“The viciousness of tribalism”

From the always readable Bad Cat.


it does not take some orchestrated conspiracy to get them all singing from the exact same hymnal and keep them marching in lockstep. it’s just emergent behavior from the same base fear of being shunned and attacked if they falter.

The Bad Cat is more optimistic than I am. I shall be most pleased to be wrong.


This is part of the explanation for the religious zeal. As well as fear, though, I am convinced the true believers also experience a psychic “high” very similar to a hit of heroin. Righteous indignation, especially when experienced in groups ‘singing… from the exact same hymnal’, is highly addictive. It’s a real ‘rush’.

Also, for a timely exposition of the return to tribalism, see Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood.


Gato’s juxtaposition of the Huxley quote with this progressive-fascist’s tweet was delicious. If you read this blue-chekist* Gill’s words and are sickened, congratulations - you are civilized and sane.

*Bolshevik reference.


"they [Lefties] are freaking out because they can feel the end coming and the reckoning after such excess is unkind and they will face it not just from those they tried to conquer but from one-another as well and they fear each other even more than they fear us. …

and now, even as they see the evidence for their worldview collapsing, they cannot climb down because to do so would make THEM the new target of all the righteous rage that’s boiling over from not just losing but from having been tricked."

Like Cyrano, I wish I could be this optimistic. Since Build Back Better cannot get approved in a Democrat-controlled Congress, Resident Biden*'s handlers are apparently intending to accomplish the same unaffordable end through “Executive” Orders.

No, things will get worse – much worse – before the situation turns around and they start slowly to get better.


There is an evolutionary reason behind this sort of nasty human behavior.

Overpopulation isn’t new, humans have always lived at the edge of the environment to support them. Combine that with our being top predators (like lions) and the only way to limit population when there is a drought or something is war. Given a bleak future, the beliefs of a tribe need to be common if they are to succede in wiping out neighbors.

Here is an analysis of how this human trait came to be.

Genetic Selection for war in human populations
H. Keith Henson

Evolution takes place at the level of the gene. A particular gene increases in frequency if it improves the chance of the gene existing in the next generation.
We are familiar with behavior (ultimately from genes) where parents take awful risks, sometimes losing their lives to save their children. In an environment where such events were common, the gene(s) for doing so would become more common if (on average) the self-sacrifice of a parent saved three or more of their children. The parent has one copy; each of the kids has a 50% chance of having the same gene. On average more copies, 1.5, survive the event if a parent dies than if all three children die. This is an immense simplification; life is far more complex, but the idea should be clear as to the origin of this behavior trait.

If it is not, you might look up Hamilton’s rule,

“. . . a hypothetical gene that prompts behaviour which enhances the fitness of relatives but lowers that of the individual displaying the behaviour, may nonetheless increase in frequency, because relatives often carry the same gene.”

To analyze the spread of genes that lead to war behavior, we need to generate
a model from the “viewpoint” of such genes in a typical warrior 50,000 or 100,000 years ago. Tribes in those days were limited in population by the ability of the environment to provide food. On average, they were around the same size. If two tribes fought, each had an equal chance of prevailing. In this model, the winners typically killed all the adult losers and their male children. The winners incorporated the female children of the losers into the winner’s tribe as wives. (See The Book of Numbers, Chapter 31, verses 7-18, for an account of the aftermath of a war in Biblical times.)
Wars come about due to a resource crisis. For this model, we will assume 50% of the tribe will starve in the crisis, the alternative being to attack neighbors and try to take their resources. How often such events happened is not part of the model, but they probably averaged about once a generation.

Turning to the mathematical analysis, the warrior himself has one gene copy. He typically had six children, half males and half females. (From what we know, that’s about the minimum for a stable population in Stone Age times.) Each child has a 1/2 chance of carrying the gene(s) for war behavior. (The model is not very sensitive to the number of children.)

If war behavior is to be evolutionarily favored, the count of gene copies needs to be higher (on average) after the war vs. starving in place.

For the winners, the gene count for a warrior is four, one for himself plus 1/2 times 6 children for 4. Fifty percent starvation reduces this to two copies. This makes two gene copies the number to exceed if the behavior for war is to become more common than starving in place.

For the losers, the gene count is 1.5 from the female children that the winners incorporated into their tribe. That makes the average count of genes per warrior after a war (4+1.5)/2 (using a 50% chance of winning). Or 2.75 (for war)/2 (starvation) means that going to war is about 37% better from the gene’s viewpoint than starving (in this simple model, of course). That’s a big number, indicating strong selection if this model is close to reality.

