Tribalism And Agreed-Upon Lies
By John Scales Avery
07 February, 2013
”History is a set of lies agreed upon” , Napoleon Bonaparte, quoting Fontanelle
“The human mind was not designed by evolutionary forces for finding truth. It was designed for finding advantage” Albert Szent-Györgyi
It seems to be a part of human nature to behave with great kindness towards members of our own group. By contrast we often exhibit terrible aggression towards other groups that are perceived to be competing with or threatening our own. This profile of intra-tribal altruism and inter-tribal aggression is easy to understand if we remember that our remote ancestors belonged to small, genetically homogeneous tribes, competing for territory on the grasslands of Africa. Because all the members of a particular primitive tribe had closely similar genes through intermarriage, the tribe as a whole was the unit upon which evolutionary forces acted. The tribe as a whole either survived or perished, and those groups with the strongest “team spirit” survived best.
Later in history, the invention of agriculture made it possible for humans to live in larger groups, and ethical rules were invented to overwrite raw human nature so that genetically inhomogeneous cities, nations and even empires could exist with social cohesion and without internal strife.
Because of ethics, cooperation became possible over larger and larger areas. Human culture was able to blossom, and the vast accumulation of knowledge upon which modern civilization depends began to accumulate. Nevertheless, narrow tribalism remains today in the form of religious bigotry and fanatical nationalism. We urgently need a global ethic, which will unite all humans.
Members of tribelike groups throughout history have marked their identity by adhering to irrational systems of belief. Like the ritual scarification which is sometimes used by primitive tribes as a mark of identity, irrational systems of belief are also a mark of tribal identity. We parade these beliefs to demonstrate that we belong a special group and that we are proud of it. The more irrational the belief is, the better it serves this purpose. When you and I tell each other that we believe the same nonsense, a bond is forged between us. The worse the nonsense is, the stronger the bond.
Sometimes motives of advantage are mixed in. As the Nobel Laureate biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi observed, evolution designed the human mind, not for finding truth, but for finding advantage. Within the Orwellian framework of many modern nations, it is extremely disadvantageous to hold the wrong opinions. The wiretappers know what you are thinking.
Also, people often believe what will make them happy. How else can we explain the denial of climate change in the face of massive evidence to the contrary?
But truth has the great virtue that it allows us to accurately predict the future. If we ignore truth because it is unfashionable, or painful, or heretical, the future will catch us unprepared.
John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm
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