Imagine a world without sports teams. No Rugby World Cup. No Olympics.
Imagine a world with no borders – with entirely free movement.
Imagine a world with a single universal language. No interpreters needed. No barrier to communication on business or holiday.
I’m going to the nub of what drives so many of our troubles, both domestically and globally – the idea of ‘them and us’ and of nations and tribes. Behind this idea are instinctive human needs: competition, familial stability, retention of accumulated wealth, and the security that being in a group provides.
There are many core human behaviours that we might consider need to be expunged from our society if we want to claim to be civilised - those of the ‘early humans hunting on the plains’ that we often refer to. But, to avoid being reductive we mustn’t lean on them for the sake of simplicity. But, let’s take one example. There’s a group encroaching upon your territory. They do not mean to trade or cooperate and they begin to steal your resources. You raise a raiding party and attack this encroacher’s camp at night – killing a number and sending the remainder packing. Given that there’s no knock-on effect that might make this raid inadvisable, it would be, thousands of years ago, a reasonable biological solution to a human problem. It’s one that nature uses every day to solve its own conflicts.
Now, in our societies across the globe the above story is seen as unethical, inhumane and therefore, illegal. This strict act of law and order is an extreme example of our method of civilisation. It’s a repression of basal human behaviour that is needed if we are to live together en masse. Because most (but sadly not all) of our children never see such brutality in their formative years, the vast majority will never see it as a reasonable option, so one human impulse is removed from much of our society. This is clearly an excellent thing and there are many more subtle examples.
With so many parts of ‘early human’ being masked, nurtured out of our upbringings, and then kept at bay by laws that prohibit them, how have we coped with this? Remember, in terms of brain development and the bodies that natural selection has given us; we are almost unchanged over millennia. Evolution is slow - ‘early human’ and modern human aren’t all that different.
I grew up through some of my most formative years, four to fourteen, in a fairly unique bubble of a decade – the 1990s. In England, I was of course insulated from much that was going on abroad. But my mind-set was such that ‘big wars between big countries were over due to WW2 and atomic bombs’, all the financial craziness and union strife in the UK was done and dusted in the 70s and 80s, and the Cold War was over. It seemed that all the savagery was in the rear view mirror and were now just in documentaries and history books. Chopping the heads off deposed kings stopped centuries ago. The 90s were a comfortable time for many – perhaps even an arrogant time for our society. There was once so little major news that a Britpop ‘war’ between Blur and Oasis made the BBC News headlines.
It then came as a little of a shock when I realised that we hadn’t emerged from the dark ages into a nirvana where we’d soothed our primal issues. They were, and are, all still there and many are getting worse. Yet more are being created afresh.
The basal human impulses to fight, steal, manipulate and ultimately win are alive and well.
These are so close to our core, whether we like to admit it or not, that we haven’t stopped with real wars, jihad, financial markets et al as means to satiate the human urge. We even created artificial ways, in our spare time, to satisfy it. Namely, to give us a safer theatre in which to practice competition and reinforce tribal behaviour (sometimes by creating tribes out of thin air for the sake of it), we create sports and contests. Even the, gulp, X Factor does this. It creates winners and losers, and tribes support their icon whilst flinging abuse at the opposition. Sport itself is just a form of sanitised warfare. Luckily, we’ve found latterly that it has the bonus of being good for health, building friendships and for general happiness, but at the core is ‘them versus us’ or ‘I want to beat the rest’.
So, which components of the human condition do we want to repress or even extinguish, and which do we want to stick around? Much of our natural reproductive behaviour is allowed to continue unhindered, more so with each decade that passes, even though we long ago constructed marriage, taboos and so on to keep people in line. We have all been told, thankfully, that unsanctioned killing and stealing is not on, and have our evolving legal system as a result.
