These blogs were written over sixteen months for Psychology Today Online and achieved more than 60,000 hits. Destpite this the journal refused to pay the tiny sum promised in its contract. I have no idea why, they simply refused to answer inquiries; it could just be bureaucratic incompetence, which we have learned to expect, so I told them to shut the blog down. As The Tribal Imagination stresses throughout, in the massive historic transfer from relations with kin to those with strangers, contract was vital, and honest completions of contracts the central factor (Francis Fukuyama's "Trust Societies.") It is what the third commandment is about: the swearing of oaths in God's name to make contracts inviolable. So let us take this as a learning moment. Anyway, since these pieces are now mine by default I am sharing them with you since they take up the themes of the book, make some additions, and provide some odd asides.

Academically "Kissing Cousins: on Mediogamy" is the most important since it is work in progress and might be dealing with a fairly profound adaptive/demographic phenomenon that emerges from the chapter "Sects and Evolution" and those on cousin marriage and incest in the book.


The Greedy Chronovores - on ever increasing life expectancy and the greed for even longer life
The (Almost) Inverted Pyramid - on massive changes in population structure
Kinsmen and Strangers: "Never Go Against the Family Fredo" - on the uneasy shift from trust only between kin to trust in strangers
Late Weaning: Early Death: on drastic changes in the female life cycle
Puberty Too Soon? Daylight on the Issue - on the historically recent alarming drop in the age of menarche and its causes
Three Cheers for Teenage Mothers - on the so-called "edpidemic" of teenage pregnacy
Kissing Cousins: On Mediogamy - on group fission and its relationship to cousin marriage and fertility - with a neologism
I Must Be Dreaming! Paradoxical Consciousness - on the phnomenon of lucid dreaming, near death experiences and apparitions
Why Do We Dream? Brain, Dreams Memory - and evolution, rhyming verse, and a few other things
Sexy Santas: A Lot Like Christmas? - what it says - Pagans and Christians and the dark days of the soul
The Python Diet: No Weight Loss Program Works Except Mine - foolproof weight loss via acid blockers?
London's Burning - on the London riots, primitive initiation, and reinstating the draft
Royal Weddings - what is their fascination even to the most hardened republican?
Death East and West: Milton and the Mahabaratha/Satan's Incest and Shiva's Dance of Life
What is a Tribal Society? Tribe and State - Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya - and even Syria

That masterpiece of cruel satire The Onion had a mock headline to the effect that a fifteen-year-old Sudanese was being given tranquilizers because he was having a mid-life crisis. The average life expectancy of an American male today is seventy-six and a half years, and women live a good deal longer. But as with so many features of our contemporary world this is something startlingly recent – in both historical and evolutionary terms. Our ancestors through the long drag of evolution would have been glad to make it to thirty. People in most of the developing world today don’t do much better.

Recent figures show that in the USA the average age for receiving a doctorate in the social sciences is thirty-two. And this only starts someone on the long road to tenure and promotion. In the tribal society we evolved in, a man could have been initiated, become a warrior, married (perhaps several wives), had his children and been installed as an elder of the tribe by thirty-five at least. Women could be grandmothers by that age: those that had not died in childbirth earlier.

It is easy to dismiss this and just accept that we have made “progress.” But the progress is so recent that we still are not sure of its consequences. The world of short average life spans and rapid development was the one we evolved in and our physical and mental and emotional make-up was forged in that primitive world. We assume that only benefits can accrue from changing our “primitive” circumstances, but do we really understand the costs? We certainly understand the economic costs of trying to prolong life for as long as medicine can keep us going, and each individual beneficiary (me included) thinks this is something we should strive to afford. But the costs to society can become prohibitive.

Increased longevity in the industrial societies is one of the many novelties we have imposed on our tribal selves, along with small families, nursing homes and unemployment. In considering such things the best of the science fiction writers are often ahead of the savants. In Greg Bear’s sharp-edged novel Slant, he describes a future dominated by conscious super-computers, nanotech, deep-tissue psychotherapy and diagnostic toilets (the 2060s – not so far off.) It is a future in which people try to live as long as they can at whatever cost. In the end the state intervenes to stop the drive for extended life spans. The result is a class of old people on the edge of death who are having themselves kept alive, at their own expense, by “cryo-preservation.” They are classed as “greedy Chronovores” and are denied any state assistance.

If the reader thinks this is no more than sci-fi fantasy, let him look to the British National Health Service, where the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (it uses the acronym NICE – Orwell would have loved that) has been tasked with establishing priorities for the expensive treatment of the old on a value-for-money (or cost-effective) basis. If the treatment is too expensive and you are going to die anyway, you may get classed as a greedy Chronovore and that will be it. We are currently watching the USA go through a period of hysterical paranoia about “death panels” and “pulling the plug on grandma.” The Chronovores are panicking. Do we really know what we are doing here? And how can we know what to do if we don’t know what we are? “The Tribal Imagination” will continue to ask these questions.
The (Almost) Inverted Pyramid

While sitting in the doctor’s office waiting to discuss more of the slings and arrows of outrageous aging, I looked over the layers of magazines. The Economist of December 2010 headlined “The Joy of Growing Old (or why life begins at 46).” Kiplingers of February 2011 proclaimed “The Changing Face of Retirement: Forget everything you’ve heard about retiring. How to make the new reality work for you.” Many more in the same vein, when they weren’t telling you how to deal with erasing the effects of aging, or unemployment and the job search, or how to handle your pregnant teenage daughter, or your divorce, or all of the above. The TV meanwhile was obsessed with the spectacle of thousands of mostly under-thirty people in Cairo trying to oust their 82-year-old president and his crony government of 70 year-olds.

My theme is roughly that the tribal system of physical, emotional, mental and social traits is our default system, since it is the system we evolved in for 99% of our time as a species. It follows that many things we take for granted are a result of civilization and particularly industrial civilization and that these occurred virtually overnight in historic and evolutionary time. (Evolution is history that lasts long enough for genetic changes to take place.) The question is: how sustainable are these changes that happened in the blink of an evolutionary eye?

Take the obsession with “retirement” and how to prepare for it, finance it, and live happily with it. This goes along with the reality of the “job.” Retirement is what you do when you stop “working” – when your job is over. Pretty straightforward? In the tribe there were no jobs. No one retired; there were no pensions. There was some division of functions by sex, by age, even perhaps a bit of specializtion (shamans being the obvious example) – but there were no employers, or government agencies, or feudal overlords. There were no jobs: life was on the job training. Certainly there would not have been an industry of people concerned with what to do with other people whose working lives were over. Working lives were never over, and the old had their ongoing functions that needed no special attention. Not all that many people lived beyond 46.

The population pyramid then would have been just that – a pyramid: heavy at the bottom, scarcer in the middle, slender at the top. That is the “natural” pyramid and still is in much of the “developing” world. How have we, in the societies of the post-industrial civilization, changed that? For a start, we have drastically lowered the child and infant mortality rate, which means that many more people get to live longer. Then we have equally drastically extended life for those who do make it to middle age. Fewer are dying young: more are living to be old. If you get to 46 your chances are pretty good of making it to 70. In the tribal state the average age at death was 30-35, now it is closer to 80. The population pyramid became an oblong since people simply did not die off at the same rate.

But at the same time as we (in the developed world) improved the infant mortality rate (down from 50-80%) we started having much smaller families. Large families had been necessary to counter that awful death rate among youngsters; my own parents came from families of 14 and 16 respectively. Half my parent’s siblings, at the beginning of the twentieth century, died early. But as infant mortality dropped, parents could be more certain that what children they did have would survive. Growingly affluent families in industrial societies found that they could not afford – or did not want to afford – large families, and turned to birth control of various kinds, finally to chemical intervention, to prevent this happening. Children needed to be expensively educated for longer and longer to compete. The result has been an inversion of the pyramid, fewer children at the bottom, a heavily loaded middle, and phenomenal growth of the old at the top. The baby boom in the USA was an aberration that is in effect only fueling the problem as boomers add their intact numbers to the “retired.”

We are facing the consequences of this in a myriad different ways: the “problem of retirement” is one, the costs of maintaining the old age population is another. Without a firm base of working youngsters (doing their “jobs”) we cannot afford to support the health and living needs of the old. European economies are floundering because of the growing expense this involves. The debate about funding social security and medicare brings this home to us in the USA. Meanwhile, in the Arab world and the rest of the “developing” world, the pyramid stays closer to a pyramid, with in fact a heavy weighting at the bottom since large families are still regarded as a hedge against the poverty of old age, and infant mortality, while high, is decreasing. In Egypt 60% of the population is under 30. That bottom-heavy part of the pyramid was leading the protests in Freedom Square. “What kind of government do you want?” “A younger one!”

Meanwhile young unemployed workers from Tunisia are fleeing to Italy, and from the rest of North Africa and the Near East and Turkey they are flocking to Europe just as thousands of young Latin Americans are to the United States, Pakistanis to the UK, and so on. Germany is a magnet and its government has tried to pass laws to encourage larger native German families. If we cannot ourselves replenish the bottom end of the pyramid, we have to import others to do it for us. Muslims are the largest minority in Europe. Hispanics still have large families and are now the largest “minority” in the US. Texas increased its number of under-18s by one million over the last decade: 95% of them are Hispanic.

These are all things about the population pyramid that we know. They hit us personally as we increasingly struggle at the same time with aging dependent parents and expensive and unproductive children. What matters is how we look at them. Seeing them as a radical change from the tribal default can lead to a better understanding (if not to any ready solutions.) We didn’t even get to the “epidemics” of divorce and teenage pregnancy, the generation gap and the rate of social change, the consequences of literacy and technology, and the marriage of strangers. But that is the beauty of a blog: little by little “The Tribal Imagination” will get there.

“Never Go Against the Family Again. Never.”

There is a telling scene in Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, which did not make it into the movie. Don Corleone’s family are telling him of the brave deeds of his son, Michael, who has served honorably in the US Army, risked his life, been wounded, and won medals in the service of his country. The old Don shakes his head in puzzlement and asks: “He does these things for strangers?”

