On Jan. 1, 2021, five long years after the vote for what’s become known as Brexit, and numerous marches before and after that national decision, some of which attracted more than 100,000 impassioned participants, Great Britain formally severed its nearly half century-long ties with the European Union. The decision, as columnist Owen Jones described it in The Guardian, was to foment “an all-out culture war.”
In the 2016 vote, the majority of British people stubbornly chose for their country to be on its own and not part of a more encompassing group of societies. The vote appeared to run against the broader trend of European nations loosening their boundaries in acknowledgement of an identity that outweighs, or erases, the importance of the societies themselves. With the number of societies in general declining century after century,1 we might take seriously the assertion that the internationalization of culture (think Star Wars, tequila, Mercedes-Benz) and connections (with Twitter linking people from Aa, Estonia, to Zu, Afghanistan) are a harbinger of a Berlin Wall-type border collapse, making, as the British sociologist Morris Ginsberg once put it, “The unification of mankind [is] one of the clearest trends in human history.”2
The European Union offers no grand foundation story, no venerable symbols or traditions.
Whatever the ultimate relationship of Great Britain and Europe may be, the current breakup underscores how deeply national identity runs through human psychology. A review of both the psychology literature and anthropological research on societies ranging from the ethnolinguistic groups of hunter-gatherers to tribes, chiefdoms, and states (less formally, “nations”),3 reveal that a universal society is unattainable. Populations across the globe today may devour Starbucks, KFC, and Coca-Cola. They may enjoy Italian opera, French couture, and Persian carpets. But no matter how many exotic influences each absorbs or what foreign connections they make, nations don’t just fade away. They retain their citizens’ fierce devotion.4 Societies have always traded, gifted, or taken what they want from the outer world to claim as their own, and grown all the stronger for doing so. While the erasure of borders may be laudable, nothing we know about the workings of the human mind suggests it is a realistic vision.
Throughout history, humankind has successfully erected umbrella organizations composed of multiple societies. That such groups fail to supersede bonds to the societies themselves is demonstrated by the most binding association of societies in the anthropological record. In northwest Amazonia reside 20 or so tribes, or language groups, known collectively as the Tukanoans. Each has its own language or dialect, some similar, some mutually unintelligible. The tribes are tied economically, each a specialist on goods it exchanges with the others. Cross-connecting them are what amount to obligatory trade relations of a novel sort: Marriage within a tribe is improper. “Those who speak the same language with us are our brothers, and we do not marry our sisters,” the people say.5 Thus a bride marries into another tribe, where she learns the local tongue.
One explanation for this arrangement is that it reduces inbreeding in small societies, an incestuous act to which Homo sapiens has an innate abhorrence. We see this in many nonhumans as well, such as in chimpanzees, where females avoid mating with kin by likewise transferring between communities. The psychological aversion to marrying a sibling presents a far greater problem for the Tukanoans, whose numbers have been miniscule at times in the past, than for the massive countries of today. Perhaps this fear overpowered any trepidation those people have about firmly bonding their societies. The compulsory spousal exchanges have created some of the tightest alliances ever recorded, currently totaling about 30,000 Amazonian souls. Yet for all that, Tukanoan tribes remain clear and separate, each confined to specific areas.6
If a mass hypnotist caused us to forget our differences, we would scramble to invent new ones.
A failure of alliances to supersede people’s affiliation to their society holds true universally. Intergovernmental organizations like the European Union and the United Nations don’t earn our primary emotional commitment because they lack ingredients that make them real for the members. The EU may be the most ambitious attempt at societal integration conceived, yet few members see the EU as an entity worthy of their loyalty the way they do their countries, and for several reasons.
