July 22, 2024


AAfter the Arab Spring uprisings spread to Libya in 2011 and Muammar Gaddafi ordered his troops to fire on protesters, many ordinary Libyans took up arms and joined anti-government militias. I have lived in Libya since 2008 and have watched with shock as friends and acquaintances – party animals barely out of their teens, middle-aged accountants – become fighters overnight. The friendly receptionist at work became a powerful military commander. Since then I have wondered about the change in them, and how freedom fighters are created.

It turns out that social anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse and his colleague Brian McQuinn traveled to Libya in 2011 to try to answer these questions. Whitehouse’s studies of everything from painful initiation rites in Papua New Guinea to Catholics and Protestants responding to sectarian abuse in Northern Ireland illustrated that sharing emotional and difficult experiences can lead to powerful group bonding, creating a sense of “togetherness ” creates, a visceral sense of unity with your group. The principle applies to clansmen, Chelsea fans or new mothers. His interviews with Libyan fighters showed that Gaddafi’s violence helped those on the front lines see themselves as more aligned with their brothers in arms than with their family. Shared hardship can create such a powerful sense of kinship that it taps into the same deep-seated instinct to sacrifice yourself for your offspring. To understand the logic of hate and violence, in other words, you must also understand love.

Such research is typical of Whitehouse, a chair of social anthropology at the University of Oxford who likes to travel around the world and across disciplines to better understand how our biological intuitions and our cultural traditions interact. His work often brings together ethnographic fieldwork with psychology and big data. Whitehouse helped establish a new branch of research known as the cognitive science of religion, which examines the intuitions and biases that underlie common religious beliefs. For example, the hypersensitivity that once alerted our ancestors to a nearby predator stalking them in the woods is thought to explain why we tend to attribute mysterious sounds and events to an unseen agent, and is behind widespread beliefs in things such as witches and demons.

In this ambitious and dense book, Whitehouse brings together nearly four decades of research to argue that the course of human history has been shaped by three natural biases: conformism (our tendency to imitate our peers), religiosity (our tendency to follow certain moral developing connections) and beliefs about the world), and genealogy. All three have sometimes been harnessed to achieve remarkable feats of cooperation, he writes, enabling the creation of larger societies and more complex political systems. But they have also fueled conflict and violence, and reinforced brutal and unequal political systems. He argues that if we are to respond effectively to the threat of global warming, we must find ways to harness these natural biases to our advantage. Could we become a “teratribe” in which people experience the same fusion that the Libyan militia members described, only expanded to include all of humanity?

Whitehouse rightly argues that when it comes to the climate crisis, our biggest and most neglected obstacles are psychological. Capitalism has become so routinized that we accept it without question, the media and mass advertising that take the place of religion, instead of serving our psychological needs, serve their corporate interests. He writes about the value of civic meetings, using schools, religious institutions and civic leaders to spread pro-environmental behavior, harnessing social science to better predict and de-escalate conflict. But there is sometimes a disappointing contrast between the depth of his analysis of the problems and the blandness of his policy solutions: how big a difference would glamorous awards for environmental heroes make?

We need to “update the news by at least a few thousand years”, he says, accusing the media of focusing on titillating gossip and divisive narratives when it should be helping citizens become more pro-social and better able be potential solutions to the large-scale problems facing the world. But people are not swayed by statistics, nor are they easily absorbed by deeply researched think tank reports. If Whitehouse spent time observing newsrooms, he would learn that, despite journalism’s failings, many reporters are its natural allies and are kept awake by the same important issue that motivated this thought-provoking book: we have long known that our current way of life is unsustainable, so what will make us respond properly to this knowledge?

Inheritance: The Evolutionary Origins of the Modern World by Harvey Whitehouse is published by Hutchinson Heinemann (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.



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