The idea of voluntarily doing anything for strangers (non-kin) has to be worked at. It is another of those things we in Western democracies do every day without thought: it is “human nature” for us. We give large sums of our money to complete strangers trusting that they will use it responsibly and for our benefit. Largely they do, as with banks and insurance companies and brokerages. When they do not (AIG, Enron, Madoff) our wrath is huge. We turn over other large sums to legally appointed strangers for purposes often unknown to us and for the benefit of complete and total strangers. This is taxation. It is everywhere hated, but absolutely necessary to run a complex society.

We trust strangers to do things absolutely essential to our lives and welfare. We take it for granted they will do them; they are “doing their jobs.” But this is as foreign to much of the world as our odd acceptance of the relinquishment of power after elections. The Arabs have a saying that translates “from the palace to the grave.” Once you have power you do not give it up to the scoundrels who would take it from you. That would be crazy and not in the best interests of “the people.” And to most people in that same world that same world the preference of strangers over kin and tribe borders on the immoral as well as the insane. The only safety here is in the tribe or its subdivision the clan – the mafia family on which you can absolutely depend.

In those places where the state cannot be trusted with the welfare of individuals, they turn to the older and wiser certainty of kinship, to the clan and the tribe. In those societies, like the Muslim societies now going through one of their periodic turmoils - where the tribe and clan has never lost its grip, the always uneasy balance between tribe and state will determine what happens. But our own society is not so far “progressed” from tribalism that it can shake off this tendency easily. I live in New Jersey and I know all about cronyism, corruption, and nepotism. We have made these pillars of tribal morality into the cardinal sins of democratic society. But the ease with which we slip into that clan-like behavior, that mafia solution of seeing the world through the eyes of “the family” is frightening. “Never go against the family” Michael Corleone told his erring brother Fredo; he did and he paid the price.

The 800 tribes in Iraq, the 140 in Libya, the countless tribes and tribal coalitions in Afghanistan (and in Baluchistan, Pakistan, Algeria, Yemen and Morocco) have an ongoing battle with and accommodation with the states that claim to rule them. In Egypt and Iran towns have become important, and relatively de-tribalized townsmen form the basis of the urban mobs that are demanding the overthrow of dictatorship. But out there in the country are the more conservative tribes biding their time, waiting to make some new accommodation with whatever power rules the towns, but always looking after their own interest first. In the end a tribesman’s loyalty is indeed to the tribe, and while at a group level there can be a “democracy of tribes” this is not the stuff of which individualist liberal democracies are made. But we should not look disdainfully from a distance at these tribal societies, congratulating ourselves on our progress. The makeover from tribesman to citizens took us a long and painful time. We did not become a true universal democracy until 1965. Liberal democracy sits often uneasily with us and is hard to maintain against the tribal tendencies that are our default system. I live in New Jersey and I think about it. The battle with the tribes goes on all the time in our heads, and as much as we fight the tribal imagination, we need it. I think about that too.

My first daughter, Kate, was born in hospital, but my second, Ellie, as was the usual English way, was born at home with a midwife in attendance. So I was there at the event, which inspired extreme joy and mild terror at the same time. But the poor mother was immediately whisked away for an operation and was hospitalized for several weeks. I had to take over the baby, prepare her formula, feed her, bathe her, clean her, try to get her to sleep by singing Pueblo Indian and Gaelic lullabies. She would not feed from the bottle, and I am not a patient man. At some point I shoved the rubber teat into her protesting mouth, held it there, and said “Suck dammit, suck!” She burped, gulped and then sucked and survived.

I thus got a chance to experience that aching and beautiful rhythm of the bonding relationship between mother and baby that is usually denied to mere males. Happily her mother returned and recovered and Ellie continued to feed from the bottle. This was her first experience of feeding, and the nurses said she would not now welcome the breast. She was weaned at just more than six months, hit puberty around thirteen, was married at twenty-one and is now the mother of four lovely boys herself and is waiting to be a grandmother, after passing gracefully through menopause.

What’s wrong with this picture? It could only happen if (a) there were medical attention that could take care of the mother, (b) I had the time to do it rather than being out getting the family food, (c) there was mass-produced glass and above all rubber to make the necessary feeding bottles, and (d) baby formula existed to stand in for mother’s milk.

In the natural environment of our evolution, the long drag of the Paleolithic, the mother would have died, and if the baby were to survive there would have to have been a related lactating female who could take over: chancy at best. If she had been suckled it would have been until about three years old, mother’s milk being the only safe and available food. Puberty would have been at no earlier than sixteen, but she would have been married before then, most likely to a much older male. She would have borne as many children as possible, which under truly primitive circumstances would have been only every two or three years, since suckling inhibits ovulation. Half of her children or more would have died. She would, being either pregnant or suckling, have experienced very few menstrual cycles, and she would probably not have made it to menopause, having died - most likely in childbirth – by about thirty-five. She might have been one of the few women who made it through menopause to become helpful grandmothers and thus raise the reproductive chances of their children. This could all only happen with both attached males and females combining to provide for her support: it takes a village – or a band, or a tribe, or charity or a welfare state, or something. A lone mother and child would have died.

Even basic physical things we take for granted – early weaning, early menarche, regular menstruation, small families, menopause and grandmother-hood, are in fact recent inventions. Bottle feeding, while I treasure it for the personal experience it gave me, is a revolutionary intrusion into nurturing. Early menarche (which is worth its own discussion) is just as intrusive, as is a relatively long life span. Above all, contraception, and especially chemical contraception, which suppress those newfound regular periods by kidding the body it is pregnant, is a profoundly paradoxical intrusion. Do we really know what we are doing here? More soon.

The next blog Puberty Too Soon will advance this argument by looking at the drastic fall in the age of menarche and how this intrusion of industrial civilization affects the tribal female body and health.
The Pineal Gland, that Descartes thought was the location of the human soul.

USA Today for April 11 had a lengthy article (a front page feature) on the phenomenon of the falling age of menarche: “Puberty Too Soon: Girls are maturing faster than ever, and doctors aren’t sure why.” It carried a string of suggestions for its cause, though none was conclusive and some were non-starters: obesity through insulin and leptin, but leptin is not a trigger of early puberty just a necessary condition; prematurity which results in obesity through “catch-up growth”; genetics in that black girls in the USA mature earlier than white – although this was not true 100 years ago and is not true in Africa; environmental chemicals, although 90% of us have them in our bodies not just girls; screen time – with no known correlation; and, of course, “family stress” - as though historically no families were ever stressed.

The dropping age at menarche was one example I chose in an earlier blog of the physical effects of civilization on the “savage metabolism” - part of the story of The Tribal Imagination. Civilization’s effects on the savage mind start with its effects on the Paleolithic body. Records exist from Scandinavia since about 1840, and show that girls then hit puberty at about 16 or 17. Now they can start as early as 7. In Germany researchers note that in 1860 the average age at menarche was 16.6 years, in 1920 14.6, in 1950 13.1 in 1980 12.5, while in 2010 the average had dropped to 10.5. The trend is similar for all Western developed nations. Figures from the developing world show a different picture with the average for 15 to 17 years, although the more developed the country, the greater the drop.

The figures are very familiar, but the raw figures do not tell the whole story. I have been interested in this problem since working with John Tanner and his associates at the University of London in the 1960s. His Growth at Adolescence (1972) was a milestone and among other things he found the spurt in testosterone at puberty that shoots boys into rapid growth and sexual maturity, and that does not seem to have been affected. It is much the same now as it was in the past or is in the developing world. What is it with the “secular” downward trend in girls?

An excellent website suitably called “average age at menarche” from the Museum of Menstruation and Mental Health is good with the details and the graphs. I think the answer is hidden in their graphs. They cite the following as possible causes: “better nutrition” leads the field followed by improved environment; smaller families; natural selection; climate warming; declining disease; obesity; sedentary lifestyle; chemicals; hormones; sex on TV and of course the usual stress at home. There is no conclusive data to prove any of these. But they have a graph, actually from a paper by Tanner and an associate, that shows that age at menarche in Finland, Poland, Romania, India and South Africa is up to two years later in rural than in urban areas.

There is a clue here that was taken up by researchers in the seventies but that seems to have been forgotten since, and never appears in the popular accounts like the one in USA Today. The whole “better nutrition” and “fat in the diet” theory failed when Scandinavian data showed that country girls, well fed and heavy on the butter, cheese and cream, still hit menarche much later than their urban counterparts. And the difference had become intensified once artificial lighting was introduced to cities and towns (gas light and then electricity.) The country girls were still governed by the circadian rhythms of the natural light cycle – by available daylight. Their town cousins on the other hand, had daylight extended by artificial light at both ends, resulting a day that was often twice as long in light intensity as the natural day – particularly in the winter.

What has this to do with early puberty? The suggestion was that it lay in the pineal gland. This small gland in the brain, lying between the two hemispheres (and shaped like a tiny pine cone, hence its name) is large in children and calcifies with age. Researchers at Yale in 1958 discovered that the major product of the gland was a derivative of tryptophan, a hormone they called melatonin, which is stimulated by darkness and inhibited by light. One function of this hormone seems to be to hold back sexual development in females. Female rats who either had their pineal glands removed or were subjected to constant light, had abnormally early development of the ovaries. The more light the body is subject to, was the conclusion, the more rapidly it stops its production of melatoninin thus releasing the body to develop sexually. I summarized these references in The Red Lamp of Incest in 1980. The relevance to the study of incest is obvious in that the drop in age of menarche thrusts families into a condition that is radically different from the one in which we evolved: our “environment of evolutionary adpatedness” where girls matured in their late teens even though they were usually married earlier.

Could this be the simple clue? Our young girls are bombarded with ever more intense and intrusive light, including lately that from TV and fluorescent lighting, and their daylight hours are literally “unnaturally” lengthened almost to breaking point. The pineal gland, geared to the natural light cycle, responds with a drop in melatonin production and the gates to maturity are opened at an earlier and earlier age. We have reached a low of 7 and the ever-eager merchandisers are promoting padded bras and lipstick for seven-year olds. How low can it go? We don’t know as we don’t know so much about the effects of civilization on the savage mind and body, but we seem to be reaching a limit.

Why does this not affect boys? It does somewhat – their age at puberty has indeed dropped but much, much less. The massive growth spurt that Tanner discovered, derived as it is from the independent source of testosterone, remains unaffected by lengthening and intensity of light. (Girls get some more testosterone but significantly less than boys.) The boys grow faster and bigger than they did, but they mature sexually at a similar rate to their ancestors. This then becomes one more example of how we intrude into the evolved order of things with consequences we did not intend but which can become a disaster.

