Tribe by Sebastian Junger explains how our tribal instincts are making us all unhappier in our impersonal and individualistic modern societies.
I find Tribe to be a great book to understand humans as social animals. But not nearly as good in its interpretation of the data and rose-tinted view of “tribes”.
- Bullet Summary
- Full Summary
- Tribe Book Criticism
- We all have a need to belong and connect, but modern societies don’t provide it and we are all sicker
- Egalitarian societies have lower levels of mental illness
- Crisis, including wars, bring people to a more tribal and collaborative mindset and suicides and mental illnesses decrease
- Individualistic societies push people to act against the common good
One of the central ideas in Tribe is that the modern society is a trade-off. Yes it does offer lots of comfort and a more or less safe existence, but we pay the price with more mental issues and a lack of communal living and emotional connection.
The Agricultural Revolution
Sebastian Junger says that the agricultural revolution first and the industrial revolution later changed two fundamental things in the way humans live:
- Accumulation of personal property allowed people to act more individualistically
- People live independently from any communal group
The author says that more individualistic choices end up being harmful for the community. And that today people can go a whole day -or a whole life- living among millions without ever feeling part of any community. Basically, being fully alone while being among millions.
And while happiness cannot be measured, mental illnesses can. And modern societies have seen a huge rise in mental illnesses.
Money Bring More Mental Issues
Sebastian Junger says that countries with big income disparities are at much higher risk of developing mood disorders.
People living in urban areas are also more likely to develop depression and women in the most affluent families were the most likely to experience depression.
A survey among lawyers also found out that the most overworked and successful corporate lawyers were less happy than their more chilled public defendant counterparts.
Self-Determination for Happiness
Junger mention the self-determination theory, which holds that to be happy humans need to feel three things:
- Competent in what they do
- Authentic in their life
- Connected to others
These are intrinsic value that far outweigh extrinsic values such as money and social status. But out society focuses on the extrinsic values.
Tribal Society Enforced Sharing
The author says that tribal and ancient society punished egocentric individuals who acted against the common good.
“Failure to share” was punished as severely as theft and murder. But modern society don’t have a similar check.
Today taking from others is simply called “fraud” and not sharing is the norm. He then compares modern executives who would be punished in hunter-gatherer societies.
In Tribe there is a description of an old pictorial image of a man struck by several arrows.
The author says that “execution was common in the past towards men who tried to control disproportionate resources”.
That image didn’t evoke in me any good feelings of groups caring for its members, but the actual brutal opposite. As someone said, madness is common in crowds.
Initiation for Males
The author says that because our society doesn’t provide initiation for men anymore, men are seeking it in different forms.
They haze on each other, drive too fast and act recklessly to show that they are ready to be men.
Tribe Book Criticism
I enjoyed the book, but there is much, much that I disagree with.
Sebastian Junger presents statistics and stories to show that people are closer during extreme difficult times such as war.
He quotes individuals who said they were all happier during wars and all closer and more united. I quote:
I asked Amatasovic if people had ultimately been happier during the war. “We were the happiest” Amatasovic said. And she added “and we laughed more”.
I’ll be highly critical here, but I believe that this is the kind of empty, low quality philosophy that drives fascism.
I’m sure the author didn’t mean that wars are good, but it sounded dangerously like putting, again, rose-tinted glasses on some of the lowest points and some of the atrocious times of human history.
“Back Then Was Better” Bias
To me the whole “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” sounded a bit like the typical rose-tinted view of the past when “things were better”.
The author describes a scene from an old cave paint of a possible execution. And then talks about how foraging tribes punish males who tried to control a disproportionate share of the group resources.
I don’t see how the author could make such a connection between the two, and I think it’s simplistic to think that the group simply act in the interest of all its members. It’s more complex -and sometimes darker- than that.
Seems to Encourage Violent Demonstrations
The author says:
There are occasional demonstrations against economic disparities like the Occupy Wall Street protest of 2011. But they were generally peaceful and ineffective. The racial demonstrations (..) led to changes in part because they attained a level of violence that threatened a civil war
Again, the author seem to pitche tribalism and violence against other “tribes” as the way for a more just and fair society.
I disagree with that point of view.
Like Elliot Aronson says in The Social Animal, “there will never be violence to end all violence and protests to end all injustices“.
Junger says that the agricultural revolution allowed people to act more individualistic which, in turn, means acting against the common good.
I personally strongly reject that idea. I don’t think that acting individualistically necessarily means acting against the common good.
It’s a complex topic, but capitalism can often -but now always!- harness individualistic pursuits to improve everyone’s lives.
I found some passages to be idealistically empty.
The author for example says that because foraging tribes need to share food for their own survival, they have adopted communal ways of living. When one man tries to take control of the group, other males will stop him. And that, he says is:
Clearly an ancient and adaptive behavior that tends to keep groups together and equitably cared for
That is reminiscent of the “nobel savage” of Rousseau, and to me it’s always sounded like an unrealistic idealization.
I have been writing a lot of criticism so far.
Yet, I am actually very glad I have read Sebastian Junger’s Tribe. There is a lot of deep wisdom here.
For example, I enjoyed to learn of how different wars differently affect PTSD levels.
Israelis fighting to defend their homeland -or supposed homeland- had low levels of PTSD. But Americans shipped overseas to fight wars they have no idea about, among troops that have little in common with each other, had higher levels of mental issues.
Great Sociological Book to Understand People
Tribe is also a great textbook to understand humans as social animals. To understand our need to connect and belong.
I am glad I read Tribe: I really enjoyed.
When it came to the interpretation of our social roots though I often found myself on the opposite spectrum of Sebastian Jung.
Whenever he criticized modern society for undoing the past, I thought that was great thing.
No more “initiation” for young men?
Who wanted to be “initiated” to a culture they didn’t have any choice for?
No more executions by a hundred arrows against those who did a mistake by “trying to get too much of the shared resources?”
No more crows madness to torture the individual. And maybe they will build the next amazing company that in the end will actually help all other individuals!
I suppose Sebastian Junger prefers collectivism somehow.
While I just don’t see individualism as a necessarily bad thing. Especially when that individualism provides those individuals more freedom to live life however they please.
In a way, Tribe by Sebastian Jung seemed to echo the manosphere approach to male tribalism and it reminded me of The Rational Male and, even more, of The Way of Men by Jack Donovan. “The way of men” for Donovan is to band together and fight the men from the other tribe.
And it’s the same BS that we see in feminist books where the tribe is composed by the women -see Lean In where Salzberg invokes the support of other women for the simple fact of being women-.
And to me, that’s the opposite of what civilization and progress are about.
I think there is much to learn from Tribe by Sebastian Junger. But I also think it can lead people astray on the wrong kind of idealism.
No, I don’t think we need more tribalism.
We need one single tribe that embraces not all the people closes to us, but all humanity and all forms of living.
As Robert Greene says in “The Laws of Human Nature“, our only belonging is to the human race. Anything else is backward and way too dangerous.