Survival of the fittest ... tribe

Clay Kallam
Photo byTyler Nix for Unsplash

We are the products of evolution.

Eight million years of primates preceded us, and for the last 300,000 years or so, human beings have slowly claimed dominion on the planet.

Now, of course, like out-of-control weeds, we are everywhere. Our inventions and machines have transformed us from straggling bands of fairly large mammals to the rulers of Earth. Our numbers approach 10 billion, and we push for the planets and stars.

But despite our industrial might and intellectual sophistication, we remain the products of evolution – and the key word is “we.”

Traditionally, of course, evolution is viewed as an individual process. The strong survive, and the weak die along the way. Those who are stronger, tougher, more impervious to disease, more intelligent have won the evolutionary lottery, and will pass on their genes to the next generation due to their own efforts.

But we are products of evolution, and that evolution occurred not as solitary hunters, or even nuclear families – but in small groups of hunter-gatherers, like most of our primate ancestors before us. We evolved in tribes, and though individuals competed in tribal hierarchies to ensure their offspring would have the best chance to succeed and breed, equal in importance, if not more so, was the ability of our tribe to compete against other tribes, and other predators and prey in the world around us.

And those small tribes – from 30 or so to maybe a hundred – shaped us. Those small tribes were the crucible of humanity, for if a tribe wandered too far from water, say, all its members, no matter how individually fit, could die in the desert.

Today, of course, we belong to many tribes. There’s family, there’s work, there are neighbors, there are Internet message boards and Twitter followers. We are not dependent on any one group for our survival, but it is too easy to forget the inexorable math of history.

Human beings did not develop large-scale agriculture until about 5,000 years ago. It would be generous to say that we became “civilized” 3,000 years ago, but to simplify the math, let’s grant that human beings moved from living in small hunter-gatherer tribes into farming villages and cities at that point. That 3,000 years is 1% of human history. That 3,000 years is 0.04% of primate evolution.

And we are products of evolution, products of evolution in a hunter-gatherer world, products of evolution shaped not only by individual fitness but by tribal fitness. If our tribe had one great warrior, and the neighboring tribe had five pretty good ones, who would win the battle for the prime hunting ground? Which tribe would have a better chance for its offspring to reproduce?

And if our tribe was poorly led, making bad decisions about where to spend the winter, about which other tribes to challenge, about whether to ignore that pride of lions while hunting antelope, how did that affect the children of the tribe and their chances to survive?

For 99% of human history, our tribe determined most of our fate. Most primates, too, are tribal in nature, and for 99.96% of primate history, the success of the tribe was inextricably intertwined with the likelihood that a particular set of genes would survive long enough to pass itself on to the next generation.

So how can we be surprised by the tribal nature of modern society? How can we be surprised by the tribal patterns of behavior that not only make no sense in the 21st century, but actively work against our survival?

And our fascination with hierarchies and gossip and lists of the best this and the worst that springs from those same tribal roots, those millions of years of competing within the tribe for mates, for food, for the success of our offspring.

Utopians believe that, given the right circumstances, human beings will happily cooperate, and believe, like Karl Marx, that we will gladly give the group what it requires while being wholly satisfied with taking only what we need. Utopians believe we can miraculously shed our evolutionary tribalism, and find our way to peace, love and understanding.

Evolution, however, says otherwise. Evolution has spent 297,000 years fine-tuning human beings to live in tribes, and to place our tribe above all others. Primate evolution, which revolves around mammals in groups, has spent 8 million years doing the same.

So perhaps it’s time to shift our perspective, and to work with what nature has created rather than hope logic, reason and love for all humanity will guide our decisions. We are tribal beings, and for us to find a way forward, we must acknowledge that reality, and work with it, rather than against it.

We are, after all, products of evolution.

Hierarchy and humans

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Clay Kallam is a lifelong East Bay resident who spent several decades in local journalism -- and still writes for Diablo Magazine (among others). Over the years, he has covered just about every aspect of life in the Bay Area, from rock-and-roll to the arts to political coverage to food to sports. On the food front, he does not claim to be a critic, but rather someone who enjoys a good meal, a well-made drink and a nice red wine. As for sports, he has written for national publications (including Sports Illustrated and Slam) and covers girls' basketball across the nation for MaxPreps. He is a high school coach and a serious fan of the local teams -- and savored every minute of the Giants' and Warriors' championships. He graduated from Acalanes, UC Santa Barbara (ancient history) and Cal (philosophy). He lives in Walnut Creek with his wife Maggi, who takes many of the food photos. He appreciates his readers and is always happy to talk about anything he's written. His food experiences can be found at #dishdining on Instagram, and emails can be sent to

Walnut Creek, CA

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