To a sociobiologist, our controversy over immigrants is a debate about inborn tribal instincts versus the higher cerebral capabilities only humans possess.
Tribalism is our inborn preference for “us” over “them.” Our tribe can be our religion, our country, our race, our language, our political group, and most definitely our family and relatives.
Recently in biology we have attributed our self-centeredness to shared genes. We point to the fact that, similar to many animals, we give preference to our young. Biology calls it “kin selection.”
But selfish genes fail to explain why we go to war to protect those unrelated to us. Favoring our own young does not explain why we adopt babies from foreign lands. Nor does it explain why so many fans in a college stadium go wild for a team of unrelated classmates but feel grievous loss when we lose to “others” who are no more distantly related.
In prehistoric times, the instinct to bond with our parents and extended family members was a matter of survival of a small tribe. It is the mentality of the herd, the flock, the pack, or the school of fish.
But in a world of seven billion, we have to overcome those tribal instincts and use our far higher mental capacity to find fair and humane ways to treat each other.
As an educator, I am uncomfortable with the way we practice youngsters in tribalism. Live on one side of town and you attend a school that chants: “Go Mustangs, Kill Bulldogs.” Then the student moves to the other side of town and the school chants: “Go Bulldogs, Kill Mustangs.”
Unfortunately, our primal instinct to protect ourselves by barricading the doors and keeping “others” out disregards the fact that most of us trace back to immigrant ancestors. Once we were “others.” Our tribal lineage was not kind to others who were Mormons or African slaves. And when we felt threatened, we felt justified in sending thousands of law-abiding Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War II. Despite some living here for generations, we still considered them “others.”
Meanwhile we ignore the terrorist acts of those who came from inside our tribe—like Timothy McVay and Terry Nichols who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City.
And when we march to war, it becomes difficult to suppress tribalism and act humanely and objectively. Tribalism guarantees that the reporters from two sides will report the same event differently. Once we succumb to war fever, an objective observer who points out this distortion is likely to be penalized by the tribe.
Tribalism drives the drumbeat toward war. You can hear it in American reporting toward China, Russia and the Middle East—they are not OUR tribe.
But our ability to rise above tribalism and understand the sweep of humanity has resulted in some of our finest hours in history. The Marshall Plan, where America contributed to rebuilding Germany after World War II to prevent the punitive tribal mistakes we made after World War I, is an example of recognizing the dignity of others who were our defeated enemies.
But George Kennan, the author of the Marshall Plan, saw such acts as exceptions. His plan would have never been approved by the voting populace. It was the wisdom of a few leaders. Kennan contended this was a major weakness of a democracy: the vulgarity of elections. In order to keep office, a highly intelligent statesman who understands the correct and just actions that need to be taken, will nevertheless have to support a bad policy in order to be re-elected.
“Close our borders” is a perfectly normal knee jerk tribal response. But it is the grunting of cave men ancestors who lived in fear and retreated to defend their cave.
Humans are a mix of animal and angel. We have evolved the intelligence to rise above knee jerk tribalism. Other animals lack the talent to see outside their self interest. Only we have the ability to see the global picture and that we too could be the refugees in a war-ravaged land.
Leaders in Great Britain and Canada and even France—despite its losses—have risen above tribalism to accept tens of thousands of others. They know that it is the better part of being human to stare into the eyes of a refugee child—and understand: “there, but for the sake of God, go I.”