David R. Samson is an evolutionary anthropologist and associate professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of Toronto. An interdisciplinary scholar investigating major behavioral and physiological transitions in human evolution, he has worked with a range of primate species and studied sleep in different types of human societies. Samson’s research has been internationally profiled, having been featured in Time, The New York Times, Smithsonian magazine, NPR, BBC, and National Geographic.
Below, David shares five key insights from his new book, Our Tribal Future: How to Channel Our Foundational Human Instincts into a Force for Good. Listen to the audio version—read by David himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. The trust paradox.
There is a central paradox embedded in the code of group dynamics, and the understanding of this paradox is the key to unlocking prosociality at every level of human interaction. This is referred to as the Trust Paradox. The resolution of the paradox is the ultimate moral quest to understand how a human mind, that was crafted to work with people we know, evolved the instinct to work with people we don’t. Group dynamics is all about trust. Ask yourself, “In whom do I put my trust?”
Evolution has crafted several answers. First, there was kin selection. A simple dictate: If you share genes, cooperate. Then, much later and in bigger-brained animals, there was friendship. But it’s pretty energetically costly. The next solution to the trust problem is completely unique in humans.
Thus, we innovated tribes. A tribe is a meta-group—an intersubjective belief network—that uses symbols as tokens of identity signaling membership. It serves the function of bootstrapping cooperation amongst strangers within the shared mythology of a network beyond face-to-face social interaction. A tribe is a type of secret society, where the signals of coalitionary alliance serve as the “secret password” to gain the rights, responsibilities, and benefits of the collective “imagined order.” No other species on the planet has this amazing capacity at their disposal.
2. Our tribal identity alters our perception of the world.
There is a life-altering understanding of the power of our “tribe drive” that warps our human perception. There is an emerging line of thought in evolutionary psychology that evolution does not favor true veridical perceptions and that natural selection routinely drives them to extinction. Evolution isn’t about being true, it’s about crafting perceptions that enhance survival and reproduction.
Groups shaped our brains throughout evolution, and so we come to a stunning realization that our perceptions are shaped not by truth but by our identity groups. For example, there is nothing more human than believing in collective narratives. These tribal narratives were the glue that kept our camps, bands, and tribal signals and symbols coordinated in collective action and resilient to a host of existential challenges.
Like an optical illusion, group beliefs have this fantastical, strange, perception-warping property. The more it deviates from reality, the more powerful a signal it is of collective identity. This explains most religious beliefs and their propensity to be paradoxical in nature. Think of the holy trinity for example. It defies logic that, all at once, by being three beings and one. But it’s a fantastic signal of a coalitionary alliance. The more radical belief, the stronger the signal that “we are one.”
3. Campcrafting: the principle of intentional proximity.
Tribe building is group dynamics at scale. Tribes are massive coalitions of strangers who have agreed upon the same set of symbols to help them make sense of the world. This shared understanding, this sense-making system of the universe, makes them prone to be super cooperative. Tribes are big-picture power players of the human social landscape.
You may not have the time, energy, or resources to build a tribe, but everyone is empowered with the ability to intentionally cultivate social networks on the individual, family, and camp level within your constellation of existing tribes.
“Tribes are big-picture power players of the human social landscape.”
For the vast majority of human existence, the smallest functional group has been the camp. It consisted of about 30 adults who shared responsibilities of making a living, which throughout the Paleolithic period involved hunting, foraging, and taking care of each other’s kids. The nuclear family was an invention of the 20th century, so nuclear camps can be said to be the smallest social unit for our species. These face-to-face groups are much more manageable. Focusing our social energies into smaller groups is a fundamental realignment that can help improve anybody’s quality of life. I term the effort as campcrafting.
At this point, ask yourself the following questions: Have I ever felt depressed? Do I ever feel financially insecure? Have I ever felt like I was in physical danger? Have I ever failed at a romantic relationship even though I put my all into it? Do I ever feel like I have relationships that lack trust? Have I ever felt like my life lacks meaning and purpose?
If you answered in the affirmative for any of the above, then you certainly have something to gain by exploring and examining the ways in which you can engage in campcrafting to better your life.
You can do this by decreasing distances within your group—social, physical, emotional and spiritual distances that hinder group cohesion and well-being. This is the principle of intentional proximity. Intentional proximity can be measured on one side of the continuum in small increments, such as a weekly ritual (brunch and mimosas or a poker game with friends), or on a greater scale, such as deliberately dwelling in the same location as your best friends or a beloved family member. When taken to its most intentional form this can include living within a modern-day “band” level community. Intentional proximity, expressed as an intentional community, is a kind of communal living that can range anywhere from being collocated on the same neighborhood street, to building a co-housing community or cohabitating within a larger, self-identifying group. The greater the energy you put into this sliding scale towards intentional proximity, the greater the cost, but also the greater the potential rewards—the ultimate of which is a deep sense of meaning and purpose to life.
Still on the fence or sound like a lot of work? It is. It’s human work; the original work of our Paleolithic ancestors. This work is a Homo sapiens birthright, and for good reason—we wouldn’t have made it if it hadn’t been.
4. The power of ritual.
There exists applied evolutionary anthropology with the latest science-backed techniques to enhance cohesion in our own groups. One powerful tool leverages an ancient ancestral human practice to intentionally strengthen one’s social networks: ritual.
