We call ourselves intelligent animals, but events in this decade are presenting a real challenge to that notion. Anthropologist Elizabeth Crouch Zelman addresses this question and more in Our Beleaguered SpeciesBeyond Tribalism, first published in 2015, now with her added "Prologue 2018: Awaken Homo sapiens!" Best-selling author Sebastian Junger writes: "Our Beleaguered Species would be a fascinating book in any decade. But today, it is an essential one. The public needs this information and the news media needs to discuss it."
In Our Beleaguered Species, Dr. Zelman describes the journey of humanity from its beginnings to now. In our prehistoric past, the capacity for cooperation allowed us to succeed and spread around the world. Cooperation requires common goals and a sense of groupness, which has a dark side, tribalism, loyalty to one's particular group that is often paired with dislike or denigration of outsider groups, variously defined. While this served our ancestors well in their world of small, scattered groups, it is wreaking havoc in the crowded, interdependent global environment that we occupy today. Along with rapid communication and increasing inequalities between and within nations, the scourge of tribalism seems to grow stronger.
Are we wise enough to acknowledge these changes and recognize the folly of an imbalanced system that encourages our most destructive impulses? We have a strong capacity for good-for empathy, clear thinking and planning, and we often cooperate across borders. As members of a social species with the ability to deceive and harm as well as trust and love, we have done both. How we understand and frame our challenges and how we organize ourselves to meet them will make a difference. It may decide our future. We know that armed conflict and war hasten the loss of resources and the web of life that supports our existence.
In the book's final two chapters, the author reviews strategies that can increase our chances for success-modifying habits of thinking, feeling, and expressing ourselves; and pushing economic and political institutions toward win-win rather than win-lose (or even lose-lose) outcomes. By recognizing and balancing the complex mix of features that made us human, we can improve our chances to thrive even in these scary and troubled times if only we will.
Having transformed the world of our ancestors, the challenges we face are large, global, and complicated. We can and must reach out and move beyond tribalism!
With a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1974 from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Dr. Zelman taught anthropology and sociology in several small colleges before 1982. In midlife she retrained and worked as a speech pathologist until 2007. Since retirement, she has renewed her passion for the anthropological approach to pursue long-standing questions and issues. As participant and student of life itself, in addition to writing, she presents courses as a volunteer at Washington University's Lifelong Learning Institute.