Posted on December 3, 2020

Kin, Tribes, and the Dark Side of Identity

Robert Lynch, Quillette, November 22, 2020

“We should poison their water holes!” This was the first thing my father said when I called him after planes hit the World Trade Center where I worked. My dad was a 1960s cultural liberal and pacifist, who had opposed every war our country had fought. The moment he felt that my life was in danger, however, he discarded these superficial notions and embraced a much deeper and far more savage psychology forged by natural selection that governs how we think and feel about our relatives. The evolutionary strategy to favor members of your family is known as kin selection and it is so tied to our sense of justice that we may barely notice it. It explains, for instance, why we care about our children at all. We inherited the instinct to favor relatives from our primate ancestors and it worked so long as everyone in the tribe was genetically related. But crucial changes, starting around 12,000 years ago with the invention of agriculture that allowed large groups of unrelated individuals, often numbering in the millions, to live together have placed this ancient moral system on an increasingly delicate and ethically dubious frame.

Much of the glue holding modern societies together is alarmingly fragile, and triggers like September 11th can shatter this facade with devastating consequences that we are only just beginning to understand. As the evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson wrote in his 2012 book The Social Conquest of Earth, “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” Although kin psychology lies at the foundation of genetic ingroups, humans form factions around anything and simply being a member of a group is usually enough. This is called the “minimal group paradigm” and it is one of the most well established findings in social psychology—research has shown that even beliefs about whether hotdogs are sandwiches can generate discrimination. Our instinct to assemble and join groups is so ancient and powerful that it is unlikely we will ever arrest it, and despite the more sinister ramifications that result from forming coalitions, we probably wouldn’t want to even if we could.

The benefits that come from forming groups are hard to overestimate. It is not an exaggeration to say that this capacity, which allows us to build communities and cooperate, under-girds our entire civilization. But there is a dark side, too. Hostility towards out-groups is intimately tied to our ability to cooperate and make sacrifices for one another and these traits are likely to have evolved together. In other words, what has allowed human beings to flourish is also integral to some of our most morally repugnant behaviors, including slavery and genocide. The pressing issue for contemporary liberal democracies, therefore, is finding ways to curb the dark side of our parochial nature while still reaping the benefits of large-scale cooperation.

Some groups are better than others

The key to balancing tradeoffs between cooperation and parochialism lies in understanding that not all groups are created equal. Groups with voluntary memberships that allow people to be part of multiple, transient, and overlapping communities—for example, sports fans, chess clubs, or single-issue political organizations—tend to generate widespread cooperation both within and between groups because their members are also part of larger communities. Patriots fans, for example, also tend to be sports fans in general and your support for the Great American Outdoors Act need not subsume all of your other political beliefs or your entire identity. These types of groups allow diverse, large-scale societies to thrive by drawing people with varied beliefs, interests, opinions, and backgrounds together. These between-group connections encourage people to confront each other’s humanity and help to curtail out-group hatred. In contrast, groups that are formed around fixed, unchanging and non-overlapping identities—for example, sex, race, or ethnicity—while fostering tight bonds between their members, will tend to sow division and cultivate hatred between groups. These groups are likely to breed resentment, foment animosity, and promote tribalism. The degree to which different types of groups cultivate cooperation or hostility in large, diverse societies like the United States can be best appreciated by talking about something that sociologists call “social capital.”