This all of course affects our concern with the “problem” of teenage pregnancy, but that is for another time. Read on.

I have kept promising to deal with this topic and not delivering, partly because I expect you know what I am going to say. The “problem” of teenage pregnancy is a further example of the burdens civilization puts on our evolved human natures. Faced with the consequences of these burdens the media will scream “epidemic” and the social scientists “pathology” and the like (and demand more funds to study the problem.) But let us try to assimilate the lessons of our earlier examples. What we have here in the USA, and to some extent in the developed world generally, is the "problem” of healthy, fertile, active, post-adolescent females of childbearing age having babies. What exactly is the problem here? Isn’t this what they are supposed to be doing?

Our answers tell the story. Yes, they are supposed to, but not until they are out of school, married with an economic support system, and successfully launched on some route to gainful employment. But wait a minute: this is not a problem with the girls and their babies but with the context in which they have to have them. It is all very well, you will say, to claim that they are doing what comes naturally, but the world they live in is not natural. It has laid down certain conditions for them to have babies most of which require that they go through adolescence without having babies while they fit themselves for life in the world as we have defined it for them.

This is indeed a world manufactured according to a male view of the life cycle in which the adolescent years should be spent proving oneself ready for adulthood, accumulating knowledge and skills, and setting up the conditions to have and support a family. In the developed world this period of transition to adulthood gets further and further expanded, as the skills needed become more and more complex. For women to “compete” in this world they have to forget any ideas of early motherhood and follow the male pattern. The women’s movement itself demands the “right” to do this and his been largely successful. To be a “success” in this man’s world you have to be better at being a man than the men are.

In the developing rest of the world this pattern is not set. As a rough estimate the less developed the country the higher the rates of teenage pregnancy. We can divide the societies in the United Nations Demographic Yearbook roughly into these two categories and look at the percentage of births to women under twenty. In the developed countries it is (again roughly) 40%, and in the developing 90%. Until very, very recently in the world’s history the latter was the “normal” rate. It was also the biologically sensible strategy.

If average life expectancy was around 35, with many women never seeing menopause, and if the infant mortality rate was up to 80%, then the reproductively successful strategy would be to have children early (menarche would have been at about sixteen plus) and every year thereafter. As we saw in an earlier blog, in the developed world, ironically, the age at menarche has been rapidly dropping until now ten to twelve (and below) is not uncommon. This would have been a reproductive advantage in the past, but in the “developed” present it only compounds the “problem” of “babies having babies.” We do not want them to do this in their adolescent years, but we are, probably as a result of artificial lighting, pushing the possibility to younger and younger ages. This is a real problem.

Is there any reason other than the massive inconvenience that it causes us because of our male-dominated career expectations, to think teenage mothers are incapable of excellent motherhood? None whatsoever. If it were so we would not be here discussing this “problem.” Ninety-nine percent of your female ancestors were teenage mothers. Natural selection understands very well that given a support system the teenage mother is the best mother.

Spontaneous abortions, for example, are much less frequent than with older women. Serious health problems are many times more likely with births to older women. Watch a teenage mother cradling her baby and the deep intuitive sense of care that she exhibits. If something is “pathological” here it not her and her baby; it is us and the conditions that we impose on her. We can claim this is “progress” or whatever we like. But we are responsible for telling her body something it knows is wrong: that it is not ready for motherhood and must postpone this indefinitely until it meets the novel demands of (male) industrial civilization.

The USA in fact with a teen pregnancy rate hovering between 50% and 60% could be seen as leading the revolt against the unnatural conditions. Rates peaked in the eighties, declined in the nineties and now seem to be on the rise again. The decline in teen birthrates is attributed to legal abortions and that in pregnancies to increased use of contraceptives. No one seems able to account for the rise. Lower teenage birthrates in less developed “developed” countries are often the result of aggressive abortion policies. There are differences for race, class, ethnic and religious categories and combinations of these. All these are interesting, but the fact remains that many teenage girls who could perfectly well use contraception do not do so, and do what their bodies and millions of years of evolution are telling them to do and having babies.

If the whole society has to take care of them then that is a reasonable evolutionary expectation too. “A support system” of some sort or other was always assumed to be part of the scheme; young mothers were not expected to survive alone. At least they had their female relatives and some form of male help: males with a stake in the children – from husbands to maternal uncles, providing protection and bringing home the animal protein. If this is not there for them now it is not their fault but ours.

The answer to the “problem” may lie not in some kind of re-education of perfectly normal young women, but in a re-thinking of the female life trajectory that we have thrust upon them, a life trajectory that is essentially male. To do this of course would fly in the face of all the “progress” claimed by the women’s movements over the past fifty years. Equality may have been wrongly defined in the first place. In any case, it comes at a cost. Perhaps we can’t put the clock back, but we can try to make better use of the time.

Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood were first cousins. She was his mother’s brother’s daughter. They had ten children, of whom three died: not uncommon in the nineteenth century. The survivors went on to distinguished careers and successful marriages. This kind of first-cousin marriage was almost commonplace in nineteenth-century England where dense webs of kinship and affinity united upper-middle class business and professional families. Adam Kuper has recently written an excellent account of them in Incest and Influence: The Private Life of Bourgeois England (Harvard UP. 2010.) It was not only the bourgeoisie. Princess Victoria married her first cousin Albert, and European monarchies were interrelated with each other in networks of cousin alliances.

In Victoria’s case this had some bad results in that the recessive gene for hemophilia passed through females and manifested in males, was perpetuated through her descendants. The young Tsarevich Alexei is the best know example, although the Bolsheviks saw to it that he did not live to die of the disease. This is often cited by opponents of cousin marriage, but people with hemophilia in the family generally would know about it and would do well to be screened along with their intended spouse, cousin or not. George Darwin, Charles’s eldest son and a fine mathematician, did the first known surveys of the supposed deleterious results of (first) cousin marriage and, despite sharing his father’s concern about his own marriage, found them to be exaggerated and even found a lower incidence of insanity in cousin marriages. He was also the first person to find that close-cousin marriages were more fertile than others, but that this was offset by a slightly higher infant mortality rate. No studies since have shown close cousin marriages to be more than slightly more risky than the marriages of unrelated people; they pose about the same risk as a woman having children after forty. Nevertheless, the idea persists that such marriages always lead to defective and diseased offspring, and 30 US States forbid first-cousin marriage to this day. The stereotype of the inbred idiot fostered by such films as Deliverance is still predominant.

As an anthropologist I am forced to face the fact that for the vast majority of our existence as a species close cousin marriage must have been the norm, if for no other reason than that most of the time there was no one but cousins to marry. Indeed I have spent much of my professional life analyzing the complexities of systems of marriage that not only allowed but insisted on cousin marriage by rule. Not only was it not forbidden, it was prescribed, often with a particular degree of detail. You were enjoined, for example, to marry your mother’s brother’s daughter but not your father’s sister’s daughter, or required to marry a mother’s father’s sister’s daughter’s daughter, and forbidden to marry a father’s father’s sister’s daughter’s daughter.

The details don’t matter. What matters is that in small-scale societies with low mobility, spouses were drawn from a pool of close relatives. Marriage relationships once set up were perpetuated over the generations by the rules of cousin marriage. Even in nomadic societies like the ancestors of the Semitic people, marriage with a close cousin was prescribed. The ideal marriage was between the children of two brothers, and this remains the norm in Arab and Muslim societies today. (You can find details in my Kinship and Marriage, and The Tribal Imagination.)

Students ask: “Why then did our ancestors not all die out as the result of genetic inbreeding?” Good question. The answer is on the one hand that those supposed bad effects only are dangerous if there is bad stock to begin with. On the contrary, if the genetic stock is good, then close inbreeding would perpetuate it. (Think of thoroughbred horses.) On the other hand, it has been shown that even if genetic diversity is slightly lowered by inbreeding, small periodic doses of out-breeding rapidly restore it. Also, if there are true deleterious effects then those carrying them would rapidly die out and the bad genes with them. The problem would be self-correcting. (See my Red Lamp of Incest.)

Whatever way you look at it, we today are the products of millennia of cousin marriages, so there must have been something right about them (as with teenage pregnancies.) The vast majority of your ancestors were the products of cousin marriage. Indeed, if most of your ancestors had not married among themselves you personally would have had more ancestors in the time of Christ than there were people then. Until the population mobility that was a consequence of the geographical discoveries - and even in most places for long after, kissing cousins were the norm.

When we look at mating in general for sexually reproducing species - across the board from plants to mammals, we find the same thing. There is a tendency to avoid mating with primary relatives (mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter) – to avoid the closest inbreeding, but not to dissipate the genes with too much out-breeding. Beneficial genetic traits have to be preserved. Genetic diversity on which natural selection can work is thus preserved, but the successful strains are not weakened. Breed out, but not too far out, seems to be the rule of thumb. We already have the terms “endogamy” for marriage-in and “exogamy” for marriage-out, so perhaps we could call the marriage of close cousins “mediogamy” if we want to coin a term. Thus for humans mediogamy is in fact an ideal solution. But some cousins may be more ideal than others.

When I was looking at the way in which under “natural” conditions human groups split up and disperse, I came up with the following “law” (in The Tribal Imagination, HUP 2011):

The probability that any human group will fragment increases in proportion to the decrease in the average coefficient of relationship among its members.

Corollary: The groups produced by the fragmentation will have a higher average coefficient of relationship than the parent group.”

In plainer English, the less closely over time that the members of the group become related to each other, the more likely they are to split up.

I continued: “If the average degree of relationship falls below, say, r = .0020  (roughly the relationship between fourth cousins) then a split is likely to occur, with more highly related people making up the smaller groups.”  Indeed at this level the relationship between two such "kin" would be no greater than that of two randomly related individuals in the population.

This was just a theoretical expectation. But could it be that there is some decided evolutionary advantage to such a splitting process that would help explain it? A correspondent of mine, Dr M. L. Herbert called my attention to two studies from Iceland and Denmark that demonstrated with accurate numbers a very solid fact:

Close cousin marriages are much more fertile than more distant cousin marriages.

