Tribalism and our Primate Brain

It’s happened again.  Another mass shooting by a teenager with a gun in Buffalo, NY, this time livestreamed on social media by the shooter as it happened. He had a manifesto, as they often do—180 pages written, apparently, over months and posted to his private social media site.  We hear the hackneyed responses–“thoughts and prayers,” “this violence must stop,” “we must get these guns off the street.” These gestures are limp, without real effect. They go nowhere. Nothing will happen.  The funerals will go forward.  Lawsuits will eventually be filed. Memories of lives lost will torment the families of the victims forever. Elsewhere life will roll on, the numbness will grow, and every time we go shopping we will all be looking over our shoulder, looking for the next shooter, who could be anywhere. 

This apparently is the new normal in America, and has been for a while.  Half the privately owned guns on planet earth are owned by Americans. So far this year there have been about 200 mass shootings here, more than one a day.  Only the big ones seem to make the news anymore.  After one of these shootings, a prominent politician commented, “This is the price of freedom.”  I have a hard time understanding what this use of the word “freedom” might mean.  I’m not sure I want to know.  

All of this seems inconceivable to me, until I remember something I once read, that human beings share 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees, our closest primate relative.  We are primates. Chimpanzees seem peaceful enough, at least during the day.  I remember the glowing National Geographic articles when I was growing up, about the observational research of Dr. Jane Goodall, who chronicled the peaceful lives of these near-humans in the forests of Africa.  A few decades later, more research was done, this time at night with infrared cameras, and a very different picture of chimps emerged.  Sometimes, when their food sources were threatened by a neighboring tribe of chimps one valley over, male chimps would form a war party, go forth at night to the neighboring chimp camp, tear them to pieces, and eat them.  

In other words, largely peaceful primates—like chimps and like us—have deep circuitry in their brains that kicks in when the group, or an individual in the group, feels existentially threatened.  We all have these circuits, probably males more strongly than females—most mass shooters are male–and it is so deeply embedded in our psyche that most of us have no conscious awareness that they are there, until fear triggers them, overwhelming all inhibition and rational thought.  Racial hatred can be a trigger for this. It used to be thought that racism was a socially learned behavior that could be unlearned by school integration, education, and social familiarity.  To some extent that may be true, but none of those solutions are deep enough to touch the murder circuits that lie deep in our brains, somewhere that our rational mind can’t touch or, more and more frequently, prevent.  We need to remember that while our primate nature is unchanged from 100 or 1000 years ago, mass shootings in America have been increasing year by year. When I was a kid in school, there were no mass shootings. What has changed? It’s obvious—the proliferation and wide availability of guns.

Apart from the proliferation of firearms in America (which is singular) we shouldn’t imagine that this situation is unique to our country.  Tribalism has exploded into civil war and mass murder in many countries at various times—sometimes perpetrated by individuals or small groups, sometimes by entire ethnic groups or countries.  Sometimes propaganda is used to wear down the rational brain and incite murderous behavior.  The essayist George Steiner once wrote an article in which he proposed that the precipitating event that led to the Holocaust was German propaganda in the 1930s encouraging Germans to think of Jews as vermin.  They were advised to call Jews “cockroaches.” Once that step was accomplished, Steiner wrote, it was not hard to take the next step to mass murder.  Getting Germans to say “cockroaches” was the hard part.  Once the tribal circuits were engaged, the rest was relatively easy.

I once knew a reporter who had been assigned to cover the rise of Hitler in 1930s Germany.  He went to some of the rallies where a million Germans were shouting “Heil, Hitler” and raising their arms in unison in the Nazi salute.  My friend said that in spite of his horror at what was happening, the power of the mob was so strong that it was all he could do to keep his arm at his side and stop himself from joining in the salute.  The tribal brain is not just deep, it is incredibly powerful when fully aroused.  

Every one of us, even the most evolved and compassionate, must understand that we have within us this potential.  We must guard against it always, and teach and warn against it.  The danger today is that the weapons are so much more deadly. The chimpanzee war parties sallying forth to destroy the neighboring tribe had their teeth and hands as weapons.  The kid who killed ten in Buffalo had a rifle. The Germans had gas chambers.  

But now there are nuclear weapons.  If the chimpanzees at night in the forest, crazed with fear and on their way to the next valley over to do murder, had had nuclear weapons at their disposal, do you think that they would have hesitated to use them?

Addendum: Four days after I began writing this article, another 18 year old shot and killed 19 elementary school students in Texas.  President Biden ordered flags to be flown at half-staff.  That, at least, was something he could do.