The Tribal Imagination

The Tribal Imagination

Civilization and the Savage Mind

Harvard University Press – Spring 2011
ISBN 978-0-674-05901-6, $29.95, 432 pages

Is the savage in us our friend or our enemy?

Or both?

Can we make the enemy our friend?

Can we stop making the friend our enemy?



Is history coming to an end, or just getting more interesting?
Have we a human right to vengeance, or to arrange our children’s marriages?
What exactly is the freedom that we love so much?
Should we only marry cousins?
Is sectarianism inevitable?
Have we got the right Ten Commandments?
Was the real love triangle in Camelot between three knights?
What do Helen of Troy and Grendel’s mother have in common?
What do Seinfeld and Swinburne have in common?
Why do we rhyme poetry?
Was incest really the crime of Oedipus?
Why do we want time to end?
Can seafood sustain civilization?
What can the descendants of Adam tell us about democracy in Iraq?
Are cultural studies and fascism cousins under the skin?
Can we write our own script for the future, or is the past still guiding the pen?
Is the world flat, or is it full of tribal bumps?
Is human nature itself fundamentally tribal?

Freud feared that “the burden of civilization” might be too great, that repression of our instincts was like a dam ready to burst, and we were always ready to slip into savagery. Lévi-Strauss reassured us that the savage mind was universal and basically rational; our civilized minds were the same as their savage counterparts, we just gave them more to do. They both were right. But behind them stands Darwin. The savage in us is the residue of millions of years of evolution, and it got us where we are. But the savage mind evolved to deal with a world totally different from the world transformed by the miracle of modern industrial society. 

It remains an open question whether the mind geared to living in small tribes can sustain the hugely complex world it has itself created so incredibly recently in evolutionary time. For world-renowned anthropologist Robin Fox the role of evolutionary science is not so much to explain what we do but to explain what we do at our peril. We take the world we know too much for granted; we must shock ourselves into seeing how recent and fragile it is. 

In a sweeping survey of highly varied case histories, laced with the wit and elegance for which he has been often praised, Robin Fox considers our chronomyopic perceptions of time; the human part of human rights; tribalism and democracy; taboo and morals in the Torah; animal dispersion and human sectarianism; incest in literature from Osiris to Nabokov; the male bond in the epics; poetry, memory, and the brain; the origins of civilization; social evolution and the meaning of the tribes; the vicissitudes of folk culture; and the mythic and rational elements in the evolution of thought. He considers the possibility of a true family of man with a scientific basis in human genetic unity. In trying to run our complex and expensive societies we are faced with the perennial appeal of tribalism – our continuing struggle with the maintenance of open societies in the face of our profoundly tribal human needs, and our need to draw on that very tribalism to survive. There is a balance if we can work it out. Time is short.

The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind 


Prologue: The Miracle and the Drumbeats

Chapter 1: Time Out of Mind: Tribal Tempo and Civilized Temporality
Chapter 2: The Human in Human Rights: Tribal Needs and Civilized Ideals
Chapter 3: The Kindness of Strangers: Tribalism and the Trials of Democracy
Chapter 4: Sects and Evolution: Tribal Splits and Creedal Schisms
Chapter 5: Which Ten Commandments? Tribal Taboo and Priestly Morality
Chapter 6: Incest and In-laws: Tribal Norms and Civilized Narratives
Chapter 7: Forbidden Partners: Tribal Themes in Modern Literature
Chapter 8: In the Company of Men: Tribal Bonds in the Warrior Epics
Chapter 9: Playing by the Rules: Savage Rhythms and Civilized Rhymes
Chapter 10: Seafood and Civilization: From Tribal to Complex Society
Chapter 11: The Route to Civilization: From Tribal to Political Society
Chapter 12: Open Societies and Closed Minds: Tribalism versus Civilization
Chapter 13: The Old Adam and The Last Man: Taming the Savage Mind
Epilogue: The Dream Man

Appendix: Transitional Time at the Edge of Chaos



Prepublication comments on: The Tribal Imagination

“Written with his usual flair and vigor, and with a poet’s feel for language, The Tribal Imagination represents the culminating achievement of anthropology’s most distinguished, erudite, and intellectually adventurous representative. It is a landmark in evolutionary social science, an original contribution to literary history and analysis, and also — last but not least — a handsome tribute to Charles Darwin at this commemorative time. Its appearance should be a significant publishing event.”
Roger Sandall, School of Philosophical and Historical Enquiry, University of Sydney, author of The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays.