First off, the EU’s borders are indefinite—indeed, are subject to revision as states enter or go. Additionally, its members have a history of conflict dating from the Middle Ages, and a split already exists from east to west among communist and capitalist cultures. To top all that off, the EU offers no grand foundation story, no venerable symbols or traditions, and there’s little sense anyone would fight and die for Europe as they might for their nation.7 That makes the EU a political coalition much like the Iroquois Confederacy once was for six American Indian tribes, or the league of states formed within what is now China during the sixth century B.C.8
The strength of such associations wax or wane given their value at the moment. As with our personal relationships, friends can become enemies who turn into friends again, something that’s been shown for the ever-shifting relationships among many American Indian tribes.9 Each country in the EU handles passports and other issues relating to its citizens’ identity and remains the focus of their self-worth, an outlook that makes its membership secondary and disposable. Analysis of the 2016 Brexit vote shows that those who most strongly think of themselves as English went against staying with the EU. Voters saw what was intended foremost to be an economic and peacekeeping tool as a threat to their identity.10 The fact is the consequences of Brexit will be mostly commercial, setting into action a myriad of obstacles to trade.11
Ironically, Britain’s relations with the EU unraveled when its self-identity was under stress, with Northern Ireland and Scotland increasingly likely opting to secede from the UK, a fracture along ancient cultural lines that’s the norm for modern societies.12 Meanwhile, the loss of Britain has invigorated the ties of the member nations to the EU, along the lines of what one sees when a group of people pull together in the face of adversity—but that doesn’t mean the divisions within the EU will disappear.13
Financial and security issues hold the EU together. The same can be said for Switzerland, a country subject to perennial scrutiny because, as the four languages and complex territoriality of its people attest, its nationhood rests on a detailed social and political alliance between 26 local communities, or cantons. These self-governing settlements act in many respects as miniature nations nestled in a mountain landscape that enhances each one’s physical separation and autonomy.14 “Each Canton has its own history, constitution and flag, and some even have an anthem,” political scientist Antoine Chollet reports, such that Swiss “citizenship refers to one who can vote and nothing more.”15 Formation of the Swiss confederation required rewriting accounts of the past to maintain a sense of equality between the cantons, allowing them to survive over the centuries when they were forced to negotiate their interests with far larger and more powerful neighboring countries.16
The EU and Switzerland are regional entities kept intact by perceived needs to counter hazards from outsiders, a motivating factor that gives both a reasonable chance of success. An absolutely global union would have no such motivation, making it far more precarious. One possible means of attaining that unity might be to shift people’s perception of who’s an outsider. It was a point Ronald Reagan liked to make. “I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world,” he remarked in an address to the UN. Indeed, science-fiction tales like The War of the Worlds depict humankind acting as one against a common enemy.
Yet even then our societies would endure the space aliens. The arrival of Martians wouldn’t make nations irrelevant any more than Europeans arriving in Australia caused the Aborigines to drop what had been several hundred clear-cut tribal groups (actually, many Aborigines first guessed that the Europeans were otherworldly, i.e., ghosts17). That would be so regardless of how much the aliens shattered the beliefs people held about their own societies, whose beloved differences would look trivial by comparison to those with the Little Green Men. Cosmopolitanism, the conviction that the diverse people of our planet will come to feel a primary connection to the human race (the term means “citizen of the cosmos”),18 is a pipe dream.
But what might happen if people could forgo those traits that “mark” their identities or somehow put aside the drive to categorize each other by means of such labels—to separate us from them based on language, clothing, gestures, or religious beliefs? In such a world the only reliable differences we would perceive would be between individuals—not between groups. One supposes that under such circumstances our nations would disintegrate entirely, but it’s hard to predict what would rise in their stead. Maybe our affiliations would coalesce around local neighborhoods or around those who we know best, with the global population splintering into millions of micro-nations. We might foresee a return to the societies of our prehuman forebears, when, like chimpanzees and most other vertebrates, every individual literally had to remember everybody else in their society.
Or, by discarding our differences, or our penchant for making judgments about the differences, could we achieve the opposite result, doing away with societies entirely? Would the beehive of networks built up through international travel and Facebook friendships interlink us so indiscriminately that we would actually secure that elusive panhuman unity that some aspire to, encompassing every man, woman, and child?