These studies replicated, but with far more exact figures, George Darwin’s early hunch in the same direction.

It can indeed be made more precise. The data from Iceland, where exact records of such things have been kept for many years, show a simple direct correlation. In order of fertility (average number of children per marriage) we get first and second cousin marriage at the top (with second slightly higher), a falling off in fertility with third cousin, and then an increasing decline. After fourth cousin the rate of fertility rapidly drops below replacement. Now, fourth cousin was where I placed the outer limit for the growth of the natural group, after which it would start to split up to create smaller groups with a higher degree of relatedness. What the material to which Dr Herbert drew my attention shows is that this is precisely the point at which the fertility of the group would start to decline below replacement if it persisted at that size. Groups that split up, in other words, and went back to closer-cousin marriage, would ultimately outbreed those that stayed too large. It is as if they were anticipating the drastic drop in fertility if the group grew larger. See the graph below from the article in Science on the Icelandic data. Also, if you go to Dr Herbert's website you will find his expansion of this idea to ancient civilizations and even the current decline in fertility worldwide. They lead to what may be a general law that links to my observations on group fission:

The lower the average degree of relationship in an breeding group, the lower the average fertility.

In other words, if groups do grow larger and matings become largely those with less related people, then their fertility will decline to the point of dying out. Their route to survival is to split into smaller breeding isolates with higher degrees of fertility and so keep their population numbers above replacement level. The rule is the opposite of Edward Tylor's famous "Marry out or Die out" it is in fact "Marry in or Die out."

I simply asserted that groups would split to avoid the overexploitation of resources (to maintain the optimal number) but Herbert's data suggest a deeper level of causation. In fact in a brilliant experiment he did with a colleague on fruit flies, where the food level was kept constant, the rapidly breeding flies rapidly reached a point where their population just collapsed. This might explain also all those sudden surges and then collapses in population we get among rabbits and jungle rats for example. They seem self correcting. Why? Perhaps we now have an answer and one that may go further to the root of the collapse of civilizations for example than the resource dominated theories of Jared Diamond and other ecologists, or the theory that higher costs of children in developed societies means that as a rational decision parents will reduce family size.

I think the consequences of this congruence of data and theory requires some more thought; for example: why are the closer cousin marriages more fertile? Whatever the reason is, it gives them an enormous advantage in evolutionary terms. But the data do suggest that there is a good evolutionary reason for the prevalence of close-cousin marriage that we in the USA might have overlooked in our rush to label such marriages as “abnormal.” One reason that distant or non-consanguineous marriages are less fertile, Herbert argues, is that the more distantly related we get the closer we are to speciation: in the normal process of evolution about 2,000 generations seems to be the limit after which the genes of the two strangers simply do not "recognize" one another and will not combine.  An intriguing idea. If we consistently marry genetic strangers then we push closer to the edge of speciation - of splitting into sub-species.

Far from being abnormal, cousin marriages are more likely one of those entirely “normal” drumbeats of tribal wisdom that we would do well to heed. I am sharing this data as a way into a wider discussion of the cousin marriage issue. For example: the further our modern populations have moved away from close-cousin marriage (in Europe initially at the insistence of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches which banned such marriages), the lower our fertility has dropped. (To be clear, initially, after the Reformation when the bans on cousin marriage were dropped in Protestant nations, we had an upsurge in fertility.  I don't know if this went with an increase in cousin marriage.  Query?  Also query the effect of the adoption of the Napoleonic Code on European peasant marriages? )  In those “underdeveloped” parts of the world where it persists, fertility is rising and better medical care means more of the children of these fertile cousin unions survive. Questions to be asked!


“An Association between Kinship and Fertility of Human Couples.” Agnar Helgason et al. Science, 2008, 319, pp. 813-816 (Icelandic couples)

“Comment on: An Association between Kinship and Fertility of Human Couples.” Rodrigo Labouriau & Antonino Amorim, Science, 2008, 332 no. 908, p. 1634. (Danish couples)

Dr M. L. Herbert’s website: Go to “Main Page” for data on relatedness and fertility.

M. L. Herbert and M. G. Lewis "Fluctuations of Fertility in a Real Insect Population and a Virtual Population." Journal of African Entomology, 21(1) : 119-126, 2013

Wright, Sewall (1922). "Coefficients of inbreeding and relationship". American Naturalist 56: 330–338

Jared Diamond, "Life with the Artificial Anasazi" Nature 419 : 567-569

Alan Bittles, Consanguinity in Context (CUP 2010)

Pat Bateson, "Optimal Outbreeding" in Mate Choice (CUP 1983)

The Icelandic Data on Cousin Marriage and Fertility
The following diagram (again from the Herbert website) shows decling rates of fertility from 1950 to 2005 for the world population divided into most developed, least developed and medium developed nations. The human surge in population again seems to be correcting itself: as the population grows, people become less and less related, and fertility rates drop. This is not just true for the devloped countries but also for the least developed. Of course the cause could not be the drop in consanguinity but something else; the argument should be pursued.
Fuseli – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Titania’s Awkening

When I was about ten years old (in 1944) I came near to death from spinal meningitis. I remember vividly the scene in the small bedroom in that northern English town with my parents, the doctor and the vicar standing round the bed. The doctor said “I think he’s gone” and at that moment I found myself gazing down on the scene from above, seeing my mother crying and the vicar’s shiny bald head bowed in prayer over the still figure in the bed. Almost instantly I was back in my body and blinked my eyes to general rejoicing and prayers of thanksgiving. It was an “out of body experience” of course, and as we know, quite common. At the time I thought it was a special example of God’s grace and intentions for me: he had led me to the edge, allowed me to see myself at the point of death, and then sent me back into the land of the living. I kept it to myself.

Shortly afterwards, as I was beginning to read what I wanted to read not what I was told to read, I stumbled across the works of Dennis Wheatley. He is now pretty much forgotten but then he was one of the biggest things in publishing: his books sold a million copies a year. A lot of it was standard espionage stuff and some pretty good historical spy stories, but a lot also was what was then filed under “occult” in the free lending libraries I haunted. Wheatley’s characters indulged their skullduggery and heroism on the “astral plane”: a parallel level of reality, the entry to which involved them in learning to control their own dreams and enter the dreams of others. At the time I thought this was all Wheatley’s clever invention in The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter and the like. Hammer made films of a few of these and recently Leonardo di Caprio starred in  Inception – a high-tech astral adventure. Wheatley was not a psychologist (he was a wine merchant and amateur historian) but he was well read in the occult literature of “astral projection” from Tibetan Buddhism to the Rosicrucians to W. B. Yeats’ Society of the Golden Dawn.

I was prepared to leave it there, but on starting to read anthropology I came across the shaman and the spirit journey through the works of Mircea Eliade and immediately saw the connection to another personal experience. Have you ever been dreaming and at some point known that you were dreaming? Usually it is under some impossible or embarrassing circumstance (walking outside without clothes on for example) and you simply say “this is a dream” and wake up. But have you ever lingered a few seconds while falling or flying or being on the edge of promising sex and said “I know I’m dreaming, but I can keep this going”? Usually you can’t, but many people have trained themselves to and are experts in what was named “lucid dreaming” by Friedrik van Eeden in 1913, but had been recognized as a phenomenon at least since Aristotle. I had many such episodes with brief periods of lucid (or conscious) dreaming and also the more spectacular “false awakening” where you know you are dreaming and then dream that you have woken up! But your ”waking” state, which often involves your usual bedroom surroundings, is yet another dream which you will usually recognize as such and then wake up.

Again I had thought these to be oddities of my own experience, but clearly lucid dreaming was something developed and operated by shamans, and was obviously, in its developed state, something not that far from the adventures on the astral plane of Wheatley’s imagination. Could those old occultists have been on to something? A namesake, but no known relative, Oliver Fox wrote a book on Astral Projection about the time Wheatley was writing his occult novels, which contains some of the most graphic accounts of lucid dreaming. Since then there has been a positive accumulation of psychological and physiological research on the topic that has gone along with the burgeoning of research on dreaming generally. (See Celia Green and Charles McCreery, Lucid Dreaming: The paradox of consciousness during sleep. Routledge 1994. A whole website is devoted to it: The discovery of REM sleep revolutionized our ideas about the function of dreams, particularly their relationship to short and long term memory. Future blogs will address this relationship.

But for now what about the out-of-body experience? It is a class of “hallucinatory experiences” where the subject is convinced of the reality of something that isn’t there. “Apparitions” (or “visions” or “epiphanies” if you approve of them) come into this category as does the phenomenon of “sensed presence” (“Who is the third who always walks beside us?” asked T. S. Eliot) so strongly felt by Scott and the exhausted Antarctic explorers, and the source of a whole history of “encounters” with the supernatural. (See Gabriel Herman “Greek Epiphanies and the Sensed Presence.” Historia: Journal of Ancient History, 60:2, pp.127-57, 2011.) All of these “states” coming as they mostly do in conditions of sleep deprivation and exhaustion, can, if I interpret the data correctly, been seen as “waking dream” states where subjects are somewhere between sleep and waking, conscious but not conscious, and so in effect momentarily dreaming. My near death out-of-body “vision” was perhaps a brief  lucid dream, or a brief false awakening.

You must see her text (p. 55) for more details and the connection of the dots, including why she thinks UFO experiences might be waking dreams (and alien abductions rationalizations of “sleep paralysis.”) But on surveying all this material it became clear to me that I had not had idiosyncratic experiences (I had long ceased to think they were visitations from the almighty) but experiences common to all mankind and the source of much that is most basic to our religious and philosophical thought as a species. Dreams might be, as Freud said, the royal road to the unconscious, but how to account for the paradox of consciousness while unconscious? The vicar’s bald head and Dennis Wheatley’s spy stories might lead us further into the fascination of dreams, which while having specific cultural content are a universal biological phenomenon. Interesting.

Why Do We Dream?  Brain, Memory, Rhyme...

Further to our discussion of dreams. We spend a third of our lives asleep and most of that dreaming. Why do we dream? In The Tribal Imagination I was discussing the role of rhyme in verse, its history and its biology. This led to the following discussion of dreams, brains, evolution, rhymes, concepts, metaphor meter and memory.

