The Need to Belong

Humans began as tribal animals. Given current headlines, we know that tribalism and the labels it uses are still present. Tribalism is killing many people and destroying civilization’s better aspects—equality, education, art of all sorts, as well as compassion and kindness for those not in one’s tribe.

Can we transcend the need to belong to a tribe? First we have to accept the reality of it.

Humans are born helpless, needing care. A baby abandoned in the wilderness will not survive unless adopted by some caring creature. Crocodiles take care of their young but not the young of other species, and besides, crocs do not lactate. Human babies need milk, so the adoptive parent must be mammalian or said babies won’t live.

Having survived babyhood, the young of many mammals and even some birds need to “belong” enough to observe and imitate the activities of their elders. Humans are the prime example of this, for our babies become human as a learning process that goes on in the company of other humans. It’s not built in, as it is in a baby turtle that automatically heads for the sea and knows what to do when it gets there.

Yes, there are good reasons for the need to belong. There are also good reasons for saying it can be a nasty habit that we should try to overcome, or at least rethink.

Categories of belongingness tend to be labels promoted by groups, each group thinking it is superior, must win, and can do so regardless of the harm this causes.

A label can be blatantly obvious or insidiously subtle, but it is often used as if it were a real thing, instead of some words. This must have started back when hominids were beginning to think about themselves. My tribe is the people and we are good. Those who have different gods are not people and are evil. It seems as if things have not changed much.

As an exercise, think about the possibly tribal labels you apply to yourself and others. This came home to me when I was a young psychiatrist, applying to become a student at a psychoanalytic institute. One of the interviewers asked, “Dr. Jeppson, what labels do you apply to yourself?” As I gulped and wondered what that meant, I found myself saying, “I am a human being, living on a planet called Earth, in a solar system, in a great big universe.” I got in. It was that sort of institute.

I have compiled a short list of words, in capital letters, that helped me think about tribalism, labels, and the need to belong. You can probably add others.

POLITICS. This is a category that all too often takes nasty advantage of the human need to belong. Lately it seems to permit domination by narcissistic greed, while the benefits of diversity and pluralism are ignored.

RACE. We used to label ourselves Homo sapiens sapiens, to distinguish ourselves from Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, who couldn’t possibly be “wise” twice. Now we are labeled Homo sapiens. The others are Homo whatever, certainly not sapiens.

Recent findings, however, show that even early hominids were far more intelligent and creative than we previously thought. Furthermore, the DNA of many living humans shows an admixture of Neanderthals, Denisovans, and the recently discovered “Ghost lineage.” People of “pure” African descent have little or none of these ancient genes, but since nobody is “pure” anything in these days of global travel and love, humans are more mongrel than ever, and labels insinuating purity should have gone out with Hitler.

FAMILY. Lately the definition of family is under attack by the chauvinists who claim one and only one description of family applies. The word is also used to designate certain forms of labeled superiority, as in the “royal” family or the “holy” family. There are even religions that go about “sealing” dead people to families so they will be together for all eternity. Please don’t throw up.

SPECIES. Since Homo sapiens is getting bad press these days, we should stop imitating the aggressive chimpanzees, but become more like our equally close relatives the Bonobos, who tend to make love, not war.

We can’t deny our similarity to other mammals in general. For instance, all mammalian adults (except, I assume, the hungriest) respond favorably to the cries of baby animals, which, oddly enough, turn out to be acoustically similar. According to researchers Susan Lingle and Tobias Riede, creatures as different as deer and bats respond by moving toward loudspeakers that are broadcasting the distress cries of their own and other baby animals, even human (the baby bat cries have to be lowered in pitch to attract deer mothers).

RELIGION. Originally each human tribe had its own set of deities that belonged to it. These gods were duty-bound (in response to prayers, gifts, and lots of blood) to work for the tribe who owned them. A good many human groups still seem to favor this sort of affair, regardless of what they call it.

The invention of monotheism had its positive aspects. If your god was also the god of the tribe in the next valley you might not want to kill them even if you were sure they were not really “people.” Perhaps polytheism was less dangerous, for the many gods fought each other more than urging you to fight some other tribe, and the head gods didn’t always have the final say. Deism in any form, however, has a lot to answer for.

LANGUAGE. This is and has been a major source of trouble in the human world. People get labeled according to what language they speak, so I am in favor of having one and many.

People should preserve languages that come from past separations of peoples, because each language has something to offer that might be lost forever if the language becomes extinct. I also think that there should be one universal language everybody has to know so that everyone can be understood regardless of the other labels applied to them. This might include sign language, too.

I favor English as the universal language because 1) so many people know it, including me, and 2) it is already many languages at once, incorporating Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, and French, plus words from all the many languages of Earth. I don’t think there’s another language that can be said to be truly mongrel, suitable for our mongrel Homo sapiens.

OCCUPATION. There was a time when people were stratified and even named according to their occupation, which often fixed them in place for generations. No more. A famous actor was a carpenter and still does some. Other people have many kinds of jobs at once or serially. We should help people with education so they too can choose and contribute many talents to the world.

SEX AND GENDER. These are not really the same thing, although they used to be thought so. No label is set in stone. Unless they are in the power of bigots, people can choose. Women are gradually—oh, so gradually—being considered equal. Why didn’t anyone count male ribs to see if one was truly missing? As to sex as an activity, that too is becoming a matter of choice, as the bonobos know.

AGE. There are so many articles on aging well that it’s time to remind everyone that the young, who are stepping up to rule the world, really can’t imagine that their lives are connected to the past and that they too will get old. Lots of luck, kids. There’s only one way to avoid the problems of age, including being labeled “old” and obsolete. Die young.

LOCALE. Humans were once as firmly attached to a locality as to an occupation. Now, people go all over the world, carrying their diseases with them. They call places home that are far removed from wherever they were born. I wish it were the case that when people go to the next valley they would see that the humans there are people too. But when both valleys are running out of water, to say nothing of food and shelter, people start killing each other. Again.

The electronic world that unites all humans, or should, makes it difficult to think of another place and the people in it as truly alien. I fervently hope that global electronic communication still operates when the next disaster strikes (that asteroid we didn’t find soon enough, a massive surge of death from the sun that we couldn’t do anything about, the worst case scenario of an epidemic, or a supervolcano eruption—please feel free to expand on the list). Through communication and GPS, we can warn people and find survivors.

Lately the electronic world is being used to inspire fear (how many beheadings does it take?) but fear as a major instrument of policy has never worked in the long run. If there is a long run. With Earth’s population still going up, and no settlements off the world, I wonder.

To sum it up, we’ll be Homo sapiens instead of Homo sap only if we reduce procreation, stop destroying the environment, admit we are mongrels living on one planet, and rethink the compelling need to belong.