Review of Us and Them: The Science of Identity

Us and Them: the Science of Identity doesn’t answer the question of what we know about human kinds, as author David Berreby refers to them; it tries rather to answer the more fundamental question of how we should think about them. This alone would make the book almost unique among works by science writers. But it has many other unusual and some downright odd features. We should think about human kinds scientifically, he proposes in the introduction. This suggestion, along with the apologetics that accompany it, might come across as condescending or preachy to anyone apt to read a book with science in the subtitle, but the intention seems to be a return to first principles. In a preface written sometime after the book was originally published, Berreby sums up his argument:

“grouping people is an inborn, automatic, involuntary activity of the mind. It’s like learning to walk, or talk, or recognize faces. It can’t be shut off. It’s not evil. It’s not good. It’s just there, a mental faculty we can’t help using, with rules different from the ones used by other parts” (xiii).

The best evidence for this automatic and unconscious process comes from the Implicit Association Test, which has participants match words with either names or pictures on a computer and measures the time it takes them to do so. The names or pictures suggest that the person being matched with the word, all of which are for positive or negative qualities, belong to one or another group. “Almost invariably,” Berreby writes, “American students find they have an unconscious favoritism for white over black and often for male over female” (137). This preference is inferred from the relative speediness with which participants match good qualities with names common among white males and the relative slowness with which they matched them to other groups. And the trend holds even for those whose consciously held beliefs contradict it, much to their dismay.

But why does the best evidence for Berreby’s argument show up nearly halfway through the book? The Robbers Cave experiment, a classic in social psychology and the touchstone for any discussion of tribalism, justifiably has an entire chapter to itself—but it’s chapter eight of fifteen. What’s going on here is that Berreby realizes he faces a big challenge overcoming people’s natural and automatic thinking about human kinds, and his strategy is to take a deep breath, shake out his arms, and roll his neck before delving into the haunted forest of kind cognition. The early chapters are devoted not to research with direct bearing on tribalism, but to looking at the various subfields of social, cognitive, and neurological psychology through the lens, and at the same time toward the quarry, of tribalism. He’s not just telling us to think differently; he’s trying to show us point-by-point, painstakingly, how it’s done. Whether he’s successful or not, this method is bound to make many readers impatient, especially since he concludes by asserting that the best way to think about the matter is as yet unknown.

Berreby’s central argument is that we should think of human kinds not as objective entities we can measure differences among—the position of “race realists,” who are something of a bête noire for Berreby—nor as purely constructed, á la all reality as understood by deconstructionists. Kinds are rather a function of the interaction between mind and world. Taking them out of economic, political, or historical context renders them meaningless, as does trying to treat them as stable entities. However, treating them as if they were pure fantasy, believing you can simply decide not to recognize and accept them, is just as absurd. Berreby may have arrived at this position by way of analogy with the now established truism that nature versus nurture is a misguided question because nature has to interact with nurture, genes with environments, for any product or process to emerge. But three hundred and thirty-one pages later I’m still not sure whether this insight about human kinds really helps to explain anything.

Berreby’s beef with race realists, among whose ranks he includes Steven Pinker, is in keeping with a subtle tendency toward noble savage romanticism. This implicit position in what Frans de Waal calls in The Ape and the Sushi Master “a perennial controversy” (340) between those who believe people are basically good but get corrupted by society and those who think they’re bad but for education (I’m afraid my beliefs align better with this side), makes Berreby’s thinking about tribalism elliptical. He argues convincingly that recognizing human kinds was a crucial ability for the development of civilizations, pointing out that if primatologist Robin Dunbar “is right, and our capacity to track individuals tops out at 150, then this code of human kinds must have been a powerful amplifier. Instead of knowing 150 people, our ancestors could know thousands, by knowing their kinds” (221). But his thinking about tribalism’s dark side is less compelling, and at times even confusing.

William Graham Sumner coined the terms in group and out group in his 1906 book Folkways, in which he writes, “Loyalty to the ingroup, sacrifice for it, hatred and contempt for outsiders, brotherhood within, warlikeness without—all group together, common products of the same situation.” But, according to Berreby, “Much of this is dead wrong” (211). To support his claim, he cites Elizabeth Cashdan, who found through searching a database of 186 traditional societies that out-group hostility does not correlate with in-group harmony. Rather, in-group hostility correlates with out-group hostility. Otto Adang arrived at a similar conclusion when he analyzed the behavior of soccer fans in Europe. Those most prone to inciting violence weren’t the ones with the most team spirit but the ones who beat their wives and kids—i.e. those who were violent in general. Berreby doesn’t see any reason to explain how this jives with his earlier criticism of Theodore Adorno’s theory that certain individuals have “authoritarian personalities.” Adorno’s book, he complains, “made no allowance for the way a person’s behavior depends on his surroundings and his goals” (160). Might the tribal surroundings of a soccer match nudge a man who is more violent on average toward hooliganism?

