The Rising Waters of Human Tribal Nature


I’m excited to read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. I’ve read every one one of his books except for The Stuff of Thought, and The Blank Slate is one of my favorite books of all time. I still remember how much of a page-turner The Language Instinct was for me back in the late 1990s. But I’m most excited about Enlightenment Now because I’m looking for a little hope. At this point, I am very pessimistic as to the prospects for the Enlightenment project.

This is pretty obvious to anyone who reads me closely. I’ve been writing and discussing with people on the internet, and in private, for many years now, and have come to the conclusion most people are decent, but they’re also craven and intellectually unserious outside of their domain specificity when they are intellectual. Many of our institutions are quite corrupt, and those which are supposedly the torchbearers of the Enlightenment, such as science, are filled with people who are also blind to their own biases or dominated by those who will plainly lie to advance their professional prospects or retain esteem from colleagues.

That’s why I laughed out loud when I saw this tweet:

In psychology, much of the replication crisis was simply due to personal self-interest (more publications). But some of it was obviously political (see stereotype threat). Similarly, look at the fiasco in nutrition science. Some of it was personal, but there were also political demands from on high that there be something done. So “scholars” set some guidelines that people followed for decades, even if later they were shown to be totally ineffective. I’m not even going to get into the travesty that is modern biomedical science, with professional advancement and institutional interests combined in a deadly cocktail.

Also, I enjoy science popularizing (or did, I don’t read science books much anymore) as much as the next person, but isn’t it interesting how much of modern science confirms the mainstream elite cultural norms of ~2020? Curiously, if you read science popularizations in newspapers in 1920 they would also confirm the elite cultural norms of 1920…. But this time we’re right!

Other institutions aren’t doing better. The media is going through economic collapse, and journalists and their paymasters are reacting by pandering to their audiences. Instead of illuminating, they’re confirming. That’s what the audience wants, and I’m sure it’s more satisfying to journalists anyway. But can you blame them with the economics that are before us?

This is 2017, Nazi-pizza

Don’t get me started on Facebook or Twitter.

I was having a discussion with a reasonably prominent pundit (you would recognize the name) today who bemoaned the reality that so many journalists are now driven to sating tribal passions and generating clicks for their paymasters. He was trying to argue against my pessimism, suggesting that the fever was starting to break. We’ll see. I hope I’m wrong.

People have always been biased and subject to motivated reasoning. We’ve had our disputes whatever our ideology, whether it be conservative, moderate, or liberal. But the Enlightenment perspective of critical rationalism, which took philosophical realism seriously, meant that ultimately people who disagreed often assumed that fundamentally they were trying to converge on the same facts, the same reality. Reality existed, and you couldn’t just wish it away. Discussion might forward two individuals to a convergence!

We’re not there anymore. Whether it be Bush-era contempt for “Reality-Based Community”, or the rising crest of “Critical Theory”, the acid of subjectivism is eroding the vast edifice of aspirational realism which grew organically in the wake of the Enlightenment. This isn’t a Left vs. Right phenomenon, it’s a human dynamic, because for most of human history what is true has been determined by what the tribe dictates to be true, and what the tribe dictates to be true has often not been based on a critical evaluation of facts and theories. What the tribe dictates to be true is computationally less intensive than thinking things through yourself, and, it’s often right-enough.

The reality is that this cultural cognition and conformity has always held. It’s just that it seems that for a few centuries substantial latitude was given in public to a relative amount of heterodoxy from broad tribal visions. And it was always a work in progress. But there was a goal, and an ideal, even if we habitually failed. We failed in the direction of truth.

We live in a post-modern age now. Feelings are paramount, facts must bow before them. But the curious fact is that the post-modern age is just the pre-modern age. When I first read the Christian author Alister McGrath I literally scoffed at his contention that atheism would fail before the ascendancy of post-modernism. Ten years on I will admit that I now believe he was right and I was wrong. Though I don’t think the New Atheism failed miserably, I do think that the problems it is encountering from the cultural Left are due to its cold modernist baggage.

