Chapter 2: A Game of Giants
Billions of years ago, some single-celled creatures realized that being just one cell left your options pretty limited.
So they figured out a cool trick. By joining together with other single cells, they could form a giant creature that had all kinds of new advantages.
The downside was a major loss of individuality—
A single cell is itself a giant—a magical living giant made up of trillions of non-living atoms—and an animal is a higher-level giant made up of trillions of cells. This concept—a bunch of smaller things joining together to form a giant that can function as more than the sum of its parts—is called emergence. We can visualize it as a tower.
Pretty soon after cells started joining together to form animals, some of the animals discovered that they could go up another level of emergence and form even bigger giants made up of multiple animals. If you look around, you’ll see them everywhere—schools of fish, packs of wolves, colonies of ants, waddles1 of penguins. Groups like these represent floors of Emergence Tower above that of the individual animal level.
The ancestors of the single-celled organisms that joined together to form the first sponges were able to survive on their own. But once evolution shaped their descendants into parts of something bigger, there was no turning back. You could try pulling a cell out of a sponge and telling it to go rogue, but it had lost that ability. On its own, it would die.
When most of us consider what constitutes a complete life form and what doesn’t, it usually comes down to independence. We think of the sponge as a life form, but we think of each of its cells as mere parts of a life form. Meanwhile, there are other single cells—like an amoeba—that we do think of as full life forms. The key distinction in both cases is independence.
There’s no reason this concept shouldn’t apply across the board. Isolate an ant from its colony and it’ll suffer the same fate as the extracted sponge cell—so why do we think of the ant as the life form and the colony as simply a community of those life forms?
Probably because each of us is an animal. So we’re biased to think of the animal as the key level along Emergence Tower—the point where the primary “life form” always exists.
If we’re not being animal-centric, though, we should probably put an ant in the same category as a sponge cell, and the ant colony in the same category as the sponge. The ant colony is really the independent life form in the ant world—the individual ant is just one of the units of emergence beneath it.
Since the dawn of human evolution, humans have been forming giants called tribes. In my head, an ancient human tribe looks something like this:
As is usually the case with emergent phenomena, a human giant is greater than the sum of its parts.
In Chapter 1, we discussed how each human has two “minds”—the Primitive Mind with its fiery flame and the Higher Mind with his orb of clarity and consciousness. So when humans band together, they can generate a double emergence phenomenon.
The Primitive Mind is all about making giants. In fact, one of the Primitive Mind’s central talents is the ability to instinctually merge with other Primitive Minds, combining each of their individual primal flames into a raging survival bonfire, making the group stronger and more powerful than the sum of its parts.
But when Higher Minds work together, the effect can be just as powerful: the group as a whole gains superhuman abilities in learning and creativity and discovery.
Combining both emergent properties made the human tribe an incredible survival machine that allowed the species to stay afloat and thrive in a relentless natural world.
For most early humans, forming into giants with other humans wasn’t just an advantage, it was a necessity. A couple with little children living alone in a forest in 50,000 BC would have had a hell of a time doing all the hunting, gathering, fire-making, cooking, breast-feeding, and migrating they needed to do to fulfill their basic family needs, all while raising kids. And even if they somehow managed this for a while, they’d be a pretty soft target for animal predators and for human tribes who wanted their resources, and their kids wouldn’t have many dating options down the road. For all these reasons, ancient humans were tribe dependent.
In other words, on the ancient landscape—the one we were designed for—the human being wasn’t really the independent life form of the human race. The tribe was.
This idea may explain a whole lot about people and about the world around us, and it’s something we’re going to talk a lot about in this series. If we wanted to understand why ants evolved to be the way they are, we’d want to think about the evolution of their independent life form: the colony. The individual ant wasn’t shaped by evolution to be the perfect survival creature—it was shaped by evolution to be just the right element of a perfect survival colony. That’s why ants happily sacrifice their lives to protect the colony during an attack.
If we want to understand why people are the way they are, we should try thinking the same way. A human isn’t simply a perfect survival creature—it’s also just the right element of a perfect survival tribe. Examining the traits of a perfect survival tribe can help us see the specs for human nature, not only illuminating who we are, but why we’re that way.
