Tribe by Sebastian Junger: A Critical Review

tribe sebastian junger

Tribe (2017) is a manosphere book written by  Sebastian Junger. Junger discusses sociology and evolutionary psychology to highlight the flaws of our modern civilization which, in Junger’s opinion, is making us more comfortable, but also unhappy.

Bullet Summary

  • 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

Full Summary

About the Author: Sebastian Junger holds a bachelor of arts in cultural anthropology. He has worked as a journalist and, later, as an author of several books.

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:

  1. Accumulation of personal property allowed people to act more individualistically
  2. People live independently from any communal group

The author says that more individualistic choices end up being harmful to 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 a 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:

  1. Competent in what they do
  2. Authentic in their life
  3. Connected to others

These are intrinsic values that far outweigh extrinsic values such as money and social status. But our society focuses on the extrinsic values, says Junger.

Also read:

Tribal Society Enforced Sharing

The author says that tribal and ancient societies punished egocentric individuals who acted against the common good.

“Failure to share” was punished as severely as theft and murder, says the author. But modern society doesn’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.

My Note: The madness of tribal crowds and the rose-tinted glasses
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. And it felt like Junger was wearing some truly distorting rose-tinted glasses. As Friederich Nietzche said, madness in crowds is the norm. And we shouldn’t be supporting that madness.

Initiation for Males Was a Good Thing

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.

My Note: I don’t think initiation would cure all those ills
I think it’s simplistic to think that an initiation ritual would eliminate all risk-seeking behavior.

tribe sebastian junger

Tribe Book Criticism

I enjoyed the book, but there is much, much that I disagree with.

War Apology

Sebastian Junger presents statistics and stories to show that people are closer during extremely 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 rhetoric that drives fascism.

Yes, maybe Amatasovic was happier.
And maybe she laughed more.

But what’s the point?

I’m sure the author didn’t mean that wars are good, but it sounded dangerously like putting rose-tinted glasses on some of the most atrocious times of human history.

As my grandmother said about WWII: “may those times never come again”.
I take more responsibility than my grandmother: it’s up to us to never make those times happen ever again.

“Back Then Was Better” Bias

To me, the whole book sounded a bit like the typical rose-tinted view of the past when “things were better”.

Unfounded Conclusions

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 seems to pitch 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“.

Anti-Capitalist Sentiment

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.

Empty Idealism

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 warmly invite the reader who is attracted to this “tribe ethos” to read this manifesto of personal empowerment individualism:

Enlightened Self-Interest: Making of The Ubermensch

PROS

I have been highly critical so far.

Yet, I am glad I have read Sebastian Junger’s Tribe. And I learned a few more things.

  • I learned that it’s overseas wars that psychologically harm soldiers the most 

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 book to understand people’s need to connect

Tribe is also a great textbook to understand humans as social animals. To understand our need to connect and belong.

Review

I am glad I read Tribe: I enjoyed it.

I can also agree with its central idea: that modern society is a trade-off. Yes, it does offer lots of comforts and a safer existence, but we pay the price with more mental issues and a lack of communal living and emotional connection.
However, I completely disagree about the balance of that trade-off.

To me, the tradeoff is extremely positive.
This is a society of freedom, there is something from everyone. Even for those who want more communal living.

And I also disagree with Junger’s interpretation of the past.
Whenever he criticized modern society for undoing the past, I thought that was a great thing.

No more “initiation” for young men?
Great!
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?”
Great!
No more crowds madness.

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.

See:

Enlightened Self-Interest: Making of The Ubermensch

In a way, “Tribe” echoed 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 to defend (and attack) men from other tribes.

I find the “tribal” mentality backward, dangerous, and harmful to all.
It’s not just a male thing, of course.
It’s the same BS that we see in feminist books where the tribe is composed by 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, progress, and self-empowerment are about.

Self-empowerment is not about joining a gang and being “initiated”, self-empowerment is about becoming your own man and deciding which groups you want to join -if any-.
Again, please read this foundational article on individualism.

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.

Also read:

or get the book on Amazon

5 thoughts on “Tribe by Sebastian Junger: A Critical Review”

  1. I have read the book twice now and got much more out of it the second time. Seems that Sebastian is promoting that we all need to work together for a better society. The bigger picture of what tribe means. We are all part the the tribe called Human Beings. We need to work towards being connected and understanding each other. All of human kind.

    I am working on starting a study of the book with my church community to get us to look at ourselves and how we can look out beyond our comfort zones to be more open.

    We will see how well that works. True change of myself and the community I love takes time, commitment & patience.

    1. Lucio Buffalmano

      I see, thank you for letting me know and sharing your thoughts Mark.
      Maybe I misjudged this book and jumped to the wrong conclusion.
      In any case, what you say is right: true change takes time and commitment. But we can do it.

  2. The book is required reading by the Veterans Court of Rockwall. The majority of those individuals find most of the book to be pedantic and out of touch with today’s veterans, especially those with sentences of jail held over there head on a regular basis. If Mr. Junger had been in Sarajevo (Like I was for a year) why not mention the Sarajevo Rose? That happens to be where civilians were killed attempting to get from point A to B. A modern soldier already are in tribes. The passing of ammo, ammo bearers, grenadiers, those who supply the ATO (Air Tasking Orders), those who use ATO to protect, defend and even eliminate before battles occur. Is not a comparison of history today to those in today’s be much more adequate for a veteran or civilian whom simply by television can compare. No homecoming or belonging. Great false panty dropper pic next to a fake hesco.

  3. Sounds like you didn’t focus on what the book was really about and were more worried about the patriarchy and other SJW hypocrisy.

    1. Lucio Buffalmano

      Hey David, could be.
      But I’m not sure, I should relisten to the book again to give a better answer on whether or not my judgment was clouded by my first-blush gut reaction (which is certainly possible).
      But overall, I don’t like “tribalist” philosophies and Junger gave me exactly that feeling of “tribes” over “individuals” (and I put the individuals over tribes).

      Edit: I’m not sure what you mean by patriarchy though, but it sounds like you’re preaching to the converted.

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