Tribe | Notes & Reflections

Sebastian Junger. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. HarperCollins, 2016. (167 pages)


I wanted the chance to prove my worth to my community and my peers, but I lived in a time and a place where nothing dangerous ever really happened. Surely this was new in the human experience, I thought. 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? (xiv)

…lots of people are generous; what made him different was the fact that he’d taken responsibility for me. He’d spotted me from town and walked half a mile out a highway to make sure I was okay. Robert Frost famously wrote that home is the (xvi) place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. The word “tribe” is far harder to define, but a start might be the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with. (xvii)

This book is about why that sentiment is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It’s about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning. It’s about why–for many people–war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. | It’s time for that to end. (xvii)


It may say something about human nature that a surprising number of Americans–mostly men–wound up joining Indian society rather than staying in their own. They emulated Indians, married them, were adopted by them, and on some occasions even fought alongside them. And the opposite almost never happened: Indians almost never ran away to join white society. (2)

The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing–it seems obvious (15) on the face of it–but why Western society is so unappealing. … But as societies become more affluent they tend to require more, rather than less, time and commitment by the individual, and it’s possible that many people feel that affluence and safety simply aren’t a good trade for freedom. (16)

The members move out each day to hunt and gather, and return in the evening to pool the collected foods in such a way that every person present receives an equitable share…Because of the strong emphasis on sharing, and the frequency of movement, surplus accumulation…is kept to a minimum. – Richard Lee, 1968 on the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert

[via: this reminded me of the Israelites gathering and storing manna in the desert.]

The relatively relaxed pace of !Kung life–even during times of adversity–challenged 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 !Kung had far fewer belongings than Westerners, but their lies were under much greater personal control. (17)

Genetic adaptations take around 25,000 years to appear in humans, so the enormous changes that came with agriculture in the last 10,000 years have hardly begun to affect our gene pool. (17)

[via: I wish there was a more direct citation of this, though I’m sure it’s somewhere in the Source Notes at the end.]

First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about the human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day–or an entire life–mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone. (18)

Although happiness is notoriously subjective and difficult to measure, mental illness is not. Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern (18) society–despite its nearly miraculous advances 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 tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it. (19)

According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities–like the United States–run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders. (20)

The mechanism seems simple: poor people are (20) forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people and, as a result they live in closer communities. Inter-reliant poverty comes with its own stresses–and certainly isn’t the American ideal–but it’s much closer to our evolutionary heritage than affluence. (21)

self-determination theory, which holds that human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. (22)

Bluntly put, modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values of intrinsic ones, and as a result, mental health issues refuse to decline with growing wealth. (22)

The economic and marketing forces of modern society have engineered an environment…that maximizes[s] consumption at the long-term cost of well-being. In effect, humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences. – Brandon H. Hidaka, Depression as a disease of modernity: explanations for increasing prevalence

In America during the 1970s, mothers maintained skin-to-skin contact with babies as little as 16 percent of the time, which is a level that traditional societies would probably consider a form of child abuse. 924)

Northern European societies, including America, are the only ones in history to make very young children sleep alone in such numbers. The isolation is thought to make many children bond intensely with stuffed animals for reassurance. Only in Northern European societies do children go through the well-known developmental stage of bonding with stuffed animals; elsewhere, children get their sense of safety from the adults sleeping near them. (24)

Infants and children simply fall asleep when sleepy, do not wear specific sleep clothes or use traditional transitional objects, room share and cosleep with parents or siblings, and nurse on demand during the night. – Judith A. Owens, Socio-Cultural Considerations and Sleep Practices in the Pediatric Population

Babies are encouraged to acquire quickly the capacity to sleep under any circumstances, including situations of high stimulation, musical performances, and other noisy observances which reflect their more complete integration into adult social activities. – Helen Driver, Sleep and Disorders of Sleep in Women

As modern society reduced the role of community, it simultaneously elevated the role of authority. (25)

All told, combined public- and private-sector fraud costs every household in the United States probably around $5,000 a year–or roughly the equivalent of working four months at a minimum-wage job. A hunter-gatherer community that lost four months’ worth of food would face a serious threat to its survival, and its retribution against the people who caused that hardship would be immediate and probably very violent. (29)

The fact that a group of people can cost American society several trillion dollars in losses–roughly one-quarter of (30) that year’s gross domestic product–and not be tried for high crimes shows how completely de-tribalized the country has become. (31)


In many tribal societies, young men had to prove themselves by undergoing initiation rites that demonstrated their readiness for adulthood. (37)

These deaths can be thought of as one generation after another trying to run their own initiation rites because they live in a society that no longer does that for them. To the extent that boys are drawn to war, it may be less out of an interest in violence than a longing for the kind of maturity and respect that often comes with it. (38)

The one thing that might be said for societal collapse is that–for a while at least–everyone is equal. (43)

An earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain. The equality of all men.

