Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Why Humans Join Groups

In a recent issue of Newsweek (April 9, 2012, pages 43-48), Edward O. Wilson discusses the need for human beings to form and join groups. Wilson is a Harvard biologist and winner of more than 100 awards, including two Pulitzer prizes.

Some creatures, such as ants, bees, and some species of birds and fish instinctively work within their hives, flocks, and schools. It is crucial to their survival and often requires individuals to sacrifice themselves for the group welfare.

Mammals frequently live in herds and travel together from one location to another, depending on season and weather. Lions live in family prides, and wolves in packs to make hunting easier.

Primates have more complex relationships. The patterns of violence in young chimpanzees are quite similar to the behavior of young human males. They constantly vie for status in their gangs and make surprise attacks on rival troops. In Uganda’s Kibale National Park, John Mitani and his associates have recorded a ten-year old war between factions of chimps trying to gain territory and kill enemies. When a single male enemy is caught, he is bitten to death. If they encounter a single female, they will let her alone, but kill and eat an infant.

“Our bloody nature, it can now be argued in the context of modern biology, is ingrained because group-versus-group was a principal driving force that made us what we are. In prehistory, group selection lifted hominids to heights of solidarity, to genius, to enterprise. And to fear.”

There is a visceral pleasure in familiar fellowship. Many seek out membership in schools, teams, clubs, and political parties that seem to promise much to comrades who think and act in specific ways. The current political primary season provides daily episodes of us-against-them.

Yet humans have an advantage over other species: the ability to think and reason. Can we isolate the good and bad aspects of our behavior and that of the groups that solicit our membership? Do we understand not only the benefits, but the dangers of our and our organizations’ agenda?

Research shows that tribal aggressiveness may date back 6 million years when the lineage leading to modern chimpanzees and homo sapiens split. Thinking can trump the urges of fight-or-flight and approach-avoidance and lead to a thoughtful and productive life, with less stress and agitation.

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