The Tribal Imagination manages to be erudite and logical yet engaging and entertaining at the same time. The intellectual pace of the book is the cognitive equivalent of being smacked by waves at the beach.”
Steven Faraone, Professor of Psychiatry, Neuroscience and Physiology, and Director of Medical Genetics Research, SUNY Upstate Medical University. Author of: Straight Talk About Your Child’s Mental Health. Co-author of: The Genetics of Mood DisordersThe Genetics of Mental DisordersSchizophrenia: The Facts.

The Tribal Imagination addresses what is probably the most significant theoretical and epistemological problem confronting the social sciences: the integration of human nature within their conceptual frameworks. It seeks to establish human nature’s imprint in a wide variety of domains, many of which are considered immune to the evolutionary perspective, e.g. literature, poetry and history.

It is written by someone whose background and perspective are unique in the field. Only Robin Fox could have written such a book because only he occupies the corresponding niche. Indeed I do not know of anybody else who can make use of evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology to enlighten classical literature and poetry, who can carry out what one would a priori describe as reductionist analyses of some of the highest forms of human symbolic activity, and yet do so without in the slightest bit lessening the richness of these phenomena.

The book is an elegant demonstration that human nature is omnipresent in the symbolic realm and that knowing about this is the best way to make sense not only of humankind’s unity but of its diversity as well.”
Bernard Chapais, Professor of Anthropology, Université de Montréal, author of Primeval Kinship: How Pair Bonding Gave Birth to Human Society.

“In The Tribal Imagination, Robin Fox brings to bear stunning insights from his wide knowledge of human societies and the philosophers, poets, and thinkers who have tried to understand them. He casts brilliant light not just on the human historical experience, but on contemporary issues from Iraq to human rights as well.”

Francis Fukuyama, Professor of Public Policy, Johns Hopkins University, author of The End of History and the Last Man, The Great Disruption, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution

“One of our most prolific and brilliant anthropologists has done it again. Marriage rules of simple societies, the rise of civilization, modern international politics, and literary examples ranging from the Bible and Greek mythology to Shakespeare and children's rhymes are all grist for Robin Fox's mill, which grinds out a fine understanding of how human groups function, given the Darwinian imperatives operating in history, the dynamics of family relationships, and the possibilities and limitations of the human brain.”

Melvin Konner, Professor of Anthropology and Medicine, Emory University, author of The Evolution of Childhood, The Tangled Wing, Becoming a Doctor.

I wanted to use the following two pictuires on the front cover of the book, but the publisher thought that would be way too subtle and (quite rightly) used the wonderful picture of the boy with the gun (in what could be either Derry or Belfast NI.) Even so, I think the juxtaposition tells a wonderful tale and gets to the heart of the issue.  RF

The Oath of the Horatii. Jacques-Louis David, (1784) (Paris – Louvre)

The Horatii, an aristocratic family at the height of Roman “civilization,” (669 BC) in their beautiful palace with their robes and armor take their blood oath on their swords to fight the Roman enemies from Alba Longa to the death. They will do this in a ritual duel with three brothers of the Curiatii family of Alba. Their women and children sit off to the side neglected and ignored. It is the epitome of male-bonding ritual, with the father, Horatius, and his three sons binding themselves to die if needed for the sake of their cause: the salvation of the city. The grandmother, in black, hugs the children.

One of the women, their sister Camilla (in white) is engaged to one of the Curiatii, and another, Sabina (in brown) is a sister of the Curiatii married to one of the sons. The Horatii brothers win their fight but two are killed. The remaining brother returns home and finds Camilla cursing Rome for the death of her fiancé. He instantly kills his sister for her impiety. For David this represented the triumph of selfless duty to the state over selfish loyalty to spouses, family and clan. Originally he was going to paint the killing of the Curiatii sister (the sketches exist) but changed his mind thinking it might just send the wrong message. For us it represents the ongoing battle of conflicting duties between kin and strangers, and kin and the state, that is one of our basic themes.