Ritual has a raw and naked power that is worth appreciating and revering. Its compelling magic has a precise function: it standardizes actions coupled with symbols that encode the values and norms of an entire group. Every time we partake in a ritual, we perform a pattern of actions that conveys meaning and significance using identity signals of a coalitionary alliance. In other words, ritual is one of the most potent spells to cast to teach and learn how to signal your coalitions to the world.
As a culture, my sense is that we’ve become under-ritualized. Our societal rituals are stale and atrophied. They lack substance and spark. If applied, ritual is the best way to enhance the identity and purpose of your group and the end result is that you are harnessing a kind of rocket fuel for group cohesion.
Here is an example from my adolescence: The memories of my first friendships are now decades past, but they remain vivid and bright to this day. I was only a young teenager, but I could sense the gravity of the moment. My oldest friends were worried because I had fallen in with another high school clique. After some planning, they absconded me from my home, blindfolded me, and took me to a small copse in an unknown forest. There, they told me of their quest to renew our friendship. Whether they knew it or not, my friends were about to use an ancestral identity ritual that involved ancient and powerful magic to achieve this end.
“Ritual is the best way to enhance the identity and purpose of your group and the end result is that you are harnessing a kind of rocket fuel for group cohesion.”
I can still hear the heavy metal ballad of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” playing in the background of the portable stereo they brought. They removed my blindfold and told me to kneel. The stainless-steel sword tip touched my left shoulder, then my right, and then after an ascending arc, it came to rest on a lock of my unkempt teenage hair: “Arise, Sir Davers, a [redacted] of the order of [redacted],” my friend said. We shared a sacred, secret handshake known only to our group, and after the ritual was complete, I stood up and we embraced, feeling a love and acceptance that was identical to familial bonds. Those friends, my first true and time-tested friends, remain by my side to this day, and they still call me “Davers.”
Our secret society, which I would learn about only later as an anthropologist, was called a sodality. A sodality is an identity group that uses ritual, symbols, music, codes, nicknames, and other secrets as a currency of trust. I learned that these types of relationships serve a critical survival function for our ancestors. They provide a sense of belonging, support, and love that can only be found in a close-knit community. Moreover, they serve as a kind of insurance guild for trusted members, where the human and social capital of a group can be easily called. In the theatrical act of ritual, my friends were manifesting an instinct honed over millions of years.
These friends remain among the most important relationships in my life. They shaped who I am today and helped me navigate the challenges of my teenage years. I will always cherish the memories of those early days and the bond we formed. But it’s not just about the halcyon days of the past. We remain brothers in arms, united by a common identity and shared goals. In sum, they are a major cornerstone of my life’s sense of meaning and purpose.
5. A tribalism vaccine.
If tribalism is such a powerful force biasing the human mind to prefer one’s own tribe over another, then what does it mean for the future of humanity? The new science of cognitive immunology may point us in the right direction. This scientific framework understands mind viruses as not just metaphors but real, measurable things that adversely affect human wellness.
The twenty-first century has been waylaid by ideological derangement. Extremist culture warriors dot the landscape in a winner-take-all attack on each of their enemies. Mass shootings (spurred by loneliness and social isolation), terror bombings (spurred by religious tribalism), and hate crimes (spurred by racist tribalism), are endemic. Tribalist ideology is at the very center of the modern epidemic of bad ideas. How do we inoculate ourselves against the tribe virus?
Just like a biological virus, the key to creating a tribe vaccine is by finding weakened parts of the virus—tribal antigens if you will—that trigger a mental immune response that strengthens the mind against its more pernicious forms.
The worst kind of immune-compromising disruption is an identity-based unwillingness to yield to evidence. If willful unreason is the root cause of the spread of bad ideas, it should come as no surprise that its opposite is the key mental immunity booster that gives the greatest number of protections against them. Cognitive immunologists call this meta belief, which simply means “belief about beliefs.” The term meta belief here specifically means the good, cognitive immune enhancing kind. Meta belief, therefore, is the precept that beliefs should change in response to evidence.
“The worst kind of immune-compromising disruption is an identity-based unwillingness to yield to evidence.”
The two most critical ingredients that make up vaccines are immunogens and adjuvants. The immunogen refers to a molecule that is capable of eliciting an immune response by an organism’s immune system. By introducing weakened forms of the virus to the immune system, an antigen binds to the immune system and is indexed as “bad.” In our tribalism vaccine, the immunogen is Identity Protective Cognition (or IPC). People are motivated to protect their identity by selectively processing information in a way that confirms the belief of the group with which they identify. So we’ll want to peg IPC to something that elevates prosociality in our species.
The second element is an adjuvant. An adjuvant is used to prime the immune response with a set of instructions that result in a stronger, more effective immune response. The tribalism vaccine’s immunogen is the antigen of identity-protective cognition coupled with the adjuvant set of instructions of meta belief. To “administer” the tribe vaccine to people who choose to be inoculated, the key is identifying and practicing a meta-tribal creed with the power to inoculate individuals against harmful ideological thinking. What then, is an effective meta-tribal creed for the long-awaited tribalism vaccine? It goes as follows:
I am a member of Team Human.
Our creed is that beliefs can change in light of evidence.
We are a community of inquiry where beliefs are deemed reasonable if they can withstand reasonable challenges to their veracity.
We are the meta-tribe.
Creating vaccines under a time crunch is no small feat, but as we have seen in recent years, it is possible. We just eradicated smallpox from the human species forever. In the same way, we need to extract tribal antibodies to produce a tribalism vaccine to inoculate it from our species forever as well.
To listen to the audio version read by author David Samson, download the Next Big Idea App today: