Bob Nichols's Reviews > Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind

Us and Them by David Berreby
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's review
Dec 29, 2009

it was ok
Read in December, 2009

Berreby provides a detailed and up-to-date review of the literature that describes our tribal nature in all of its facets. His examples are straightforward and highlight what most can readily understand.

The author's underlying theme is that despite all the problems created by our tribal nature, we can transcend them by choosing for "human kind." The "Us-Them code does not own you; you own it," he writes. "This power to believe in human kinds, and to love or hate them, is part of your human nature." In asserting this perspective, Berreby takes on sociobiology and its contemporary iteration, evolutionary psychology. He characterizes these thinkers as genetic determinists who leave no room for mental control and free choice.

Berreby's criticism is well-founded, documented and argued. For example, he provides some much needed critical review of kin selection, and thoughtful arguments on behalf of reciprocal altruism. Regarding determinism, Berreby rightly argues that behavior is highly dependent on circumstance. He also comments that not all genetic expressions have to have adaptive value and, interestingly, he says that many traditional notions of mental experience - memory, perception, emotion and free will - may make no sense as we learn more about how the brain is physically organized.

Berreby, however, goes too far in his criticism of Darwinian theory. He, himself, perhaps engages too much in the "we versus them" debate when he refers to the "tribalism" of evolutionary psychology and his reference to the selfish-gene "crowd." This detracts from his otherwise thoughtful work. Frustratingly for the reader, Berreby, does not take the extra step in explaining evolutionary bases for behavior. He argues we can make a free choice to love "human kind" (his term) but he doesn't discuss the key issue that's involved with free choice, motivation. On what basis do we choose for human kind if there's no motivation to do so? Berreby is silent. He assumes, perhaps, that the choice is obvious, but that ignores the lessons of history. Elsewhere, Berreby says that stereotypes depend on circumstance, but that begs the question as to why we stereotype at all. He writes about the power of social convention, but doesn't talk about why social conventions should have such power.

In these examples, Darwinian theory can help. Individual survival depends on being members of a group. It might be we imprint on, and are loyal to, our group based on self-interest and that those who are different in essential ways - dress, speech, customs, etc. - are signals that they are, at least potentially, threatening. We can, as Berreby argues, overcome our tribal bias when we see that it's in our own self interest to accommodate to a larger world. Yet, as Darwin observed, the strength of our group loyalty - because our own survival has depended on it through the eons - is such that we are far less free than Berreby suggests.
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