So how will these two competing tendencies that comprise our evolved tribal psychology – one an ancient disposition to produce lots of different cultures, the other an ability to extend honorary relative status to others even in large groupings – play out in our modern, interconnected and globalised world? There is in principle no reason to rule out a “one world” culture, and in some respects, as Starbucks vividly illustrates, we are already well on the way.
Thus, it seems our tribal psychology can extend to groups of seemingly nearly any size. In large countries such as the United Kingdom, Japan, the United States, Brazil, India and China hundreds of millions and even over a billion people can all be united around a single tribal identity as British or Japanese, American, Indian or Chinese and they will have a tendency to direct their cultural nepotism towards these other members of their now highly extended tribe. If you take this behaviour for granted, just imagine 100,000 dogs or hyenas packed into a sporting arena – not a pretty sight.
But two factors looming on the horizon are likely to slow the rate at which cultural unification will happen. One is resources, the other is demography. Cooperation has worked throughout history because large collections of people have been able to use resources more effectively and provide greater prosperity and protection than smaller groups. But that could change as resources become scarce.
This must be one of the most pressing social questions we can ask because if people begin to think they have reached what we might call ‘peak standard of living’ then they will naturally become more self-interested as the returns from cooperation begin to leak away. After all, why cooperate when there are no spoils to divide?
Related to this, the dominant demographic trend of the next century will be the movement of people from poorer to richer regions of the world. Diverse people will be brought together who have little common cultural identity of the sort that historically has prompted our cultural nepotism, and this will happen at rates that exceed those at which they can be culturally integrated.
At first, I believe, these factors will cause people to pull back from whatever level of cultural ‘scaling’ they have achieved to the previous level. An example is the nations of the European Union squabbling over national versus EU rights and privileges. A more troubling example might be the rise of nationalist groups and political parties, such as Marine le Pen’s Front National in France, or similar far right groups in Britain and several European nations.
Then, if the success of modern societies up to this point is anything to go by, new and ever more heterogeneous and resource-scarce societies will increasingly depend upon clear enforcement of cultural or democratically derived rules to maintain stability, and will creak under the strain of smaller social groupings seeking to disengage further from the whole.
One early harbinger of a sense of decline in the sense of ‘social relatedness’ might be the increasing tendencies of people to avoid risk, to expect safety, to be vigilant about fairness, to require and to be granted “rights.” These might all be symptoms of a greater sense of self-interest, brought about perhaps by declines in the average amount of “togetherness” we feel. When this happens, we naturally turn inwards, effectively reverting to our earlier evolutionary instincts, to a time when we relied on kin selection or cooperation among families for our needs to be met.