Tribalism, Nationalism and Fascism


John Scales Avery – TRANSCEND Media Service

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 . They are 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 growth 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 Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf).


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Jan 2017.

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2 Responses to “Tribalism, Nationalism and Fascism”

  1. Bernadine Young says:

    Sorry, my first sentence was muddled, so here is the correction:
    Lovely and important article, but I would like to comment on how tribalism has been grossly negative effects by the brutality of colonialism and domination. If in taking over others lands, one treats the original inhabitants, the tribes, barbarically, they learn for survival sake to response with like behavior. This is very evident in our world history and well studied by researches.

    In America, the first people at first responded kindly, helping the invading Europeans survive by sharing resources and knowledge to allow settlers to make it through sickness, poor water sources, food sources/hunting, local seeds/clearing/farming, and aid for settler ill prepared for first winters here. However, as Europeans were a fierce but fearful tribe about the unknown, especially other people and having fled from those of their own original tribes that harshly dominated them, the use of aggression and violence by them quickly became the order of the day and then enshrined in laws of the “new”land.

    While some tribes of the first people who had to face all sorts of European approaches to annihilation responded with violence. Warring ensued to which the native people had little possibility of winning. But worse, Europeans arrived on these native peoples land with intent to dominate not just the land but the natives as well, and immediately and brutally enacted all that entails the worst inhumanity of humankind,the evils of holocaust and it’s twin evil slavery.

    Thus, the first people on this continent had to survive horrible situations not unlike what happened to Africans force to come here by European tribes now calling themselves and building the nationalism that became the United States of America.
    As some degree of civil liberty for first people (a long time coming and too little-too late, as it was for all enslaved people in this country) became part of the law of this country, the first people, already by then pushed to move to the harshest of lands whites avoided, showed themselves throughout the long period of treaty making and forced removal from white areas to be fair and reasonable negotiators who unfortunately for them were all too trusting of those they negotiated with in good faith and that in future decades undermined the unfortunate and horribly lopsided inadequate treaties and even what little those treaties provide for the lives of the first people that managed to survive until now. Yet, having been forced by unequal powers, dishonesty, and racism and all types of inhumanity into these harsh habitats, we now know that it all has been made worse every decade by the greedy disregard that evolved from our government and its agencies as a terrible new form of injustice: industrial pollution of their water, land, soil, and air. However, the first people still were able to passed onto their descendants a deep understanding that to survive we all must care about each others’ well being and survival.

    This is a hollowed tribal tradition enshrined in the human spirit, although abandoned/demolished by many modern peoples who think they will survive by domination of others, but, nevertheless, a hollowed tradition which continues to this day among the first people of the Americas. And, amazingly, in holding on to it through all the eras of adversity they faces, the first people’s nations have not only maintained their respect for nature and for perserving sustainable practices, but have in recent years, risked their well being and lives to stand up to protect millions of other Americans’ water, land, soil and air and to show us the way to do so as well– think Standing Rock! Think of the unending number of industrial spills every day and other industrial pollution, and of the many decades of skyrocketing rates of autoimmune diseases, cancers and autism, and of the gross ineguity of those who profite from all the wealth industry provides that has proven to be financial ruin for the lives of those who do not.

    Yes, having tribal traditions that are augmented by modern and nuclear militarization –something American is directly linked to, and augmented by original deep effects of European colonialism on tribal attitudes and actions, which in recent decades Americans have with foreboding also directly contributed to with grossly negative impact on the world–is the worst apex we humans could have reached for, but might we think of a new word to describe this negative force besides tribalism, as there are peace loving people in the world whose surviving tribes offer us much we need to emulate and join with to see the one tribe of the world become a peaceful, joyful and sustainable one. Without this all of us following their hollowed principle, none of us will survive, for abundant history tells us well that control and domination have never been sustainable for humans or the Earth.