But Berreby, citing Walter Mischel, discounts stable personalities as readily as he dismisses reliable group categories. Mischel’s argument, however, was not that individual differences don’t exist but merely that they are often given far too much weight as explanations for behavior. “It would be a complete misinterpretation,” he wrote in his 1968 book Personality and Assessment, “to conclude that individual differences are unimportant” (quoted in Pieces of the Personality Puzzle: Readings in Theory and Research). Berreby exaggerates the fundamental attribution error, which itself is a topic of debate because some argue the “error” is correct more often than not, and holds that it applies with equal validity to explanations about the behavior of groups. He’s mostly right, but this may be putting just as excessive an emphasis on mutability as we are naturally given to put on stability.

Berreby accuses Pinker and his ilk of having an “original sin” view of nature, in keeping with the supposedly Freudian idea (actually Hobbesian, or, if de Waal is right, traceable to a much earlier philosopher) that people are innately bad. They place too much evidence on “tribal violence” (173). Berreby’s own idea about the downside of group thinking is that it results from a stigma being placed on a particular group. Were it not for leaders or authorities or “stigmatizing practices” (280), whose place in the tribal dynamic is conveniently left out of the discussion, people would let their concepts of “human kinds pass kaleidoscopically through” (323) their minds. He has a lot of support for how different contexts mean different group thinking, but he simply fails to demonstrate that, left to themselves—whatever that means—people don’t tend more toward disfavoring out-groups. Berreby suggests Pinker neglects the third week of the Robbers Cave experiment because it demonstrates how easily the researchers managed to undo the tribalism they’d manufactured. Admittedly, it’s been a long time since I’ve read the primary source, and I was first introduced to it by Pinker, but even reading about it in Us and Them I have to say it seems to have been much easier to get the boys at the camp to hate each other than it was to get them to forget that hate. The results of the Implicit Association Test go a long way toward proving this. Why would college students sitting at a computer have a hard time seeing good qualities in minorities if their negative stereotypes were completely situational?

Berreby has a similar view of hierarchy: “People’s pecking orders have to be imposed” (267), again begging the question of who’s doing the imposing. His evidence for this idea comes from Christopher Boehm, who found that hunter-gatherers tend to have social mechanisms to maintain egalitarianism. It seems almost disingenuous of Berreby to put forth this argument—isn’t it likely that in another context, say, one without those social mechanisms, pecking orders might establish themselves? This position is especially unfortunate because Judith Rich Harris’s ideas about how tribalism interacts with hierarchy are much more compelling. Berreby lumps Harris in with Pinker, even though he allows she “has many interesting things to say about groupishness” (173).

I’m harping on one thread in Us and Them I found frustrating, but the work is really a remarkable accomplishment. I feel my thinking about tribalism really is more subtle after having read it. And the book introduced me to several studies I’d never heard of, which I hope to be tracking down soon. Still, I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone who isn’t especially keen on learning about the topic. The ratio of good reporting to philosophizing I’m not sure how to assess is off-putting. What, for instance, is to be made of this problem Berreby hopes science will sort out in the future:

“the difference between a human kind as a cause and a human kind as an explanation. Explanations come to mind after an event, as when we say, ‘Ethnic hatred was one of the reasons that Yugoslavia fell apart.’ Explanations are in our minds. On the other hand, causes are forces that really exist the world, whether we know it or not. To say that ‘ethnic hatred’ caused Yugoslavia to fall apart is to claim that ethnic hatred really made something happen. Though it’s obvious that these are different ways of thinking about human kinds [obvious?], most people slip from one to the other without noticing. And so we’re susceptible to thinking that after-the-fact explanations are before-the-fact causes.” (325)

So Berreby hopes scientists will figure out why people think the explanations they believe to be valid are valid? Much of the book has this sort of feel. It’s like being high (I’ve heard) and having a thought that seems really profound and original—or is it completely mundane? Or is it a jumble?