Tribalism, Nationalism And Fascism


A drop of good sense, in a sea of emotion

When I was 7 years old, and in the third grade of school, my teacher described human behavior in a way that has stuck in my mind for three quarters of a century: She said “A drop of good sense, in a sea of emotion!”

Our emotional nature is very ancient. Many human emotions can be traced back to our remote ancestors in the animal kingdom. These emotions are not necessarily appropriate in the complex society of today. The Nobel-laureate physiologist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi once wrote:

“The story of man consists of two parts, divided by the appearance of modern science…. In the first period, man lived in the world in which his species was born and to which his senses were adapted. In the second, man stepped into a new, cosmic world to which he was a complete stranger… The forces at man’s disposal were no longer terrestrial forces, of human dimension, but were cosmic forces, the forces which shaped the universe. The few hundred Fahrenheit degrees of our flimsy terrestrial fires were exchanged for the ten million degrees of the atomic reactions which heat the sun.

“This is but a beginning, with endless possibilities in both directions,  a building of a human life of undreamt of wealth and dignity, or a sudden end in utmost misery. Man lives in a new cosmic world for which he was not made. His survival depends on how well and how fast he can adapt himself to it, rebuilding all his ideas, all his social and political institutions.

“…Modern science has abolished time and distance as factors separating nations. On our shrunken globe today, there is room for one group only: the family of man.”


Tribalism is closely related to nationalism and fascism. Today it is our most inappropriate behavioral tendency. It  is the tendency of humans to be kind, loyal and supportive to members of their own group, but sometimes murderous towards outsiders.

The human tendency towards tribalism evolved when our remote ancestors lived in small, genetically homogeneous tribes, competing for territory on the grasslands of Africa. Because marriage within a tribe was much more common than marriage outside it, genes were shared within the tribe. The tribe as a whole either survived or perished. The tribe, rather than the individual was the unit upon which the Darwinian forces of natural selection acted.

Although it was a survival trait 100,000 years ago, tribalism threatens our human civilization of today with thermonuclear annihilation. As Konrad Lorenz put it,  “An impartial visitor from another planet, looking at man as he is today, in his hand the atom bomb, the product of his intelligence, in his heart the aggression drive, inherited from his anthropoid ancestors, which the same intelligence cannot control,  such a visitor would not give mankind much chance of survival.”


Today, at the start of the 21st century, we live in nation-states to which we feel emotions of loyalty very similar to the tribal emotions of our ancestors. The enlargement of the fundamental political and social unit has been made necessary and possible by improved transportation and communication, and by changes in the techniques of warfare.

The tragedy of our present situation is that the same forces that made the nation-state replace the tribe as the fundamental political and social unit have continued to operate with constantly increasing intensity. For this reason, the totally sovereign nation-state has become a dangerous anachronism.

Although the world now functions as a single unit because of modern technology, its political structure is based on fragments, on absolutely sovereign nation-states – large compared to tribes, but too small for present-day technology, since they do not include all of mankind.

Gross injustices mar today’s global economic interdependence, and because of the development of thermonuclear weapons, the continued existence of civilization is threatened by the anarchy that exists today at the international level.


Fascism appeals directly to the lowest human emotions. Fascism calls up the devils of tribalism and nationalism. Therefore it is fundamentally antisocial and destructive. At the same time, the low, emotional appeal of fascism has led to its political success. The fanatical crowds that cheered Hitler, Franco and Mussolini in the 1930’s are worryingly similar to the crowds that cheered Donald Trump during the disastrous 2016 US presidential election.

The family of humankind

On our shrunken globe, there is room for one group only, the family of humankind.  We face a difficult future. Climate change threatens to make large parts of the world uninhabitable. Fossil fuels must be kept in the ground if we are to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic global warming. Climate change, the end of the fossil fuel era, and rapid population growthe threaten to produce famine on a scale that has never previously been witnessed.

To face the severe challenges successfully, to avoid a political drift towards fascism and war, we need human solidarity.

Individual citizens of the world must join hands and work together with dedication to overcome the threats of tribalism, nationalism and fascism.

We must build a new global ethical system where we recognize that we are all members of a single family. We must save the future for our children and grandchildren, and for all other creatures in our beautiful world.

Some suggestions for further reading

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.  In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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