Tag Archives: Mark Pagel

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:


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podcast #44: Haruki Murakami’s fans, confessions of a kanji-holic, and kwassa kwassa

This week, we check out a claim that with the aid of a supercomputer, it’s possible to predict which words will become extinct in a few centuries.  The word “dirty” apparently doesn’t have much staying power.  Nor do “guts” and “throw”.  If the computer says so. Me, I’d prefer to see the back of “alcopop.”

southNext is a report on the extraordinarily devoted fans of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. I was inspired to report this story a few years ago when I tried– and failed — to get into an auditorium at MIT where Murakami was appearing. After chatting with other people in the queue, I realized that Murakami commands a massive, and massively diverse fan-base. So, I waited until one of his next all-too-rare appearances, in Berkeley, CA, where he sold out a 2,000-seat hall. After recording a few interviews in the foyer, I was stripped of my recording gear and camera, and told that I could collect them at the end of the evening. (A student at the MIT event got into trouble he snapped a picture of the writer at the MIT event. ) I didn’t have a problem with any of  this – I’d got my interviews and anyway, my story was about Murakami’s followers, not the man himself. And – strange as it may sound coming from a US-based journalist — I respect his desire to control and limit his public image.

murakami1 foreign3Murakami writes in a non-literary Japanese style, as author of Japan-America Roland Kelts told me. He also throws in so many English words that some older Japanese have trouble understanding his prose.  It’s also rare that in a Murakami story you come across a situation or a person that you could characterize (or perhaps micharacterize) as quintessentially Japanese.  His stories speak to people all over the world, in more than 30 languages.

That’s followed by a conversion with blogger Eve Kushner. She’s a devoted fan of those Japanese characters known as kanji (and, as it happens, she’s also a devoted fan of Murakami).

Finally, Vampire Weekend‘s Ezra Koenig on his favorite phrase out of Africa: kwassa kwassa. It’s Africanized French.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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