Friday, May 20, 2011

The Tribal Instinct (grandchildren)

Our two grand-daughters (aged ten and seven) are coming to visit in July for three weeks. It will be bliss for us. They’re lovely girls, and a joy to have around. Even if they were horrible kids, I’d put up with them just to have my son here; but they’re not horrible at all. I adore them, and would without hesitation die for them, if I had to.

It is surely some kind of genetic instinct, to love one’s grandchildren- a simple extension of the instinct that makes us protect our own children. Except that in my family’s case, the older girl was inherited. She carries none of my genes, or my son’s. My genetic instinct really should not allow me to love and protect and cherish her as much as her younger sister. Yet it does, and I do. Assuming I’m not deluding myself about that, my loyalty to the older one must not be genetic at all, but tribal.

It’s a fascinating distinction. Biologists in general believe that every individual gene is purpose-driven to keep its bloodlines alive. That drive first manifests itself in reproduction, and then in protecting the offspring. Those offspring protect their own interests to the extent they can. And so on down the generations.

But man is a social animal, with a tendency to suppress some of his own personal interests in favour of the interests of his society - his “tribe”. People who don’t do that are called sociopaths. Their loyalty is to their genes first and last, not to their societies. They are reckoned to be “not normal”, to be so obsessively self-concerned. The rest of us are “normal”.

Broadly speaking, it’s a huge ask, isn’t it, for human nature to require that we put society above our genetic instincts and above our families. Men do it almost without thinking. Despite the urgency with which they seek and grasp opportunities to spread their genetic seeds*, only the most wimpish of men will favour his children over his community. Perhaps the urgency and disloyalty are two sides of the same coin. If a man spreads enough seeds, he doesn’t need to worry about their survival.

Biology has mapped a contrary course for women. Mothers’ bonds with their offspring are longer in the binding, and their loyalty is much stronger than fathers’. Paradoxically, it is their genetic loyalty that drives women (in male-dominated societies - i.e. all societies) to permit their sons to conform to male social expectations, at whatever cost to the sons’ physical well-being or moral standards.

We see this clearest in times of conflict between rival societies. Mothers don’t like to wave their sons off to participate in wars of aggression, but they do it all the same. Not to do it would bring shame on those sons, and that would never do. Tribal instincts beat out genetic instincts every time.

In one of our family photo-albums we have a snapshot of our son (then aged seven) winning a sack race at a Prep School Sports Day. In the background is a girl cheering him on and obviously thrilled with his win. “Somebody was glad for you”, I said. “Who is she?” “I don’t know”, he shrugged; “somebody in my House.” Our tribal values begin with School Houses. Siblings assigned to rival Houses learn to value their fellows above family ties. It’s a practice run for the national and religious loyalties demanded in later life.

We accept adopted children into our families in the same way and for the same reason that most societies accept outsiders assigned to them either by their tribal rulers or by circumstances. Most societies...

* As a general statement, women need a reason to make love; men just need a place.