No truth, no liberalism. No liberalism, and democracy become the mob. The passions of the mob do eventually fail, and its wake a more oligarchic and hierarchical system will emerge. We may simply be seeing the end of the liberal individualist interregnum, as history reverts to its despotic collectivist norm.

Art, the applied sciences of engineering, and many human endeavors will continue to develop in the new order. Illiberal societies, all societies until recently, can be cultured and civilized. My own preference is for the dignity of the individual and legal egalitarianism of the liberal world in which I grew up (but in which I was not born), but humans have flourished and continue to flourish in illiberal environments.

One way to think about the past century or so is that more or less the waters of human nature receded, and a great undersea world was exposed. But now human nature is rising, and that world is submerging before our eyes. But islands of the old world we grew up in will persist. We need to find each other out and cherish the values of critical inquiry as we have for thousands of years. An archipelago of learning for learning’s sake can sill maintain itself in a world where our values no longer hold the leash. But like the mammals during the Mesozoic, we will have to go back into the night and the shadows. There will hopefully be oligarchic patrons who sympathize with us, and despots like Frederick the Great who give us some latitude to work. Our values will fade and diminish, but they will not disappear.* One day they may come to the fore again!

Finally, understanding that most people don’t need to be right or utter the truth, but simply need to win, has made me much more cheerful and less sour observing everyday stupidities. It is no great insight to observe that I’ve never been one who has had much esteem for the admiration of my peers. I like to do my own thing. But tribal acclamation must be the best of all things for most humans, and now I understand why they fight unfairly and stupidly with such ease and naturalness: their aim not to be right in the eyes of nature, but to rise in the esteem their fellow human. That is the summum bonum.

Note: I’ll be very happy to be proven wrong in 15 years. But as it is I think by then we’ll be dealing with the final breakdown of the institutions of the republic in the wake of a Left-wing attempt to forestall the economic immiseration of the middle-class that failed.

* The main reason I hated religion as a child is the mindless boredom of attendance at services. I quickly realized I didn’t believe any of that tripe and never had. But the liberty that I have to dissent from public values may not be a liberty we always have. Private dissent may come back and become the norm as it has been for much of human history.

39 thoughts on “The Rising Waters of Human Tribal Nature

  1. “…Capital, Bichler and Nitzan claim, is nothing but organized power. This power, they say, has two sides: one qualitative, the other quantitative. The qualitative side comprises the many institutions, developments and conflicts through which capitalists constantly creorder – or create the order of – their society; that is, the processes through which they shape and restrict the social trajectory in order to extract their tributary income. The quantitative side is the universal algorithm that integrates, reduces and distils these numerous qualitative processes down to the monetary magnitude of capitalization.

    In principle, every stream of expected income is a candidate for capitalization. And since income streams are generated by social entities, social processes, social organizations and social institutions, we end up with capitalization discounting not the so-called sphere of economics, but potentially every aspect of society. Human life, including its social habits and its genetic code, is routinely capitalized. Institutions – from education and entertainment to religion and the law – are habitually capitalized. Voluntary social networks, urban violence, civil war and international conflict are regularly capitalized. Even the environmental future of humanity is capitalized. Nothing escapes the eyes of the discounters. If it generates expected future income, it can be capitalized, and whatever can be capitalized sooner or later is capitalized…”

  2. An intrusive, personal question, if you would indulge me, Mr. Khan. How often do you get together with some of the men in the neighborhood, drink beer, and talk about the life you all share (e.g. raising kids, how things the same for your kids as they were for you, how things are different, hobbies, activities, family goings-on, etc.).

  3. Razib, are you reading Enlightenment Now? According to the link, it doesn’t come out until February 27 next year.

    A. Furtiv Russell, I don’t see how your comment is relevant to the post.

  4. This doom and gloomism is a product of your personal intellectual obsessions and activities, not about the world as it really is. This is starting to look less like pessimism and more like a mental health issue.

    Get off twitter. Read fiction to understand humans better. Spend time with actual human beings, not from work, not family, and talk.

    And get off twitter.

  5. “What the tribe dictates to be true is computationally less intensive than thinking things through yourself, and, it’s often right-enough.”

    This is key, in my view. Thinking deeply about the world is as exhausting for many people as it is rewarding for others.