Flashback to the hominid brain and its evolution of lateralization: the division of functions between the hemispheres: the most amazing development since the origin of the brain itself. Words that rhyme are processed in the left hemisphere of the brain, the home of language, linearity and analysis. The pattern of a rhyme scheme, its chunkiness, is detected by the right hemisphere, the home of wholeness, of gestalt. The confluence of the two unites the hemispheres (via the corpus callosum) and drives the whole brain, including the emotional functions of the limbic system and the arousal of the pleasure centers and their opioids. When linked to metrical rhythm it involves the movement-control activities of the cerebellum and the motor cortex. Literacy and rhyme together change the brain; they set up new neuronal patterns, but patterns that tap into the most basic of that organ’s basic processes.

Memory was the mother of the muses, and so a major function of the meter-rhyme combination is mnemonic. I have described elsewhere, following the neglected but path-breaking work of Jonathan Winson, the chemical process by which language (along with all other experience) is first stored in the cyngulate gyrus, in preparation for processing into memory. During Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, or “dreaming” as we know it, this chemical material, along with other “day residue” (Freud’s term) is passed through the hippocampus where “neuronal gates” progressively release it to circulate through the limbic system, the old-mammalian emotional center of the brain.

We cannot remember everything. Memory has to be selective, but on what principle? For any material, including concepts couched in language, to get into long-term memory, the dreaming brain must first translate it into images so that it can be emotionally “vetted.” This is done by input from the emotional brain, especially the amygdala but also the septum and the cerebellum, and then it is transmitted back to the frontal lobes for storage, via the hypothalamus and the thalamus. This happens about four times a night, and deeper levels of retrieving and processing are reached and then recede as the REM dream-sleep continues.

Memory is older than language; it worked entirely on images before language came along, very late in primate/hominid evolution. In consequence words must be accompanied by, or be converted into, images, in order to enter memory. Primate dreaming had accommodated sound, but words are more than sound: they are concepts and categories; they have meaning. Dreams are always visual; there is no such thing as a purely linguistic dream - sound without symbol. Metaphor and simile are two basic ways to provide the memory with ready-made images and symbols, and must have been there in the Ur-language of mankind, which was probably closer to poetry than prose, as Vico proposed in the eighteenth century.

But, as Jonathan Winson insists, “abstract concepts arising with language… can only be integrated into our unconscious brain mechanism by translation into visual scenes and action.” Thus concepts must become images before they can be lodged in long-term memory. Some of the strangeness of dreams is a result of this conversion process, this “need for representability” as Freud called it. It also explains why our concepts and categories like Time for example, are not simply abstract and logical but are loaded with emotion. Time is an old father, with tide it waits for no man, it marches on, there is a nick of time, we beat time, we mark time, we keep time, we spend time, we waste time, and if we commit a crime, we do time, perhaps until our time is up.

The “stamping in” to long-term memory takes about three years, studies of memory loss have shown. During this stamping-in process the human brain compares incoming material with already-stored experience and not just with basic instincts as in the “theta rhythm” of other mammals, exemplified when your dog twitches in his sleep in pursuit of phantom rabbits. This may be one huge and crucial exception to the rule that we do not lose anything in evolution. The human loss of theta rhythms (starting with the mammals: the monotremes have large brains but don’t dream) may have been one of the most liberating developments in our evolutionary history. It released memory from instinct so that memory could build directly on memory itself. The brain then stores only that which meets the test of emotional appropriateness. That is, it stores material seen as relevant to stored experience – a lot of this being experience from early childhood, and therefore retained. Charles Dickens understood this uncannily well. Pip asks Estella in the movie of Great Expectations if she remembers making him cry as boy. She tells him no, and adds that he meant nothing to her so why should she remember? She says: “You know Pip I have no heart. Perhaps that is why I have no memory.”

I have in the past used the example of totemic categories and their instillation during the initiation ceremonies of young men, to make the point. The rules of the totem clan or moiety (rules of marriage and exogamy for example,) perhaps the most archaic of social rules, are concepts that are most effectively learned as dramatic images – snake, bear, wolf, eagle, raven, crow, coyote, emu, and the legends associated with them. These are instilled into the boys’ during often-painful and dramatic rituals over a long period, and dreamed into memory. In fact we learn better from trauma than normality, and male rats seem to learn more from “inescapable stress” than female rats. The actual process is complicated and the reader must look to the details in The Red Lamp of Incest and The Search for Society, and to the theory proposed by Francis Crick and Graeme Mitchison (at the much the same time as Winson) that dreaming is an aid to selective forgetting. But despite the complexities, the general point about meter, rhyme and memory is obvious.

Rhyme schemes are compressed and powerful images like “death/breath” -“womb/tomb/doom – “lust-thrust-dust.” Every rhyme scheme is a little metaphor; every poem is a little ritual. Ted Hughes, in his book on Shakespeare’s “ritual drama” sees metaphor as a result of the brief perfect combination of left and right hemisphere interaction that produces a momentary “convulsive expansion of awareness.” So rhymes, added to the power of meter, and embodied in the “heightened reality” of metaphors, are a ready-made system of images for the dreaming brain to work on in its task of vetting the emotional appropriateness of potential memories. It is not then just that rhyme helps memory; rhyme is part of the metaphorical process of memorizing itself.

Some references:

Robin Fox: “Playing by the Rules: Savage Rhythms and Civilized Rhymes” Chapter 9 in The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind. (Harvard UP, 2011.)

“The Matter of Mind” Chapter 7 in The Red Lamp of Incest (Notre Dame Press, 1983)

“The Passionate Mind: Brain, Dreams, Memory, Evolution and Social Categories.” Chapter 8 in The Search for Society (Transaction 1989)

Jonathan Winson, Brain and Psyche: The Biology of the Unconscious (Doubleday 1985)

Francis Crick and Graeme Mitchison, “The Function of Dream Sleep.” Nature 304, 111-114, 1983

Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (1992.)
                                                     SEXY SANTAS: A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS?

Two things struck me in my usual fretful and often futile search for suitable Christmas presents this year. One was the profusion of “Sexy Santas” used in advertising, including sexy elves and all combinations thereof. Scantily clad nubile females cavort in Santa or elf costumes often in provocative poses. What they are doing in a skimpy version of the traditional ceremonial costume of an old fat bearded male descendant of a Christian saint is not immediately clear. (I am writing this while listening to Eartha Kit singing: “Santa Baby. Hurry down the chimney tonight!”) The other thing was, in SW Florida where I am spending the holiday week this year, the profusion of images of jolly fat Santas in their red fur costumes with fur lined hats and snow boots. With their Scandinavian reindeer (semi-domesticated) and sleighs they prance past Styrofoam snowmen through the semi-tropical world of palm trees, hibiscus, bougainvillea and alligators, with the temperature at more than eighty degrees Fahrenheit. The proverbial visitor from Mars would surely be puzzled at what seems to be a blatant anomaly (or two blatant anomalies.) In a master-stroke of accommodation one roadside panorama showed a full-scale Santa in his loaded sleigh being pulled by a team of pink flamingoes. So much for dreaming of a white Christmas!

In Christian societies, technically, Christmas is the celebration of the miraculous events surrounding the birth of a god. Such celebrations were usual in cult religions: Mithras was born from a rock for example, and Hercules strangled serpents in his cradle. Early Christians, competing with these other mystery cults, needed to have a miraculous birth of their own to establish the legitimacy of their particular god. We are not really sure of course at what time of year this god-child was born. The gospel according to Luke (2:18) tells us that at the time of the birth in Bethlehem “There were shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” This could not have been in midwinter in the hills of Galilee or said shepherds would have frozen to death. The only time in fact that shepherds stayed out all night with their flocks was at lambing time to protect the precious newborns from wolves and other predators. It is much more likely then that the miraculous events took place around the spring equinox in March.

As the Jesus cult advanced into northern Europe and became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, it faced the problem of converting and assimilating the northern pagan tribes with their rhythms of agricultural life geared to survival in severe winters. It is well enough known to everyone now that the date of Christmas was established to pre-empt the various pagan midwinter festivals, including the Roman Saturnalia and its northern Yuletide equivalents, and the feast of Sol Invictus established by the emperor Aurelean on December 25th.

The Yuletide festivals were a ritual defiance of winter. On the shortest days of the year around the winter solstice the triumph of fertility and the certainty of rebirth were asserted. It was a liminal time out of time; time was suspended until the sun turned on its course. Fires were ceremonially lit (Yule logs) to symbolize the return of the sun; trees were illuminated – particularly evergreens that symbolized the continuity of life; feasting (large roasted fowl, dried fruit puddings) defied the coming dearth of food; mead brewed from honey and beer brewed from grain gave a pleasant buzz the occasion. The year was to be turned around; the sun would grow each day; life would be renewed.

The mistletoe was particularly important since it bloomed on the dead oak trees in the midst of winter thus symbolizing the power of fertility: the defiance of death. Aeneas was given a “golden bough” of mistletoe by the Sybil to take into the underworld and gain safe passage to Persephone its owner. All these symbols, including the holly, were Christianized with some ingenuity, although Santa and his equivalents proved tricky. The Lord of Misrule did not really fit the Christian scheme even when converted into a Christian saint who rewarded the good deeds of children. The mistletoe stuck with its pagan fertility role. You don’t see a lot of mistletoe in churches.

But then the Christian Church was always ambivalent about its success in hi-jacking the northern midwinter fertility festivals to its cause. It never really solved the problem of how to fully Christianize these pagan elements. Each Christmas in fact the battle is refought. The Puritans outright banned Christmas in England and in Massachusetts, and Catholic bishops in France tried to ban Père Noel without success. Christmas as we know it today was really a Victorian invention, and commerce was in it from the start, capitalizing on Victorian sentimentality about children. In the USA, then predominantly a white Protestant north-European derived culture, the Santa complex took firm root and capitalist enterprise saw to it that the greatest beneficiaries were the tradesmen and manufacturers.

Today we get the ritual intoning of complaints about the “commercialization” of Christmas and the inevitable op-ed pieces and sermons reminding us of the “true” spirit of the festival. In the northern English winters where I grew up in the 30s and 40s there was still a firm sense of the religious side as most important. Christmas Eve and Day were for church; presents were for Boxing Day (“Christmas boxes”), the day after and a public holiday; drinking and festivities and misrule were concentrated on New Year’s Eve. These distinctions seem to have collapsed and the gift-exchanging and parties have taken over. People who are not even Christians celebrate the “season” with gusto. Jews have elevated Hanukah to a major festival since it roughly coincides with the solstice and they will not feel left out. Hindus and Muslims must not know what to make of it, but I’m sure they buy their children presents and enjoy the days off work.

