Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Auburn and Alabama fans are driven by tribal instinct

If you think we’ve come a long way from our primitive ancestors, look around at your neighbors this weekend, and you’ll likely see we haven’t evolved all that much.

In fact, you may only have to look in a mirror.

A significant proportion of Alabamians will be decked out in tribal colors — either orange and blue for Auburn University, or crimson and white for The University of Alabama. But the odd thing is that most people wearing those colors in anticipation of the annual Auburn/Alabama football game didn’t attend either university.

It doesn’t end there. Some members of each tribe turn entire rooms of their homes into shrines filled with football memorabilia. They dress the family dogs in team sweaters. They walk down the wedding aisle to the tune of their school’s fight song. They name their children after dead coaches.

Making fun of such excess is easy. Actually, I encourage it. But that extreme behavior is, in a way, only natural. In fact, it has roots in 200,000 years of human pre-history.

Our earliest human ancestors lived in the African savanna and survived by hunting and gathering. The rule of the day was eat or be eaten. In such an unforgiving environment, cooperation within a tribe was a necessity.

Every living being, humans included, is a complex machine with one biological purpose — to spread its genetic material. “Be fruitful and multiply” isn’t just a Biblical commandment. It is encoded in our DNA.

Members of hunter-gatherer societies best fulfilled their genetic imperative by cooperating with the people they saw every day, mostly close relations. That’s how tribal bonds formed, and it’s why, even today, people have an enormous capacity for social cooperation. Evolutionary biologists call it “reciprocal altruism,” but everyone else calls it “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” (In fact, our chimpanzee cousins practice this literally when they groom each other.) Our brains are wired for it because it’s a powerful survival mechanism, and thus favored by natural selection.

But there is a downside to our mental wiring. While it encourages cooperation within a tribe, it often leads to conflict with other tribes, especially if those other tribes are competing for the same resources. We are “us,” and they are “them.”

Down through the centuries, that tribal instinct had led to racism, ethnic hatred, religious conflict and, on a larger scale, wars between nations fighting to control land, resources and wealth.

Fortunately, human societies evolve far more quickly than human biology does. So, we’ve come up with ways to close the distance between us and them. The most successful is trade. Frederic Bastiat, a 19th century French economist, said, “When goods don’t cross borders, armies will.” Today, large-scale trade between nations is the norm, not the exception. The more trade there is between any two given countries, the less likely those countries will end up at war with one another. As a result, the number of wars going on at any particular time has dropped steadily since the end of the Cold War.

Within nations, individuals are also interconnected by trade. We all do business with each other, and most of our old tribal divisions have broken down or substantially weakened. But we still have that tribal instinct, which now expresses itself, usually, in more peaceful ways — like identifying with collegiate and professional sports teams. We have rituals, like tailgating, that we share with fellow tribesmen, and we compete with other tribes by participating in office betting pools.

We’re driven to join tribes, which is why people who never attended Auburn or Alabama still choose sides. And all tribes seek to grow, which is why natives often pressure newcomers from out of state to pick a team.

You can join a tribe even if you don’t care about sports. For better or worse, tribes form around everything from TV shows (Trekkies) to rock bands (Deadheads) to political candidates (Obamaniacs).

So, when you’re putting on your war paint for the big game Saturday, remember that you’re part of a tradition that dates to the Stone Age. And if your team loses, just tell yourself that football is still better than hunting zebras.

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