What results is a mixture of remedies – some parts of being human are too nasty to embrace and would cause chaos in our hyper-populated world, so we ban them. They still happen of course, but people know they are wrong to act on these instincts. A combination of education and, I presume, some genetic shift ensures this, for most. I would be surprised if there were not in most regions a selection advantage (an evolutionary term for an action likely to improve survival and opportunity to have kids) for being peaceful – a modern trend for sure. Some components are diluted and ‘made safe’ – notably the overwhelming desire to be part of a team in competition with another team. Others are, for now, allowed to run free but with caveats depending on where in the world you live or often, worryingly, on your gender, and so on.
I started a poll on Twitter recently, putting the question of language to my audience and whether we needed more than one of them. Whilst the results were far from unanimous, a majority stated that if we began from scratch, they’d choose to artificially create multiple languages and not one, simple universal one. They chose cultural variety over practicality and ease of communication. People like difference. They love ‘them and us’, even if 'they' mean no harm to ‘them’.
Today we have two main types of tribes. The first is obvious – a nation. They are enormously important to most people worldwide, even though I would suggest very few could rationally explain why. People are proud of the nationality printed in their passport. It is the ultimate example of competition, group security and ‘them and us’. It is SO human. There are borders, identities and plenty of ways to show the other nations you think you’re better than them. Ask someone why they’re necessary though, aside from that they’re a product of the complexities of human history, and there would be few decent answers. Nations just ARE. That’s it, even if you disagree with or are ashamed of other members of the one you happened to be born into.
I would not be the first to point out the undeniable progression from ‘being proud of being ****ish’, to being patriotic, to being a nationalist – that is, the belief that your nation is superior and its interests should be pursued at the cost of others. They are merely degrees of the same mind-set and fairly curious ones at that if considered logically. Fear is often at the root.
The second type of tribe on a serious global scale (we’re not talking football teams here) is, extraordinarily in our era of science and knowledge, religion. Religion and faith is, critically and widely misunderstood, not like a nation for one huge reason. This tribe is an opt-in and opt-out club, even if you’re indoctrinated from birth. Nations however (or race since you can technically swap nationality on paper) are not optional. Given that the topic of religion is near-infinitely large, I’ll stick to its relevance to this discussion. Humans created religions partly out of confusion about the natural world around them that they couldn’t explain. The remainder were as clever manipulators to rally the masses, create power frameworks for nations and ambitious leaders, to control women, and to satisfy yet another tribal ‘them and us’.
So where does this frank awareness of the oddities we’ve manufactured and the hangovers from our animal core take us? I’m not going to petition for national borders to be removed, even though they serve little purpose save for making sure that everyone doesn’t try to live in the one best spot in the world, as humans would all wish to do. Unlimited free movement is just unworkable on a practical level, however attractive the principle. It would be quite a crush.
I’m also not going to suggest we do away with all but one language. Variation IS interesting and it is fun. It causes war too, and unhappiness, and division, whether deadly or trivial. I would be very concerned about trying to repress all of the facets of being a human animal. Flashbacks to that 90s masterpiece that is ‘Demolition Man’ come to mind – a hopelessly and comically bland, homogenous society.
Instead, I think that this is simply something we need to consider when we make decisions or make seemingly innocuous comments. Our tribes are so woven into many of our lives that we often fail to recognise they even exist.
For me personally, after years of most likely saying ‘I’m proud to be British’, I can’t really anymore. I have nothing at all against the country or the people, and I like to live here. I will probably continue to do so - indeed, I'm lucky to happen to have been born somewhere so relatively safe. But I was not responsible for the best and the worst moments of British history – rallying to destroy mid-20th century fascism and on the other hand, our colonial abuses. I did not participate in either of these things, and most likely neither did you, so we cannot be praised or blamed for them. As such, I can’t really say that I’m a patriot. It’s just not a tribe I can see much value in deciding to actively participate in. In my chosen career of polar travel, there's a disproportionate amount of nostalgic patriotism and some is tending towards absurd.
Tying together this complex web, I do feel very fortunate to have been born human, and therefore able to interact with the world so uniquely, and at an interesting and critically important time in history. But, let’s not make ‘human’ a tribe. Why? Because our only potential adversary, nature, is not one I believe we should consider ‘them’ to our ‘us’.