The driver for this model is starvation due to a resource crisis, ultimately due to population growth and environmental variation (mostly weather). Does going to war without looming starvation make sense? No. Going to war gives an average gene copy remaining of 2.75 vs. 4 for no war, or 4 (no war) /2.75 (war) making the selection against going to war about 45% per event (or rather nonevent). That too is a big number, indicating strong selection for not going to war unless the alternative for genes is worse.
This places the detection of looming starvation under intense selection to get it right. (A challenging cognitive task.)
How does a tribe go from individual detection of a bleak future to mass attacking another tribe?
It’s obvious that attacking another tribe one at a time is a nearly sure way to be killed. We have an example: chimps make war on neighboring groups. When they do, all the males in the group attack at once, in fact, when they do boundary patrols they go in groups and kill any lone members they encounter from neighboring groups. “War mode” in chimps seems to be on all the time. It seems to never be on in bonobos (why is a good question).
For humans, “war mode” is on some of the time for the gene-based reasons discussed above. Most of the time human groups are on good terms with neighbors, swapping marriage partners with them. However, in times of stress (facing a bleak future, starvation) memes circulate that dehumanize the target tribe and make the warriors willing to attempt to destroy them. This last bit on memes is speculative, though there is a good deal of evidence that there is a connection between deteriorating economic conditions and xenophobic memes becoming common in a population.
Perhaps the most obvious recent historical example is the rise of Nazism in the economic disaster of Germany in the 1930.

(PDF) Evolutionary psychology, memes and the origin of war | Keith Henson - Academia.edu]


It is interesting you should go about this from a genetic POV. I would look at it from a more historic and geographic POV.

Historically we have a long history of “subsistence” cultures. They have existed around the world, from the Amazon to the Mideast, to the Asian and European regions. The basic characteristic of a subsistence culture is that it is always on the brink of extinction. The dominant form of such societal organization has been an all-powerful head, absolute obedience, and violence only when necessary AND good odds of winning. So subsistence cultures have ALL developed “modified” versions of combat - that where the tribe’s “strongman” meets the opposing tribe’s “strongman”. The winner of this no-quarter fight has his tribe take the disputed asset, while the loosing tribe moves on to other locales.

In situations where there is real odds of winning outright, the tribe with the resources attacks the weaker tribe with the intent of wiping them out - since leaving a looser behind you is a bad tactical idea. Such attacks are sudden, viscious, and total - most everyone of the opposing tribe is wiped out, although a few females that are good looking may be spared. Few.

If you look at the Euro-Asian arena geopolitically, you find (simplified) that there are four breadbaskets - Europe, Mideast, India, and China. These are arranged geographically in somewhat of a semicircle around the Russian Steppes. In each of these areas men developed the ability to grow food, loosening themselves from the subsistence cultures’ constant demand for basic subsistence. In the wealth that food production created, the resultant society finally had the ability to fail - WITHOUT the whole tribe dying . So failure finally became possible, not a catastrophic event. Such ability to fail led to risky undertaking - such as “art” - which the now wealthier society could afford to purchase with some of their excess. So more “modern” society evolved.

The Steppes were always a harsh place to live, and the tribes living there were generally nomadic, as moving about, and owning sheep, were both convenient hedges against failure. But wolves - and other predators - abounded, so those in the nomadic tribes learned an important life-assuring skill set - riding a horse and shooting a bow - perhaps the most important weapon evolutions in history. Eventually these nomadic tribes discovered a breadbasket - where the men had become “domesticated”, so skilled at farming (producing riches) but not so much at war - because there was no real percentage in it. The nomads would “raid” the breadbaskets, taking what they would, as their “warfighing skills” had been honed well on the steppes. Then as the tough guys, they would stay - and mingle their DNA with the locals, allowing the locals to develop some war-fighting ability, while settling down the once subsistence tribe to new riches of live.

This same cycle is repeated numerous times in all four breadbaskets. Just look at China’s “history” - and their “disdain” for the “barbarian” - who usually conquered them. Look at the history of Alexander, the Goths, the Visigoths, the Tartars, Genghis Khan - just to start naming a few. In each case superior war fighting skills led to the conquering of other less-able regions, where some of the conquerors stayed, lived, bred, and changed the population. Even the French and German ancestors were once raiders. Vikings!

I do not discount your theory of genetic change. I would merely note that it isn’t quite as simple, and more likely greatly associated with geographic reality.


Keith, this is very interesting. However, I don’t think it quite reaches what Gato was highlighting in particular, at least not yet. It may need to go a wee bit farther. You and I might agree that Mr. Rob Gill, who salivates at the thought of witnessing the pain of others, is a modern-day Nazi. The problem is the Nazis who hated on their outgroups knew they were Nazis, and they knew they were haters, and Gill’s not savvy enough to realize he’s no different than them. That he’s cut from the very same cloth.

In 2014, Scott Alexander wrote an essay, I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup, that I still count as one of my favorites. It rambles (as is his wont), but there are many good parts and this is one of them:

The worst reaction I’ve ever gotten to a blog post was when I wrote about the death of Osama bin Laden. I’ve written all sorts of stuff about race and gender and politics and whatever, but that was the worst.

