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The rise of the meta tribe: David Samson on how modern society can harness tribalism for good

00:00:00
Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with David Samson, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto and leading scholar on biology and human evolution, about his new must-read bookOur Tribal Future: How to Channel Our Foundational Human Instincts into a Force for Good.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by David Samson, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto and a leading scholar on biology and human evolution. He’s also the author of the must-read new book, Our Tribal Future: How to Channel Our Foundational Human Instincts into a Force for Good, which brings science, ethics, and history into our understanding of the tribal instinct. I’m grateful to speak with him about where tribalism comes from, how it motivates us, and ultimately how we can accentuate the good parts of tribalism and minimize the bad ones. David, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

DAVID SAMSON: Thanks so much, Sean. I’m really happy to be here.

SEAN SPEER: One of the book’s key insights is that tribalism comes from evolution. Talk a bit about that, David. How is tribalism an evolutionary development, and how is that different from a learned behaviour, say, about social organization?

DAVID SAMSON: Yeah, that really is the million-dollar question. So it’s so important, especially in the moment that we’re in as a species, to realize how great of an influence our tribal identity is. It really does alter our view of the world and our perception of it insomuch that every idea that we’re going to discuss today will, in large part, be accepted or denied based on our preexisting identities and the associated beliefs of it. So it’s really crucial to keep this in mind. One recent study that came out this year found that of the 150 psychological biases that have been recorded out there, literally they can be boiled down to six things, and they’re really, really tribal things.

So it’s things like, “I am good.” So that’s a bias that we all have. We all think that we have some sort of precipice on what the moral good is. “My group is good,” right? So you’re already just saying the social other, the social self, is part of that goodness. “I make correct assessments about the world.” “My experience is a reasonable reference,” meaning it’s generalizable, and “My group’s experience is generalizable. It’s also a reasonable reference. And then the scary—the one bias that we might deep dive into today—is that people’s attributes, not the context by which they choose, but their attributes shape the outcomes that they’re seeking. So the question is, “Why and how did this happen?” And to get at that from what I think you’re trying to ask here is the evolutionary roots of this really crucial trait.

SEAN SPEER: Precisely.

DAVID SAMSON: Yeah. I think one really useful analogy here is that of the human movie. Because to be able to map this out, we have to basically compress 1.8 million years of human evolution into a way that’s digestible for the average person that’s listening right now to this podcast. So I use this analogy of a human movie. It’s a hundred minutes long, your average movie, right? In the very first minute of the movie, we start with the human story 1.8 million years ago, and something radical happens with respect to how our ancestors were doing things beforehand. These Australopithecines, half ape, half chimp-like things surviving in the gallery force of Africa. We come down to the savannah grassland, and we start congregating in camps. What’s a camp? A camp is 20 to 30 individuals. They’re adults and they’re children and they’re working together for the shared project of survival and reproduction. And really, this is a super unique way of survival. Humans do this in minute one. Here we have morality shifting already to a very recognizable human scale in the sense that our face-to-face intuitions of what it’s like to keep harmony amongst a group likely started evolving here.

So the blessings that we got with this moral update in our evolution was something along the lines of our prosociality, our willingness to share a little bit of a hunt with our family and our kin. But one of the curses was the norm for canceling. And if you break a social norm, you are excommunicated out of the group, and you might die or starve. And so this happens at minute one. And it’s basically—the movie from here is actually boring. It’s like you would need a David Attenborough to really spice it up because it doesn’t change in any significant way for 84 minutes. So at minute 84, we’re fast-forwarding 300,000 years ago, something really cool happens. And that’s when tribalism, the adaptation of the tribe drive evolves. And so what’s tribalism?

