'The Animal Instincts at the Heart of Human Nature'

Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In the run-up to this week’s election results in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere, I ran a series of items on how to think of “tribal”-style loyalties in American politics, and whether that was the right term for “We’re right, you’re wrong” political intransigence.

As I mentioned in the latest installment, one reason for continuing the discussion was as a sample of the nuance and erudition with which Americans can still discuss contentious issues—contrary to the impression national politics might bring. For reference, the previous sequence began with an opening post about the failure of congressional Republicans to hold Donald Trump accountable to normal standards of behavior, or even to notice what he is doing. It was followed by reader responses  first,  second, third, and fourth.

Now, a reader in the American Midwest leads off with what the Virginia results suggest about the divisions, and our terms for it:

I have been wondering aloud about the tribal — I like the word for this purpose, realizing it might not be PC, coterie doesn't capture the clannish nature of the idea)—reactions to the VA election results, which are all-too-triumphant [on the Democrats’ side]. (Too close to Trump, dontcha think?)

I've been thinking ahead to 2018 and the obvious reaction coming from the GOP and particularly from the Trump WH is that they will double-down, since that's what 45 always does, never give an inch, never apologize, always believe you're right and say you're right regardless of the evidence to the contrary.  A tribal response on steroids, and it could work.

Doubling down here means more and more the GOP will be characterized by this president and his media elite consorts, FOX News, Sinclair Broadcasting, right-wing talk, etc., etc., as not being true believers in Trump America, especially if they can't get tax reform done. "If only they were like so-and-so who truly believes, we would have the peace and prosperity all Americans want and deserve"—this will form the rightmost column.

What remains to be seen is whether there is enough maturity and forbearance of these candidates to avoid the dicier cultural issues—white supremacy, guns, LGBTQ, guns, women's health/justice, guns, and so on—to let them fly under the radar just far enough to keep the Dems from being able to animate their voters.

If VA was a real harbinger, I think the vote margin would have been much wider. As it is, there are enormous swaths of rural America who only get local news from Sinclair or FOX affiliates and so have a steady diet of low-grade rhetoric that prevents them from seeing things as they would if they would pay attention to any other media....

This is why the kneeling protests are so effective at animating the Trump base ... and why he's draped himself in the flag at every turn. In this ongoing war of rhetoric, the Left has relied for too long on public schools to deliver an egalitarian civic-mindedness. As more and more people choose to home school their kids and close their minds to ideas they don't like, the easier it is for the Right to control the ways in which rural America engages in the political. Like lambs to the slaughter.

I'm not certain I want the Left to weaponize their media the same way the Right has, but I'd rather there was some level of parity ... and an eventual detente, between the sides.

P.S.  IMHO, yard signs sealed the deal for Trump here in the Midwest.  That's a very low-order rhetoric that's hard to miss when neighbor after neighbor has a Trump sign but there were few if any Clinton signs as I was driving through Iowa, Wisconsin and rural Illinois.  I'm pretty sure Michigan and Pennsylvania were the same.


As for the term itself, a scientist defends it:

As a biologist, I take a different connotation of the word “tribal”.  We are, like our closest primate relatives “tribal” animals in that we tend to live in small selective groups. Chimpanzee and ape tribes exhibit many of the same behaviors seen in human tribes, including the often instant and irrational violence against outsiders.  For those of us who see humans as one of an evolutionarily related group of animals rather than divine creations, describing our social behavior as “tribal” is simply stating the obvious.

A member of an indigenous nation disagrees:

Only today, for the first time, did I see your article on the use of tribalism. I was interested, as I have thought about this for awhile.

I am a member of a ‘tribe’ - an enrolled citizen of a small indigenous nation from the west coast (Confederated Tribes Coos, Lower Umpqua & Siuslaw). I have not liked the use of tribalism, tho’ not for reasons of cultural appropriation. It isn’t a Native American word and not one I don’t think any of us would have chosen for ourselves. I don’t like it because - as with so many things Europeans and Euro-Americans put on us - has negative connotations. Yes, even in the 21st century there is a lot of prejudice against Native Americans, a deep contempt. I have my own thoughts on why that is, but at the moment that is neither her nor there.

Suffice it to say, tribalism has negative connotations, and Natives are one of the people’s that ‘tribe’ is applied to, and we are still viewed with great contempt and suspicion by the 98 percent of Americans that are not indigenous.

I don’t know of a word that work better than tribalism in these political contexts. My solution would be, stop applying ‘tribal’ to Native Americans. I confess I quite like the Canadian phrase First Nations. I suspect, however, that that would not go down well with Americans - especially the Trump fans. It’s too ‘politically correct’, of course, for their liking.

In similar anti-“tribal” spirit, from someone with a different background:

'Tribalism' does not resonate, does not 'signify', with many people at all, I think.

I understand (I suppose) what is meant, but in explaining it to the multitude of relatives and acquaintances perhaps less educated or less aware, I either have to explain the concept at about the length you have required or - more commonly - I drop back to the immediately understood term 'team', as in "Tell me, is there any principle involved here or is it just 'my team against your team'?"

After hearing from your Southwest correspondent, I now recognize that there is a pejorative odor in our use of 'tribalism', as it suggests there is a sense that extreme partisans reflect an identification by birth, not by reasoning or analysis or even simple emotionalism. Most of us would say it is good, or at least not bad, to identify with a tribe that reflects our cultural and genealogical heritage, but there is only dismissal and disapproval implied in the term 'tribalism' as you use it.

At first reading, my 'gut response' was that it is unfortunate that 'tribe' has been misappropriated for our native peoples, but on reflection - and with a bit of research - I have to conclude instead that a simple meaningful concept has been misappropriated and distorted in the political usage. The unfortunate part is that there is no natural formation 'teamism' in the language for loyalty to a self-selected clique or faction or club or ... oh wait ... PARTY.