Social capital is a measure of the collective of human relationships achieved through shared identities, values, norms, or understandings. In short, it gauges how much people in a community trust each other, and the modern world runs on it. {snip} When discussing social capital, however, researchers typically distinguish between “bonding social capital”—the relationships, among people who share a similar culture and background—and “bridging social capital”—the connections between groups that transcend these differences. Bonding social capital refers to the type of ties that exist within families or hunter-gatherer tribes that are constructed around relationships between genetic relatives. Kin psychology—the tendency to favor close relatives—can harness bonding social capital to build tight family-like connections between individuals in communities constructed out of our imaginations, like platoons (a “band of brothers”), religions, or nations. In a study we published in Nature Human Behaviour, we showed that in a population of Finnish evacuees during World War II, although bonding social connections within an ethnic group resulted in people having more children, social cohesion depended on bridging social connections. This result is hardly surprising, however, and there is a broad consensus that bridging social capital is a more precious commodity in large, diverse societies like the United States because it helps to curb our parochial impulses. At the same time as our culture has been increasingly safeguarding the secret that we are animals—apes with brains that evolved through the process of natural selection—the modern world has become more and more dependent on these fragile connections between groups. Although our brains are primed by kin psychology for binary “us vs them” thinking, bridging social capital interrupts these hardwired instincts and therefore provides a critical bulwark against sectarianism and social collapse.

Sowing the seeds of division

The idea that all relationships are a power struggle within a hierarchy of interlocking identities and groups is a relatively new idea known as “Critical Theory” that arose out of the Frankfurt School of German philosophers in the early 20th century. These esoteric beliefs, previously confined to the backwaters of academia, reached a cultural tipping point sometime in the past few decades when they began to infiltrate mainstream culture, capture elite institutions, and infect our politics. {snip}


It isn’t hard to imagine what happens to bridging social capital when our stone age brains make contact with a culture that sanctifies the most visible, involuntary, and unalterable markers of our identity. Nor is it hard to guess the likely effect on social cohesion when our institutions echo the view that we are not individuals, but are rather embedded within a system of interlocking group identities in which all power is zero-sum—either your group has power or another group has power over you. {snip} Indeed, it would be hard to design a more perfect instrument for destroying social capital than making fixed and immutable traits the basis for understanding everything from the history of our nation’s founding to all social and economic inequality.

Placing a person’s political beliefs at the center of their identity is destructive for a civil society and undermines our sense of solidarity. Extensive analyses of polling data and election surveys show that political beliefs are an effect, rather than a cause, of group membership and that people select their political party first and then adapt their political views to match those of their chosen tribe. This helps explain why our views on issues like climate change are best predicted by group membership but are unrelated to scientific literacy. Tribes advertise identity, not thought, and over-identifying with a particular political party subordinates individuals to group membership. The mission becomes advancing the interests of the imagined group and placing those interests beyond good and evil. Intense partisanship—some surveys suggest that political polarization has reached levels not seen since the Civil War—works to corrode those things that bind diverse societies together. Identities like parent, neighbor, teacher, or healthcare worker are supplanted by political identity which recasts people as either allies or enemies. {snip}

Contrast this with how our tribal impulses are triggered by the outwardly visible markers of group membership that are branded to our skin or etched into our sexual characteristics. These identities are like inescapable castes into which we are born. Not only do we exercise no choice over our membership, our affiliation is stamped on our face and imprinted in DNA sequences. Unlike groups assembled around freely chosen common interests, we can identify these people on sight. {snip}


All of which raises a question: what sort of diversity of “experience” is really being offered by these universities? It is also unclear if achieving greater diversity at colleges does anything to improve relationships between groups. A study of large state schools versus smaller colleges, for example, showed that more human diversity within a school produces less diversity within groups. In other words, when students have the choice of who to interact with, they choose others from the same racial background. All of this stokes the nastiest impulses natural selection has to offer, which is based on an ancient psychology designed to survive recurring tribal warfare in an ancient era.


If we sow the seeds of group identity, will we reap the whirlwind? In a phenomenon that social psychologists call identity fusion, bonding social connections can tighten so much that the distinction between the self and the larger group becomes porous. For fused individuals, a perceived challenge to the group’s ideology becomes a challenge to the self and perceived threats and feelings of victimization are likely to exacerbate fusion and trigger kin psychology as individuals come to view unrelated group members as genetic relatives—a threat to someone in your ethnic or racial group shows up as a danger to a family member. {snip}