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 kinds of community-oriented behaviors that typically occur after a natural disaster are exactly the virtues that [Thomas] Paine was hoping to promote in his revolutionary tracts. (44)

When people are actively engaged in a cause their lives have more purpose…with a resulting improvement in mental health. It would be irresponsible to suggest violence as a means of improving mental health, but the Belfast findings suggest that people will feel better psychologically if they have more involvement with their community. – H. A. Lyons, Civil violence–The psychological aspects


[Charles Fritz] formulated a broad theory about social resilience. He was unable to find a single instance where communities that had been hit by catastrophic events lapsed into sustained panic, much less anything approaching anarchy. If anything, he found that social bonds were reinforced during disasters, and that people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community rather than just themselves. (Disasters and Mental Health: Therapeutic Principles Drawn From Disaster Studies) (52)

“The Brotherhood of Pain” by Oliver-Smith

If there are phrases that characterize the life of our early ancestors, “community of sufferers” and “brotherhood of pain” surely must come close. (55)

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. (55)

Sexual division of risk-taking would seem to suit the human race particularly well. We evolved, and continue to exist, in a physical world that assaults us with threats, but we also depend on a strong sense of morality and social justice to keep our communities intact. And intact communities are far more likely to survive than fragmented ones. (58)

The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good. … What would you risk dying for–and for whom– is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss. (59)

To some degree the sexes are interchangeable–meaning they can easily be substituted for one another–but gender roles aren’t. Both are necessary for the healthy functioning of society, and those roles will always be filled regardless of whether both sexes are available to do it. (65)

In every upheaval we rediscover humanity and regain freedoms. We relearn some old truths about the connection between happiness, unselfishness, and the simplification of living.

What catastrophes seem to do–sometimes in the span of a few minutes–is turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss. (66)


Anger keeps you ready to fight, and depression keeps you from being too active and putting yourself in more danger. (74)

If war were purely and absolutely bad in every single aspect and toxic in all its effects, it would probably not happen as often as it does. But in addition to all the destruction 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. (77)

Treating combat veterans is different from treating rape victims, because rape victims don’t have this idea that some aspects of their experience are worth retaining. – Dr. Rachel Yehuda

Multiple studies, including a 2007 analysis from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, found that a person’s chance of getting chronic PTSD is in great part a function of their experiences before going to war. Statistically, the 20 percent of people who fail to overcome trauma tend to be those who are already burdened by psychological issues, either because they inherited them or because they suffered abuse as children. (82)

…voluntary service has resulted in a military population that has a disproportionate number of young people with a history of sexual abuse. (84)

…decade after decade and war after war, American combat deaths have generally dropped while disability claims have risen. (87)

Studies from around the world sho that recovery from war–form any trauma–is heavily influenced by the society one belongs to, and there are societies that make that process relatively easy. Modern society does not seem to be one of them. (90)

Any discussion of veterans and their common experience of alienation must address the fact that so many soldiers find themselves missing the war after it’s over. (91)

Adversity often leads people to depend more on one another. (92)

What people miss presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender. There (92) are obvious stresses on a person in a group, but there may be even greater stresses on a person in isolation, so during disasters there is a net gain in well-being. Most primates, including humans, are intensely social, and there are very few instances of lone primates surviving in the wild. A modern soldier returning from combat–or a survivor of Sarajevo–goes from the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for, back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good. Even if he or she is part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences almost everything collectively. Whatever the technological advances of society–and they’re nearly miraculous–the individualized lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit. (93)

You’ll have to be prepared to say that we are not a good society–that we are an antihuman society. … We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that. – Sharon Abramowitz

In humans, lack of social support has been found to be twice as reliable at predicting PTSD as the severity of the trauma itself. In other words, you could be mildly traumatized–on a par with, say, an ordinary rear-base deployment to Afghanistan–and experience long-term PTSD simply because of a lack of social support back home. (95)

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 – Brandon Kohrt

The Israelis are benefiting from what the author an ethicist Austin Dacey descries as a “shared public meaning” of the war. Shared public meaning gives soldiers a context for their losses and their sacrifice that is acknowledged by most of the society. That helps keep at bay the sense of futility and rage that can develop among soldiers during a war that doesn’t seem to end. (97)