  6. My wife broke her foot a while ago, and I have been driving her back and forth to her faculty job at a selective liberal arts college in Ohio. What is striking is the heavy-handed enforcement of progressive dogma. Every faculty door in her building has the same posters. I don’t know if every faculty member supports all the issues, but no one dares to NOT post them.

  7. I second (third?) the recommendation to reduce Twitter usage. Do its benefits outweigh the damage it may be doing to your happiness?

  8. “Feelings don’t care about your facts. The gates of ijtihad have closed. The Law of Gravity is nonsense. No such law exists.”

    ?

  9. Razib, found your blog only recently. Love it. Thank you. I for one would love to see your thoughts on commonly held political beliefs that contradict current scientific research. A summation of the gap. Razib for newbies, as it were…thanks for considering.

  10. Razib-
    Have you read Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue”? I don’t see it on your goodreads, and it may not be down your street, but you might be intrigued by his analysis of modernity. I mention it because he covers what he calls emotivism on pp 6-35, which could have been (mutatis mutandis) written by you. IM(as ever)HO. Anyway, that portion appears to be presented intact on GoogleBooks.

  11. Very interesting point about the cultural elites determining the course of acceptable science.
    Also, the New York Times just ran a piece about the sugar industry lobbying Congress in the 1960s to help cover up their roll in obesity by directing attention towards saturated fats.

  12. I find the Turchin over production of elites thesis a useful description of today.

    But my perspective is a bit different, since I’m 54. Probably commented on this here before, but I remember Reagan saying the Soviet Union was an evil empire, and people completely losing their shit. And in grade school (grew up near an air force base in Ohio) we had drills to hide under a desk if alarms went off, since nuclear missiles were coming. I asked my dad and he laughed and said we live too close to the base, hiding under a desk wouldn’t help one bit. It just gave the teachers something to to do to feel better. Not quite bay of pigs craziness, but cold war going hot was a real possibility for me when young. Capitalist/Communist was one fashionable form of tribalism back then. But still tribalism. Like identity politics, or multicultural elites/poor whites now.

    My point here is another of Pinker book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, emphasized how we in the present underestimate the violence of the past.

    Similarly, I expect Pinker to be optimistic in his new book because we in the present mistakenly believe past people weren’t as tribal. If the present seems super tribal compared to the past, I’d call bullshit. People have always been super tribal, and the enlightenment was always fragile. It just manifested in different ways in different eras. Knowing the fragility of the past is also knowing the possibility of resiliency. So the center may not hold this time. Agree it’s very troubling. But it’s not clear to me that previous episodes in say, past 150 years, were worse. Turchin’s data is good, but the outcome of the current wave is not inevitable. Which indirectly make me slightly more optimistic about the present.

  13. “Though I don’t think the New Atheism failed miserably, I do think that the problems it is encountering from the cultural Left are due to its cold modernist baggage.”

    I disagree. I think the first comment at the linked Slate Star Codex post nailed the reason for the failure. The New Atheists criticized Islam. That made them guilty of Islamophobia, which any good leftist will tell you is a grave moral disorder.

    Of course the inclusion of Islamists in the inner circle of the left has made their entire enterprise intellectually incoherent. Homosexuals, Feminists, and Jews ought to run away screaming.

    I struggle to get into the mind of the left. Do they love Islamists because Islam wants to create a borg, just like they do? Is it merely a testimony to the posthumous strength of Soviet propaganda, like the left’s hatred of nuclear energy? I think the most important thing to the left is that Islamists hate America, and anyone who hates America cannot be all bad.

    BTW Scott Alexander linked his previous essay on tribalism: “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup, which I thought was much better than the New Atheism piece, and quite informative.

  14. Bob Sykes: Are you related to Bill?

    Take a tip from Bill Sykes,
    He can whip what he likes.
    I recall he started small,
    He had to pick a pocket or two.

