Stephen Casper,

Euconoclastic blog series

If there’s a single lesson to be learned from the panoply of tragedies in human history, it’s that tribalism is bad. I say this without trying to exaggerate or stretch the definition of tribalism beyond the normative, useful one.

But before getting into all of that plus a very euconoclastic discussion of culture, I want to talk about game theory and the evolutionary basis of cooperation.

A Quick Introduction to the Prisoners’ Dilemma

Consider a situation with two partners in crime named Alice and Bob. After their latest heist, they are separated from each other and interrogated by police officers who want info. If they both cooperate and keep quiet, they will each go to jail for a year. If they both defect and rat, then they’ll get locked up for two years. And if one cooperates and the other defects, the cooperator will go to jail for 3 years, and the defector will get off free.

This situation is interesting because it will fall into a Nash Equilibrium where both defect. A Nash Equilibrium is a state in which no self-interested player of a game can improve their prospects by changing their strategy. This is worse off for both than if the two would just cooperate. Yet they shouldn’t if they’re self-interested because no matter what the other does, each prisoner will fare better if they defect!

But what if Alice and Bob did this a lot? What if they were lifelong partners in crime and this situation repeated? Then, interestingly, things change. This allows two self-interested agents to rationally cooperate. Cooperation can be viewed as a way to reward the other suspect, and defection can be a way to punish them. If this prisoner’s dilemma is iterated, then if one prisoner defects, the other can be expected to defect as well, and this collapses into the (-2, -2) situation. But if both cooperate, then they can continue to do so and reap the benefits.

Notably, this type of cooperation only works if the number of dilemmas in the future is uncertain/indefinite or if the suspects have the option of quitting the game. If there is a known number of these dilemmas, then both will have the same incentive to defect on the last one as they do in the one-shot situation, so they can be expected to defect on the last round, and because of this, the round before, and the round before, and so on until the beginning.

Many experiments have been conducted in which simulated organisms with various strategies are put into round-robin tournaments in which they interact with each other via a prisoners’ dilemma a number of times. The basic strategy that tends to fare the best overall has been named “tit for tat.” It starts out by extending a branch of goodwill toward its opponent by cooperating, and afterward, it will copy its opponent’s last move. If it meets a friendly opponent — another one that will never be the first to defect, both will have a happy round of cooperation. But tit-for-tat also doesn’t let itself get pushed around. If it meets an opponent that shows unprovoked aggressive behavior, then it will strike back and defect.

As it turns out, prisoners’ dilemmas show up often in nature when organisms have the chance to cooperate or defect with each other. And the tit-for-tat model is common. This strategy demonstrates something key about evolution — being willing to cooperate usually gets you far evolutionarily, and being a first-aggressor is generally a failing strategy. This bit of game theory can explain a lot. Like Alice and Bob, evolution designs organisms to be self-interested and never directly altruistic (except with kin, but really that’s just genes being selfish amongst their multiple copies). However, there are many examples of evolved cooperation, especially with animals that naturally live in tribes like humans. Why? It’s just a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” situation. Members of a tribe can rationally benefit from cooperation for the same reasons that Alice and Bob can for an iterated prisoner’s dilemma. And notably, evolution makes use of heuristics, so cooperative instincts emerge that automatically may make individuals apt to be altruistic to friendly tribe members and often even be willing to do something nice first to initiate a pattern of good will with a stranger. Defectors end up hurting themselves by demonstrating that they’re not worth cooperating with.

This type of within-group cooperation seems to work well because of consistent iteration, necessity, a lack of competition for resources/territory, kinship, collective punishment of deviants, cooperative norms being established since infanthood, and knowledge of past-cooperation (if this weren’t the case, the group wouldn’t exist in the first place).

But, none of these apply to outgroups. Still though, one might expect different groups to be friendly sometimes. And indeed, any anthropologist could tell you that this is common among humans[1]. For example, even if members of one tribe strongly prefer their ingroup to an outgroup, trade is a much more common way for neighboring societies to interact than war (though outgroup relations tend to be much less cooperative than ingroup ones).

But neighbors don’t always get along — especially ones with which there is a history of conflict or infrequent contact. Does it make sense why? If there’s a bad history (all it takes is one unprovoked act of aggression to start this off) then both groups will mistrust each other and be likely to defect. And if there’s infrequent contact, interactions are more resemble one-shot prisoners’ dilemmas than iterated ones.

Now let’s make some observations. This way of understanding animals in terms of game theory, evolution, and cooperation can explain a lot about human society.

  1. Members of human tribes are generally cooperative amongst each other, forming highly coherent societies. Examples include patriotic holidays, notions of civic duty, or the fact that for most people going outside their house doesn’t mean venturing into enemy territory.
  2. Neighboring human tribes sometimes tolerate each other and sometimes don’t. England and France’s on-again/off-again relationship through history has been a lot like this. Also the present day EU is a good example of cooperation while Saudi Arabia with Iran or North with South Korea are good examples of antagonism, as are most wars in human history.
  3. Distant human tribes don’t care about each other (or at least they didn’t before the age of globalization). Notice that Saudi Arabia and Iran or North and South Korea both have a lot in common, but we see them hating each other much more than more different, more distant countries that they don’t interact much with.
  4. There are many types of in and out groups with lots of nesting and overlapping. For example, one might consider a rival basketball team’s fans to be an outgroup but consider those fans to be ingroup members for Olympic basketball tournaments, and they might find common ground with basketball fans in other countries when making fun of soccer fans

So let’s recap so far: tribalism explains a lot about how people cooperate amongst their ingroups, sometimes have bad blood with their outgroups, and are indifferent to their fargroups. But there’s one more key observation to add:

Humans love memes. And I don’t just mean funny pictures on the internet. I mean a meme in its technical sense: the cultural analog of a gene — something that evolves, replicates, multiplies, propagates, or goes extinct but which is an idea as opposed to a bit of DNA.


