Kin, Tribes, and the Dark Side of Identity

Kin, Tribes, and the Dark Side of Identity

Robert Lynch
Robert Lynch
14 min read

“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. Places with the highest social capital are countries in Scandinavia like Finland and Iceland, ranked first and third in the world, respectively, while the United States ranks 142nd, right between Guinea-Bissau and South Sudan. During the three years I spent living in Finland, I left my wallet in a crowded bus station with 500 euros in it and it was returned to me with the cash. In Iceland, where I lived for a year, people don’t lock their doors, and many of the houses don’t even have locks! 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. By 2016, when Bernie Sanders said “It’s not good enough for somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me’” he was already being accused of being a white supremacist. Over the last four years, the idea that gender or ethnicity might be the most important qualification for a candidate has gained so much traction on the Left, that no Democratic politician would make this mistake today and few are willing to stand up for an America that attempts to unite the country across interests that rise above identity. By 2020, the link between race and political beliefs was so strong that most people in the media agreed with Biden’s flippant remark that black Americans had no choice but to vote for him.

Exit polls from the election tell a different story, however, revealing that 12 percent of black people (18 percent of black men), a majority of white women, and 40 percent of Hispanics disagreed. Despite being hammered for decades by pundits worried that Republicans were alienating the “Latino vote,” these numbers suggest that this may no longer be the case. Most Hispanics are working class, and their issues are primarily related to material things like their community, healthcare, the economy, their jobs, and there is some evidence that they are turned off by appeals to open the borders. The idea being circulated by media elites is that these idiots are voting against their interests and don’t know what is good for them. This is not just condescending, it is also arguably more sexist and racist than anything propagated by the Republican party and the white patriarchy they despise. Indeed, the Left now has to explain how the man who many of their number have called the most racist president in modern times was able to increase his share of the black and Hispanic vote over the last four years. In the mid-80s, Ted Kennedy issued a warning about the crucial difference between linking groups vs linking issues to the Democratic party, “There is a difference between being a party that cares about women and being the women’s party. And we can and must be a party that cares about minorities without becoming a minority party. We are citizens first.” Ultimately, however, we will only know that real progress has been made when political parties no longer target gender or racial groups at all.

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. What will happen when we are told that individuals only exist where group identities intersect? Or that individuality itself is an attack on the group and a means to enable oppression? Or that refusing to judge people by the color of their skin is a sign of racism? 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. At the end of the day, however, Republicans and Democrats are able to take a break from these suffocating identities and get to put on their dentist, mom, Patriots fan, or “I love birding” hats. You can take down your Biden yard sign, change your mind—vote for a Democrat one election cycle and a Republican the next—and shut up about your secret support of Trump at an enlightened Manhattan dinner party. In short, you get to be a nuanced, complicated person who can’t be reduced to a single dimension.

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. We can start with the business of hating them without ever having to engage in the unpleasant task of actually talking to them, getting to know them a little, and possibly even recognizing their humanity.

Consider the all too common dilemma confronted by students of color, whose presence is often seen by universities as contributing to a culture of diversity and inclusion. These students often express discomfort with being the representatives of the “minority point of view” in classroom discussions, whose role is to enrich the experiences of the other students. This is, of course, understandable and having everyone look to you as the representative of your group’s experience can be exhausting when you are a 19-year-old who just wants to learn chemistry. But when every class begins with a mandatory statement on systemic racism or sexism, it can be hard to avoid feeling singled-out. This is also all too likely to create an arms race of signaling and counter-signaling amongst the majority—usually white students whose political ideology is not as easy to discern—who then engage in a fierce competition to be seen as the most inclusive and therefore virtuous white kids in the class. Several of my black students have complained to me about the frequency with which apparently well-intentioned white students desperately attempt to signal their solidarity with them by slamming Trump or slipping an unsolicited opinion on why we should defund the police into the conversation.

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.

The effect that bringing racial, ethnic, or sex differences to the forefront of our consciousness will have on social interactions is not hard to imagine. Seeing and immediately judging strangers by the innate characteristics of their group, will conjure out-group hate, strip people of their right to be seen as individuals, and sever bridging social connections in precisely the same nasty way, regardless of whether these people are vilified by racist bigots or sanctified by open-minded progressives. Even though emphasizing these traits makes discrimination—both positive and negative—more likely, these prejudices can be rolled back. A landmark study by Robert Kurzban published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that when race no longer tracks coalitional alliances, we stop using it to categorize people. Other studies have shown that de-emphasizing group categories markedly reduces their salience and that environmental cues like class override racial stereotypes when we make inferences about other people’s behavior (for example, a white man seen within the context of a poor neighborhood is
viewed as more dangerous than a black man shown in a wealthy neighborhood). The take-home message from these studies is one a child might intuit—if you want people to start judging people by the content of their character, stop talking about the color of their skin.

