Saturday, April 21, 2018


367. From tribes to systems and back again

One form of collaboration is based on mutual dependence, with a shared fate, in long-lasting, highly personalized relationships, with a shared ethic of mutual support and altruism. It can only exist on a small scale.

This functioned in nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers during much of human evolution, until the settlement in sedentary, growing agricultural communities, some 10,000 years ago.

Such tribes are vulnerable in three ways. One is the risk of infiltration of egotistic opportunists who prey on indigenous altruism, getting the upper hand in evolutionary competition. As a remedy for this, humanity developed ‘parochial altruism’, as discussed earlier in this blog, with altruism within the group and mistrust and discrimination with regard to outsiders coming in.

A second risk is lack of internal variety, of genes, which yields inbreeding, and of skills and cognition needed to yield division of labour and to breed innovation. However, there is evidence that tribes managed to exchange ideas and occasionally people (brides) with other, different tribes, in trade relations, carefully conducted, at arms length.

A third risk is inside domination of the population by a dictator or a small ruling elite that exploits a population that has no opportunity for escape. However, that happens also in larger groups. But, apparently, often in small communities there was a highly democratic political system, with rotation of leadership between members of the community.

Conditions changed in the emergence of large agricultural communities. Relations became less direct and more impersonal, in the emergence of legal systems and hierarchies, with a divergence between those levels, and between socio-economic groups, and the emergence of classes, which brought inter-group rivalry into society.

However, it also brought scale advantages of specialization and shared resources, more internal diversity, and more mobility between inside groups than had been the case between outside groups.

The personalized tribal order eroded. I quote from Stoelhorst & Richerson (2013)[i]: ‘Modern organizations are cultural work-arounds that build on tribal instincts that originally evolved to sustain cooperation on a much smaller scale’.

Perhaps present populism can, in part, be seen as a revolt from such tribal instincts, against depersonalized, elite-governed, centralized bureaucratic societies that yield what before, in this blog, I called ‘system tragedy’.

The challenge is to find a middle between the two: between small, closed, inward turned tribes, and large, anonymized systems.

One solution is what in network theory is called ‘small worlds’. There, small scale communities with strong internal ties, in combination with weak ties with other such communities. This allows for tribal-like coherence as well as variety from exchange ad contacts. As I indicated above, there is evidence that ancient tribes engaged in such structures.

For advantages of collaboration between groups that are diverse in competence they need not integrate into larger wholes. In fact, staying apart, in more or less durable alliances, is more productive, more flexible, and better at reserving and feeding diversity. It also gives more opportunity for smaller scale communities that fit better with our tribal genes.

However, wave after wave of mergers and acquisitions between firms have overruled that potential, with the urge to profit from economies and politics of scale to meet challenges and opportunities from wider markets, in globalization. Economies of scale are a familiar phenomenon. By politics of scale I mean the opportunities for global firms to press governments for advantages, under the threat of taking their employment and investment elsewhere. For the ‘platform’ organizations, such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc., a new advantage of large scale is that information on choices made in consumption, voting and contacts yields more combinative value, for selling the data for targeted advertising, with the number and range of data, to the point that these organizations build monopolies.    

In the process, the advantages of large scale are paraded and the disadvantages are downplayed or hidden.

Now, the clamour of populism demands more influence of citizens on government. That may be achieved by decentralization of decision making to local communities, such as municipalities, which is now under way. People are also gradually forming small communities to share housing, a windmill, a bank of solar cells and a vegetable garden. Also, increasingly young people are surrendering employment opportunities to offer their own services of many kinds independently. Some large firms offer far-going independence to divisions.  

So, in the long run, society seems to have been moving first from tribes to centralized systems, and then, via system tragedy, back to tribal forms again.         


[i] J.W, Stoelhorst & P.J. Richerson, ‘A naturalistic theory of economic organization’, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 2012, p. 554.