“Why a Universal Society Is Unattainable
Our minds evolved in an Us-vs-Them universe of our own making.
JANUARY 13, 2021
BY MARK W. MOFFETT
Mark W. Moffett, Ph.D., is the author of The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, & Fall, from which this essay is adapted. He has a Lowell Thomas medal from the Explorers Club for his work in over 100 countries on the questions about the structure of rainforests, social organization in ants, and the stability of societies across different species.
In the 2016 vote, the majority of British people stubbornly chose for their country to be on its own and not part of a more encompassing group of societies. The vote appeared to run against the broader trend of European nations loosening their boundaries in acknowledgement of an identity that outweighs, or erases, the importance of the societies themselves. With the number of societies in general declining century after century,1 we might take seriously the assertion that the internationalization of culture (think Star Wars, tequila, Mercedes-Benz) and connections (with Twitter linking people from Aa, Estonia, to Zu, Afghanistan) are a harbinger of a Berlin Wall-type border collapse, making, as the British sociologist Morris Ginsberg once put it, “The unification of mankind … one of the clearest trends in human history.”2
Whatever the ultimate relationship of Great Britain and Europe may be, the current breakup underscores how deeply national identity runs through human psychology. Both psychological literature and anthropological research on societies ranging from the ethnolinguistic groups of hunter-gatherers to tribes, chiefdoms, and states (less formally, “nations”),3 reveal that a universal society is unattainable. Populations across the globe today may devour Starbucks, KFC, and Coca-Cola. They may enjoy Italian opera, French couture, and Persian carpets. But no matter how many exotic influences each absorbs or what foreign connections they make, nations don’t just fade away. They retain their citizens’ fierce devotion.4 Societies have always traded, gifted, or taken what they want from the outer world to claim as their own, and grown all the stronger for doing so. While the erasure of borders may be laudable, nothing we know about the workings of the human mind suggests it is a realistic vision.
A failure of alliances to supersede people’s affiliation to their society holds true universally. Intergovernmental organizations like the European Union and the United Nations don’t earn our primary emotional commitment because they lack ingredients that make them real for the members. The EU may be the most ambitious attempt at societal integration conceived, yet few members see the EU as an entity worthy of their loyalty the way they do their countries, and for several reasons.
To top all that off, the EU offers no grand foundation story, no venerable symbols or traditions, and there’s little sense anyone would fight and die for Europe as they might for their nation.7
Analysis of the 2016 Brexit vote shows that those who most strongly think of themselves as English went against staying with the EU. Voters saw what was intended foremost to be an economic and peacekeeping tool as a threat to their identity.9 The fact is the consequences of Brexit will be mostly commercial, setting into action a myriad of obstacles to trade.10
One possible means of attaining that unity might be to shift people’s perception of who’s an outsider. It was a point Ronald Reagan liked to make. “I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world,” he remarked in an address to the UN. Indeed, science-fiction tales like The War of the Worlds depict humankind acting as one against a common enemy.
Yet even then our societies would endure the space aliens. The arrival of Martians wouldn’t make nations irrelevant any more than Europeans arriving in Australia caused the Aborigines to drop what had been several hundred clear-cut tribal groups (actually, many Aborigines first guessed that the Europeans were otherworldly, i.e., ghosts16). That would be so regardless of how much the aliens shattered the beliefs people held about their own societies, whose beloved differences would look trivial by comparison to those with the Little Green Men. Cosmopolitanism, the conviction that the diverse people of our planet will come to feel a primary connection to the human race (the term means “citizen of the cosmos”),17 is a pipe dream.
The human reliance on particular traits, or “markers,” to identify with our societies, ethnicities, and other groups may trace back far into the human past, but what comes naturally isn’t always desirable. Fortunately, our intelligence gives us some prospect of breaking free from our biology and history. When changes concern the matter of how we mark off our identities, though, any alteration would be extremely arduous and require more than education. While casting off ethnic and societal markers may sound good at first blush, the move would undoubtedly mean the loss of much of what humans cherish. Our markers are two-edged swords, causing us to discount those who differ from us, yet at the same time imparting an esprit de corps with complete strangers who fit our expectations, as when we take delight in conversing with a fellow American when traveling overseas.
To abandon our differences would strike against timeless yearnings. People care about their memberships and few would want to give them up. Nor could we simply dispose of them. Research in psychology shows that our responses to the most entrenched of our social groups, and the characteristics that define them, take place faster than the blink of an eye, and are involuntary.18 No doubt if a mass hypnotist caused us to forget our current differences, we would scramble to discover or invent new differences to hold dear.
The mind evolved in an Us-vs-Them universe of our own making. The societies coming out of this psychological firmament have always been points of reference that give people a secure sense of meaning and validation.
Social marginalization has been a motivator stronger than religious fanaticism, explaining why many terrorists originally took to extremism only after being excluded from the cultural mainstream. For the socially dispossessed, radical views fill a void.21 Organized crime groups likewise commandeer some of the properties that give a society its vitality by providing social pariahs with common goals and a sense of pride and belonging.
Being in a society (indeed, in multiple societies) is a more indispensable and ancient quality of our species than faith or matrimony, having been the way of things from before we were human.”