Some, however, might scoff at all of this as yet another hopelessly naive plea for a colorblind society. They also might argue that this privileged and pollyannic view—along the lines of why can’t we all stop talking about race and sex all the time, and just get along—is ahistorical and exposes an unwillingness to acknowledge our systemic failure to address structural racism and sexism. In this interpretation, an honest reckoning with our nation’s history and ongoing bigotry by linking racial, ethnic, or sexual identities to core political beliefs is ultimately the best way to right past wrongs and confront our racist and sexist history. Failing to highlight the identities of marginalized groups is the ultimate sin, because it conceals the very real history of hierarchies, suffering, and oppression. All of this may be true, but the problem is that soon everybody wants to get in on the act. If the goal of all of this is to improve the lives and opportunities of the victims of bad luck—for instance, those born on a lower rung of society with fewer opportunities to succeed—then it is better to assemble groups around less visible and less permanent characteristics such as economic or social class. These identities are not only far more likely to help all of those who really need it, they also deftly sidestep the dangers of tripping our hardwired tribal circuitry.

Reaping the whirlwind

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. Sometimes fusion can just be irritating, such as when it interferes with rational conversation; an argument about the Affordable Care Act with a fused individual is no longer about healthcare at all, but is instead about protecting their sense of self. More alarmingly, however, is when fusion predicts a willingness to use violence against perceived out-groups and this is more likely to happen when individuals fuse with a charismatic and authoritarian leader like Trump or religious fanatics fuse with an imagined community of devoted followers and fly planes into the World Trade Center. We showed how in Finland bonding connections can harness the power of kin psychology to propel women to volunteer for their country in war.

The increasing emphasis placed on seeing all social relationships as interactions between perpetrators and victims is only likely to exacerbate these problems. Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning systematically analyze this emerging “victimhood” culture in their paper “Microaggression and Moral Cultures.” As compared to “honor” and “dignity” cultures of the past, a victimhood culture makes us more prone to outrage and glorifies self-righteous indignation. The social psychologist Roy Baumeister argues in his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty that groups/people that nearly everyone agrees are evil (e.g., Hitler, Pol Pot, and serial killers) share two characteristics—high self-esteem and a victim mentality. When egotism and legitimate historical grievances attach themselves to political views that see the world as a simplistic melodrama between oppressor and oppressed, and when group membership is linked to clearly visible markers such as race, ethnicity, or sex, retaliation can be swift. It is worth remembering that in Rwanda, it was the historically persecuted Hutus who slaughtered the privileged Tutsis with machetes or that the Germans had legitimate grievances resulting from their treatment in the Treaty of Versailles. Human behavior can be remarkably predictable. When we feel mistreated and disrespected, we retreat into tribalism, close ranks, become more insular, more defensive, and more vindictive.

Evil does not arise in a vacuum and cycles of victims and perpetrators course predictably throughout history. Our current path can unleash forces about which we have little understanding and over which we have even less control. Major historical events are often set in motion by dumb luck, but if the dominoes are already lined up, the results can be catastrophic. It was, after all, Gavrilo Princip’s improbable and accidental encounter with Archduke Ferdinand on a side-street in Sarajevo that set the stage for Hitler and the two deadliest wars in history. Will another video of a white cop shooting a black man have the same effect? Is yet another national conversation about race in our race-obsessed country really what we need? We have gone from a healthy identity politics that used to emphasize our common humanity—“I want to be the white man’s brother, not his brother-in-law” said Martin Luther King—to a culture that emphasizes common enemies. Russian hackers know the power of ethnic identity and exploit our obsession with it to sow division on Facebook by creating fake minority group pages, exaggerating grievances, and weaponizing them.

Nobody knows how history will unfold, but locking people into an unalterable hierarchy of suffering, pitting groups that we were born into against one another, nurturing persecution and offering up an overly simplistic interpretation of history all seem perfectly designed to prepare the field for another cataclysmic event. What will a nation enthralled by tribal identity do when a president refuses to concede regardless of the vote count? And once this process is set in motion, it might just shatter the fragile foundation on which our society rests. A politics based on membership in a particular religious, racial, or social group rather than broader groupings of people with the same political views was a dubious luxury that our species can simply no longer afford. Although E.O. Wilson originally intended “Wonderful theory, wrong species” to be a critique of Marxism, it is just as applicable to critical theory and its progeny—identity politics.

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