Because modern society has almost completely eliminated trauma and violence from everyday life, anyone who does suffer those things is deemed to be extraordinarily unfortunate. THis gives people access to sympathy and resources but also creates an identity of victimhood that can delay recovery. (98)

Anthropologists like Kohrt, Hoffman, and Abramowitz have identified three factors that seem to crucially affect a combatant’s transition back into civilian life. The United States seems to rank low on all three. First, cohesive and egalitarian tribal societies do a very good job mitigating the effects of trauma, but by their very nature, many modern societies are exactly the opposite: hierarchical and alienating. America’s great wealth, although a blessing in many ways, has allowed for the growth of an individualistic society that suffers high rates of depression and anxiety. Both are correlated with chronic PTSD.

| Secondly, ex-combatants shouldn’t be seen–or be encouraged to see themselves–as victims. One can be deeply traumatized, as firemen are by the deaths of both colleagues and civilians, without being viewed through the lens of victimhood. Lifelong disability payments for a disorder like PTSD, which is both treatable and usually not chronic, risks turning veterans into a victim class that is entirely dependent on the government for their livelihood. The United States is a wealthy country that may be able to afford this, but in human terms, the veterans can’t. The one way that soldiers are never allowed to see themselves during deployment is as victims, because (101) the passivity of victimhood can get them killed. It’s yelled, beaten, and drilled out of them long before they get close to the battlefield. But when they come home they find themselves being viewed so sympathetically that they’re often excused from having to fully function in society. Some of them truly can’t function, and those people should be taken care of immediately; but imagine how confusing it must be to the rest of them.

| Perhaps most important, veterans need to feel that they’re just as necessary and productive back in society as they were on the battlefield. (2012)

Recent studies of something called “social resilience” have identified resource sharing and egalitarian wealth distribution as major components of a society’s ability to recover from hardship. And societies that rank high on social resilience–such as kibbutz settlements in Israel–provide soldiers with a significantly stronger buffer (102) against PTSD than low-resilience societies. In fact, social resilience is an even better predictor of trauma recovery than the level of resilience of the person himself.

| Unfortunately, for the past decade American soldiers have returned to a country that displays many indicators of low social resilience. Resources are not shared equally, a quarter of children live in poverty, jogs are hard to get, and minimum wage is almost impossible to live on. Instead of being able to work and contribute to society–a highly therapeutic thing to do–a large percentage of veterans are just offered lifelong disability payments. And they accept, of course–why shouldn’t they? A society that doesn’t distinguish between degrees of trauma can’t expect its warriors to, either. (103)


…how very close the energy of male conflict and male closeness can be. It’s almost as if they are two facets of the same quality; just change a few details and instead o heading toward collision, the men head toward unity. There seemed to be a great human potential out there, organized around the idea of belonging, and the trick was to convince (107) people that their interests had more in common than they had in conflict. (108)

There’s no use arguing that modern society isn’t a kind of paradise. The vast majority of us don’t, personally, have to grow or kill our own food, build our own dwellings, or defend ourselves from wild animals and enemies. In one day we can travel a thousand miles by pushing our foot down on a gas pedal or around the world by booking a seat on an airplane. When we are in pain we have narcotics that dull it out of existence, and when we are depressed we have pills that change the chemistry of our brains. We understand an enormous amount about the universe, from subatomic particles to our own bodies to (108) galaxy clusters, and we use that knowledge to make life even better and easier for ourselves. The poorest people in modern society enjoy a level of physical comfort that was unimaginable a thousand years ago, and the wealthiest people literally live the way gods were imagined to have.

| And yet.

| There are many costs to modern society, starting with its toll on the global ecosystem and working one’s way down to its toll on the human psyche, but the most dangerous loss may be to community. If the human race is under threat in some way that we don’t yet understand, it will probably be at a community level that we either solve the problem or fail to. If the future of the planet depends on, say, rationing water, communities of neighbors will be able to enforce new rules far more effectively than even local government. It’s how we evolved to exist, and it obviously works. (109)

Two fo the behaviors that set early humans apart were the systematic sharing of food and altruistic group defense. … The earliest and most basic (109) definition of community–of tribe–would be the group of people that you would both help feed and help defend. A society that doesn’t offer its members the chance to act selflessly in these ways isn’t a society in any tribal sense of the word; it’s just a political entity that, lacking enemies, will probably fall apart on its own. (110)

