Tribes and Fear

As always, everything here is an opinion, one that I feel strongly but am ready to drop immediately based on any alternative thinking. This is based on lauren’s comment to the previous entry about our church visit last week. It centers around two themes: the notion of fear and anxiety as a driving force, and the notion of religious (and tribal) exclusivity.


Fear is considered one of the most basic, primeval emotions we possess, so leveraging fear seems to be one of the most utilitarian ways to go if you want to get someone’s attention. But to be a little more specific, I would say it’s anxiety, not fear, and there seems to be a distinction.

I’ll paraphrase my currently favorite explanation for the evolution of religion:
A bison on the plains of Africa experiences a stress response when the proper environmental cue appears [like a lion moving through the brush]: this gets the hormones going, increases muscle tone, generally prepares its body for action; this is costly energy-wise but it settles back to its normal behaviors seconds after those cues go away, and obviously if a predator is around that extra alertness provides a huge value. As humans, we have the unique capacity not only to think of ourselves as creatures but to conceive of danger that is not imminent - we have a perception of time, and a memory of the past with which to build strategies for the future. We get stressed thinking about a death that might not only be years away, but may be subject to complete randomness and beyond our control; spending that energy literally preparing our bodies for action against a predator when one is not around [anxiety/stress] uses up a great deal of bodily resources, reducing our overall capability for survival. But this is different from fear, which the bison has - a reaction to a real imminent threat (or pain impulse). Anxiety is long-lasting and needn’t be identified with any specific stimulus. Humans have the unique capability to feel not only fear for immediate dangers, but anxiety for distant ones.

Stress is the ‘readying of the body for a fight’ in a quite literal sense - it induces a bodily state of alarm, adrenaline production, and short-term resistance. Very useful in a state of fear, where there is a threat actually worthy of excess energy, but with anxiety this stress can be ever-present, leading to extreme exhaustion. Imagine being out in the middle of nowhere 100,000 years ago. Understanding nothing, predators abounding in the dark, in the midst of a furious lightning storm. Limited technology to shelter us and make us feel safe, and no science to understand the causes of these roars in the sky. We were arguably the first animal to deeply experience the anxiety of the moment, without the understanding to keep us calm. The stress that this situation can induce, when we see the stress of anxiety in our day with all of its affordances, has got to be huge! Any assurances of life after death would of course provide a distinct advantage from a literal nervous breakdown!

Any mechanism that reduces the expenditures on our bodies (stress reduction) should be adaptive. Anthropomorphic religion is boranj but it did/does seem to serve a purpose for many (there is research on this ). If the evolutionary origin of religion is the reduction of our anxiety of death, then negative reinforcement should be livin large in the religious landscape, since anxiety is the emotion that needs to be leveraged and modified. It can clearly be leveraged with other, alternative fears [hell, etc] - not as much about finding pleasure but about reducing pain. The brain needs a mechanism of stress reduction, and we have found many alternatives… some more dominant than others.

It’s interesting how religion utilizes this low level of anxiety, combined with pure artistic experience [the architecture, the music, the visual artwork] to put people into an emotionally receptive state (and calm their anxieties through those arts), but also inserts memes that get associated with those experiences (and thus with religion). These memes seem to be adaptive or they wouldn’t be so prevalent in our societies [and universal], but in the first sense, the main function is the removal of anxiety. These other memes [such as building better and tighter communities] I believe are adaptive, but are secondary to these illusions that create self-control.

Obviously anyone that provides a reduction of anxiety in others possesses an immense power to connect that reduction with anything else they want [not that this is always conscious]. It is clear that this anxiety was present as Lauren attended Church, especially at reconciliation. Fear is powerful - possibly the most powerful emotion we have. I do not believe it’s necessary but I do think that it is natural that the first response to our inner anxieties was to leverage whatever we had - and we’ve had anxiety for 200,000 years. I think it’s also something that is so raw it can be leveraged in children as soon as they can conceive of death.

Any other rituals can get associated with the base system of reducing anxiety. But if they also push people into a more cohesive social group, then you’ve got another adaptation. Some anthropomorphic religions are stuck with severely negative elements (such as fear of hell), whereas some, such as much of Buddhism, agree deeply with much of science and their mutual quest for truth, unity, and information. We know collaborative societies can succeed amazingly over competitive ones from our tribal history. We just haven’t figured out how to scale the tribes.