I didn’t come out and say I was happy he was dead. But some people interpreted it that way, and there followed a bunch of comments and emails and Facebook messages about how could I possibly be happy about the death of another human being, even if he was a bad person? Everyone, even Osama, is a human being, and we should never rejoice in the death of a fellow man […]

And I genuinely believed that day that I had found some unexpected good in people – that everyone I knew was so humane and compassionate that they were unable to rejoice even in the death of someone who hated them and everything they stood for.

Then a few years later, Margaret Thatcher died. And on my Facebook wall – made of these same “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people – the most common response was to quote some portion of the song “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead”. Another popular response was to link the videos of British people spontaneously throwing parties in the street, with comments like “I wish I was there so I could join in”. From this exact same group of people, not a single expression of disgust or a “c’mon, guys, we’re all human beings here.”

I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of “yeah, so what?”, combined with links to an article claiming that “the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous”.

And that was when something clicked for me.

It finally clicked for me, too, when I read that. At long last, I understood the Rob Gills of the world. (They’re a dime a dozen on university faculties.) And I don’t turn my back to them, that’s for sure.


Can you cite any cases where this was observed? I know the literature fairly well, and I can’t think of any.

Since war behavior in human groups is the same in Africa as it is in the rest of the world, it’s fairly clear that the genetic selection happened before humans lift Africa some 40-50,000 years ago. I.e., it’s a lot older than human history.


IIRC I read it in one of John Keegan’s books. He’s a military historian from Sandhurst, so I would suspect he doesn’t make your circle of reading, as your reading list doesn’t make mine. Keegan is a very well respected military historian with quite a few books that have found wider acclaim.

Try Book of War - I know it speaks of warfare over time. Perhaps that was the one I found that in. Else you might try The History of Warfare. These are books written from a military history POV, not a genetic one. Shame there isn’t more cross-over.

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Azar Gat Azar Gat - Wikipedia is also a military historian. If you read the wiki article, you will see his view is very similar to mine.

" Gat’s War in Human Civilization , published in 2006 by the Oxford University Press, was named one of the best books of the year by The Times Literary Supplement."

LIke I do, he goes to the root of war.

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When wolves stray out of their territory, the Alpha male and maybe some of the larger males will fight the intruder. Often to death.

This time of year you can observe rooster pheasants chasing hen pheasants off the food source. Is it genetically optimal for the males to starve the females when one rooster can breed multiple females? This behavior reduces population.

Some pheasants prefer to fly when threatened. Some prefer to run. Running will reduce the chance of death by the primary predators (human or four legged) Mathematically one could demonstrate that the pheasants should be all runners by now. The percentage has not changed. The mathematics could be calculated correctly, but with the wrong understanding. There may be other situations that need to be included. Sitting or running may save energy to help survive the winter.

The theory might be correct, but it takes more than a theory and some calculations to convince me that war is different than the explanation of why wolves will kill to protect their territory. When it comes to resources for survival, animals will kill even if it is detrimental to the population.

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Humans are not wolves, and pheasants are remote. That article is not consistent either. Though the title says “wolves” I think the map shows the movement of packs.

In any case, I hope I was clear that I am talking about genetic selection that happened a long time before written human history.


The article on wolves is inconsistent or the part about pheasants? Because I wrote the part about pheasants and it is incorrectly written.

It should say that flying is the best strategy vs four legged predators and running against two. That the introduction of a new highly effective human predator should have changed the balance such that running is a better strategy and that you can do math to show that the state should be all runners.

However, in this case we know that this isn’t true. Knowing the end state, we have to change the assumptions. Then I can make an assumption that the four legged predators are more effective because of the reduction of habitat. Basically I can make any assumption I want such that the combination of assumptions makes the math work to hit the known state.

There is a lot of latitude in picking unknown conditions such that they can be dialed in so that the calculation matches the state you know exists.

I am not trying to criticize the hypothesis. This is good and normal. But making a hypothesis in of itself can be easy or it can be genius. Finding evidence that matches the hypothesis in between the starting point and known state strengthens the hypothesis. Providing predictions that can be checked will aid in strengthening the hypothesis.

In other words… When I read a hypothesis, my response is that it is interesting or not interesting. By saying I am not convinced, means that I need more evidence.


The point of the picture is that packs have a defined territory. This is similar to humans. We know the American Indian had defined territory by tribe. This is the similarity I was pointing out. The implied question is how is your hypothesis different for humans than for wolves? Both are territorial. Both will fight to the death to defend their territory. The wolves seem to follow Devereaux’s statement.

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“Alpha” wolves as commonly imagined aren’t actually a thing: http://davemech.org/wolf-news-and-information/

The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature, at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years then in all of previous history.

One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.” In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the “dominant breeder” can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a “subordinate breeder.”