The story is in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita (From the Foundation of the City. Circa 25 AD)

Cocihiti Indian Ceremony circa 1883 photo Charles Loomis.
Compare the Horatii with the Cochiti Indians of New Mexico engaged in a peaceful “rain dance” ceremony in which all sexes and ages cooperate. It has beauty, order and grace, and is done for the benefit of all mankind. (“We all wear cotton,” the Cacique told me as an example, “we must make it rain wherever they grow cotton.”) Note that it has rained during the dance – a sign of blessing. There is however the cross of Christian “civilization” hovering over them on the mission gateway. The Cochiti dance before the church to honor its god while honoring their own.

Note the almost naked Koshare – the “sacred clown,” on the far right in front of the older men singing and drumming. The drum represents thunder. The women wear “tablitas” on their heads with the stylized cloud design. The gourd rattles and the men’s long hair (crowned with Mexican macaw feathers) symbolize rain. Children of both sexes as young as three take a full part in the daylong ceremony where the two “moieties” – Pumpkin and Turquoise, the two halves of the tribe, dance alternately. The meaning of the long pole with its feathers and fox skins waved over the heads of the dancers is a tribal secret. It’s handling, like the drumming of the hollow-log drums, is in the hands of a specialized cult. The so-called clowns – the other group is the Kwirena, organize and manage the dances in alternate years. They are the Rio Grande Pueblo version of the “mudheads” of Zuni. The dances I saw in the late 1950s differed in no detail from this picture in the 1880s. Some of the older people recognized themselves as children in Loomis’s photos.

(See Charles H. Lange, Cochiti: A New Mexico Pueblo Past and Present. Austin: Texas University Press, 1959. See Robin Fox, The Keresan Bridge: A Problem in Pueblo Ethnology, 1967, and Encounter with Anthropology – look under “Books”..

Review of The Tribal Imagination by Bradley Thayer

Book Reviews

Robin Fox, The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the
Savage Mind (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 2011), 417 pages. ISBN 978-0674059016.
Hardcover, $29.95.

Bradley A. Thayer
Department of Political Science
Utah State University
Old Main 320
Logan, UT 84322