Ants and Spiders
For the human genetic line, sustenance was a survival requirement, so we evolved to be hungry. Reproduction was a survival requirement, so we evolved to be horny. Not falling off a cliff was a survival requirement, so we evolved to be scared of heights. Tribe well-being was a survival requirement, so we evolved to be tribal.
But what exactly does it mean to be tribal?
To me, someone is being tribal when they’re thinking and behaving more like a piece of a larger organism than as an independent organism themselves.
Under this definition, ants are tribal as fuck. They’re furiously loyal. They always put the team first. The ants I’ve gotten to know in my life have a long list of bad personal qualities, but “individual selfishness” isn’t one of them.
Meanwhile, two rival spiders will compete with each other ruthlessly, both entirely self-interested.
So what’s the deal? Are ants better people than spiders are?
Ant behavior seems pretty different than spider behavior—until we remember that the two species have different relationships with Emergence Tower. For spiders, the “independent life form” lives on the level of the individual animal. For ants, independence happens a few floors up.
Comparing the behavior of individual spiders to individual ants is comparing the behavior of one independent life form to the behavior of the cells of another independent life form. Cells of a life form tend to be highly cooperative with each other—that doesn’t tell you much about whether or not the life form itself likes to cooperate with other life forms.
If we look at ant behavior up on the colony level of Emergence Tower, they don’t look so nice anymore. Colonies aren’t especially into cooperating with or sharing their food with other colonies, and as many 2:45am YouTube spirals have taught me, they will not hesitate to pillage and murder members of another colony if it helps their colony. Ant colonies are big, selfish creatures—individual ants are just the cells of that creature.
In the human world, we think of “Me vs. You” selfishness and “Us vs. Them” tribalism as different concepts, but they’re actually just the same phenomenon happening on different parts of Emergence Tower. Spider dickishness comes in the form of “Me vs. You” selfishness because the spider is the independent life form. Ant dickishness comes in the form of “Us vs. Them” tribalism because the ant colony is the independent life form. Tribalism is just what selfishness looks like up on the group level.
The human Primitive Mind isn’t any nicer than the spider or ant Primitive Mind—but it is a bit more complicated. Unlike spiders and ants, whose independent life form never changes emergence floors, humans are a kind of hybrid creature that inhabits a range along Emergence Tower, not a single floor.
We can be like spiders sometimes and like ants other times. Our independent life form makes trips up and down Emergence Tower’s elevator.
Me against my brother
Of all the factors that affect our emergence mindset, one of the most reliable is conflict.
When my tortoise Winston is scared, he tucks his head and his limbs into his shell. When humans are scared, they form giants. The giant is the human tortoise shell. Typically, the bigger the giant that threatens a group of people, the bigger a giant they’ll form in response.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt likes to point out an old Bedouin proverb that nails this idea. It goes:
Me against my brothers; my brothers and me against my cousins; my cousins, my brothers, and me against strangers.
When I hear this proverb, I see a human taking a ride up the Emergence Tower elevator.
At the beginning of the comic, the psychology of the two brothers was centered on the individual human floor. With no larger conflict happening, they acted a lot like two competing spiders. But selfish spider behavior is a luxury of safe times, and as other groups entered the scene, the brothers had bigger problems on their hands than their dislike of each other. Their psyches rose up on the emergence elevator, and by the middle of the comic, everyone was acting more like ants than spiders. Towards the end of the comic, as the threat levels went down, higher tribalism melted away and things became less ant-like—the elevator came back downwards.
If you pay attention to the world around you, and to your own psychology, you’ll spot the elevator in action. Ever notice how countries in one region of the world will often despise each other, focusing most of their national dickishness on each other—until there’s a broader conflict or war in play, at which time they put aside their differences? How different sects of a religion in fierce conflict with each other will suddenly find common ground when a rival religion or other outside entity insults or threatens their religion as a whole? How about when rivalries in the world of club soccer become less heated during the World Cup? Or when political factions with differing or even totally contradictory ideologies start marching in the street, arm in arm, during a national election or mass movement? I saw the elevator shoot upwards in the days following 9/11, when millions of New Yorkers who normally can’t stand each other were holding doors for each other, showing concern for each other’s well-being, and even hugging each other in the street. I remember thinking that while an alien attack would suck overall, it would do wonders for species solidarity.2
In each case, human dickishness is running at full force—the thing that’s changing is the size of the giants that are being dicks to each other.