Tribalism is essentially when you have a bias that intuits your group as inherently superior to other groups. And so let’s define a tribe real quick. A tribe is an intersubjective belief network that signals coalitionary alliance to bootstrap trust amongst strangers. And this happens around that 300,000-year-ago mark. We can tell this through the paleoanthropological record. We see evidence that groups around this time were trading with other groups, and they were so far away from their home groups and they were doing trade with goods that looked so different in terms of what the other groups were doing that it was probably an us trading with a them, okay? And by the time you get to one minute left in the movie, you’ve had this documentary, and now it turns into a science fiction thriller because, all of a sudden, humanity starts spiralling out of control. With a minute left, we become the sole inheritors of the earth. We’re the last hominids on the planet. We outcompete Neanderthals. And I think a lot of that has to do with this capacity to symbolically use information to project coalitionary alliance.

With 30 seconds left, we have the advent of agrarian society, civilization, and here’s where a big mismatch starts happening. Because starting to get sedentary, and with that sedentism, we’re really departing away from that camp-like structure that we had at minute one in the movie. Then, with 15 seconds left, we have the advent of writing, which props up at 10 seconds left. Then religion and ideology. And then with half a second left, something really, really bizarre happens. We go from—with basically the entire movie, we’ve been living in these camp structures, and all of a sudden we decided to create the nuclear family out of nowhere. And it was an invention in North America by the Levitt brothers. And this nuclear family was the last little bit of mismatch that we had going where we all of a sudden were out of the camps that we’d been surviving in, and we have basically created the McDonald’s of social patterns. And this mismatch has affected our social health ever since.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a great answer, and we’ll spend the rest of the conversation reviewing the movie, as you put it. You mentioned trust. I want to take that up, David. Talk about the role of trust in the book. What’s its significance in explaining the power of tribalism?

DAVID SAMSON: Yeah, so this gets at what we get at in terms of what is good about tribalism. Think of tribalism, think of the tribe drive, this innovation to basically to be able to signal that you’re part of a team. It’s almost like you’re part of a secret society. And if you authentically signal this coalitionary alliance, you get massive benefits. Because for the people who receive it, they see you as trustworthy, even though you are a stranger. Now, think about this from the perspective of animal behaviour, this is actually remarkable. If we go to our common ancestor and our closest shared species with the chimpanzee, which we share our common ancestor going back six and a half million years, they hate strangers. In fact, they hate all strangers. So much so that if you were to take a chimp and rear them in a different group and then try and implant them into a group by the time they’re an adolescent or adult, that’s a death sentence to them. Because to chimps, there’s really no acceptable circumstance where they’ll accept a stranger.

We created this tribe signalling process where, when we signal the right codes of coalitionary alliance, that means it’s like a cheat sheet or a heuristic. You’re bootstrapping cooperation amongst those individuals. So really, this was an innovation that was meant to give us the capacity to trust at scale. Before that, life had been doing things the old-fashioned way, which the very first innovation in trust from an evolutionary standpoint was basically, “Who do you distribute your resources to, your time, and energy to?” And that’s kin selection. So individuals that share genes, you’re going to go ahead and share time and energy with. And then in really big-brained animals, only about a dozen on the planet do you have friendship, actual real friendship, where the brains are big enough and the social complexity is complex enough to where you have a ledger of record of individuals that then you can build off of that ledger of record and create a trusted relationship. But note here, Sean, that all those are face-to-face. Kin is face-to-face, friendship is face-to-face. And the challenge for Homo sapiens was, we got so successful, we were encroached by strangers. Strangers were everywhere, especially once you get past agrarian society, where you’ve got people on top of people on top of people. So this was really a hack into our symbolic brain to figure out a way for us to cooperate at scale.

SEAN SPEER: May I ask a follow-up question, David?

DAVID SAMSON: Yeah.

SEAN SPEER: Does it follow then that tribalism would be more prevalent in low-trust societies?

DAVID SAMSON: So the tribalism is really a birthright of all humans. It’s so ingrained and the biases that I was talking about in the onset of our conversation are so solid and so intrinsic that you’re going to see this happen under the hood no matter where we are.

SEAN SPEER: Okay, well, let’s move on to the basis of tribalism. Why don’t you talk a bit about that? What’s the role of, say, race or religion or shared interest or ideology, or whatever? How does tribalism manifest itself differently depending on these different bases?

