Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Tribalism, evolving societies, and Popper

I generally lay into Popper a fair bit in my travels, particularly as a philosopher of science, and so it is only fair that I should given this site, on tribalism and other collectivisms, a nod. Here we see an excellent article by Roger Sandall, on Popper's book The Open Society and Its Enemies, which of all Popper's books is most influential on my thought. Sandall notes the equivocal nature of the term "tribe" in these days of indigenous rights, and how it plays out in the current Islamist crisis.

I have long thought, and Sandall reminds me why I think it, that the objection to the modern world found in creationism, Islamism, and other antimodernisms, is really a playing out of the general human condition of tribalism. We mark out our tribes in the modern world in different ways than we did in the past, because now our tribes are interspersed geographically. In earlier societies we marked out tribes territorially, something that mattered seriously when we used territory ot gather, hunt and later farm our food resources [on which, see David Rindos' The Origins of Agriculture, and Diamond's derivative Guns, Germs and Steel]. Now we do it by religious, linguistic, cultural and sporting markers. But we still use tribal markers. Urban life is not some "artificial" state we find ourselves in; we are always in our "natural state". And we shoudl expect that each new form of life we evolve we will employ our ordinary behaviours.

Popper's Open Society is often regarded as individualistic and an apology for capitalism, but it seems to me that he was defending something deeper than that. We lived, once, in an open society. Nazism, Communism and Capitalist collectivism all threaten that. While many things Popper said were either overly optimistic or overly pessimistic, and sometimes naive, he put his finger on a terribly important point. Freedom flourishes only when we do not allow tribalisms to control us.

PS: Thanks to Richard Frost for bringing this to my attention.