It makes absolutely no sense to make sacrifices for a group that, itself, isn’t willing to make sacrifices for you. That is the position American soldiers have been in for the past half decade and a half. (110)

The public is often accused of being disconnected from its military, but frankly it’s disconnected from just about everything. Farming, mineral extraction, gas and oil production, bulk cargo transport, logging, fishing, infrastructure construction–all the industries that keep the nation going are mostly unacknowledged by the people who depend on them most. (111)

This fundamental lack of connectedness allows people to act in trivial but incredibly selfish ways. (112)

Almost by definition, rampage killers are deeply disturbed sociopaths, but that just begs the question why sociopaths in high-crime urban neighborhoods don’t turn their guns on other people the way they do in more affluent communities. (115)

It may be worth considering whether middle-class American life–for all its material good fortune–has lost some essential sense of unity that might otherwise discourage alienated men from turning apocalyptically violent. (116)

In all cultures, ceremonies are designed to communicate the experience of one group of people to the wider community. When people bury loved ones, when they wed, when they graduate from college, the respective ceremonies communicate something essential to the people who are watching. (121)

If contemporary America doesn’t develop ways to publicly confront the emotional consequences of war, those consequences will continue to burn a hole through the vets themselves. (122)

Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it. It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary. (124)

To make matters worse, politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country–a charge so destructive to group unity that most past societies would probably have just punished it as a form of treason. It’s complete madness, and the veterans know this. In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon. It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home. (125)

People speak with incredible contempt about–depending upon their views–the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president, or the entire US government. It’s a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in war-time, except that now it’s applied to our fellow citizens. Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic (125) because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker. Contempt is often directed at people who have been excluded from a group or declared unworthy of its benefits. Contempt is often used by governments to provide rhetorical cover for torture or abuse. Contempt  is one of four behaviors that, statistically, can predict divorce in married couples. People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long. (126)

So, how do you unify a secure, wealthy country that has sunk into a zero-sum political game with itself? How do you make veterans feel that they are returning to a cohesive society that was worth fighting for in the first place? (127)

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. I’m appalled by how much people focus on differences. Why are you focusing on how different you are from one another, and not on the things that unite us? – Rachel Yehuda

The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the (127) United States herself, which means that the ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone. That way, America’s ugliest partisan tendencies could emerge unimpeded by the unifying effects of war. The ultimate betrayal of tribe isn’t acting competitively–that should be encouraged–but predicating your power on the excommunication of others from the group. (128)

Berghdahl put a huge  number of people at risk and may have caused the deaths of up to six soldiers. But in purely objective terms, he caused his country far less harm than the financial collapse of 2008, when bankers gambled trillions of dollars of taxpayer money on blatantly fraudulent mortgages. (129)


It’s hard to describe my enthusiasm for this book. It is one of those reads that distills the complexities of a variety of human maladies into a clearly articulated truth which both convicts and inspires. “Tribe” is in many ways a prophetic voice, piercing through the rhetoric of popular and political explanations for our maladies, and gets to the heart of the matter, that we need each other, desperately, that we we need to belong with a community, and that we need to foster our global tribe with bonds of connected humanity. It is a powerful reminder of our collective responsibility, and the capacity we all have to truly make a difference in this world. It is also a clarion call to our prerogative as a species, to be reminded of our social history, so that we can ensure a healthy social future.

I do wonder about Junger’s suggestion that disasters accomplish what civilization couldn’t. There are several nuances that are implied here. First, is this really true? At the face of it, this is an indictment on the human systems that we have created, and it could be reasonably argued that we are more disconnected now than ever. Yet, our human systems are really new, relative to the evolution of our species. It could be argued that there are vastly beneficial evolutionary trade-offs for our sociability, such as more people to be connected to as a result of modern developments (population booming in conjunction with our technological advancements). In addition, significant swaths of our population continue to reframe our systems for connection. In other words, are there not technological solutions to overcome the technological fragmentations?

Second, there is very little mention of the role of religion and cultural myths as ways humans have evolved to hold onto tribal identities even within Westernized civilizations. There’s much to be considered around this topic, as has been written about by Harari and others, and I would have appreciated Junger’s take on this.

Third, regarding theology, this way of understanding tragedy really transforms what we may think about what is “good” and “just.” If it is true that disasters make people equal, and Western societies make people hierarchical, then which one is closer to the mind of God, the biblical vision of humanity, and the Christian ethic? This turn caused me to rethink how we may explain and approach theodicy.

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  1. Pingback: Disunity in Christ | vialogue

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