At Mammoth Hunters, the idea of tribe means a lot to us. Today, we’re going to explain how the formation of groups played an important part in our evolution and why they are important for our life and health.
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Tribes define what we are as human beings
One of the most defining characteristics of humans is the fact that we are social beings. In the natural world, the species that come closest to humans are colony-building invertebrates, (coral is a good example of this) and social insects (bees, ants, termites). These are extreme examples of creatures that develop systems with complex social organisations. But colony-building invertebrates are all genetically identical, and social insects all very closely related to each other. We’re not like that. We humans have evolved to create social organizations that may include and involve people who are not related at all. It’s usually known as the tribe.
It’s true that many mammals and most primates live in social groups, but for most of them living in a group just means better protection from predators and privacy in social life. It also brings greater competition for resources. Individuals from the same group compete against each other for food, either by fighting to get to it first, or by developing rigid hierarchies to avoid the fights.
Human beings definitely open a new chapter in the natural history of animals learning to live together. It’s all about living in a group and cooperating with each other to understand our diverse world.
Evolutionary factors in forming groups
In the course of human evolution, various factors pushed us towards socialisation.
On one hand, our huge brain power increasingly needed more and more energy and it’s thought we adapted to this in various ways. For example, we had to redistribute our energy expenditure to use up less energy in movement, and in growth and reproduction too.
In addition we had to increase the availability of calories, improving the quality of our diet, and generating creative strategies, which saved us from hunger. We also developed ways of working together: You help me today, I’ll help you tomorrow. (You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours?) Thanks to our large brain, we found ways of working together, and this in turn helped the brain to grow.
In time, ecological changes that came about during the Pleistocene era severely reduced and even eliminated food sources that people could get on their own, leaving them no choice but to get together in small groups. It was co-operate or die.
A further step came when collaboration between a few individuals grew into collaboration between bigger groups, perhaps due to greater competition with other groups of humans. It’s thought that this was where we developed the sense of belonging to one group as opposed to another. During this process, they had to develop a way of sharing the booty that would be mutually satisfactory for all group members so that this new behaviour would become a stable evolutionary strategy. To make sure that everyone was motivated to join in the collective task, members who tried to get away with it (by cheating) didn’t get a share of the loot.
So during human evolution, strategies emerged to make people work together to get their food providing a solid basis for a new way of behaving and adapt us towards a social way of life and interdependence with others. What’s amazing is that this new activity isn’t based on reciprocity and there’s no balance sheet of costs or whether some actions are more useful than others. Mutual dependency created the motivation for everyone to help each other in the best possible way for survival.
So in the Stone Age the altruistic individual was highly thought of, while the selfish person was excluded (literally) from the tribe, often seen as a kind of living death.
All this hapenned before the advent of agriculture
A huge paradigm shift occurred when agriculture became established as the principal means of obtaining food.
It gave rise to the surplus, and new dangers emerged: loss of the harvest through seasonal pests, or wars … so society started to reward those who looked after themselves, which was selfish. But that’s another story that we’ll discuss some day when there’s time.
Unlike other animals (most of the primates) who enter into complex social relations in search of personal gain, the human species entered into relations that encouraged us to work together for the benefit of the group and increase our understanding of our diverse world.
What, at the time, was an inevitable strategy for survival became entrenched in our nature as human beings. We are ultra-social beings and our physiology rewards us when we behave in this way. What our culture rewards is a different matter.