    Oliver! “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”

  15. An intrusive, personal question, if you would indulge me, Mr. Khan. How often do you get together with some of the men in the neighborhood, drink beer, and talk about the life you all share (e.g. raising kids, how things the same for your kids as they were for you, how things are different, hobbies, activities, family goings-on, etc.).

    never. not many kids in the neighborhood (a bunch of tech-bros rent the house next-door).

    honestly i don’t socialize outside of my class much at all. i have entrepreneur friends who have low salaries because they don’t pay themselves, but really these are of my class of middle to upper middle class college eduated and more.

    the last time i spent substantial time with people outside of my normal social/economic milieu of scientists, start-up people and tech-bros was when i went to my high school reunion.

  16. I for one would love to see your thoughts on commonly held political beliefs that contradict current scientific research.

    on the left: IQ is an instrument of no utility.

    on the right: most of the social outcomes of an individual can be controlled by family environment.

  17. Rereading, that sounds a bit too harsh. It is meant as support. Feel free to delete.

    you have a tendency to sound like an asshole. it’s pretty consistent over 15 years now. just an observation 🙂

    p.s. i am actually pretty happy personally. just not happy about society.

  18. Razib, are you reading Enlightenment Now? According to the link, it doesn’t come out until February 27 next year.

    no, anticipating it. pinker is a great writer. perhaps a little less of a stylist than dawkins but still good.

  19. I am very pessimistic as to the prospects for the Enlightenment project.

    I don’t always agree with you – and you are often a rude arse – but I’m with you on that one. And this is a superb post. One of your best.

  20. “I struggle to get into the mind of the left. Do they love Islamists because Islam wants to create a borg, just like they do?”

    For the same reason that the Left “loved” (in US, and also in British Ireland) ethnic Catholics in the past, or the Left in Muslim countries “loves” Christians (look to the alliance between communist Kurdish groups and Christian militias in Syria) – because the Left sees the world in terms of the “privileged establishment” versus the “downtrodden”, and ethnic and religious minorities are usually “downtrodden” (even when they are economically upper class, like Jews and probably homosexuals, they have usually low social status).

    And there is a precedent of the Left being simultaneously in favor of “cultural progressivism” and of a very social conservative group – before the Muslims, you had the “working class” (or even the Blacks and Latinos in some issues).

  21. @Walter Sobchak: I think the alliance between the Western left and Islamists came about for a few different reasons. First is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the Palestinians are the oppressed underdogs of their domestic enemies’ allies. Even back in the 60’s there was a romanticism associated with the Palestinian national movement (e.g. the Red Army Faction trained with the PLO). From there, the romanticism of their cause was transferred to the rest of the Arab and Islamic world. Another is the left’s commitment to mass immigration and multiculturalism in the Western World. In Europe, one of the biggest source of migrants has been from the Islamic world. As such, defenders of mass migration had to downplay any incompatibilities of Islam with modern secular life (and conversely, critics had to play them up).

    As for how the left can ignore the incompatibility of Islam with its own core values (e.g. secularism, feminism, etc.), my guess is that most leftists have little or no contact with the ‘typical’ Muslim. Instead, the Muslims that they will meet are often secularized and Westernized, which convinces many of them that they leftism and Islam can get along A-OK. Look at how the left often portrays Muslims on the same terms as race or ethnicity. Within multiculturalism (as many liberals imagine it working), religious difference are reduced to nothing more than little more than skin deep differences, a special costume taken out for special holidays. For the rest of year, ethnic groups will behave and act like secularized liberal Westerners.

    Is this a problem? Well, if Western liberals can get Muslims to sign onto multiculturalism (implicitly, Muslims would accept their children’s assimilation into being mostly Western secularism), than there is no problem. The problem is two-fold. First, assimilation require that the flow of newcomers is small enough that they cannot form their own communities that can resist assimilation and keep their own culture. Second, multicultural societies don’t work they way many liberal multiculuralists expect. They would imagine that, with many little cultures and ethnicities sitting next to each other, such divisions would become irrelevant. But in actually existing multicultural societies, ethnic divisions take a key role in political life. So, for example, the posts of President and Prime Minister in Lebanon are allocated on religious/ethnic lines. Even in Canada, the mostly ceremonial office of Governor-General has alternated between English and French speakers since the office has been filled by Canadians.