DAVID SAMSON: Yeah. So this gets us into one of my favourite parts of the book, and that’s tribal trust signals. It’s how we emit that symbolic data into the world that says, “I’m part of this group,” and we should either cooperate or we should compete. A great example that will ground this for the listeners is how quickly this can be utilized even in very, very highly-volatile contexts to switch teams. It’s super powerful when you understand the power of tribal signals. One example goes from the Battle of Gettysburg.

Lewis Armistead was a officer for the Confederate army, and this was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. He was leading a picket charge. He gets hit with a bullet, and he gets thrown off his horse. And as he’s bleeding out, he lifts his hands to the heavens and he’s emitting a signal—a signal of coalitionary alliance. And in one second, sides change. And this is super remarkable. Hiram Bingham was an officer in the Union Army, saw this signal, went and picked up Lewis Armistead, brought him to the field house, and actually promised to take back his goods to his family as he was dying. There were three things. There was his journal, his spurs, and a Masonic necklace. And so that signal was a signal that literally, I don’t know what the signal is because it’s a secret signal of their society, and he lifted it into the air, and somebody went from an enemy, a mortal enemy that was fighting on a battlefield, to all of a sudden, in a second, becoming an elevated identity, which they shared. And that was as a mason. And that little instance of projecting a signal into your environment can literally mean the difference between life or death.

And that’s because we are a symbolic species. So, for example, let’s evoke the Canadian flag right now, right? This will demonstrate how genetically predisposed we are to be a symbolic species. So imagine the Canadian flag. It’s just non-random red and white distributed on nylon, right? That’s all it is, objectively. But when you and I think about the Canadian flag, we’re not seeing it for what it actually is; we’re seeing history, ideology, demographics, the feelings and the emotions that are linked to these abstract concepts, right? And that’s how this works. It works by capturing that symbolic information, projecting it out into the world so that others can then model your behaviour and attempt to predict it in a way that might bootstrap that trust amongst you so that you can cooperate at scale.

SEAN SPEER: As I understand it, David, a key argument in the book is that tribalism can occur almost imperceptibly, including to those in the tribe. I can think of some counter examples like gang members or something. Help us understand the argument.

DAVID SAMSON: Yeah, so think about—it really is unconscious. Like most instincts, 99 percent of it’s happening under the hood, and you only rationalize or justify the behaviour after the fact, post-hoc. So these unconscious signals work like many other unconscious signals in the environment. So let’s take sex signals for example. So in the eye alone, there are about five different signals of fecundity. And we don’t consciously think of this when we’re interacting with somebody. For example, how bluish the sclera is or how prominent the limbal ring is. That’s that little black line around the iris—dilated pupils. All these things signal to a potential mate the reproductive capacity of the individual. All that’s happening under the hood and what you experience or feel is, “I’m attracted to this person,” right? That’s all you get. And that’s the same thing with coalitionary alliance signalling with tribal signalling. You’re just like, “Man, I don’t know what it is about this person, but I just gravitate towards them, and I really want to do a project with them.” But maybe it’s just you’re wearing the same band t-shirt. You know what I mean? It’s something as unconscious as that. It’s pretty powerful.

SEAN SPEER: If tribalism is about ingroups and outgroups, how does it work imperceptibly? Don’t we need to decide who’s in and out and then, therefore, make it abundantly clear to others?

DAVID SAMSON: Absolutely. The value proposition here of doing that is really, it’s not about necessarily stating a condition of truth or veracity. The value proposition of doing that is signalling the strength that you have for that particular coalitionary alliance. So in this instance, it’s really interesting because you can believe in something that’s untrue and it’s rational. Let’s take flat earth for example. So I don’t know if you’ve seen the documentary Behind the Curve. It’s a beautiful documentary about the flat earth movement, which had been gaining steam relatively recently. And there’s an individual character in it called Mark Sargent. And he’s the leader of the flat earth movement. He’s got a podcast. He’s got this massive community and massive following. And this really fascinating thing happens with one minute left in the documentary, where in a candid back and forth with the producer, the producer asks, “Well, what if you one day just decided that the world was round?”