But is the issue really one of crass commercialization versus religious piety? If the Santa complex is not about the birth of the Christian god, what explains its strength and dominance that extends it far from its homeland in Germanic Europe, even to the tropics? What do the Sexy Santas (and elves), and the sleigh-pulling flamingoes tell us? Perhaps that there is some factor of the collective unconscious (if we may borrow from Jung) that is more profound than the tenets of any particular religion. That whether we are in the cold industrial city or the warm sunny tropics we still feel the dread of the soul’s winter and the need to assert the power of life over death, of the fertile over the barren, of the creativity of misrule over the dead hand of order, of joyful madness over puritan sanity. The northern pagans would have liked the Sexy Santas (and elves) and plied them with beer and pudding, and frolicked with them under the mistletoe, and seen this as not at all incompatible with reverencing the birth of the baby who was Sol Invictus: the invincible sun.

                                                                                                                                                                            Mistletoe Kiss
                                                                                                                                                  Sol Invictus with the Moon and Jupiter
THE PYTHON DIET: No weight loss system works, except mine.

The conspicuous consumption of large amounts of fattening food used to be an upper-class privilege, as did obesity.  This is now reversed.  The upper classes consume expensive and exotic food, but in relatively small quantities (“nouvelle cuisine”.)  Stoutness, once a striking advertisement for one’s well-fed status, is no longer socially acceptable.  The turning point probably came in the forties with Dr. John Eager Howard, the genius at Johns Hopkins who invented calorie counting.  He restricted calories for patients and made them do daily exercise, thus the “Johns Hopkins Diet” – the granddaddy of them all.  The exercises were based on those developed for polio victims, including FDR.  His formula of   “eat much less and exercise much more” -- and keep it up, is still basically the only diet that works.

Weight-loss diets used to be imposed primarily for health reasons not for appearance.  But now the diet industry is appealing to the demand for a slender appearance, significantly known as “slimming.”  The slim figure rather than the healthy body is the aim despite pious claims to the contrary.  None of them work.  If any of them did there would not be so many and we would not be faced with an almost weekly announcement of a new and infallible one.  They come in quick succession: the Scarsdale Diet, Nathan Pritkin’s Maximum Weight Loss Diet, the Palm Beach Diet, the Rotation Diet, the Beverly Hills Diet, Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution, the Banana-Milk Diet, the I love New York Diet, Kempner’s Rice Diet, the Magic Mayo Diet, Dr. Stllman’s Quick Inches Off Diet and numerous others – I stopped counting years ago.  Note the use of “classy” names to attract the diet snobs.  The Princeton Diet has arrived but Harvard has been spared.  California as diet heaven has given us the UCLA Diet, or “California Slim” as it is popularly known.  Look at any of the magazines at the check-out counter and be faced with daily claims for miraculous new ways to lose pounds easily (it has to be easy.)

In fact, as Dr Howard fully understood, the only way to lose weight (and this is only necessary in extreme cases) is to eat much less food – not specific foods, just many fewer calories overall (about half what you normally consume) and to exercise regularly.   But the business of how not to eat too much food has paradoxically turned into one of the biggest of the food industries.  It has become the science of what to eat and not gain weight – more or less impossible with any reasonable calorific regime.  Studies have shown that diets more often lead to weight gain.  Because the body does not know the difference between dieting and starving, once a severe dietary regime is concluded, it will voraciously store food as fat as a protection against further unreasonable onslaughts. 

Diets are the Puritan Ethic applied to food.  To “be on a diet” shows that you are a worthy and serious person, not a slob; you are one of the enlightened and the saved.  Obesity has become for our age what adultery was for the Victorians.  The real modern descent into sin and wickedness is a dieter who goes on a junk food binge.  Meanwhile the infallible diets continue to roll out and the rate of obesity goes up and up.  This will continue because evolution has built in certain prejudices to our digestive systems that it will be hard to buck.  Gluttony will remain with us.  We are natural binge eaters and, as the hopelessness of diets shows, only strict discipline can keep us from gorging.  This probably stems from our uncertain past when food was not in steady supply, so we stocked up when it was there, never knowing when the next mammoth might come along.  Why then did we not all get fat, die of heart disease and become extinct?  Because the wild meat had very little saturated fat on it, and we worked off the binges with almost constant, nomadic exercise.  Heavy industry workers and farmers often consume large amounts of calories, but work them off with hard labor.  But we still crave fat – which the body needs – and tend to stuff ourselves if the food is available and we are not stopped by outside pressures or the pressures of conscience

We shall also continue, to the detriment of our systems and in particular to our teeth, to crave sweet things.  Again, our bodies need a certain amount of glucose for energy, and they get this by breaking down carbohydrates into sugar.  But if we can get the sugar directly, this provides an immediate and less costly energy kick.  It would make sense that we should be programmed to seek out these rare sources (honey was a major one) by implanting a craving.  As long as they were indeed scarce, this was a fine motivator.  The problem arises when human ingenuity makes them plentiful; we have no means of stopping the craving except by satisfying it.  Add to this our need for salt and it is safe to predict that we will snack eternally on pretzels and candy bars and greedily consume that other producer of instant (if deceptive) energy based on sugar : alcohol.
I did promise you, however, a diet that worked – perhaps too well.  The Python Diet started for absolute health reasons (I was slim enough) about forty years ago when I was diagnosed with hypertriglyceridemia; my triglycerides were way off the charts: way way off.  A sensible doctor put me on a very strict diet the main point of which was to limit those carbohydrates (high glycemic) that turned into sugar in the body.  This reduced my intake to about 1800 calories a day (as opposed to the US average for a male of around 4000), it not only reduced my triglyceride levels to near normal but I lost about 40 pounds over a few years, and my weight stayed at 145 pounds thereafter.  The “counting” was easy enough: have no more than eight portions of carbos a day, a portion being what you could hold in  one cupped hand.  Try it.  You can eyeball it easily.  It helps if you take it in five small meals (as with The Zone) and make up in protein what you are losing in carbos (as in the reformed Atkins Diet.)   Modest exercise helped: a busy life, and pool exercise for arthritis (like Dr Howard’s patients.)  One drink at most per day; you get used to it.

Fine, you will say, success.  Well.  About ten years ago, being diagnosed with acute prostatitis, I was further instructed to stay away from alcohol, citrus and caffeine, and to take pills (Prelief) to cut down on the acidity of urine.  I was already using acid blockers more than I probably should have been.  I cut back on liquids and essentially overdosed on antacids, going well beyond the suggested doses.  About three years ago I began to notice a sudden weight loss.  I went down about a pound a month until I had lost twenty pounds.  The regular doctors were baffled and tried not to say the C word after canvassing hyperthyroidism, diabetes and even depression.    I had every known test and procedure and nothing was found. 

Not to keep you in suspense, my wonderful chiropractor in Princeton NJ, Dr. Lio, who had been often the only reliever of my arthritic pain, hit on the solution and stemmed my panic.  The deluge of antacids had made the hydrochloric acid levels in my stomach so low, he said, that I was no longer producing the enzyme pepsin.  Without pepsin we cannot metabolize protein, which in consequence passes right through us.  Pepsin is the enzyme that allows pythons, to digest alligators whole: but they have several thousand times the amount we need. (“Pepsi”  is so called because it originally contained pepsin  to help digestion.)  Dr Lio ordered me to drink plenty of water, and take pepsin pills (Betain - with hydrochloric acid.)  I added Vitamin b12  because I knew I would be low on this with no protein.  I took the pills with food every day, beefed up protein intake, and dropped the antacids.  Within weeks I was putting weight back on, soon reached my 145, and have stayed there ever since.   A procedure (Green Light) relieved the prostatitis, Crestor controls the triglycerides, and my weight has remained steady ever since, after eventually dropping the pepsin pills and restricting the antacids.

So there you are.  From all this we can deduce The Python Diet.   If you really want to lose weight:

(a) halve your caloric intake,
(b) exercise a lot,  and
(c) seriously overdose on antacids, particularly acid blockers.

