Book notes: Tribe

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger book summary.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

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Synopsis: “Tribal society has been exerting an almost gravitational pull on Westerners for hundreds of years, and the reason lies deep in our evolutionary past as a communal species.

The most recent example of that attraction is combat veterans who come home to find themselves missing the incredibly intimate bonds of platoon life. The loss of closeness that comes at the end of deployment may explain the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today.

Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Tribe explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. It explains the irony that – for many veterans as well as civilians – war feels better than peace, adversity can turn out to be a blessing, and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Tribe explains why we are stronger when we come together and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.” -Audible

Opening thoughts:

I believe I must’ve put this book on my list from a podcast or someone’s recommendation. When I was picking my books this month, this one was a bit shorter than what I usually get, but it had really good reviews. From what I read in the synopsis, it has something to do with soldiers coming home from war and the idea of belonging.

Key notes:

  • In his hometown, he felt the need to have something catastrophic happened. Not for the sake of tragedy, but so they can band together as a tribe, to have solidarity
    • He wanted to be able to prove his worth to his community
  • How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?
  • Home is the place where if you have to go there, they have to take you inThe word tribe is harder to define, but a start might be people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with
  • Humans don’t mind hardship. In fact, they thrive on it
    • What they mind is not feeling necessary
  • Native American tribes had so much individual autonomy but preserving and protecting the tribe was a sacred task
    • A simple ethos that promoted loyalty and courage above all virtues
  • Western society traded freedom for a perceived security, comfort, and protection from the natural world
    • There are long-standing ideas that modern society created a surplus of leisure time. It created exactly the opposite. A desperate cycle of work, financial obligation, and more work
    • The native tribes had far fewer belongings but their lives were under much greater personal control
  • First agriculture and then industry changed two fundamental things about the human experience:
    1. The cumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives
    2. Those choices unavoidably diminished efforts toward a common good
  • In society modernized, people find themselves able to live independently from any communal group
    • A person living in a city can for the first time in history go through an entire day or entire life mostly in countering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others, and yet feel deeply and dangerously alone
  • Studies have shown that modern society despite miraculous advancements in medicine, science, and technology, is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history
    • As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tends to go up rather than down
  • Self-determination theory: which holds that human beings need three basic things in order to be content
    1. To feel competent at what they do
    2. To feel authentic in their lives
    3. To feel connected to others
  • These values are considered intrinsic to human happiness and far outweigh extrinsic values such as beauty, money, and status
  • An anthropologist published an analysis in 2007 of 154 foraging societies deemed to be representative of our ancestral past
    • One of their most common traits what is the absence of major wealth disparities between individuals
    • Another was the absence of arbitrary authority
    • Social life is politically egalitarian as there is always a low tolerance by a group’s mature males for one of their number dominating, bossing, or denigrating the others
  • The human conscience evolved as a result of the hunting large game. This required cooperative, band level sharing of meat
    • Because tribal forgers are highly mobile, it’s can easily shift between different communities
    • Authority is almost impossible to impose on the unwilling
  • In addition to murder and theft, one of the most commonly punished infractions was the failure to shareFreeloading on the hard work of others and bullying were also high up on the list. Punishments included public ridicule, shining, and finally assassination of the culprit by the entire group
  • Good actions are rewarded. When a person does something for another person, a prosocial act, they are rewarded not only by group approval but also by an increase in dopamine and other pleasurable hormones in their blood
    • Group cooperation triggers higher levels of oxytocin, which promotes everything from breastfeeding and women to higher levels of trust and group bonding in men
    • Oxytocin creates a feedback loop of good feelings and group loyalty that ultimately leads members to self-sacrifice to promote group welfare
  • Tribes that cooperated with one another and punished those who didn’t must have outfought, out hunted, and outbred everyone else
  • The small tribe can’t get away with selfish behavior because they live in small groups where almost everything is open to scrutiny
    • Modern society, however, is a sprawling and anonymous mess where people can get away with incredible levels of dishonesty without getting caught
  • Although these tribes lack the vantages of arts, science, and manufacturing, they live in a society where personal poverty was unknown and the natural rights of man were actively promoted
    • In that sense, Thomas Paine asserted that the American Indian should serve as a model for how to eradicate poverty and bring natural rights back into civilized life
  • To the extent that boys are drawn to war may be less out of an interest in violence than a longing for a kind of maturity and respect that often come with it
  • The one thing that might be said for societal collapse is that for a while at least, everyone is equal“An earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain”
  • Communities that have been devastated by natural or man-made disasters almost never lapse into chaos and disorder
    • If anything, they become more just, more egalitarian, and more deliberately fair to individuals
  • The German blitzkrieg bombing of London showed that the opposite of massive hysteria occurred
    • People actually perform better psychologically during wartime
    • When people are actively engaged in a cause, their lives have more purpose with a resulting improvement in mental health
  • The studies suggest that people will feel better psychologically if they have more involvement with their community
    • The same effect happened on the German cities that the allies bombed when the tides turned
      • The bombed cities had increased resolved just like in London
  • Social bonds were reinforced dramatically during disasters, and that people overwhelmingly devote their energies towards the good of the community rather than just themselves
  • Modern society has gravely disrupted the social bonds that have always characterized the human experience