And you can see this existential terror in this character’s eyes, in Mark’s eyes? And he goes, “Actually, I could never do that because my community, they wouldn’t let me go.” And it was just this candid behind-the-scenes moment where it was like, “Okay, this isn’t actually about flat earthism. This is about being connected within a social environment, in a social network where I feel valued, where I have some station, where I have some status, and I am an honoured member of this group.” And that’s what the value proposition is. Donald Hoffman, a evolutionary psychologist, he said, “The truth won’t make you free; it will make you extinct.” And so it really is the case that for most of human evolution, it wasn’t about figuring out what was true; it was about figuring out how can we become a tightly bonded group so we can survive an incredibly hostile environment that includes threats from our ecology, it includes threats from just natural disaster and includes threats from other people. So that’s why all this signalling is so critical to what it is to be a Homo sapien.

SEAN SPEER: Talk about what you term the “tribe drive”. How does it influence our thinking and behaviour?

DAVID SAMSON: So one good example here, Muzafer Sherif. He is one of the big classic researchers that came up with realistic conflict theory. And he has a really famous study where he had students and kids that were incredibly, very, very similar in their upbringing and their background. So they were from Kansas, they were from the middle class, they were Protestant, they were White, and they were between 12 and 14 years old. And he had them go to a summer camp. And what he was trying to figure out was: what is the mechanism by which people group together and compete against each other, and how fluid is this thing? And what he discovered was something quite remarkable, and it directly tackles what the tribe drive is. Ultimately, we’re not born racists, but we are born coalitionists.

This group, he had them on day one create identities, so it was the Rattlers versus the Eagles. And he set up a situation where they had to compete over very limited resources, things like awards or toys or gifts or candy or food. And it escalated so quickly where the Rattlers had a default, aggressive, very cocky sort of group identity, and they had a flag. And the other team, the Eagles, burned the flag. And then, in reprisal, the Rattlers went and ransacked the cabin of the Eagles, and it got nasty really, really quick. And what this showed is that you don’t need to be, phenotypically, you don’t need to look different for prejudice to exist and for it to manifest very easily. You just need to be able to signal some very basic, arbitrary things that note that you’re part of a team and that differentiates you from another team.

Developmentally, Darrow Yunam, she did some beautiful studies with grade school kids. All they did, Sean, to show this exact same phenomenon, was randomly hand out blue shirts and orange shirts. And then, all of a sudden, during recess, they started grouping together by their shirt colour. They were not compelled to do this. They started sharing with the groups that had their t-shirt. They started competing with the groups naturally that didn’t have the t-shirt of their same colour. And then when they were told stories or anecdotes about the other group, they would preferentially bias. The kids would bias their side in the recollection, painted their side as the moral altruist and the other side as the bad guys. And all this was done, and they were like in grade school. The only thing that was different was their t-shirt colour. And so it really is a powerful signal on coalitionary behaviour.

SEAN SPEER: Are the benefits of tribalism merely utilitarian, or do they offer broader relational upsides? If so, how might we think about tribalism and the rise of loneliness? Are lonely people just those who haven’t found tribes?

DAVID SAMSON: Yeah, so that’s a really nuanced question because when I think of tribes, I actually think of beyond face-to-face. So, when I think of sub-tribal relationships and sub-tribal social networks, there I’m thinking about your kith and kin, your family networks, maybe your local church—the difference between the local church you attend, say, it’s a Catholic church, right? The local church you attend versus the Roman Catholic Church writ large, right? So, this is the distinction to be made, and what I think is going on right now that is producing this massive phenomenon right now, where we have an endemic loneliness, an epidemic of loneliness—in fact, the Surgeon General just made an announcement a few months ago saying that it was one of the biggest threats to health and wellness in the United States right now—and what I think is happening is that we’ve weighted our groups in a skewed way.