Crucially, humans aren’t just tribal (like most social organisms) — they’re intelligent enough to be able to ascribe interesting types of symbolism to various norms or actions. And this is why we have culture.

I think of myself as an anticulturalist. And it’s not just because I hate it when nationalists go to war. I think that celebrating Christmas is bad too.

Culture is both a cause and effect of tribalism. Consider how when people get together, they tend to develop group norms, common knowledge, inside jokes. etc. And by sharing culture, people bond and strengthen ties. If you were a newcomer to a group and you participated in an inside joke or ritual of theirs, you’d certainly feel more a part of the group afterward.

Notably, ingroups always imply outgroups.

Ingroups, culture, and community have a good side. People like to bond. I highly doubt that a world in which everyone considered everyone an equally good friend as everyone else would represent a peak of human flourishing (at least until transhuman communitarianism comes along). But it’s a necessary evil — something to indulge rather than embrace. Cultural sentimentalisms and ingroup solidarity trade off with an objective and inclusive approach to ethics and politics.

There are both good and bad parts of culture. If you disagree with this essay, that’s fine. But if you do, you’re not allowed to take a position defending some politic that embraces what’s good about ingroups and culture and eschews the bad they do. Saying that something is good to the extent that it’s good isn’t a useful position.

As for the bad side of culture and tribalism, it can be horrific. Has there been a single historical instance of discrimination, enslavement, war, or genocide that didn’t originate from “us-first” tribalism?

But more saliently, how much suffering in the world goes on and on because well-off nations put their own citizens above the truly destitute or because people’s money and advocacy go overwhelmingly only toward causes that affect them or someone near them (read more here)? How soon might civilization end because nations and corporations put their own prosperity above the welfare of the global commons?

What nationality/ethnicity/race/religion are you? How much more money would you spend to save the life of someone of the same demographics than someone else? If the answer isn’t zero, that’s definitely bad. But if not, this same type of dilemma plays out in all of the examples in the above paragraph, and almost everyone acts as if their answer weren’t zero (including me quite often).

One might say the different groups should just be good neighbors and not antagonize each other while living at a comfortable demographic distance. While nobody can argue that this would be better than a lot of status quo politics, it can’t be our actual goal. As an example, the US and Canada are an okay example of good neighbors. But what if Canada and California (very similar population sizes) simultaneously experienced an awful natural disaster and needed a great deal of aid. What would the US do? I think US institutions would probably contribute to disaster relief in both places, but there would indubitably be much, much more effort from the US toward helping California than Canada even if Canada were in a relatively poor position to help itself. And this would be normal, but is it okay? What rational case could we make that there is some type of moral relevance to borders or any other group delineations?

If you think it might be right to help California more because they pay US taxes, why do you think morality is so transactional? Also, see another post of mine here.

I ask again: how much more money would you spend to save the life of someone of the same demographics as you than someone else?

The good-neighbor paradigm might not be bad, but it’s not right either.

And what about culture and intellectual progress? Culture isn’t just holidays, fashion, symbols, and food. It’s a system of those things plus narratives, ideologies, and religions. Not all cultural ideas are benign, and if some bad idea is part of people’s identity, it’s that much more entrenched. How much intellectual and moral progress could be made if people would shed their tribes’ cultural baggage about things like creationism, the role of women in society, the existence of parochial gods, etc?

Also, not all cultures are equal.

Is social progress good? If any culture is as good as another, then progress isn’t a good thing. And consider a really good culture like, presumably, one within a philanthropic cause area and a really bad one like the Westboro Baptist Church. Are those both equally good? Now imagine there are two neighboring countries A and B with identical cultures except country A has a set of norms and values for peace and country B has ones for war. Which is better?

I’m disappointed in much of the left for how it seems to embrace culture and demographic identity. In a sense, okay; that might be pragmatic. It might be the best type of politics western left-of-center groups are capable of, and today’s identity politics at its worst are still better than today’s western conservatism at its best. We might even need to embrace identity politics on the left to build coalitions to resist the right.

But I also think Sam Harris puts things well:

“It’s a problem that we have on the left — this resort to identity politics…We need to find some future where our common humanity is the only basis upon which we reason about human flourishing and how to build a global civilization. Clearly, we need a way of talking about the most pressing features of human life…in ways that allow for civil conversation, and identity politics is not doing that.”

Identity politics makes for a crumby goal. Culture mongering isn’t enlightened or progressive. It’s just tribal self-focus and self-promotion. What could possibly be more old and stale?

What could possibly be less needed in the year 2019 than demographic moralities or epistemologies?

What if we actually — for once in human history — stopped thinking about our tribes so much and started thinking about our global community more?

What if we all both believed AND genuinely acted like we’d put in the same amount of effort to save a person’s life of any demographic?

What would the more postcultural, posttribal world I want look like? Nothing radical. Just a globalist community where people didn’t care about superficial sentimentalisms, stopped focusing on their tribes and cultures, and didn’t promote, exclude, or ignore others based on demographics.

The only community worth identifying with is the only one that encapsulates everyone and everything we should care about: the global one.


[1] But this isn’t as common among less-intelligent species. For example, we don’t typically see rival wolf packs cooperating. We might attribute this to the lack of wolves’ ability to cooperate in advanced ways. If two packs meet, they couldn’t really cooperate in many ways other than just becoming a single pack, in which case, their separateness is moot.

Euconoclastic (ajd.) \yu̇-ˈkä-nə,-klast-ic\: iconoclastic in a good and virtuous way. Find me at

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