Human Tribalism : The secret sauce of human success with it’s bitter after-taste!

The recent Gurmeet Singh riots has surprised a lot of us Indians seeing the “Baba syndrome” in India. However we shouldn’t be surprised at the vast number of followers that many of these Babas- criminals or not- command.

Our nearest cousins in the animal kingdom are the chimpanzees whose DNA is the closest to humans. Just like humans, chimps are also known live in groups or tribes, show affection, hunt/gather together for family, co-operate with each other, develop long term intimate relationships with other chimps and even sacrifice their life if they need to protect their tribe.

However when evolutionary biologists studied chimps, they discovered that stable tribes used to reach a maximum of about 150 members before it would split up to form new sub-groups. There was a limit to the number of members that can be accommodated to a single chimp tribe. The infighting and gang wars inside the group would eventually spilt up the group into two or more groups.

How do humans co-operate and form large societies with such ease? Our tribes include states, nations, religions, professions, common interest group-literally every form of human experience involves co-operation from several thousand strangers to achieve a common goal. It is in humans own interest to form tribes. We seem to grow into large groups without as much violence as seen among chimps or any of our ape cousins.

The answer to that question is that humans have the ability to construct fiction and make other humans believe it as fact. Let us consider an example:

One caveman (let’s call him Dud) can imagine a monster in the distant mountains. He uses this imagined monster to scare the other cavemen. He attributes any noise arising from the mountains to the Mountain-monster. Any unexplained death or animal attack too is attributed to the monster. He says he has magical powers with which he can protect them against the monster. In time his fiction becomes fact. More and more cavemen start believing in the mountain-monster story and start treating Dud as a leader who can counter the monster. After a while no one questions whether there is actually a monster in the mountains or whether Dud has magical powers or even how he became their leader. When the followers increase in number, Dud becomes so important in that society of followers that he is worshipped as God (or “Messenger of God”).

This is the basic template of how humans have gone from minor mammals in the animal kingdom to attain an importance so huge that they are all that seem to matter in the universe (another fiction).

This is the basis on which

  • Soldiers go and kill each other in wars in the ruse of protecting their nation (which again is a fiction humans created),
  • Millions assemble and line up in front of temples, mosques and churches sometimes risking death due to stampedes. (Amaranth Yatra or Haj)
  • Racial supremacists convince others of the same race that they need to kill or wipe out another race to protect their own race. (KKK or Nazism)
  • Religious fundamentalists indoctrinate others in a particular religion/ideology and convince them that that a religion or a god expects them to indoctrinate others, undertake complicated rituals and kill others who don’t believe in their form of god or religion. (All forms of Religious terrorism)
  • Management of large corporations convince thousands of their employees to co-operate with each other and work for the common good of a corporation which gains in value in the stock market (again a fiction)
  • Protest in thousands or millions to overcome authoritarianism. (The Arab Spring Protests or Tiananmen Square protests).

Of course one can see why such constructed fictions are useful to help herd people into tribes and have them fight for not just their own survival but also for their well being of their chosen tribe or imagined fiction. Fiction has acted as a glue for humans to successfully increase tribe numbers to impossible numbers.

We actually shouldn’t be surprised that Gurmeet Singh or any religious leader in India or abroad command the loyalty and following of millions of people. Religion and these godmen who say they speak for that religion — in reality sell fiction and find followers in return. Most humans are like sheep and they constantly seek to be herded into tribalistic societies. Once established as members of such tribes, they can go to any extent to make sure their identities remains intact.

What is happening with Gurmeet Singh’s followers are the same social dynamics in play. Without Gurmeet Singh, the followers lose their identities. So they use violence to try to scare the authorities into releasing Gurmeet Singh. Whether Gurmeet Singh is guilty or not doesn’t matter because the original fiction of his high eminence (i.e “Messenger of God) in the tribe is already established and unquestionable to the tribal members. Any charges or criminal proceedings are seen as conspiracy by people outside their own tribe.

I’m not saying that all leaders of human tribes are shameless scoundrels like Gurmeet Singh. Like I said most humans are like sheep and they need a good herder to keep them. Some herders are obviously better than others.

Human tribalism is responsible for almost all types of human achievements from the marvels of engineering to architecture, from literature to science, from philosophy to rationality. In the same breath, tribalism is also responsible for all types of uncomfortable truths in humanity too- wars, genocide, racism, casteism, female infanticide, rapes, murders, massacres and riots.

Tribalism is the essence of the human story- Hi(s)tory — if you like that better!

Originally published at

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