So now—and this just happened, I just taught this class called “The Trust Paradox,” based off a lot of the content of the book for a summer course. And when I had my students rank their groups and the ones they identify with and then measure out the proportion that were actually tribal versus sub-tribal, there was a shocking number of students where all the groups they identified with were tribal groups. They had no groups they identified with that were face-to-face, and they were all things like a political party or some big institution. And it’s like that’s not the path to wellness; in fact, that might be the path to madness. If your sense of self and sense of identity is, say, with a political tribe, then that’s—I mean, I’m not saying don’t be politically active or interested in the future, but definitely start putting a lot of your emotional energy into those sub-tribal groups that can truly facilitate health and wellness.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah, I think just in parentheses, Friedrich Hayek talked about the difference between the macrocosm and the microcosm. It seems increasingly like we’ve committed ourselves to these relationships at the macrocosm level at the expense of relationships at the microcosm. What do you attribute that trend to, David?

DAVID SAMSON: So, Sean, that’s the crucial question. And this is why it was really valuable starting out with that human movie analogy. Because we started out in camps at minute one, remember? 

SEAN SPEER: Yes.

DAVID SAMSON: And now we have a situation where we’re dislocated from the social condition by which 99 minutes of that movie took place, meaning this is called “evolutionary mismatch.” And it was one of the theoretical underpinnings of—especially the first half of the book, because I believe we are in a state of evolutionary mismatch, meaning our bodies and our minds evolved for how things were, not how things are. So, let me give you a good example of mismatch in a natural environment. This is a pretty humorous one, actually. So, the South African jewel beetle has been recently undergoing a massive selective decrease in its population, not by anything in the environment but by beer bottles being thrown out by humans in the South African environment, and basically it’s tricking the signaling system, the attraction system of the males, because they’re really—they find sexy, these big pits in the females’ shells, and their wings, but the beer bottles have bigger pits and sexier looking contours, and so they’re mating with the beer bottles, right? So, this is a situation where a species is put in danger and put into threat on the basis of the fact that it was evolved for one condition, and now that evolutionary precondition is being hijacked. And I think we have something similar going on with our social mismatch. So, if you look at some of the statistics right now for adolescents, it’s actually scary. So, over 40 percent of college students report being too depressed to function most days. Fifty

percent are saying they regularly feel, on a day-to-day basis, feelings of hopelessness. Two-thirds are saying they’re overwhelmingly anxious, and 10 percent of college students are having serious considerations of suicidal ideation.

These studies have been ongoing throughout the 2000s up till now. It’s doubled since 2009. And so, this is just a great example of that. Isolation in adults is just as deadly, or even more deadly. Loneliness is predictive of increased broad-based morbidity and mortality across the board. Loneliness makes it harder for your adult brain to grow and to change, it’s called neuroplasticity. It predicts antisocial behaviour, it increases your baseline stress because, basically, your metabolism is burning super hot because, if you think you’re isolated, you know that there’s nobody in your environment with a second pair of eyes to help you face those challenges. So, your basic metabolic rate is just burning hotter; you’re burning faster the whole time. The loneliness predicts drug use, it predicts suicide. It actually makes your genes for the worst, because it produces pro-inflammatory transcription factors, which is bad. We know inflammation’s super bad, and this is all to the point where one researcher said, “Loneliness is tied to being more likely to die at any time of any cause at any phase of life.” And I think one of the big things tying this all together is we are in a state of evolutionary social mismatch.

SEAN SPEER: As populations in countries like Canada become more culturally and racially heterogeneous, is there reason to think we may become more tribal?

DAVID SAMSON: Well, the good news here is that, in fact, remember I said, ultimately we’re not born racists, we’re born coalitionists. And so, the good news is that maybe we can get around racism by thinking deeply about our tribalism. One study that I think is super important to illustrate this point is Robert Kurzban and colleagues, they came out with a study called “Can Race be Erased?” And the really shocking, and I think, very encouraging and optimistic answer is that, yes, in under four minutes of updating somebody’s model, you can make someone’s skin colour, which is essentially just the concentration of melanin in the skin, you can make that a trait that is no longer as predictive in your models of who’s on whose team. They basically did this with switching up their study design was looking at a basketball team, and they had different participants in the basketball team being showed to the people who were taking the study.

