Are Europeans Still Tribal?

This week sees the culmination of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament. At the same time, Europe’s political leaders are holding a Euro crisis summit.

Those two events got us thinking about tribes. Are Europeans made up of many national and linguistic tribes? Or have they merged into a continental megatribe?

There are almost as many theories about tribes as there are tribes themselves. Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in Britain says that 80,000 years ago, the world was full of little hunter-gatherer societies, or bands of up to 500 people.  In time, those bands gave way to tribes, “that were just bands of bands.”

“Tribes gave way to chiefdoms, as tribes came together and co-operated,” said Pagel. Chiefdoms eventually gave way to nation states.  Finally, nation states have partially given way to supranational organizations, such as the European Union.

But even if we’ve moved beyond our tribal period, the word tribe sticks. Nations can be tribes, especially when there’s a soccer tournament on.

“We do these bizarre things like wear silly matching shirts or paint our faces in the colors of our national flag,” said Pagel. “Psychologically, we’re indistinguishable from our tribe. Our tribe really is just a part of our family.”

The fans of Ireland at Euro 2012 didn’t care that their team lost all its games. To them, singing as one was more important.

But would these fans—or any others from EU nations—sing like that for Europe? Of course not, says Irish essayist Colm Toibin.

“Even though in countries like Spain and Ireland, where Europe has…really helped people in their lives, nobody loves Europe,” said Toibin. “Europe has failed to make Europeans feel European.”

People feel a part of their family genetically, and they feel a part of their national tribe almost genetically. But to try to impose a European identity on people because it may be good policy or because it encourages peace “doesn’t actually work for people,” said Toibin.

It’s a problem for the leaders of Germany, France and others at their Euro summit this week. Mistrust among the national tribes is running high. But the differences aren’t nearly so wide as when the tribes went to war in 1939.

It’s even possible for people who may think they are different to discover that they belong to same tribe.

Take writer AS Byatt. Her home in the north of England is now also home to hundreds of thousands of south Asians. Cities like Bradford are now largely Asian. But “they speak my language,” said Byatt.  “I’m a Yorkshire woman. And I go up there, and the taxi driver looks very Asian and he begins to speak to me in Yorkshire.  And that’s my culture, I’m all right with it.”

Accents are one thing. Languages are another, a vestige of our tribal beginnings, according to biologist Mark Pagel.

“We’re the only species that can’t communicate with other members of our own species,” said Pagel. “No other animal is like that. You pick a gorilla up and plunk it down anywhere else on Earth where gorillas are found, and it will know what to do, how to speak and so on. But we don’t.”

And so at the Euro summit in Brussels, Frau Merkel will speak German, Monsieur Hollande will speak French. But they will nonetheless try to overcome their tribal differences.

If you’ve watched any of the games involving Italy, and wondered why their fans sing are so fond of the White Stripes’ song Seven Nation Army, all is revealed in this pod from the archives:



1 Comment

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One response to “Are Europeans Still Tribal?

  1. acutia

    This is tangential to the point of your post but you are incorrect when you say “The fans of Ireland at Euro 2012 didn’t care that their team lost all its games. To them, singing as one was more important.”

    Ask any of those fans singing the maudlin and history drenched “The Fields of Athenry” if they cared that the Irish team totally failed to play as good as they can nor won a single game and they would say – abso-feckin-lutely!

    But they sung that song because it’s the traditional song that the core Irish football followers sing together; because 30,000 Irish fans traveled to these games in the hope of a break from the unremittingly crap time many are enduring at home; because they were sad that after a looong 24 years wait, our Euro tournament was over; because our team mostly played with commitment and good humour against vastly superior opposition; and because Irish sports fans generally don’t see glumness or aggression towarsds victorious teams/fans as good sport or because singing a song like “The fields…” together is a somewhat evolved Irish cultural response to situations that feel complicatedly happy/sad!

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