It is late February of 2012. I'm sitting in the 'dinette' of my aged Holiday Rambler where it is docked at Thelma's in Thousand Oaks, California. It is, incongruously, a summer day. We have had little winter to speak of here in Cali this year. I've just come from an appointment with my dermatologist who tells me the pit in the lee of my nose where once a skin-cancer hunkered, is healing well, and some day-work has begun to trickle in. I'd rather that a steady rain was falling through the pine tree, or that a buffeting wind was filling my ears rather than the competing songs of a mower, a blower and a whacker from various neighboring yards, but - on balance - I can't complain too much. And I have a few hours to kill.
If you've read any of my writing thus far, you may have picked up what all my friends know well. That is that I am kind of a tribal guy. I don't mean that I have wrapped my arms with jagged Maori tattoos or stretched my earlobes with rings made of sectioned bamboo. It doesn't mean that I have grown long braids or changed my name to 'Runs-With-Scissors' in some delusional pursuit of first-nation cred. I'm not spending my nights on the ridge pounding a djembe or training with a Shaman in the wilds of Topanga. No, I look just like any other well-worn So-Cal dude with a gray-threaded beard and a guitar problem. I don't go around in tribal drag ... but I live not far in spirit from my ancestors.
I don't mean those bony Scots and feisty Paddies who rode steerage to New York in the last century or two. I mean the dirty little bands of hunters and gatherers who wandered out of the savannas and spread upward and outward into Asia and Southern Europe and eventually a whole round world. Those were my peeps, and I do believe, yours too. And I take very seriously the fact that who we are has everything to do with how they lived for a thousand times a thousand years. What evolution etched into them is set too deep to have been erased in the relative eye-blink since we became 'Modern'.
If you know anybody who is firmly rooted in a religious tradition; a born-again Christian, say, or an Orthodox Jew, then you have seen them know the world through that lens. I'm like that. But rather than peering through glasses tinted by a few thousand years' worth of god-based theology and tradition, I look through my best reckoning of how intelligent primates have lived since they first left the fruited forests and began to compete on the big stage. My prophets are not Abraham and Moses and Jesus, but Darwin and Leaky and Gould and Diamond. And if, as I believe, the religious prophets hoped to forge a path out of the animal world, my scientific ones have led me right into the heart of it.
By this I don't mean that I have gone native. At least not in the sense of a Gauguin-like return to a primitive state. But I have, in the twenty-plus years since I had my evolutionary-epiphany, come to see all that we do - we well-scrubbed modern sophisticates - as rugged old tribal behaviors all gussied up for the dance.
Everything we do, and all that interests us and fires our passions; all of it is driven deep-down by primate group-behavior. Sometimes it's right there on the surface ... a jealous guy decking a rival and striding off with his woman stumbling along in tow. And other times the animal us is so draped and festooned with layer upon layer of myth and subterfuge and etiquette and law, that we almost look like the trimmed and steady exemplars of rationality that we desperately pretend to be. That is unless you're looking through my glasses, in which case the staunchest professional looks as out-of-depth as a kid playing dress-up in her mommy's closet. And when I am in a good mood, the vision is every bit as fond.
Which is not to say that none of us are competent. Most of us perform pretty well, within a given range and for limited spans of time. Some, it seems, are steady and unflappable as a glacier. They are blessed with even dispositions and stoic minds. But they are the rare ones. Unfortunately, due to the admiration they inspire, modern society is modeled after them. And that drives the rest of us crazy.
I'm thinking right now of the movie Gorillas in the Mist. In my mind's eye, I see Sigourney Weaver's earnest scientist watching the old Silverback, upslope, bathed in vegetation, wise and charismatic in repose, without ego or self-doubt. He might be a dumb animal, but we look up to him in a strange way. He's a born leader. And most of us are not.
One of my early gurus was Desmond Morris. I recently gave my son a copy of Morris' classic, The Naked Ape, and felt that I was giving him more condensed knowledge of what it means to be human than he will learn in all his college years. If you haven't read it, it's a look at the human species from the dispassionate angle of a zoologist observing, much like Sigourney in her mist, simply watching the behaviors, and without judgement or shame - telling what these critters are up to. Any scientific text is subject to revisions as more is revealed, and Naked Ape is dated a bit now, but what I learned there and with my own opened eyes since, has served me well.
Now I'm no scholar, but I've soaked up some philosophy in my time. And some psychology too. I was raised by smart people, educated by religious professionals, and exposed to everything the seventies and eighties had to offer. I'm no scholar, but I've been around the self-realization block a time or two. And I will tell you this: any system of understanding that does not mesh comfortably with what I know of our evolutionary legacy, is of no value to me beyond the recreational.
Does that mean that anything written before The Origin of Species is useless? Not a bit. In fact, I think the Old Testament - the Hebrew Bible, is just about as tribal as it gets. All of that stuff - the fearsome vengeful God, the crazy kings, the lies and betrayal and violence. That's great stuff. That's the truth about humans. A system that starts there and attempts to build a moral code that might suppress the worst impulses of these creatures and move them toward something a bit more - umm - civilized? I am totally down with that.
It's all the less earth-bound stuff I have problems with. All the Western mythology about us being biological sheaths into which animating spirits are temporarily injected? And all the Eastern stuff about slogging through the human experience again and again with the ultimate goal of transcending it entirely? Because we are really creatures of pure spirit, bound eventually either to unite in bliss with our creator or ride the vibration-wave back to our own godhead? As much as I would love to believe all of that, I must confess that I really don't.