And you had differences in skin colour, and you had differences in the t-shirt, and they were changing that up. And depending on how they arranged that, the t-shirt colour became a much more powerful predictor of who’s going to cooperate with who than otherwise. So, again, I think that’s something that we—this is the kind of science we should be shouting at the rooftops, saying that we just have to be mindful of this instinct. And what we know from a scientific empirical standpoint is that the only way that Homo sapiens can get around being controlled by an instinct is to elevate it to our awareness. And so, by doing that—it’s these conversations that we’re having right now, right here. By doing that, we increase the likelihood of potentially pro-social outcomes versus anti-social outcomes.

SEAN SPEER: Are there ways, David, to bring expression to those findings in public policy? I’m thinking, for instance, in an educational setting. Maybe even the way in which policy itself is developed, who’s around the table, and how that process is carried out? Perhaps it has applications for corporations. Just talk a bit about the practical applications of those fascinating and, as you say, promising insights.

DAVID SAMSON: Yeah, I mean, I think the thing we need to keep acutely aware of is that the level of political tribalism that’s happening, especially in the United States at the moment, is pretty scary. I think of political tribalism as sort of a weaponized tribalism, where you’re taking—it’s almost creating the worst manifestations of our group-ish instinct versus the best. And I think, definitely going through a couple exercises, even just on the individual, the self—so, I think there’s a couple different ways we can go about this. So, in the book, I talk about tribalist self-diagnostics, and I think I would challenge everybody to go through these self-diagnostics, and it was incredibly helpful for me going through this as well. And it’s shaped the way that I view this particular topic. So, one self-diagnostic is the moral equivalency test. It’s like the mirror game. And basically, you are imagining, say, some political leader on the outgroup, right? Your political enemy, and they get busted for, say, tax evasion or tax fraud. Now, as soon as you bring that into your mind, reverse it and put your political leader or a team member of your political tribe in that same scenario and see what your brain does with it. Does it begin to make excuses? Does it begin to justify, or is it just as indignant and righteously upset as it was for the outgroup? And if there’s any difference at all, then you know you might have some level of this failure of a moral equivalency. 

A second one is the moral valence test. How virulent is my tribalism? And this one’s a really important one because it gets at the preconditions for dehumanization, which is some of the worst manifestations of our tribe drive. And this one is basically, imagine an outgroup—imagine some symbols of an outgroup, right? Maybe the flag of a rival political party, is there any feelings of contempt there, right? Imagine a tweet that a political outgroup makes. Have you ever had the response, “Well, that’s just disgusting?” Right? If you could say yes, then that is actually something to flag, because what’s going on when you say that’s disgusting, on the neurophysiological level, you are tapping into your insular cortex. Your insular cortex is an ancient piece of hardware in your brain meant to help you avoid toxins and things that will kill or harm you. And what you’re saying by, “Well, that disgusts me,” is the brain layered any violation of social norms on top of that insular cortex. So, we see moral violations as though it were a physical toxin. We experienced the moral violation. And that is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. So, if that’s happening and you have a disgust response, then you know you might need to take some moments and meditate because you are being manipulated right now by your tribe drive.

And then the last little bit there, the last self-diagnostic, is the one I was telling you about with respect to my identity stack, right? List out the groups that you are really proud to belong to, and then measure the proportion of them that are actually tribal—that is, beyond face-to-face—versus sub-tribal—the ones that are—groups that are actually face-to-face. And what you want is to reweight those so that you have more groups that you’re proud to belong to that are face-to-face versus non-face-to-face. And so, in terms of getting back to your question about policy and how we do that, I think a lot of it is bringing the temperature in the room down. And the way to do that is to elevate these particular diagnostics to people’s routines and make sure that anytime you feel triggered as a moral response and a disgust response, that you’re mindful of what’s going on under the hood.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a fascinating answer. Really useful insights, David. You’ve just outlined some steps that we can take individually to be more cognizant of our tribal instinct and where it can lead us astray. Do you want to talk a bit about what we can do collectively to accentuate the good parts of tribalism and minimize the bad?

