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Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind

Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind

Monday, November 28, 2005

The New York Academy of Sciences

Presented By

Presented by the Readers and Writers Program


Speaker: David Berreby, author
Discussant: Lawrence A. Hirschfeld, Departments of Psychology & Anthropology, New School of Social Research

Science and culture writer David Berreby will discuss his latest book Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind. What makes people willing to die—or to kill—for a religion, a nation, a race, or a caste? What makes these things as important, or sometimes more important, than friends and family? Why can't we all just get along?

Some say life would be better if humanity could set aside this habit of tribal loyalty. David Berreby believes this is wrong. Without a sense of belonging, life would be incomprehensible—we wouldn't know how to live or who we were. And that sense of purposeful membership does not attach to individual people or to the human race as a whole. Instead, we have to break our species into pieces and place our strongest feelings in those fragments of the whole: my nation, my religion, my culture, my tribe.

Read David Berreby's article in the Science & the City webzine

Why is human nature this way? And how do we live with it? Berreby has been obsessed by these questions, and they run through much of his writing. He will discuss the human brain's built-in, automatic "us–them meter.'' This part of the mind is a lot like the part that lets everyone learn a language; it's shared by all people. Underneath the different forms of division, though, is that one, shared mechanism in the human mind. Us and Them describes this, in the course of explaining what research supports the idea in various fields: neuroscience, anthropology, psychology, and history.

As Berreby makes this argument, he also touches on what he thinks we should not believe about this part of human nature. He will also try to sketch how a new view of this old mystery will overturn many of the assumptions we bring to political and economic problems, like terrorism, immigration policy, and law enforcement, to name a few.

David Berreby's writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Slate, The Sciences, and many other publications. Read critical praise of this book, the author's blog, and Chapter One, excerpted at Little, Brown.

Discussant Lawrence A. Hirschfeld recently moved from the University of Michigan to the New School for Social Research where he is professor of psychology and anthropology. He is associate editor of the journal Cognitive Science and author of Race in the Making: Cognition, Culture and the Child's Construction of Human Kinds. (MIT Press, 1996). His forthcoming book, Cornelia's Cradle: How people who should have known better misstepped in building the better child will be published by Yale University Press.