By Elizabeth Crouch Zelman. Seattle: Createspace, 2015
Understanding and committing to evolve beyond tribalism could turn out to be a big step toward a brighter future for the human species. At present our species faces a number of problems and threats: poverty, overpopulation, ocean and land pollution, deforestation, climate change, wars and the threat of nuclear war. All of these problems are exacerbated at the present time by tribalism—the belief that one’s social group is better than others and is always right.
This watershed book by evolutionary anthropologist Elizabeth Zelman analyses in depth our genetic and cultural heritage and adopts a perspective that extends over several million years into our past and encompasses all human groups (or tribes) on our planet.
Readers will find in this book an evolutionary explanation of human behavior, and acquire a better understanding of themselves and of human institutions. The broad territory in space and time covered by Elizabeth Zelman’s book is part of the evolutionary approach to discussing many vital issues, especially the question of war and peace.
In the nuclear disarmament movement many writers have expressed the need to create conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. I believe that one of these conditions is the one so convincingly described by Elizabeth Zelman, namely, the need for all of us to evolve beyond tribalism.
Evolving beyond tribalism cannot be rapidly done in a genetic sense because human (and other) genes only change significantly over millennia. In contrast, cultural evolution is occurring now on the scale of a few years, one recent example being the speed and extent of communications and access to information thanks to technological progress. The enormity of present planetary problems facing humankind is an incentive for each of us to take part in cultural evolution. Elizabeth Zelman makes a convincing argument for each one of us to let our intelligence and empathy evolve in order to encompass the entire planet.
What I find especially important in Zelman’s book is the philosophical depth of her discussions. Her book looks in a most inquisitive manner into the nature of the self. The reader will find his/her kinship to animals underlined, especially to bonobos and chimpanzees, our closest cousins in evolution.
We basically possess and are driven by all the emotions that are present in our cousins. But what especially distinguishes us from our animal cousins is our far-reaching empathy and our reasoning power. Unlike our animal cousins, we can develop empathy for all human groups on the planet.
Zelman scans our evolutionary history over the last six million years, the time period over which we evolved from the common ancestor of homo sapiens and our closest cousins: bonobos and chimpanzees. The biggest changes occurred in our power to reason, using language, and our facility and pleasure in engaging in social activities. We are the most social species.
Elizabeth Zelman, like many of us, is worried about the future, worried about the survival of humankind. Pollution, climate change, and nuclear war are on her list of worries. The latest news from astronomy is that a substantial number of planets orbiting stars could harbor life. Some intelligent civilizations in space may be picking up our radio and television signals. Don’t we want to impress these potential listeners with our capacity to survive and prosper?
Overall, I think that Elizabeth Zelman’s book is an important new contribution to our enlightenment and to the vast planetary movement to improve everyone’s life through our highly diversified activities which benefit from our diverse talents. I conclude by quoting some lines showing her empathy towards upcoming generations. Towards the end of her book she expresses her inner self with a poetic and inspiring paragraph, which reads:
“For me, the hope of life resides in its renewal or resurrection each spring, and in each new species that evolves on our earth. Life continues in different forms. We individuals live within our children’s and friends’ lives, within the lives of others that we have touched, and within the lives of the creatures that our molecules help to form after we die. In this way, we all become recycled parts of the earth.’‘
Elizabeth Zelman’s book has the potential to play an important role not only in solving our major planetary problems but also in enriching each person’s life.
Reviewed by Michel A. Duguay, a professor at Université Laval.