Human evolution has probably been influenced by the entire human emergence range. We were shaped partially by our spider interactions as we competed with neighboring individuals and partially by our ant interactions as our tribes competed with neighboring tribes. In other words, to survive through human history, it makes sense that our genes had to be good at competing as an individual against their brother and competing with their family against other families and competing with their tribe against other tribes.3
The right element of a perfect survival tribe
Our society today is, in its own way, still a game of giants. To understand the world around us, you can’t think only about people as individuals—we need to get to know the tribal mindset. So what are some elements of a tribal mindset?
There are classic “Us > Them” traits, like our respect for loyalty—the feeling that being loyal is a critical virtue and nothing is worse than being a traitor.
Or the way we view others. Our tendency to lionize members of Us and demonize members of Them.
Many of the most tribal traits come in the form of “Us > Me”—as if the tribal mindset is in direct competition with the me-first selfish mindset.
Sometimes it shows up as a love of conformity. A literal “selflessness.” The inclination to fit in at the expense of your individuality. A susceptibility to groupthink over individual reasoning. A fear of standing out or being disliked and a disdain for those who diverge from group conformity. A very ant-y way to be.
Sometimes it shows up as an affinity for social hierarchy—a deference to authority and the inclination to suck up to those in power.
Or reverence for self-sacrifice. The feeling that the most noble thing someone can do is sacrifice their life in service of Us as a whole or in order to save another group member. And deep contempt for anyone who looks out for themselves in battle or behaves selfishly within the tribe.
But the tribal quality that I find most fascinating is what I might call selective kindness.
To see how selective kindness works, let’s visit with three ancient tribes—one made up of people who are never kind, one made of people who are selectively kind, and one full of people who are always kind.
Okay well that was bad for Tribe A. The tribe was full of people who were never kind, which turned out to be a bad survival strategy. And how about Tribe B and Tribe C? Both look pretty decent so far. But what happens when, one day, they run into each other?
Tribe B showed kindness within their giant the same way the organs in your body work together and support each other. This behavior emerged not from a general principle but as a means to the selfish survival of the giant they formed together. On the other hand, Tribe C’s kindness was a core value, not confined to any single layer of emergence—it extended upwards into the world of giants as well.
So while kindness, in all its manifestations—care, altruism, compassion—was an important survival trait in a world where well-functioning groups were necessary for survival, universal kindness probably wasn’t a great survival trait. Inevitably, other tribes would be selectively kind, shedding all of that kindness when dealing with other tribes. And when a kind tribe faces off against a ruthless tribe, the ruthless tribe usually wins.
The evolutionary sweet spot probably wouldn’t have been kindness or empathy or compassion or cooperation—it would have been to have these traits on a toggle switch. To be micro-kind and macro-ruthless.
When I look around, I see evidence of this toggle switch everywhere. Notice how easily people who are normally compassionate drop that compassion when thinking and talking about members of a political party they hate—the “Them” political party? How these people are all about forgiveness with people they see as part of “Us” but are fine with permanent, lifelong consequences for enemies of that group? How they’re so good at seeing the story behind the story when they hear about criminals they consider part of “good guy” groups, but always seem to see the worst superficial caricature in wrongdoers from groups they don’t identify with? It happens on a smaller scale too, like when people who have spent their lives showing no compassion or understanding for a certain type of outsider suddenly have a warm heart when someone in their family ends up as part of that group.
Selective kindness isn’t high-mindedness. The Higher Mind exhibits these traits all the time. He’s high-minded universally, as a general principle, and applies it to everyone equally. Selective kindness is a Primitive Mind trick that appears to be high-mindedness, if you’re not paying close enough attention. Remember, at first glance, ants seemed like nice people too. That’s why the litmus test of anyone’s true colors—the revealer of which mind is running the show in their head—is how they treat people outside their tribe. Both the Higher Mind and Primitive Mind tend to treat fellow tribesmen with kindness, so that tells you nothing—it’s when dealing with Them that the two minds diverge.