    • Disasters thrust people back into a more ancient, organic a way of relating
  • If there are phrases that characterized the life of our early ancestors, “community of sufferers” and “brotherhood of pain” surely must come close
    • Humans are so strongly wired to help one another and enjoy such enormous social benefits from doing so that people regularly risk their lives for complete strangers
  • Hero is generally defined as risking your life to save non-kin from mortal danger
  • Women tend to act heroically within their own moral universe regardless of whether anyone else knows about it
    • Men, on the other hand, are far more likely to risk their lives on a moments notice, and that reaction is particularly strong when others are watching or when they are part of a group
  • Two types of leaders model after the male and female types:
    1. The physical and immediate action leader
    2. The moral and empathetic leader
  • In every upheaval, we rediscover humanity and regain freedoms. We relearn some old truths about the connections between happiness, unselfishness, and the simplification of living
    • What catastrophes seem to do is turn back the clock on 10,000 years of social evolution
    • Self interest gets subsumed into group interest because there’s no survival outside group survival. And that creates a social bond that people sorely miss
  • During the war, someone explained that they became like animals. That’s the basic human instinct, to help another human being who is sitting or standing or lying close to you
  • Classic short-term PTSD. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is exactly the response you want to have when your life is in danger
    • You want to be vigilant, avoid situations where you’re not in control, react to strange noises, sleep lightly and wake easily, flashbacks and nightmares that remind you of specific threats to your life, and you want to be by turns angry and depressed
      • Anger keep you ready to fight, and depression keeps you from being too active and putting yourself in more danger
    • This is a highly efficient, single event, survival learning mechanism, as one researcher called it
      • All humans react to trauma in this way. It may be unpleasant, but it is preferable to being killed
  • In addition to all the distraction and loss of life, war also inspires ancient human virtues of courage, loyalty, and selflessness that can be utterly intoxicating to the people who experience them
  • In tribal times, civilian life and warfare existed in such close proximity. They used to have peacetime chiefs and wartime chiefs with different personalities and duties
    • Nowadays, veterans will come across alienation because they were the only ones to experience the transition between both
    • In addition, defeat meant catastrophic violence might be visited upon everyone they loved
    • In that context, fighting to the death made complete sense from an evolutionary and an emotional point of view
    • Although warriors back then may have experienced trauma, it was a collective experience which made it easier to deal with
  • Seeing another person wounded or killed, even an enemy, is worse than getting wounded oneself. The worst is seeing a buddy get killed in battle
    • A vast majority of the combat veterans who suffer from PTSD did not experience combat fire. Therefore, we can conclude it is because of another reason
    • In other words, the problem doesn’t seem to be trauma on the battlefield, so much as reentry into society
  • Even peace corps volunteers say that although life in a developing country is stressful, returning to modern society can be harder
    • One study showed that one in for Peace Corps volunteers suffered from depression after returning home
  • It was the absence of competition, boundaries, and all those phony standards that created the thing that some love about the army
    • Adversity often leads to people depending more on one another, and that closest can produce a kind of nostalgia for the hard times that even civilians are susceptible to
    • What people miss presumably isn’t danger or loss, but the unity that these things often engender
  • While there are obvious stresses on a person in a group, but there may be even greater stresses on a person in isolation
    • Our fundamental desire as human beings is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that
  • PTSD is a disorder of recovery, and if treatment only focuses on identifying symptoms, it pathologizes and alienates vets
    • But if the focus is on family and community, it puts them in a situation of collective healing
    • The closer the public is to the actual combat, the better the war will be understood and the less difficult the soldiers will have when they come home
  • The earliest and most basic definition of tribe and community would be the group of people that you would both help feed and help defend
  • When you litter and throw trash on the ground, you apparently don’t see yourself as truly belonging to the world that you are walking around in
    • When you fraudulently claim money from the government, you are ultimately stealing from your friends, family, and neighbors. That diminishes you morally, far more then it diminishes your country financially
  • Rampage killings mostly happen in affluence, or upper-middle-class white communities. The rest happen in rural towns predominately white, Christian, and low crime
    • Gang shootings and killings are usually rooted in loyalty and revenge. They don’t have the nihilistic intent of rampages. And of course sometimes bystanders get killed in the process
  • If you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different. You underscore your shared humanity
    • Focus on the things that unite us, not what makes us different
  • True leadership, the kind that lives depend on, may require powerful people to put themselves last
  • Belonging to society requires sacrifice, and that sacrifice gives back way more than it costs

Closing thoughts:

Such an outstanding book. Very eye-opening, especially regarding fields that I’m not too familiar with or have learned about in depth such as PTSD and anthropology. I love how the unifying theme is that we have evolved to act as a tribe. Very insightful on how our brains are wired and how we can thrive by being a part of a community rather than an isolated society.

I used to think that capitalism was the way to go to fuel progress, advancement, and happiness through girls. I’m starting to think that doing things for the sake of improving your tribe and community is a higher calling that would make individuals than trying to obtain wealth.

In the middle of the book, there was an example of the SEC enacting a policy that required CEOs to disclose their pay ratios. This makes me think that this huge income gap is so unnecessary to advance society. But then again, the question is how do we keep people accountable for not pulling their fair share and cheating the system?

Overall, I loved this book for its very insightful principles that haven’t been fully discussed in many of the other classic books I’ve read. Perhaps it was because this book focused more on anthropology, but also had elements of social behavior and psychology, which I love learning about. I’m also very big on good themes, and this book had some great ones.

Nutshell: While modern society promotes individualistic isolationism, humans naturally evolved to support each other and thrive on connection and community.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

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