You’ll lose weight, but you won’t like it…
Robin Fox, “Food and Eating Out: With a Note on Shopping Malls.”  In The Challenge of Anthropology, New Brunswick NJ: Transaction, 1994.
Eaton, S. Boyd, Marjorie Shostak, and Melvin J. Konner, The Paleolithic Presscription: A Program of Diet and Exercise and a Design for Living.  New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
       London’s burning, London’s burning,
             Fire fire!  Fire fire!
   Send the engine, send the engine,
       But we have no water.
Old four-part round from the Great Fire of London, 1688
We are facing destructive gang violence in London and other English Cities, and in Philadelphia.  In the face of this the Prime Minister of Great Britain and the Mayor of Philadelphia chose to lecture the parents of the gang members on “responsibility.”  It’s your fault, they said.  If you don’t control your children we can’t do it for you.  We’ll just have to put you all in jail.  Cameron attributed the whole thing to “moral decline” – eerily reminiscent of Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise speech” (although the word never appeared in it.)  When government policy fails, declare the people inadequate.
It’s not as though this is something new in its raw elements.  The London and New York mobs have through the centuries been a force in politics, and riots are nothing new in American cities.  When I arrived in this country in 1967 at Newark, my car was searched for weapons down to the hubcaps, and the town was burning.  Then the rioting was about race, as were the Notting Hill riots in full force when I first came to the US from London in 1958.  Then as now the rioting there spread to Birmingham.  Cameron has brought in ex-NYPD chief Bill Bratton, but he, extrapolating from his US experience, again sees it as a matter of race, which it isn’t.  Bratton’s reputation stems from the drop in violent crime in New York after his crack down methods.  (Guiliani and he fight for the credit.)  But those were years when crime fell universally in American cities regardless of the policing methods.
Others have seen the obvious parallels with the Arab Spring and the massing of young people in the streets demanding democracy.  Again there is not much real connection at the level of ideas and demands. The British and Philadelphia youths were not demanding democracy: they have democracy.  They can vote or run for office.  They cannot demand a rule of law: they have a rule of law and will get a fair trial.  They might be seen to be demonstrating for “jobs” – but most of them have never had jobs: they don’t know what they are.  A great many of them were more concerned to loot and rob than to lay down their lives for freedom or whatever.
So what is it about?  I have been arguing in this blog that the default system of society is the collectivist tribal system, and that we only maintain a precarious balance in the maintenance of a non-tribal form of individualist democratic society (or “civilization” as we like to call it.)  We can maintain that system relatively well when times are prosperous and people are content.  In such times they trust their elected governments, and even if these fail from time to time, there is enough of a cushion to get by.  When times get truly bad however, and “unemployment” – something unknown in tribal societies  - affects hordes of young people, trust in government evaporates and “malaise” sets in.  People cease to trust the state and look to the more basic tribal forms of collective existence.  I phrased one outcome as: “When the state fails to protect, people turn to the older certainty of kinship.” This, if we remember, is the strength of the tribal organization: the tribe protects its members against other tribes and against the inefficient and even predatory state.  It is the “Mafia solution.”  We don’t know the degree of actual kinship relationship among gang members in London – it would be something to find out.  But by means of blood brotherhood or its equivalent the tribal gangs become the functional equivalent of clans within larger tribes.
The street gang is the tribal response to a failure of the state to provide confidence in or the means to achieve a good life in the general society.  When “youths” expect nothing from the society, they can find security and identity in the gang.  It will protect them against other gangs – for inevitably they return to the tribal feuding system, and give them a sense of belonging to something when they have no sense of belonging to the larger society.  This can largely affect members of immigrant or racially segregated communities – all will depend on the local history.  But the gang rioters in London were not exclusively such.  There were plenty of “white” youths of both sexes among the rioting tribal children.  The gangs came together to attack the state and the agents and symbols of the state, not for any sense of rational gain but to express their tribal anger.  They defied authority and destroyed property in an orgy of pure tribal fury: albeit cell-phone organized tribal fury as befits the times. They faced off against the police and counted coup on them as the young warriors of the tribe are supposed to do.  There are few tribal rituals that do not include fire. 
It has to be seen as a purely expressive sequence of acts.  It is the only way it makes sense.  But  the authorities of the state cannot view it this way.  That is a luxury belonging to observers like anthropologists.  So what can the observers offer by way of a solution?  Not much.  We have here a depressed underclass that is without much hope of achieving anything by education, the job system or by improving their moral fiber.  In the long run we can try to improve that situation but it doesn’t look hopeful.  In the short run we perhaps have to try to beat the tribal imagination at its own game. 
One thing tribal groups are good at is initiation.  To become a member you must go through the rituals, starting with tattoos and acts of bravado and climaxing in the counting of coup on police or the burning down of buildings and even killing.  How can a society provide anything that can match the excitement and emotional satisfaction of that experience for the young warriors?  One way is through “football hooliganism” which involves over identification with the totemic team and battles with rival totemic hooligans.  But this itself has to be controlled with counter force and produces more problems that it solves.
 What about the calls we are hearing for a “return of national service” (the draft) in the UK? They cannot just be dismissed as right-wing nonsense.  If the depressed underclass is to be given an alternative, the boot camp could be just the thing.  We should turn the problem over to basic training and the drill sergeants, the regimental system and the rituals of army life.  The disaffected tribal gangs would get to do things they like: they would get to use firearms, test their strength and endurance, indulge in extreme bonding rituals through plentiful alcohol, and get a chance to earn money, learn some basic skills, and satisfy tribal impulses at the same time.  The young women of the underclass could have their own designer tribalism but I am less sure what that might be.  Perhaps if we take the young males out of the system that will do the trick.  And if this sounds a bit Nietzschean then we should consider that Nietzsche understood our tribal natures better than most people have.  We should perhaps take more notice ourselves if we want to stay in charge of the tribal impulses that surge just below the surface and erupt periodically like social volcanoes to our always-ingenuous surprise.

If anyone needs proof that tribal emotions still lie just under the surface of our civilized veneer then the worldwide obsession with the recent British royal wedding should be convincing.  In The Tribal Imagination I had such events in mind when writing of Auguste Comte’s notion that reason was not enough as a basis for social order: we were not wholly rational creatures.   This thought gave rise to the following ruminations about a benign aspect of tribalism, where royal weddings feature.
“ Perhaps the best example we have unearthed, although not the only one, is the role of constitutional monarchy in the evolution and preservation of democracy, especially in ensuring the legitimacy and continuity of government and the peaceful transfer of power after elections.  The monarch provides the fixed center of legitimate authority that is unchallengeable, and thus leaves the politicians free to be politicians and vulnerable to challenge.
The American elective monarchy does not work very well in this respect.  The President has to become an unholy trinity of man, politician and office.  We can despise the man and hate the politician, but we must revere the office. This can become an impossible balancing act.  For example, if he falls morally he can fail politically.   Constitutional monarchs (kings and queens with only symbolic powers) on the other hand, are pretty well immune from this fate.  “The Queen reigns but does not rule.” We do not feel responsible for monarchs since we did not elect them.  What is more since they partake of the divine (“The king is dead, long live the king”) they can behave as badly as the gods have always behaved and still be worshipped. 
The old gods (think of Zeus, Aphrodite, Wotan, Krishna, Trickster) were amoral, selfish, scandalous, violent and adulterous, and their worshippers loved them, just as democratic and republican people love the royal families today.  The funeral crowds for Princess Diana (appropriate name) in the London streets, with their massive display of genuine grief and the invented ritual of flower throwing in the path of the hearse, were pure communitas.  Puritans and rationalists have never understood this unreasonable, and for our argument tribal, appeal of royalty. Douglas MacArthur understood the appeal of the tribal imagination when he insisted that the Japanese, after their devastating defeat in WWII, be allowed to keep their emperor, who was then incorporated into a constitutional monarchical system that has been an obvious success.  The Spanish understood it equally well when to heal the wounds of their caustic civil war they restored the monarchy on the death of the dictator Franco.  Freely elected socialist governments in Europe live perfectly happily with their hereditary monarchs.
The American substitute perhaps lies in the intensity of Civil Religion in the USA as a platform for the democratic ideal, as Robert Bellah reminded us. Walk down the Mall in Washington DC and look at the larger-than-life monuments to the Founders and the reverence of the crowds filing by; listen to schoolchildren reciting the pledge of allegiance and re-telling the myths of national origin; see the totemic reverence for the remaining copies of the Constitution and the Declaration, and the original Stars-and-Stripes; watch the crowd at a sports event singing the national anthem and saluting with solemnity and genuine feeling, that totemic flag; take part in the national rituals of Thanksgiving and of Super Bowl Sunday (which has replaced Easter Sunday as the national festival.)  Be involved in a Presidential Inauguration or the ceremonies for the nation’s warrior dead on Memorial Day.
Experience these and the deep emotions they can arouse, and Comte’s ideas about the secular “religion of humanity” don’t seem so quaint after all.  Civil Religion is the infrastructure of Civil Society.   Even the most atheistic and ruthlessly secular of regimes realize that they need their rituals and ceremonials, their prophets, saints and heroes, their sacred books and doctrines, their titles and hierarchies and systems of honorific rewards.  The gruesome versions of these regimes can frighten us to the point where we reject the whole package; where we see it as nothing but the Closed Society closing in on us with its uniformed thuggery.  But then we see the gentle ceremonies of Inauguration Day or the State Opening of Parliament, or a Royal Wedding or funeral, and are perhaps reassured that there is a benign form that taps the virtues of the tribal and avoids its brutalities; that is patriotic without being jingoistic; that as President Obama said, will use "the power of its influence, not the influence of its power.”
There is lot more that could be said about the royal wedding per se from this perspective, especially the public kissing before joyful crowds, but these few thoughts might give the recent event some context.
William Blake: Satan, Sin and Death

We are universally faced with the ultimate consequence of consciousness: we know we must die.  Those of us closer to the reality than others perhaps spend more time thinking about it than those for whom it is still a kind of option to be taken up in the future.  I spend a lot of time singing in requiem masses these days (secular not religious performances): Bach, Mozart, Berlioz, Shubert, Verdi, Brahms, Fauré, Britten, Duruflé (my favorite) and recently Andrew Lloyd Webber and John Rutter.  The traditional requiem (and some of these composers have their own – sometimes very personal, versions) has a mix of terror at the prospect of death:
“Dies irae, dies illa,
solvet saeclum in favilla."

(Day of wrath, that very day,
When the world shall end in fire.)         
along with the fear of damnation:
“Mors stupebit et natura,
cum resurgit creatura,
judicanti responsura.”

(Death and nature stand aghast,
As the bodies rising fast,
Go to hear the sentence passed.)
These are tempered with hope at the prospect of salvation through Jesus: “Agnus Dei qui tolis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem.” – Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.  This in turn holds out the prospect of eternal life: “Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.” – Eternal peace grant us O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on us.  For those reared in the Western Christian individualist tradition, death is a personal prospect to be faced one way or the other. What is more, it is something that we (even secularists) feel uncomfortably is our own fault because, in this tradition, it was the price of sin: we were given free will and chose to sin. 
The great epic statements of this tradition are in Dante’s Divina Comedia and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Let’s look briefly at Milton since I dealt with him in The Tribal Imagination while looking at incest in literature and contemplating William Blake’s fantastic watercolor of the scene. Satan on his way from Hell to Earth meets the figure of a beautiful woman who from the waist down was a foul and scaly serpent, while a cry of hellhounds surrounded her waist.  Satan then saw another figure, shadowy and vast with a crown and a spear.  (Book II 648-673)  These were Sin and Death, and Sin explained how they came into being.  She sprang from the head of Satan, like Athena from the head of Zeus.  He was so enamoured of her (that is, of himself) that he raped her, his daughter by male parthenogenesis.  Sin continues her description of the childbirth from hell:
          Thine own begotten, breaking violent way,
Tore through my entrails, that, with fear and pain
Distorted, all my nether shape thus grew
Transformed; but he, my inbred enemy,
Forth issued, brandishing his fateful dart,
Made to destroy.  I fled, and cried out Death!
Hell trembled at the hideous Name, and sighed
From all her Caves, and back resounding Death.