I’ve written about our troubles with the Primitive Mind many times on Wait But Why, exploring how it manifests in different forms—as the reason we procrastinate, the reason we care so much what others think of us, the reason we’re so bad at original thinking, the reason we struggle for self-awareness. In each case, the Primitive Mind is just doing what it’s programmed to do—help us pass our genes on in 50,000 BC. In each case, our problems stem from the fact that we no longer live in the world we were optimized by evolution to live in. And in each case, there’s hope to make things better—because right next to the Primitive Mind in our heads is an advanced center of clarity and wisdom and independent agency. The Higher Mind may be the underdog, but he’s a fighter.
When I started thinking about modern tribalism as I wrote this series, it hit me that this has a lot in common with those other posts. Because a society’s struggles aren’t that different from each of our personal struggles—just like two families fighting isn’t that different from two brothers fighting. Society and the people who make it up have a fractal relationship—their internal problems are of the same nature, just on different emergence floors. At the core of both struggles is the mismatch between our ancient programming and the advanced civilization we live in.
I’ve always felt hope when writing about our struggles at the individual level, and I feel hope in this series too as we look at what’s going on a few floors up on the elevator. But we have a pretty daunting task in front of us—because innate tribalism is only the beginning of what we’re contending with today. Somewhere down the line of human history, evolution happened upon a new tool that put human tribalism on steroids. That’s what we’ll explore in the next chapter.
Chapter 3: A Story of Stories
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Three totally unrelated Wait But Why posts:
Influences and related reading
Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind
Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph: The moral mind: How five sets of innate intuitions guide the development of many culture-specific virtues, and perhaps even modules
Robert Axelrod: The Evolution of Cooperation
Smithsonian: What does it mean to be human?
W.D. Hamilton: The genetical evolution of social behaviour
Elainie A. Madsen, et al: Kinship and altruism: A cross-cultural experimental study
Wladimir J. Alonso and Cynthia Schuck-Paim: Sex-ratio conflicts, kin selection, and the evolution of altruism
Martin A. Nowak, Corina E. Tarnita, Edward O. Wilson: The evolution of eusociality (Nature)
There are also a lot of group selection skeptics. Like:
Steven Pinker: The False Allure of Group Selection
Richard Dawkins: Replicators and Vehicles
Eliezer Yudkowsky: The Tragedy of Group Selectionism
Jerry A. Coyne: Can Darwinism Improve Binghamton?
You can find the ongoing list of sources, influences, and related reading for this series here.
Penguins already have a hard time with dignity—they didn’t need this to be the word we decided to use for their group.↩
In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt talks about what he calls the “hive switch,” which he explains is “a psychological reflex in which self-interest is turned off and group interest becomes paramount; people lose themselves in the group. People can become tribal without the hive switch getting activated. The hive response is what happens when tribalism is activated intensely, particularly through highly engaging multisensory rituals.” The hive switch is the ultimate example of our psychology shooting upwards on the elevator. Haidt also sees this quality as evidence of group selection—behavior that makes little sense for an individual who wants to maximize survival chances but great sense for a group that wants to maximize its chances.↩
I wrote this chapter of the series from an intuitive perspective before digging into what the evolutionary scientists say about it. It turns out the world of evolutionary science is at war with itself over the individual vs. group selection thing. A lot of scientists support my assumption that we evolved simultaneously on multiple levels of emergence (there’s even a real term for this kind of elevator range evolution: multi-level selection). And plenty of other scientists think group selection is mostly hogwash. I cite members of both groups at the bottom of the post. For the purposes of this series, it’s not that important who’s right, since we’re mostly concerned with the traits of tribalism and the way humans do emergence, not the origin of these phenomena.↩
As a dramatically unskilled graphic artist, I do a lot of trial and error. With these guys, if they were gonna be at a side angle I needed to give them depth or they’d look like they were made of paper. After a lot of experimentation, I ended up accidentally making them into delicious-looking gummy creatures. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not, but I’m pretty happy about it.↩
Fun Wilson quote: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.”↩