The human reliance on particular traits, or “markers,” to identify with our societies, ethnicities, and other groups may trace back far into the human past, but what comes naturally isn’t always desirable. Fortunately, our intelligence gives us some prospect of breaking free from our biology and history. When changes concern the matter of how we mark off our identities, though, any alteration would be extremely arduous and require more than education. While casting off ethnic and societal markers may sound good at first blush, the move would undoubtedly mean the loss of much of what humans cherish. Our markers are two-edged swords, causing us to discount those who differ from us, yet at the same time imparting an esprit de corps with complete strangers who fit our expectations, as when we take delight in conversing with a fellow American when traveling overseas.
As with our personal relationships, friends can become enemies who turn into friends again.
To abandon our differences would strike against timeless yearnings. People care about their memberships and few would want to give them up. Nor could we simply dispose of them. Research in psychology shows that our responses to the most entrenched of our social groups, and the characteristics that define them, take place faster than the blink of an eye, and are involuntary.19 No doubt if a mass hypnotist caused us to forget our current differences, we would scramble to discover or invent new differences to hold dear.
The only way to retool this human attribute would be for a surgeon from the far future with near-miraculous understanding of the nervous system to ablate portions of the brain. The result of this science-fictional adjustment would be a creature we wouldn’t recognize as ourselves. I’m unsure how one could measure whether such people were any happier than we are today, but surely, they would no longer be us.
As for humans, with the minds we have now, the question of whether an identification with humankind is enough or societies need to exist really boils down to whether people must be part of a society for their emotional health and viability. “A man must have a nationality as he must have a nose and two ears,” wrote Ernest Gellner, a prominent thinker on nationalism. Gellner—who went on to argue, mistakenly, that the human need to be part of a nation is nothing more than a contrivance of modern times—never fathomed how right his statement was.20 The mind evolved in an Us-vs-Them universe of our own making. The societies coming out of this psychological firmament have always been points of reference that give people a secure sense of meaning and validation.
To say a person has no country then calls to mind dysfunction, trauma, or tragedy. With no such specific group identity, humans feel marginalized, rootless, adrift: a dangerous condition. A case in point is the homelessness felt by immigrants who have lost connections to their native land only to face the sting of rejection by their adopted country.21 Social marginalization has been a motivator stronger than religious fanaticism, explaining why many terrorists originally took to extremism only after being excluded from the cultural mainstream. For the socially dispossessed, radical views fill a void.22 Organized crime groups likewise commandeer some of the properties that give a society its vitality by providing social pariahs with common goals and a sense of pride and belonging.
All evidence points to societies being a human universal. Our ancestors evolved, by simple steps, from having societies where everyone knew all the other members to societies set apart by signals marking our identities.23 The dividing lines of society memberships would have made it through this transition unaltered. What that means is there never was an original, “authentic” human society, never a time when all people lived in an open network of social relations that spread beyond the horizon line. Being in a society (indeed, in multiple societies) is a more indispensable and ancient quality of our species than faith or matrimony, having been the way of things from before we were human.
To be sure, the number of societies has gradually declined over the long course of history, but far from being the result of group identities fading off into peaceful mergers, it’s largely been the outcome of wars and domination.24 The societies that have arisen after these consolidations still remain distinct from each other despite the diversity of their populations.25
Given the contrasting, in fact ever-changing, identities and worldviews of those societies, one laudable aim of cosmopolitan thinkers and many others, to achieve a mutual respect for the rights and needs of varied cultures, will always be an onerous, and shifting, target. Yet recognizing the challenges will not only help us make sense of today’s fractious world, but also guide us in surmounting such contentious issues as immigration and, in what are the first truly global crises we all face together, environmental loss, species extinction, and climate change.
Few facets of life match a society in striking passion in the human heart so long as other societies exist to compare with our own. Societies, and the differences that set us apart, are here to stay, signifying the boundaries between people in our minds, and setting the borders between us physically, across the earth’s surface. Yet we can still aim for a more peaceful and just world. It begins with appreciating our differences.
Mark W. Moffett, Ph.D., is the author of The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, & Fall, from which this essay is adapted. He has a Lowell Thomas medal from the Explorers Club for his work in over 100 countries on the questions about the structure of rainforests, social organization in ants, and the stability of societies across different species.
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