Could it be that we cling to the notion that the term PARTY implies some honorable characteristic of idealism that we want to distinguish from something baser, a team or a club or a cabal? Are we being naive there? *Especially* after seeing the day-night up-down changes within the Republican Party in just a year or two? Ought we to use 'party' appropriately - instead of 'tribe' - and appropriate some other word to identify a party that is organized around ideals?

Which, inevitably, I’ll follow with someone making an extended defense of this freighted term, and returning to biological arguments:

I think tribalism is the right word—precisely because the usage of the word carries the very connotations that critics of the word object to.

Tribe is the appropriate word because it is the word applied in science for groups of prosocial mammals gathering in a group larger than one might reasonably consider a pack or colony. We speak of a tribe of monkeys, or a tribe of apes, or a tribe of guerillas, chimps, bonobos, etc. We speak of multi-colony groups of rats as tribes.

Tribe is scientifically important because it does not infer relation by blood, whereas a clan or colony implies shared lineage through mating or otherwise. Tribe implies a larger group bonded by social relations more complex than mating associations, but smaller than describing the species, and recognizing that these large groupings can share large geographical ranges with other such groupings.

This usage of the word tribe understandably creates an image of the primitive, the primal, the animal. In other words, it invokes the savage, and we should all understand why invoking the savage is debasing to those who are thus demarked as closer to savage. It is one group of people assuming that they are more socially developed than the other, and therefore superior.


Whether it is Romans and Greeks assuming the light of civilization had made them more dignified than the tribes of those they termed barbarians, or later Christendom assuming that godliness and piety had raised them above the base nature of a humanity tainted by original sin, or later Age of Reason intellectuals constructing a social Darwinist model wherein 'tribalism' is a precurser to 'nationalism' and 'civilization,' Western civilization (and Eastern too, if we are to look to other worldy empires and hegemons) has a long history of finding ways of asserting that the ruling culture is superior to others on the basis of development and a concept of cultural maturity.

Herein, however, lays the root of the problem: this construction is itself just an exercise in the root fact that human beings are prosocial mammals, specifically prosocial primates, and that our nature as mammals is not as well reasoned as we would otherwise like to pretend. It is a construction that places social value and status on reasoned decision making, or at least the perception thereof, and therefore ascribes superior reasoning to the dominant culture on the basis of that dominance.

This is, we are finding out, just a way for our particular species of primate to assert social dominance. The Age of Reason, it turns out, is just a complex excuse for one socially dominant group of primates to assert dominance over the other.

In point of fact, as we apply reasoned thinking to ourselves, we have discovered the human animal is host to a collection of cognative biases and prone to a number of logical fallacies when it comes to our fragile constructions of self-identity. We have developed a toolbox of methods to manipulate those biases we call marketing, which we use to influence others into purchasing decisions. Today, we find ourselves in a place where those tools have been applied to influence the decisions of voters through billions of dollars in campaigning.

This is what the Framers failed to account for, deep in Age of Reason thought: the base nature of humanity-- its animal origin-- is in fact more potent than reason itself when it comes to political hierarchy. The Framers assumed that reasonable men would always be able to come to reasonable compromise, deep in the conviction of thier self-identification as reasonable men. So what happens when irrational human voters choose irrational human leaders on a basis divorced from deliberate thought?

We know today that while an individual may be reasonable on a case by case basis, all peoples are susceptible to cognitive blind spots, particularly when it comes to self-identity. So now we find ourself in a polity where large voting blocks with common social identity have ceased to care about the reasoning or veracity of their political leadership, where reasoned compromise has become anathema to those who prefer to assert the dominance of their shared identity.

So yes, the appropriate word for this is tribalism, because tribe describes a social grouping of primates larger than a colony. The irrational behavior we specifically wish to discuss manifests at this scale and is a product of the animal instincts at the heart of human nature….

And finally for today: the resonance of both word and concept in classical terms.

I think you’re trying to do too much with a single word.

You are looking for a word to capture a relentless preference for me and my kind: what’s good for us is what’s right.

One issue in this what to call ‘our kind’ or ‘us.’  “Tribe” may be the right word, but why not race or nation or clique or faction?  Is there some general word we can use for ‘my kind?’  Whatever word we chose, we’re likely to give that word a pejorative cast, and some may take exception because they want to use that same word for “us” in a more positive way – like ‘nation’ or ‘tribe.’

Another issue here is what we make of the claim of rightness in the preference for me and my kind.  This is a question of justice, not terminology, and it’s far the more important issue.


In The Republic, Thrasymachus argues that ‘justice is the interest of the strong.’  There is, he asserts, no deeper or transcendent sense of justice.  This is precisely the proposition that you want to hold us to scorn.  A preference for me and my kind is also an undisguised claim that we (me and my kind) are the strong, and that we will prevail.

Socrates/Plato didn’t think much of Thrasymachus’s understanding of justice, and you and I don’t either.  It’s pernicious, and yet it is a very common weed in human understanding.

You’re looking for a way to capture that growing acceptance in the United States of justice as the interest of the strong – that belief that any talk of justice having a higher moral foundation is just foolishness.  

Trump embodies that Thrasymachus-ian understanding of justice.  He didn’t give birth to it in modern American politics; he simply has found a way to gather a following -- including a disturbing number of Republican leaders – around that conception.  (It's all the more remarkable that this ugly conception of justice is often dolled up in Christian evangelical terms.)

I don’t know a single word that captures this.

That is all for now. Thanks to readers who have written in from around the world.