  22. Christopher: “e.g. the Red Army Faction trained with the PLO” That was a Soviet operation. The PLO was created by the Soviet Union for the specific purpose of bedeviling Israel. Western intellectuals, besotted by communism did the PR work.

  23. Razib: I think you are (sadly) correct about this one. One of the leading indicators is that the enlightenment has no friends in Academia any more. How this works out in the United States is very foggy. I cannot get any images in my scrying bowl. I assume that it will be triggered by a financial crisis connected to the mid-2030 bankruptcy of the entitlement state.

    If I had to bet, I would bet red because they know how to hunt and fish, and field strip and clean their weapons.

    The blues cannot count on the military or any of the other paramilitary* forces and their ethnic minions are disorganized and riven by internal rivalries. *You can’t demonize police to salve the inner city, and then depend on them to confront their friends and neighbors. The blue elites, having shunned the military and organized religion, will discover that they have few allies and few tools for rallying support.

    What I do not understand is how the process of tribalization can work in a place as big and diverse as the US where there are no existing tribal affiliations they way that there are in the Middle East.

  24. Per ‘New Atheists’ losing there mojo in places like universities and the like, I’d guess that what made it happen right now as opposed to some other time was that Islam is really in amongst pomos and ‘New Atheists cannot follow them there so they’re out.

    However, if this didn’t do it something else would have. If one really wanted to understand the thinking of say Dawkins about religion, one must take into account that though he might bring quite a bit of passion to the topic, he’s very untalented as a thinker, in fact he’s quite a blockhead. He’s an even bigger blockhead on science and lastly and most importantly, he’s a supremo blockhead about atheism. Pomos get atheism, though usually in a pretty muddleheaded way, Dawkins doesn’t.

    Pomoism is what atheism looks like when it’s winning.

  25. honestly i don’t socialize outside of my class much at all.

    Are people in your neighborhood not a part of your “class” (which I take to mean in educational-economic terms)?

    Your article above struck me as particularly (and unduly, in my view) pessimistic – alienated, even… almost as if you bemoaned the “tribalization” of society, because you did not have an organic tribe yourself.

    I have a simple mantra that things are rarely as good or bad as they seem. Granted, there are many society-wide trends that are alarming and destructive, even, but a person who is well-enmeshed in concentric circles of community tend not to be very bitter, unhappy or alienated by the larger social forces. In fact, societal maelstrom can even strengthen such communitarian ties and make people happier (e.g. Sebastian Junger writes and discusses at length how former Yugoslavians talk wistfully about the good old days of the civil wars when, as horrendous and things got, people in apartment buildings and neighborhoods stuck together and were very bonded).

    I am NOT suggesting that you are not personally happy or fulfilled – it’s just that overt and almost bombastically hopeless pessimism as elucidated in this post strikes me as a product of alienation from community.

  26. The blues cannot count on the military or any of the other paramilitary* forces and their ethnic minions are disorganized and riven by internal rivalries. *You can’t demonize police to salve the inner city, and then depend on them to confront their friends and neighbors. The blue elites, having shunned the military and organized religion, will discover that they have few allies and few tools for rallying support.

    What I do not understand is how the process of tribalization can work in a place as big and diverse as the US where there are no existing tribal affiliations they way that there are in the Middle East.

    You answered the second paragraph with the first. Tribalization certainly can happen in the U.S. It’s just that we call them different things. Clubs, neighborhoods, parishes, churches, certain professions (e.g. police), gangs, etc. are all tribes, as are, of course, ethnicities if sufficiently distinct and unassimilated.

    I belong to many of these concentric tribes/clans. I am also a part of a group of families who explicitly plan for surviving large national/regional disasters and disorder. We are only really worried about the local Hispanic gangs – they also have social cohesion and organizational strength, but we’d like to think that our various expertise and skillsets can trump whatever advantages they bring to any possible conflict. Moreover, we know about them. They don’t know about us.

  27. Art, continue to progress?
    I know it’s a completely subjective area, but as someone who spends more time than is healthy on literature, music and the fine arts, I think the general unspoken consensus among people is that outside of serialized television and popular novels, there’s been quite an erosion of quality of form for many things that long predates the attack on enlightenment values.

