When you’ve worked in rural areas of 36 countries, you see a lot of similarities but one huge difference. In the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, rural areas are dotted with farms occupied by single families living safely separated by some distance from any other families. I grew up on such a farm and thought that was how all rural areas are. Until I got outside North America. Then I realized how unique we are. Across the world, most farm families live in villages and go out from the village every morning to work their plots. The lone family living by themselves is extremely rare in any rural area.
In the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, you can live far out in the country by yourself or you can live in town close to lots of people. Throughout most of human history, and still today in most of the world, this is not the case. Rural people in nearly all the world live in villages.
Before Northern Europeans came to the North American continent, the native people lived in villages. American Indians’ allegiance was first to their village and then to their tribe. Even today, visitors from Ukraine and Africa and Asia often ask us: what is your village? It’s another way of asking: Where do you come from? Who do you belong to?
Even many sophisticated city people in other countries will tell you the village they belong to. They go back on holidays, to decorate graves, to participate in rural traditions. Though you live in the city, you know it is expected you will love your village. One of the smartest people I met in Kenya assured me that he was still very much attached to his village, though he had lived in Nairobi all his adult life. One of the most sophisticated city women I met in Ukraine told me in the most sincere terms, “I love my village”, as we hiked the muddy streets of her poor little hamlet with no church and seven places to buy moonshine.
Throughout the world, nearly all rural people prefer to live in villages. When the communists first gained control of Russia, they tried to apply the American model of individual farmers on individual plots of land. They saw efficiency in having farmers live on the land where they work. But the people rebelled. They wanted to live in villages like they always had. They wanted to talk to their friends every day whenever they wanted to. They wanted to work together, have someone to talk to and someone to help make daily tasks easier.
So the communists gave up and went back to the archetypal village. The village has old roots. Throughout most of human history, everyone lived in bands of 50-150 people. Why? For protection. First we gathered together as protection from wild animals. If you are part of a group, it’s harder for lions and wolves and bears to attack you successfully. Later the only real predator of man became other men. Villages have always been needed to defend from predators.
Before agriculture existed, people were nomadic, following the animals they hunted and the ripening of plants they gathered. Hunting and gathering was humanity’s first and most successful adaptation, occupying at least 90 percent of human history. It was done in bands of at most 150 people.
Anthropologists, who have studied countless villages and bands across the world, call 150 Dunbar’s number. This number was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain only 150 stable relationships. Dunbar explained it informally as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”.
Throughout human history we have lived in groups of 50-150 people. Languages as different as Old Norse and Middle French used variants of the word band to describe groups of people that were bound or bonded together. The ancient Romans called a cohesive ethnopolitical unit a tribus (from which our word tribe).
For countless generations, men have lived in groups to avoid extinction. Many stronger enemies with sharper claws and teeth would long ago have destroyed mankind unless we had allegiance to our band or tribe. Only recently have we not lived in small groups bound by ethnic ties and readiness to defend that group against attack.
Our brains are still hard-wired by the experience of our ancestors–even though most of us live in huge cities. As our species became better and better at protecting each other and finding or growing food, our bands grew beyond 150. When we were still nomadic, a splinter would split off and form a new band–much like small rural Protestant churches today.
However, fertile soils and irrigation systems can’t be easily moved, so as agriculture developed, villages grew beyond the 150 limit. No longer could personal relationships maintain allegiance to a group.
When you live in a small group you know everyone. You can trust people you know. Our natural tendency is to trust and help people. We all see that in young children. Just as we must teach children not to trust strangers, the leaders of tribes taught their members: you can only trust your tribe, not those outside. You just can’t trust those outsiders.
As numbers grew in settled agricultural regions, some peoples developed clan structures to maintain the connections to a small band within a large town. In the absence of clans, the political elite used sets of similar customs and beliefs to tie people together and keep them working for the good of the town (or at least the good of the elite).
These sets of customs and beliefs, often still combined with blood relations or at least ethnic similarity, continue to bind people in most of the world today. Most people in the world still have allegiance to their tribe, though they don’t call it a tribe. Today a tribe is a group you identify with. All people, except the most alienated, identify with a group of people with similar beliefs and customs.
Often this identify is ethnic. Chinese, Armenians, Koreans all maintain their ties to the group that acts and looks like them. Others, such as liberals and conservatives, identify with tribes often outside ethnic groups.
The trouble is that the groups maintain their identity by enforcing conformity to the group’s beliefs. Study after study indicates that people change their beliefs to match the group they identify with.
We like to think that we answer questions such as “do you like avocados” from memory. That we think about the taste of avocados and remember how enjoyable we found that taste. But experimental results suggest that sometimes we use a more indirect strategy when we identify closely with a particular group. Rather than think about, say, nuclear power and see whether we are well-disposed to the thought, we think about parties (or people) we admire or identify with, and try to imagine what they would say.
The US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia all began with a common heritage and a common set of beliefs. In our case, it was Christianity which broke down the tribal barriers and enabled creation of nation states based on common acceptance of basic beliefs across ethnic groups. These customs and beliefs were agreed to by the group and those who didn’t believe were cast out. Among these beliefs, in the United States, was an allegiance to the flag and the principles it represented.
America today is breaking up into tribes. We are falling back on the way we are hard-wired. Instead of one nation, indivisible, we are becoming separate tribes with divergent beliefs. We see people we like kneeling for the national anthem and we do, too. We are becoming tribal and losing our nation.
As we fall apart into tribes, we will also adopt other qualities of tribes. Tribes never forgive. The Hatfield and McCoy feud is legendary in Appalachia, but occurs everywhere people have allegiance to a tribe. An eye for an eye is still the operant philosophy in tribal relations.
Tribes don’t have principles, except allegiance to the tribe. A denomination changes its attitude on an issue and most of the members also change, or they are forced out. The loyalty of church members is to the church, not to principles.
The tribe, hard-wired in us, is always tempting us to come back. Come back to that group where everyone thinks the same, where we are all alike and we all help each other. Our genes remember tribal life, even when we think we have gone beyond it.
Nations can only be built when tribal barriers are broken. When a religion like Christianity explicitly breaks tribal barriers, it has the power to build nations. This power built nations in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and enabled the spread of empires through nearly all the world. The common religion provides a new set of basic beliefs and customs to build allegiance to.
But tribal identify, often based on ethnicity, is always pushing to assert itself.
The trouble is that the qualities of the tribe can only tear down; they cannot build up. The tribe always identifies enemies and enforces conformity to its changing standards. There are no principles for a tribe, except allegiance to the tribe.
We have seen the extreme version of this in the Middle East. Tribal members believe it is right to hurt, even kill, those who are not of their tribe. They build their own tribe by the destruction of others.
In addition to the village structure of rural areas, I was also surprised to find that walls surround every house when I began to travel overseas. There are no suburban houses with yards. Walled compounds are the norm everywhere. In cities, many hotels have several strands of electric wire on top of the walls.
This is the endpoint of societies built on the groupthink of tribes. America is headed in that direction.