Over 150 years after Darwin, books that explore the
impact of evolution on social topics remain relatively
rare. Yet, there are a few scholars upon whom we may
depend to demonstrate that what is considered ‘‘social’’
is studied usefully through the perspective of human
evolution. In line with what readers of Politics and the
Life Sciences have come to expect over the years,
anthropologist Robin Fox, University Professor of Social
Theory at Rutgers University, has produced another
exceptional contribution to consilient knowledge.
In a sweeping work, part memoir and part scholarly
study, Fox explains why human nature is tribal and
how the human tribal brain has produced a ‘‘tribal
imagination’’ in humans. This tribal imagination
influences and governs human social behavior, including
our notion of time, religious belief, human rights,
the logic of kin-based societies like Iraq—and why
these societies have difficulties building democracy—
morality, warfare, the rise of civilization, and major
themes in literature, drama, and poetry.
For Fox, the tribal imagination, or the evolutionary
inheritance that is human nature, is the drumbeat that
allows us to understand human behavior over the ages
and into the future. This imagination enables us to
comprehend our ancestors and heirs. This is a powerful
book—reflectively and sharply written. Writing of the
importance of kin-based social structures in most
societies (e.g., Afghanistan), which are necessarily
kin-based because you can only really trust immediate
or extended family, Fox observes that: ‘‘We in the West
had to turn ‘nepotism’ and ‘corruption’ from tribal
virtues into criminal offenses, and we struggle with it. I
live in New Jersey, and I stare into the pit’’ (p. 70).
Many of the problems and difficulties we encounter
in modern life are defined by the tension between our
tribal imagination, the human evolutionary legacy, and
the demands of civilization. Of course, the impulse to
do what has served humans well over evolutionary
time may offend the norms and dictates of civilized
societies. In essence, Fox’s work is a study of the
origins and consequences of this tension. For this
review, I will focus on two of his major contributions:
his critique of how social scientists consider time by
overemphasizing more recent, social and political
events; and, his consideration of warfare.
Fox’s intellectual foundation is the Environment of
Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), which should be
familiar to readers of this journal. From this genesis, he
first considers time. He writes: ‘‘Our chronomyopia—our
fixation on the present and familiar—leads us to overvalue
the period of time we label ‘history’ to the point of
relegating more than 99 percent of human existence to
‘prehistory’—a mere run-up to the real thing. It would be
more logical to label hominids up to, say, the invention of
tools, as ‘past man,’ those from thence until the Neolithic
revolution as ‘present man,’’’ and contemporary humans
as ‘‘late man’’ (p. 16). The human conception of time
overemphasizes the immediate past and future.
Recognizing Fox’s broader conception permits us to
understand that humans have not had a linear
conception of time until only recently. The natural
conception of time is cyclical. Weaving together
insights from anthropology and political theory, Fox
argues that most social scientists are only able to see
events that mattered, like the Industrial Revolution,
within a relatively recent historical period (p. 31). Fox
recognizes that the Industrial Revolution has influenced
human behavior. But to focus on it, or the
Information Revolution, or any of the major social
changes in recent (i.e., recorded) history, is to forget the
revolution of human evolution.
In a passage that merits quoting at length, Fox
artfully captures the importance of human evolution
and the perspective on time it provides. If we begin
with early hominids two and half million years ago at
the beginning of the Paleolithic and consider what has
happened since as an hour long film, considering only
the film’s last minute, ‘‘roughly 40,000 years ago,
when our few, fully modern human ancestors of the
last Pleistocene/Paleolithic were coping with a major
ice age, the Wurrm Glaciation,’’ then only thirty
seconds ago ‘‘came the cognitive revolution of the
cave-painting Cro-Magnons in southeastern Europe,’’
fifteen seconds ago ‘‘at the beginning of our warm
interglacial came the Neolithic revolutionary and the
first domestication of animals and plants,’’ seven
seconds ago ‘‘came the first towns,’’ four seconds
ago, ‘‘the first states and writing,’’ one-and-a-half
seconds ago ‘‘the Roman Empire, the Han dynasty, and
the Kushan empire in India, were at their height,’’
three-tenths of a second ago ‘‘the industrial revolution
nips by in a blink before the end’’ (pp. 33–34). ‘‘The
rise in the world’s population from a hundred million
or so three seconds ago, to six and half billion at the
end of the hour, would likewise only be visible only if
you watched very diligently, because it happened in the
last two-tenths of a second’’ (p. 34).
For social scientists to weight the last two-tenths of a
second as the defining force in social life is to
exaggerate its importance past the point of distortion
and to prevent a solid comprehension of human
behavior. For Fox, humans are still that
paleolithic hunter, stranded at the end of a particularly
warm interglacial that we are making even
warmer. We are waiting for either another tropical
period that will send jungles to the poles, or more
logically another ice age that will send the polar ice
(and it can return as easily as it goes) rapidly toward
the equator. Both could happen…They are part of that
great cycle of time on which we are not even a blip.
And we think we are writing the script (p. 34).
I fear that Fox’s appeal to social scientists to
recognize how major social or political events fit into
the tribal imagination will fall on deaf ears, at least in
the near-term. I do not expect confessions of chronomyopia
among the political scientists at the next
annual meeting of the American Political Science
Association. But works like this are making inroads
into social science due to the power of their ideas and
