The Evolutionary Roots of Our Tribal Nature

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The Evolutionary Roots of Our Tribal Natures
image by mtajmr

Evil or Stupid?

I recently participated in a conversation with a friend, in which he lamented the political views of a member of his family who held a certain belief that seemed immoral.

Speaking about this family member’s point of view, my friend said to me, “In order to believe that, he must be evil or stupid.”

I was struck by the tone of certainty with which my friend made the statement. It seemed to me, to be quite a binary or absolutist way of thinking. Is this person in his family truly evil? Or, if not evil, is he truly stupid?

I thought, “Of course that can’t be the case!”

Unfortunately, considering others to be evil or stupid, based on their opinions or belief systems, is far too common a thought process.

So, why do people hold onto erroneous ideas?

Both the biological and cultural evolution of humans demonstrate the importance of belonging to a group and cooperating with that group. In this post, we’ll explore the path that has so ingrained tribalism and group think into our psyches and our societies.

Human Origins

Many species have evolved tp produce individuals capable of surviving alone in their environment.  These species are often equipped with physical tools or skills such as sharp teeth and claws, horns and antlers, or speed and strength.  

Other species rely on large numbers of individuals in their populations to ensure better odds that some of them will survive. Examples include fish, herd mammals, birds, and rodents.

Still, others have adapted in such a way that individuals within the species must rely on cooperation with others for their survival. Examples include dolphins and Orcas, wolves and wild dogs, and, of course, humans.

Early Human Evolution

The ancestors of humans were not equipped to survive long-term without the support of their group or tribe so, in order to survive, they worked together to ensure they had food, shelter, and safety. 

Cooperation required a large brain for processing information, recognizing other individuals, remembering past experiences, formulating strategies, and communicating all of this in real time.

These skills are the evolutionary adaptations that allowed Homo sapiens to thrive, spread, and eventually become the global species we are today.

But, along with these skills comes the intense psychological instinct to remain part of a group.

We are social creatures. Something inside of us tells us that we need to belong to a tribe to ensure our continued survival. And, this same something makes us terrified of being excommunicated from our tribes.

Tribal identity includes, not only belonging to our physical group, but sharing in the religious beliefs, ceremonies, and rituals of our physical group.

Whether your tribe’s gods were real or not, didn’t actually matter. Whether your tribe was correct about the nature of the sky, ocean, mountains, fire, wind, or stars really didn’t matter.

What mattered was that you had a tribe, and a major function of your tribe’s shared beliefs was simply to hold you all together. This was the origin of tribalism.

Given the evolutionary advantage of cooperation in our species, it’s not entirely surprising that self-preservation has consistently trumped truth throughout our history.

Agricultural Revolution

Communication skills became even more important as technology improved, because larger groups allowed for more specialization that, in turn, required higher levels of cooperation.

With the appearance of agriculture around 10,000-12,000 BCE, the importance of tribal connections became even more ingrained.

Individuals in large scale societies became less connected than ever to their food sources and more reliant than ever on their own tribe to protect them from other large tribes. Nigel Barber, PhD and evolutionary psychologist, points out that it was in this period that passionate tribalism rose to the level of military solidarity.

Beliefs about religion, gods, and the nature of existence became even less important from a truth perspective, but grossly more important from a tribal affiliation perspective.

Possessing the truth still didn’t protect you but having a companion (or an army of companions) with the same shared beliefs did.


The successful continuation of the human species will require that ideas be scrutinized, tested, and debated.

Unfortunately, modern tribalism continues and we see many people place more weight on loyalty to their social group, political party, race, religion, or favorite national news network than they do on evidence or facts.

Today, we observe this behavior manifested through group-think.  “A psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.”

We are all the result of human evolution and we all are subject to believing in incorrect ideas to preserve our tribal affiliations.

Does this mean that we’re all evil and stupid? No, but it does mean that we need to check our beliefs against evidence.

And, it means that we can all afford to give each other the benefit of the doubt and not ascribe these characteristics to everyone who disagrees with us.

"There have always been tribes, but what we have to appreciate now is that we live in a global community. And tribal loyalties…they’re not relevant to our future."

Bill Nye The Science Guy


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