Keeping it in the Family

What do marriage between cousins and the elimination of the estate tax have in common?  Hint: The answer doesn’t involve Jerry Lee Lewis.  Give up?  The two might be linked by an intrinsic human characteristic, tribalism: the strong identification between members of a group and corresponding distrust of non-members.

Many evolutionary psychologists view ethnocentrism as an adaptive trait.  For early Homo sapiens, so it goes, the ability to form close bonds with one’s close kin, or fellow members of smallish bands of hunter-gatherers that for millennia served as the principle unit of human organization, enhanced survivability.  Similarly, wariness of those outside one’s clan was also evolutionarily beneficial in a violent world.

Although human organizational structures have grown infinitely more complex since our ancestors roamed the Serengeti in loincloths, atavistic traits like tribalism remain deeply embedded in our psyche.  One manifestation of clannishness came to the attention of New York Times columnist John Tierney during a trip to Baghdad.  Inquiring into the weddings taking place in his hotel, Tierney was informed that they were between cousins.  Perplexed, he asked why the marital arrangement was so common, to which he was told: “Of course we marry a cousin.  What would you have us do, marry a stranger?  We cannot trust strangers.”

This response may offend Western sensibilities, but Roger Sandall helps explain its rationale in The American Interest.  Tribal membership, he says, requires exclusivity.  Outsiders must be kept out.  Marrying close kin therefore prevents tribal dilution while reinforcing clan loyalty.  As Sandall puts it, “The centrifugal tendency of parents marrying ‘out’ [to ensure genetic variation] is balanced by the centripetal tendency of children marrying ‘in,” i.e., a close relative like a cousin.

So what may appear primitive actually has a purpose.  And what is the purpose of tribalism in the first place?  In societies where neighbors cannot be trusted and the state is predatory, fraternal structures provide sanctuary and protection.  Membership, to riff off the Madison Avenue catchphrase, has its privileges, ensuring a modicum of security in insecure circumstances.

Yet tribalism also has shortcomings.  Sandall relates how American soldiers tried to reason with Iraqi thieves steeling copper wire connecting hospitals to the electrical grid by pointing out that their actions were hurting “the Iraqi people.”  The appeal ran up against the thieves’ narrow, clannish worldview.  Their moral horizons weren’t sufficiently broad.  So they kept stealing.

Why should such behavior matter to us Americans?

Margaret Thatcher once remarked, “There is no such thing as society.”  The former British Prime Minister was arguing for individual responsibility and against government paternalism, but her comment can be understood to apply where the concept of society is attenuated because identity is more localized.  Nation building in such places without strong senses of nationhood is consequently problematic.  This goes a long way to explaining why the US has fared so poorly in Iraq and Afghanistan, as we tend to see countries as monolithic and are surprised when, after prying them open, long-suppressed ethnic, religious, and tribal tensions erupt spectacularly.  We might be wise, then, to embrace a humble rule: don’t invade places where marriage between cousins is the norm.

More developed societies are not immune to tribalism either.  While this is not evident in marriage arrangements, it is in other ways.  Consider the estate tax.  Over the past few decades, wealth has concentrated in the US to levels not seen since the Gilded Age.  Yet over the same period, momentum has built to reduce the inheritance tax, which was enacted a century ago to protect against the establishment of an entrenched elite that threatened democracy, as Theodore Roosevelt and others recognized.  Presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty has even proposed doing away with the tax altogether.

This trend might simply be ascribed to greed, or simply the natural desire to bequeath to one’s own.  But there’s more to it.  The desire of the gloriously affluent to posthumously pass on their riches to their relatives—untaxed whatsoever, ideally—implies a lack of identification and sense of kinship with a broader community.  It indicates that little responsibility is felt for the nation; that little recognition exists for the many blessings flowing from American citizenship; and that, in the minds of some, there is no such thing as society.  The mentality approximates that of the Iraqi thieves who steal electricity from hospitals.  It is, in short, tribal.

The estate tax will not likely be eliminated given that the federal government is running enormous deficits.  But don’t be surprised if Tim Pawlenty’s daughters marry their cousins.

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