Decades before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin lamented that English settlers were constantly fleeing over to the Indians-but Indians almost never did the same. Tribal society has been exerting an almost gravitational pull on Westerners for hundreds of years, and the reason lies deep in our evolutionary past as a communal species. The most recent example of that attraction is combat veterans who come home to find themselves missing the incredibly intimate bonds of platoon life. The loss of closeness that comes at the end of deployment may explain the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. — Tribe, Sebastian Junger
Over the course of hundreds of years of European colonisation of North America, thousands ended up integrating themselves into Native American societies — usually through their own volition.
Even many of those initially taken by force fled to rejoin them after Europeans came to liberate them.
It’s easy for us to romanticise Native American society, but it was in fact a violent one of regular skirmishes against other tribes, as well as a constant existential threat to the tribe from other tribes & European settlers.
But there was clearly something special about such societies.
Why else would people from ‘enlightened’ Western society return to such a ‘primitive’ state of existence? One that was, undeniability, dangerous?
Was it the lack of central authority? The greater sexual freedom? The exoticism?
Or was it something deeper?
This question fascinated every Western thinker who came across the question, stuck in their city offices & their own self-limiting realm of enlightenment & Christian doctrine:
“Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European,” a French émigré named Hector de Crèvecoeur lamented in 1782. “There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.” And, as de Crèvecoeur correctly identified, albeit only vaguely as an outsider, there was something deeper: their social bond.
The deep connections & inter-reliance of tribal society seemed to satisfy a deep human desire — an instinct — in those that participated in it. In many, it formed an attraction they were unable to resist.
We are tribal creatures by nature, however modern we may think we are in the 21st Century.
Because being part of a tribe, from an anthropological perspective, meant survival.
It meant someone on the lookout for danger when the group slept. It meant the sharing of food when resources were scarce. It meant being able to find that food through hunting as a group. It meant protection from the other tribe in the cave down the road.
It’s why we are all scared of the dark when sleeping alone as children. It’s why we retain such a close bond with our family. It’s why we are terrified of being on a stage, alone, with hundreds of eyes on us. It’s why we support our football team. It’s why we play sport. It’s the reason why, in short, we do most things in life.
And that instinct for survival, which comes from the protection of the tribe, is one that is still a part of us.
Developed over millions of years of evolution, those instincts are designed for — and make us crave — a tribal society of a few dozen very close-knit individuals.
In fact, that instinct is a fundamental part of our very individual & social fabric, one that is, tragically, misunderstood & misrepresented in the individualistic world we live in today.
Modernity: A Lonely Search For Belonging
Yet the obvious question that immediately springs to mind is this:
Modern society is the antithesis to this. It is highly individualistic. We lack social accountability, no security from those around us, we are constantly surrounded by strangers, and there is a fundamental lack of trust that dangerously undermines the social fabric of society.
Think of benefit cheats, of littering, of theft. Cases may be rare, but even just a few cases undermine the trust we have in each other:
If one person can do it, you can’t trust anyone. At least not outside of your immediate social circle.
“[Littering] is a horrible thing to see because it sort of encapsulates this idea that you’re in it alone, that there isn’t a shared ethos of trying to protect something shared. It’s the embodiment of every man for himself.” — Rachel Yehuda And, tragically, this lack of societal trust & individualism creates a society of lonely, anxious, scared & depressed people.
As Junger states,
“Bluntly put, modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values over intrinsic ones, and as a result, mental health issues refuse to decline with growing wealth. The more assimilated a person is into American society, the more likely they are to develop depression during the course of their lifetime, regardless of what ethnicity they are. Mexicans born in the United States are wealthier than Mexicans born in Mexico but far more likely to suffer from depression.” And anxiety starts young, with 85% of young children sleeping alone in their own room & enjoying only a fraction of the reassuring body contact of a parent per day (in comparison to our prehistoric kin).
We can never recreate that sense of true belonging that, I imagine, one must feel in a truly tribal society.
And maybe it’s something many of us would not want to feel:
It is pretty nice to not have to worry about a lion grabbing you in the night or an Apache raiding party coming to scalp you when you’re not looking.
We can, however, use this knowledge to enhance — or build anew — relationships with the people in our lives.
Maybe that’s gathering more as a family? Cooking together, sharing together, supporting each other more.
Maybe it’s just opening up more to your friends?
Maybe it means starting an online community of like-minded people who want to be there to support each other.
Maybe it’s starting a football team, poker night or dance class to gather new people together.
Maybe it’s simply going first more: offering to help the elderly lady at the supermarket checkout or to take the new guy at work out for lunch.
Whatever it is, we are not all doomed to a perpetual search for belonging. We can, in fact, take that instinct to belong, to be part of a tribe, and apply it to our modern context.
I’ve found mine through purpose, through starting a company, through building a community.
I wish your luck in finding yours.