comes from outside, and good when it intensifies, or returns to, the practices of the tribe.

I won’t argue here for the virtues of going beyond tribalism—see, if you’re interested, the last 5,000 years of state formation. But perhaps scientists, scholars, and the general intellectual public have failed to make these arguments clear. Our cosmopolitan, pluralistic societies today are under enormous strain. But they’re also too large, and too successful, to survive a transition back.

In the end, the defenses of tribalism that surprised the most came from otherwise educated people. Their defenses taught me that what we need now is more than a simple reiteration of the old arguments that these commenters had (let us be charitable) encountered and rejected. We need new arguments, and perhaps even new systems, that will enable us to transcend the tribal stance in new and unexpected ways. I was raised in the hacker tradition (see some reflections here or here) and on the idea that if you ventured out to the edge of human ability and reason, you were necessarily committed to pluralism, to cosmopolitanism. Encountering people unlike yourself was one of the ways that you knew you were doing it right: to turn a phrase from the King James Bible, the logic of nature, of mathematics, “is no respecter of persons.”

Perhaps the freaks and geeks that know this best, heir to Lovelace and Babbage, might tear themselves away from the future to contribute some new arguments to the present.

I thank Teresa Bejan for conversations on the questions raised in this piece.

Simon DeDeo is a professor in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University and external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute. He runs the Laboratory for Social Minds.

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