DAVID SAMSON: So, in terms of how I see this playing out on a species level, one idea I’ve been playing around with here is the tribalism vaccine hypothesis, and I talk a little bit about this in the final chapter of my book. And so, let’s use an analogy of a vaccine, right? So, if we think of tribalism, the worst parts of tribalism, as a virus, as like a mind virus, then we think of possible ways to inoculate ourself against the worst parts of tribalism. And so, you need an immunogen and an adjuvant. The immunogen is that active ingredient that you’re taking from the virus, that you’re using it as a way to fight it, using itself against it, right? And then the adjuvant is the instruction-giving protocol of the vaccine. And so, in this analogy, the immunogen that I’m trying to concoct here is that of identity-protective cognition.

So, you want to take that thing that makes us want to protect our in-group. Identity-protective cognition is one of the most universal human biases. It means that you’re going to cognitively protect anything that attempts to threaten your identity group. So, we want to use that against tribalism. So, the immunogen is IPC (identity protective cognition), and the adjuvant would then be metabelief. So there’s this one term—this is a Penny Cooke et al. paper—there’s a term, metabelief, it’s super powerful. And metabelief is the belief that beliefs can change. And that means that you’re in a system by which you have epistemic humility and you’re open to hearing other people’s points of view, and you can be very productive on that end. So if you combined as a sacred value in your in-group, metabelief, and combine that with identity protective cognition, and you scale that up to enough Homo sapiens in the planet that identify as that group, which I call the meta tribe in the book, then that might be some sort of type of terminus tribe that protects us at scale.

SEAN SPEER: Final question. We’ve talked earlier, David, about your argument that one of the principle challenges we face today is this evolutionary mismatch between the way we think about tribe and how it manifests itself in a modern society that looks a lot different from when this evolutionary instinct first took root. What’s the process out of that mismatch? I’m not going to ask you to predict the future of evolution, but talk a little bit, based on your research and thinking, about how we might bring our evolutionary instinct into something closer to alignment with the demands and pressures and functions of modern society.

DAVID SAMSON: Yeah, no, that’s a wonderful question. And it’s just—right now, you can have so much speculation on what that is because our technologies of trust are rapidly innovating. And I think the key word you just said there was alignment. So, we’re in a kind of a state of misalignment, and the goal is trying to get back at a scale of human interaction that is in alignment. One cool promising thing that might help us get to more of a scale where we are actually at what I would call an organic or a good tribe is a tribe that consists mostly of relationships at a very low scale. So, if you look at small-scale hunter-gatherers or small-scale societies across the planet, your average tribe at that scale is between 15 and 1800 adults. So, we’re talking here like small towns, right? That’s about the cognitive threshold we are really good at.

It’s like an optimum—a human optimum—to work with local strangers at scale. So, we really need to think about the technologies of decentralization. And so, there are several different technologies that are actually quite promising. Right now, we’re using the decentralized technologies of communication, which is fantastic. It means that despite the fact of our geographical distance, you can live in a community you’re invested in and that is invested in you. I can do the same. We can still cooperate at a super tribal level but live our lives day to day in a scale and scope that’s healthy for us. So, communication’s very key, I think. There are some new emerging technologies in terms of DAOs, or decentralized autonomous organizations, that help internet native tribes build a group-level identity out in the online world and then gather up resources, come together over alignment over a social value that they want to promote, and then manifest it in the real world together. And so, these types of technologies of trust as they emerge, I think we need to try and wrangle them to help increase human flourishing at the scales that we were designed to work together at.

SEAN SPEER: It’s just a ton of insight in that answer, as there’s been throughout this conversation and indeed in the book, its title, Our Tribal Future: How to Channel Our Foundational Human Instincts Into a Force for Good. David Samson, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

DAVID SAMSON: Thank you so much, Sean. It’s been an absolute blast.

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