the value of the consilient approach.
The second major contribution is Fox’s argument on
the importance of male bonding for warfare. Fox’s
entitles his treatment ‘‘In the Company of Men,’’ and
this is precisely the point of how the tribal imagination
influences warfare. The heterosexual male-male bond is
the equal of the male-female bond in its evolutionary
significance. It makes hunters, warriors, and fathers. It is
ubiquitous in literature and surfaces time and again in
popular culture ‘‘buddy’’ movies like Butch Cassidy and
the Sundance Kid or Saving Private Ryan ‘‘where men
die for each other as surely as Romeo did for Juliet in the
world’s most famous heterosexual tragedy’’ (p. 196).
The EEA of the Upper Paleolithic explains it. ‘‘Males
hunting or fighting together had to develop a special
kind of trust that went beyond simple friendship as
might be expressed in grooming or proximity’’ (p. 197).
This was not as straightforward as it may appear, but
was necessary for predation and protection.
What was necessary for the male bond to evolve, Fox
notes, was the kind of dependence that involved, firstly,
‘‘a selection among young males for those with the right
qualities (for males will differ in their bonding capacities),
and…elaborate recruitment systems of trial and
initiation’’ (p. 197). The second element ‘‘was ‘female
exclusion,’ in which the heterosexual bond was ritually
downgraded (as at ‘stag parties’ today) and exclusive
male groups were formed, with their secret ceremonies,
oaths, and sanctions’’ (p. 197). The obvious tension with
the heterosexual bond necessary for reproduction yields
endless fodder for literature, poetry, mythology, and
philosophy, as well as sit-coms, romantic comedies, and
shows that highlight the ‘‘battle of the sexes.’’ Men can
be ‘‘ambivalent about the heterosexual bond insofar as it
threatened the male association,’’ whereas women ‘‘find
the demands of the male group equally threatening to the
needs of the family’’ (p. 197).
The implications of the male bond for ancient and
modern warfare are profound. For ancient warfare, the
male bond makes warfare possible and serves as the
foundation for military organization necessary, at first,
for hunting and raiding. Later, it allows the organized
battle defined in classical warfare by the Greek phalanx
or the form of battle in premodern societies, such as
New Guinea, identified by anthropologists.
The male bond remains central to modern warfare.
Although in Western societies, its importance is often
not understood by those outside of the military. The
bond must be created to generate trust in combat. That
trust yields cohesiveness and fighting effectiveness. It
permits men to make exceptional sacrifices in battle
and sustain themselves in the most stressful of battles,
as they have done throughout time. That was true at
Adrianople, Waterloo, the Somme, Stalingrad, or
Fallujah. ‘‘Males who bond will have allies they can
trust; it is that simple’’ (p. 221). That is also true of
men in other less stressful competitive environments,
for example, in business, government, or sports.
Once the bond is created, its potency cannot be
denied. Fox writes: ‘‘The depth of emotional attachment
between men of the same platoon or company
who have shared terrifying experiences and risked their
lives for each other is real and always moving….[N]o
one who has witnessed the reunion of those baptized
together in fierce battle, or seen the tears shed over
fallen comrades, can doubt that this is one of the most
powerful emotional bonds known to us’’ (pp. 222–
223). Some men may fight for their country, ideology,
or religion, but all men fight for their band of brothers.
Much of the thrust of Fox’s book is at odds with the
move toward a unisex military in the last 15 years. The
consequences of diluting the male bond (directly and
indirectly) by allowing women a greater role in the
United States military is not part of the public or policy
debate. It should be. Decision makers need to
understand and take Fox’s arguments seriously. The
tribal imagination cannot be wished away. It may take
time, but science will trump ideology.
Upon reflection, this is a powerful and provocative
work. Each of the thirteen chapters contains insightful
considerations and evaluations. To take one example,
Fox’s treatment of human rights is golden. Human
rights have been too narrowly focused for too long.
The tribal imagination gives us insight into what is
truly human in human rights—there is no human right
for polygamy or for revenge, but the tribal imagination
says there should be.
The limitations of the work are few. As this work is part
memoir, Fox offers reflections and observations from his
career in discrete sections in the text. Accordingly, readers
should not expect the flow of a purely academic work. For
some readers, this might be a flaw, but I found it refreshing
as Fox offers his insights on numerous topics, or takes a
moment to provide a judicious comment or, perhaps, a
biting one. Many of his considerations or examples are
drawn from literature. This is perfectly appropriate since
great authors capture well the drumbeats of human nature.
I was greatly impressed with Fox’s depth of understanding
of literature and wonder if he does not moonlight as a
professor of literature.
Perhaps the greatest value of the book is what Fox
shares with us concerning his career. Implicitly, he
demonstrates to young anthropologists that a career
spent illuminating the drumbeats of human nature,
discovering how the tribal imagination continues to
affect human lives and the human condition, in essence,
putting the human in anthropology, is one well spent.
Though too seldom taught, that lesson is important, and
is one that should be reinforced and broadened to
include all social sciences. Those who want to know
humans need to understand Fox’s drumbeats of human
nature. At the end of the day, whether social scientists
accept Fox’s argument is immaterial at the most
profound level. The tribal imagination exists, and it will
remain analytically insightful, vexing, and humbling for
all who truly want to comprehend human behaviors.

Book Reviews
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