Lauren wrote “Religion has many ways of making us feel unity, togetherness, included. But does this inclusion imply that some will be excluded? …does the exclusivity help create the unity we feel?”

So, we came from tribes, “social group[s] of humans connected by a shared system of values and organized for mutual care, defense, and survival beyond that which could be attained by a lone individual or family.” In some sense, the tribe could be the unit of collaboration. However well tribes worked, they were composed of ~30 members, not 6 billion, and it seems like we’re having some growing pains. Maybe organized religions were the outgrowth of these initial shared value systems, which merge with ritualistic practices.

It also feels to me like the switch to tribalism would only happen if it conferred an advantage - and the amount of advantage in promoting wider kin selection is dependent on the size of the tribe, the spread of the bell curve. Altruism pays off more the more we are ‘connected’, and I think that communities often make an exchange between exclusivity and superficiality; either you have a small tribe with tight bonds, or a large one with softer bonds; it seems like this all comes from a mathematical analysis of the genetics. Exploitation vs exploration, depth vs width, etc. I think the exclusivity still helps to create that sense of unity, and we need to get past it as a planet to move forward together. Country boundaries are an extension of tribal exclusivity.

Lauren: “Are we less willing to trust/relate to others that have a different belief system than us?” - there was a study [reported in The God Delusion, was a question posed “Would you vote for an otherwise qualified political candidate if they were x” where x = {Black, Homosexual, Athiest}. For black and homosexual politicians, voting response was in the 90%s. For athiests, it was below 50%. I would say it is clear, in some circumstances, that we do not trust others with differing belief systems. I currently believe this comes from tribal genetic kin selection and initial altruistic behavior.

Maybe “differences scare us so much” because they represent different genetic information. But all progress is made based on genetic differences and mutations! We should most celebrate all our differences! This is how we can become a true collaboration. But it is definitely not the status quo. (except maybe celebrating man/woman differences)

Last week’s service was the most exclusive we’ve seen yet. Every congregation has to decide how wide their arms are open, vs how tight they hold onto each other. But I do think that over time, the trend is that we’re figuring out how to make a 6-billion-person tribe. We’re just anxious about the process.

4 Responses to “Tribes and Fear”

  1. eric says:

    The notion of organic matter grouping together is seen in the very earliest origins of life (more to come on this), where self-assembling compartments encircled random collections of organic matter, thus initiating the evolution of the cell. Through feedback loops, nested layers of complexity were constructed; thus we as a species exhibit many of the same clustering and compartmentalizing behaviors seen at the lowest levels of chemistry and biology.

    David Deamer explains that “the requirement of variation within a population means that the first life forms capable of evolution could not be random mixtures of replicating molecules unable to assemble into discrete entities; instead, they would be systems of interacting molecules encapsulated in something like a cell.”

    When multicellular life was formed, the cell did not disappear. Differentiated cells constitute the body of the organism. Let us not lose sight of this deep lesson of history. Let us consider the importance of the organizing compartmentalizing unit of the tribe for cultural evolution. Let us imagine how the tribe will be integrated into the next level of complexity in our species’ biological and cultural evolution. As you say, Jeff, let us celebrate our differences because they are a source of mutation.

  2. eric says:

    Another amazing theory to consider: The divisions between people caused by religion may have actually helped reduce the spread of infections.

    The question arises: Which of the many adaptations we can attribute to religion came first? It seems that the quieting of existential anxieties could happen relatively quickly within a generation, so maybe this was the first? Something to continue thinking about…

  3. dan says:

    I think our fear increase is directly related to our ability to perceive distance. temporal and spatial distance. deep down we know that we can’t control things that are physical or temporally distant. in the past ideologically different has always been the result of being physically or temporally seperated. but no longer. we’re surrounded by ourselves all the time. and it’s not within our control and that is scary as hell. it’s scary as hell to think there are 6 million people out there and you really have no control. it’s scary as hell to think we’re flying through space.

    and we love to spend time with those who agree with us, so with that. i’m outta here.

  4. dan says:

    i’m back. did i miss anything?

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