Not that I am not pro-love. I loves me some LOVE. And not that I am not a big fan of all the sort-of berobed emotions: kindness, compassion, humility etc. All wonderful. The breakdown for me - and I'll write more seriously about this later - is how poorly those 'spiritual' notions perform as guides for societies. I mean, look at India, for Christ's sake. That's the place your Berkeley grads go to get 'enlightened'? I know some Indians, and you would be very hard-pressed to find a more intelligent, hard-working people. Given that fact, why - after thousands of years of culture - is that place so elaborately f-ed up? What ... a billion bright, creative people couldn't have seen to it that the streets were not lined with deformed beggars? Of course they could have. But a society rooted in an assumption that this life is not 'real' is poorly incentivized to fix its ills. It's getting better over there at exactly the rate at which its people accept that the world they see around them is the one in which effort must be invested.
It's the same with all the 'transcendent' religions. Any religious doctrine that sets itself toward convincing the ignorant that the body they wake up in every morning is somehow NOT REAL, and that a mysterious spirit world that can be seen or sensed only through ritualistic hallucinations is the ACTUAL WORLD ... will produce a society of frightened dirt-poor illiterates kowtowing to manipulative little con-men.
Islam? How's that working out? Christianity? Ever hear about the dark ages? That all came after Socrates and Plato and Democritus and Epicurus. After. Jesus told his fans, in essence, that their lives were nothing much more than an hour in the lobby; that the real party was goin' on upstairs in the penthouse. And a thousand years of ignorance ensued. It wasn't till science and logic re-emerged in the Renaissance, tempering faith with real-world knowledge, that we got our wheels under us.
Let me stand still a minute, and assure you that I have no bone to pick with the spiritually-minded. I don't know if there is a 'soul' that outlives the body or not. Maybe there is. But IF there is, and we are - for whatever godly reason - having a transitory 'physical experience', then I think it reasonable to assume that whatever work we are here to do should be done within the rules and limits of that physical reality. I'll put it thusly: If there is a God in the traditional sense, then he has gone through an awful lot of trouble to create a spacious universe and a nice cozy planet where we can breathe the air. I think it would show a lot more respect if we were to stop concentrating on the reality he has gone to great pains to hide; and focus our attention on the one he apparently wants us to function within right now - in this current life. Does that sound logical? It does to me.
If that makes sense to you, then I hope you'll go as far as embracing the manifest particulars of this human state in which we find ourselves. I know that some still are uncomfortable with the idea that we are descended from other species, so let's just set that aside. Maybe we were created as humans. If so, there is rich evidence that full humans similar to us (our species, Homo Sapiens) have been on earth for upwards of a hundred thousand years. That's a long time. Jesus lived 2,000 years ago. Humans had been around for fifty or a hundred times that long already. So that was time enough to develop some pretty entrenched characteristics, eh?
Some of these are clearly physical. We all know we must eat and drink every few hours. We know that without sleep we stop functioning. We are born helpless, and before dying we are that again. We all recognize these truths about our biological selves. And as we build our societies, accommodations for these truths are made.
But we also have a whole range of emotional characteristics. We have insecurities, sexual desires and jealousies, status needs ... a bunch of weirdnesses that are as common to human beings as the need for food and rest.
I am a lousy capitalist. And a lousy consumer. But I am honest enough with myself to recognize that a system predicated on the idea that needs can be met and that those need-meeting goods and services can be traded back and forth using currency to store value, is a goddamn good plan. Everywhere in the world where this plan is implemented, the poor are becoming less poor. A market-driven capitalist society needs constant tweaking, granted, but it's the best thing we've come up with so far.
Still, I think it is obvious that our society has begun to develop stress cracks. We have high rates of depression, divorce, alcoholism, chronic illness and just general discontent. We're not happy campers, many of us. Too many. I am interested in why this is. And after a lot of years watching and thinking, I have some ideas to add to the pot.
My central idea is what I call The Three-Tribe Theory.
The three-tribe theory is all about one specific human requirement, that - in our rush toward this industrialized consumer society - we forgot about. It has to do with the human need for community of a pretty specific size and function. I think that much of the dysfunction that blooms up in our modern lives - much that now is identified as abnormal - was historically worked out within the day-to-day dynamics of human survival groups. Nowadays we call them pathologies and illnesses and, in our capitalistic way, we have whole industries to deal with them. But those industries are failing. And I think I know why.
Generally speaking, people belong to a number of different groups. Sitting here typing I can be said to belong to around ten. 1. My immediate family. 2. My extended family. 3. My friends. 4. My band. 5. My musical community. 6. My neighborhood. 7. Thousand Oaks. 8. California. 9. The United States of America. 10. Humanity. If you make a similar list, you might have slightly more or slightly fewer, and they will have different names, but you will see that you do belong to a number of groups.
I've come to believe that most of these groups that I belong to, do little or nothing to make me a better person. Most don't make me happier, inspire me, or build my character. That's just fine as long as there is at least one that does do these things. But is there? Because if there isn't, I'm in trouble long-term.
In my next piece, I will explain my Three-Tribe Theory. I'll tell you why I think that our group affiliations ought to break down to three essential groups - three tribes, if you will. And I will then build a case as to why one of them, the Second Tribe, is especially crucial to a healthy human society. I'll tell you that we have largely lost it, and give my take as to how and why that happened. And then in my third piece, I'll make suggestions as to how one might find or even establish a group that will serve the Second Tribe's functions. Read these as I write them, and feel free to comment.
Dave Morrison ... February 24, 2012