    Giving a swift kick in the balls to traditional ideas of beauty and aesthetics from the subjective angle happened long before it became okay to tear down the edifices of empirical reality. Honestly, high and middlebrow culture is more or less complete shit nowadays. You only have to look at the utter wasteland that is modern poetry to see that. Rupi Kaur makes Rod McKuen seem like William Butler Yeats in comparison.

    Let me fourth the whole thing about ditching Twitter. Let me put it this way; I was a longtime 4chan poster, a place renowned for being a hellhole of flailing retard autists who have honed shitposting into a fine art. And even *I* can’t handle what Twitter has become.

    Moreover, after ditching my own social media addiction (mostly facebook), I’ve had time and “spirit” to rededicate myself to connecting to people in my physical proximity, as well as hobbies that I was too preoccupied/demoralized to engage in.

  28. alienation from community.

    been socializing far less and working more past few years. my wife has said this is a problem in my attitude. so i think you are on to something. now fixing that problem….

  29. A question about your note at the bottom.

    …in the wake of a Left-wing attempt to forestall the economic immiseration of the middle-class that failed…

    Does the left have much interest in forestalling the immiseration of the middle class? I don’t see it. It appears to me that the elites of the left enjoy seeing this.

  30. Razib,

    “But as it is I think by then we’ll be dealing with the final breakdown of the institutions of the republic in the wake of a Left-wing attempt to forestall the economic immiseration of the middle-class that failed.”

    I guess you don’t think an attempted Universal Basic Income is going to work?

  31. The UBI has a big problem – the very bad marketing of its defenders, who, instead of “selling” the UBI saying “the welfare mechanism that helps also the workers with average-to-low incomes instead of only the poor and the unemployed (because you can add the subsidy and a wage, instead of losing one to get the other)”, prefer to say that the UBI is “the welfare mechanism where you can live without working”.

  32. @Miguel Madeira

    the UBI is “the welfare mechanism where you can live without working”.

    This seems like a refrain from opponents, not proponents.

  33. I think there is a widespread misunderstanding about the Enlightenment which is relevant here. It was the classical philosophers who believed that humanity had an innate tendency to neutrality and truth. It is a teleological and metaphysical idea which makes people feel good. Francis Bacon, who used to be considered the founder of the real Enlightenment, insisted that people are in fact attracted to lies, and yet able to achieve a lot despite this. (Look at the practical crafts, technology.) So ironically, the modern movement, associated with the promotion of progress, was also less optimistic about human nature and less ambitious about what that progress could include. This lack of faith in human neutrality is why Bacon argued that science must use “method”, like blind tests, and so on, and forbid metaphysics. Science is not so much the search of truth anymore, which would imply openness to metaphysics, but for what works. The modern achievement is “technology”, not “truth”. It was a core of the whole argument that we should be methodically sceptical of our own understanding of things. His approach, which had few predecessors (such as Machiavelli) also had a big impact on legal and political thinking, and basically defined modernity. It is interesting that today academia debates theories about what modern science is, centuries after people who are recognized as founders such as Newton and Bacon, without looking at them. (Wonder why? They do not fit the stories people like.) Short version: the Enlightenment you are worried about is arguably not the Enlightenment at all, but a slide back to the classical faith in human intuition. So the disappointment is inevitable and if left un-checked leads to the classical conclusions of wisdom and innovation being dangerous to the general public, and all that.

  34. After thoughts to my previous post:
    *To avoid being too subtle I will connect dots to this blog more clearly: people do not of course only debate what modern science is, and the Enlightenment, *is* but also how to “save” the Enlightenment. And all this without reading beyond a bit of Voltaire.
    *The ethical and human (including religious) implications of Bacon were also worked out a long time ago, and are also generally ignored now by people who represent the Enlightenment. This was done by Hume.
    *Philosophy since then has largely been aftershocks, and people trying to go beyond Hume and failing on most big points: Kant, Nietzsche, Post Modernism etc. So we still have no new reality to replace the Enlightenment. The option to Enlightenment is only going back to the classics as far as I can see, which have a history of success pandering to human bias.

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