Transcending the Tribal Mind
Silvia Helena Cardoso, PhD

During its long evolution, the human brain has acquired three components which have developed in successive interconnected layers, in a manner similar to an archeological site:  the inner, or inferior brain is the most primitive one, corresponding to a reptilian's brain. There, structures such as the brainstem, are responsible for the control of involuntary functions such as respiration, circulation, the intestines, etc.; which are fundamental for the preservation of life.  The intermediary portion corresponds to the brain of older mammals and it is formed by structures which control our emotions, the limbic system. Finally, its the outermost, or higher, part of our brain, is formed mainly by a phylogenetically newer cortex (the neocortex) and some other subcortical structures. This is the dominant part of the brain of higher mammals, including all primates, and consequently, man, where it constitutes the "rational" brain, responsible for voluntary actions, perception, conscience, learning and language.

Our mind is the result of the concerted and integrated action of all these parts. It is in the primitive portion of the brain that the most basic behaviors and actions for the survival of the individual and the preservation of the species are generated (the mechanisms of aggression, defense, sex, social hierarchy, territoriality, etc.). Despite the striking dominance of the neocortex, even today civilized men and women are driven by the functions of the primitive brain: all menfolk, for thousands of years, have had ritualistic behaviors, predatory killing, territorial behavior, etc. We also have a strong tendency to tribalism, i.e., the hostility toward people which do not belong to our immediate social groups (family, village, race, etc.). On the top of this biological groundwork, all human cultures, in its striking diversity, have developed. However, they have many things in common, including the "tribal mind". Some authors, such as Edward Wilson, of "Sociobiology" fame (1), have proposed that tribalism was fundamental in the past for the accelerated evolution of the human brain, by promoting strong instraspecies competition and genocide among warring tribes. Culture, however, is the result of interaction of genes with the environment, including social learning, and it is capable of evolution, too. Neither genes nor environment alone are responsible for our behavior: both are important, in variable amounts, depending on the kind of behavior.

Therefore, concepts which denote "my group" as the center of so many things, such as "my" religion, "my" race, "my" country, etc. has been the main cause of many of the conflicts in modern society. A long time ago, such things were useful, because man was surrounded by wild animals and needed to hunt, so group identification and cohesion was important for survival. As civilization evolved, the tribal mind had to be vanquished. Mankind has truly made a great effort toward this end; and significant progress has been achieved across history. Ten thousand years ago, we abandoned hunting/gathering and the nomadic life in favour of sedentarism and cultivation (the agricultural revolution). Cities flourished everywhere, and writing, mathematics and commerce were invented. In the 19th century, the industrial revolution achieved even greater gains and progress, by substituting human and animal power by machines: the steam and explosion engines, trains, boats, automobiles, airplanes, power tools, etc. Today, we are amidst a third and new era: the information revolution. Human progress has demanded maximum access to information, because its speed of accumulation has been increasing at a vertiginous rate in practically all human activities. Technology, by transmitting, storing and transforming information, has created new ways to make people nearer to each other. Telegraphy, telephony, radio and television have been the predecessors of this shortening of space and time. Computer networks, however, have permitted instant and bidirectional communication and interaction among individuals by means of all sorts of media. Wherever a connection to Internet is found, contact and dialogue between human beings are facilitated.

Thus, we have evolved from restricted, narrow tribes of people into a true global village. Information technology reduces the whole planet to a space similar to that of a village, i.e., allowing direct and instant communication; and this is really a great change in human communication processes. This pathway began million of years ago, first with learning by imitation, then communication by gestures and voice (the powerful step of language acquisition) and finally with the invention of writing. There is no doubt that this global village is leading to a dramatic rupture of cultural barriers, allowing the fusion and intertwinning of dialogue, knowledge and, many times, an improvement in mutual understanding. It will perhaps be one of the bridges to finally vanquish the dictatorship of our primitive brains.

We must rid ourselves from tribalism. But how?

It is said that in the last 100,000 years our brain has remained practically the same, biologically speaking. No evolution by means of natural selection has taken place: cultural evolution has been the dominant force. Therefore, our only hope to improve our brains in any significant way will be through the fourth and next revolution: that of biotechnology. How this could be done remains open to discussion, because there are many ethical, political and moral problems to be solved. However, it seems to us that such a course will be inevitable. The neurosciences will play a leading role in the implementation of this "artificial evolution" of the human brain!

Silvia Helena Cardoso PhD. Psychobiologist. Master and doctor in Sciences.
Editor-in-chief and founder of Brain & Mind. State University of Campinas, Brazil.


Since October 18th, 2001