                                                                 (Book II: 780-788)
 So Death was born through the incestuous rape of Sin by Satan.  But all was not over for the unfortunate Sin.  Her son Death in turn raped her and produced the hideous helhounds that surround her.  Then they in turn eat their way back into the womb that bore them:
                                      Hourly conceive
And hourly born, with sorrow infinite
To me: for when they list, into the womb
That bred them they return, and howl, and gnaw
My bowels, their repast, then, bursting forth
Afresh with conscious terrors vex me round.

 (Book II: 796-802) 

Milton creates an anti-creation in which incestuous rape “brought Death into the world and all our woes.”  There were no female fallen angels; Satan had to create his own hell-bride from himself, as Eve had been created from Adam’s rib. The children of Satan were Sin and Death, and they had nowhere to breed but with each other.  The children of Adam were to be faced with the same problem, but their incest was productive: the Satanic family had nowhere to go but to itself, and then to the corruption of its Edenic rival.
Thus is Death and Sin as seen from the Christian West.  But those of us who have been touched with the Darwinian insight have also to look at death as part of that “Natura” that along with Death stands aghast as the bodies fly by as in the requiem mass.  In the story of evolution, of nature, death has a necessary role as the shaper of life.  Without death there could be no life; evolution could not happen; there would be no natural selection; everything would be static.  Life and death are the same thing in this view.  Thus death becomes not a personal issue but an issue for the very nature of life itself: it is the vital part of the natural evolutionary process.
Consider then an Eastern view of death, again personified as Death, but how different. This is from the Mahabharata, the great Sanskrit epic, as translated by William Buck.  Duryodhana explains the origin of death. 

Because mankind (born of angels who lost their wings) was immortal the earth became overstocked and Brahma threatened to burn it and the heavens with fire. Shiva interceded and Brahma withdrew his fire.
Yet when he did so, from the doors of the six senses of Brahma came a woman of red eyes and dark-tanned skin, brilliant in her earrings and armbands, who smilingly looked at Brahma and Shiva and went her way to the south.  Brahma called after her: “Wait, Death.  Kill all creatures including idiots and priests.”
But she answered him “No!”  and ran away and hid somewhere and cried.
Brahma found her and said “But no one will find fault with you for you do my bidding.  Death, only living creatures will die.”
“No, she said.  It is cruel. Go away.”  So Brahma left her and spoke to no one, smiling on the worlds without anger.  Death
 wandered the earth, taking no life, for one hundred trillion, two hundred and seventy billion and eight thousand years.  Then Brahma came to her and said, “Death, I have not seen you for a moment.  What are you doing?”
“Do not call me Death,” she replied, “I will never kill for you.”
Brahma looked at that winsome girl. “I will make them equal.  You will not have to take them, either men or gods or devils.  I will make greed and anger and malice and shame and jealousy and passion.  I will make them this way and that way.  I will make disease and war from your tears.  Those two only will I make that way.  Do nothing.  They will all come to you, soon or late.  There is nothing to do, nothing to stop doing, for you or them.  But only greet them well in their hour.  You have nothing else to say, they will kill themselves.  And only the foolish will weep over what none can avoid.
Then Shiva began his dance, for until then, though he raised his foot, he could not put it down.

Shiva’s dance is the dance of life.  He could not begin it until death came into the world.  If this were a term paper not a blog I would be forced to draw all the lessons from comparing these two views of life and the meaning of death.  But it will be much sounder if you do this for yourselves. 
Shiva's Dance of  Life and Death in the Wheel of Fire

Copyright:© Robin Fox 2012

Permission to reprint any statement on this page is granted, providing authorship is acknowledged.
Anthony Quinn as Aouda in Lawrence of Arabia


This is adapted from The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind (HUP 2011) because people have asked me what I thought anthropology might add to the understanding of recent events.  It might be helpful in interpreting some of what is happening in North Africa and the Middle East where commentators frequently tell us that these are “tribal societies” but don’t usually elaborate.  It goes along with understanding the relatively de-tribalized towns and the unemployed and fast-growing under-thirty population in them – the leaders of the protests in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. The “rebels” in Libya are an uneasy mix of these disaffected urban youth, plus tribes outside Khadaffi’s power circle, various sectarian militants and Libyan army deserters who have joined the rebels.
           Reading Phillip Salzman’s timely but timeless book, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (Humanity Books, 2008) prompted me to these reflections. The balance between tribe and state not just in Iraq but also throughout the region from Morocco to Pakistan defines the possibilities for democracy.   The great virtue of this form of tribalism (the heir of the nomadic Bedouin tradition) after all, is that it protects the individual from the worst ravages of both neighbors and strangers. This includes the ravages of the predatory state organization that exists only for its own benefit and thrives on the plundering of its subjects. 
           The Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldûn (1332-1406) described the cycles of history in Arab society.  Basically the society is tribal, with the tribes, mostly pastoral nomads but often a mix of herding, trading and planting, existing in balanced competition against each other, raiding and feuding but not dominating. They exist in an uneasy relationship with the cities, which are based largely on trade and an inefficient bureaucracy headed by a ruler of one sort or another (emir, sultan, pasha, bey, sharif etc.)  From time to time a tribe or confederation of tribes with a charismatic leader sweeps in from the desert and takes over the cities with an Islamic reforming zeal.  They rule for a while, but they eventually become decadent and tyrannical through the corruption of life in the city, and the cycle starts over again with a new tribal invasion.
           There is always then an in-built unavoidable antagonism between tribe and state.  When states form they can only exist by a mixture of bribery and force at worst and at best by tapping the support of the tribes in external wars, much as the British did with the Scottish clans, which they turned into regiments.  The Jordanian and Saudi armies are formed from Bedouin tribesmen, and Khadaffi recruits Tuaregs from the Sahara (his “foreign mercenaries”).   States tend therefore to be autocratic and vicious in their suppression of the tribes, while the latter fight to protect their autonomy or to make the best deal they can, which is what has happened in Anbar province in Iraq. 
           When not concerned with avoiding or combating the rulers, the tribes are in a constant state of feuding with each other, and with raiding the towns and traders and the sedentary peasants who bear the brunt of attacks from both state exploitation and tribal predation.  This was the historical condition of tribal autonomy.  It is no less true today although modern organization, technology, communications and weaponry make the state a more formidable opponent of that autonomy, and cities have expanded in size and influence, siphoning off tribesmen and trying to turn them into urban bourgeoisie.  But as Salzman shows so thoroughly, the tribal system remains surprisingly intact, and the influence of its values is deep-rooted and pervasive even in the towns.  Educated bourgeois intellectuals, for example, are more likely to see their achievements as contributions to the honor of their lineages than to themselves as individuals.
          While the tribe might stand united against states and other tribes, within the tribe there is constant feuding between the tribal segments.  These range from tribal confederations down to clans, houses (lineages) and then extended families of five generation depth that are the most immediate kin-based units that ideally marry within themselves.
                    Federation      quabila
                    Tribe               ’ashira
                    Clan                fukhdh
                    House             beit
                    Family            khams 
These exist in what Salzman calls “balanced opposition” to each other: a balance of power in which lower-level feuding groups can drop their differences and band together against like coalitions.  The famous Arab proverb states something like “I against my brother; my brother and I against my cousins; my cousins and I and my brothers against the world.”  This is exactly what operates in the fluctuating alliances and coalitions in Anbar today.
           This in its way - its competitive, violent, tribal way, is an egalitarian, freedom loving, democratic method of dealing with the problem of order in society.  To Aouda in “Lawrence of Arabia” it was the essence of freedom.  The freedom of the individual as we understand it, and which is the basis of our idea of Civil Society, makes no sense here. Freedom is indeed more than a word: it means profoundly different things to different societies. In the absence of a strong legitimate central authority with a monopoly of the use of force, this tribal system of segmentary opposition is an effective form of political organization.  But it is inimical to the idea of central control and particularly of the power of the state to settle disputes.  Its very virtues at one level make it an enemy of centralized state control, however legitimate and benign. 
           The American army manual of counter insurgency insists that the aim is always to “support the legitimate government.”  But that is the problem: for the tribes there is no legitimate government, there is only a compromise with those in power at the time.  The tribesman wants to avoid the humiliating life of the peasant and his total submission, but his “freedom” is essentially a freedom to pursue the interest of his kin-group with violence if necessary, either for material gain or above all to protect the honor of the group.  Vengeance is a high moral duty here; honor is a commodity more precious than gold.  Aouda wanted gold from the British so he could gain honor by distributing it to his tribesmen.  “I am a river to my people!”  Men can increase the honor of the lineage through bravery, wealth or piety; women can lose it through sexual misconduct, meriting disgrace or even death as a consequence.
           It is not our business to judge such a system; it was superbly adaptive in its historical context and formed the basis for the amazing expansion of Islam.  It is our business to note that the kind of society we approve of and want them to adopt – our Civil Society, has had to make several huge shifts either upwards or sideways depending on your viewpoint, but huge shifts nevertheless.  It had to surrender the power of revenge to the state. It had to agree to the voluntary relinquishment of power after elections.  It had to institute and follow the rule of law, which is next to impossible in the tribal society because loyalty there is to the group, not to some abstract universal rules.  “The ultimate goal,” says Salzman, “is never following a rule, but winning, or at least not losing.”  This is certainly how we feel, and explains the romanticizing of the Mafia, but it is not how we any more are allowed or allow ourselves to act. 
Everything about the antipathy of tribal to civil society said here applies in spades to Afghanistan, where we are repeating our mistakes in spades.  There again we should reduce our goals to the installation of a friendly regime and an accommodation with the “warlords” (read: tribal rulers) and the Taliban, and the tribes of the Pakistan border. We should have learned the lesson that we cannot impose liberal or representative democracy where it is not wanted and where ideas of freedom might even be antithetical to it.  And this lesson applies across the board: a helping hand here and there may not be amiss, but we should always be prepared for the rejection of the foreigner’s gift.  No one who is in his heart a tribesman wants to depend on the kindness of strangers.  Even Libyan gratitude will have its limit, as we shall learn all too soon.
An excellent background book to all these issues is Charles Lindholm's The Islamic Middle East: Tradition and Change (Blackwell: rev. ed. 2002)