What does it mean to be part of a group? Who makes up your tribe? For most, I suspect these are implicit questions rarely considered. My research on social insects pulls such issues to the fore each time I sit at the microscope. And as I analyze the evidence before me, I can’t help but apply these questions to my own life.
I spent many years believing I was not social, (the reasons for which are still under investigation) and by extension did not define myself as part of a tribe. Instead, I opted for the identification with what the group represented; mountain biker, telemark skier, PhD student, resident of Boulder, Colorado. (Note: there is a difference between tribe and group.) Over time, I made a handful of close relationships. However, inclusion in a larger tribe was never pursued because of self-generated limitations and restrictive definitions.
Over the past few years many of those limitations and definitions have been acknowledged and altered. Lo and behold a social person, and one who is seeking and developing relationships within different tribes. The change has been in realizing that my mind was too involved in the decision process. Here I define mind as the keeper of history, joys, disappointments, injuries, successes, and (last but not least) teller of stories. This memory bank can help us survive. It can also function as a tool of isolation and exclusion. While humans have the ability to store tremendous amounts of knowledge and experience, we at times seem to struggle with the balance between wanting in and keeping out. As a contrast, social insects do not have to contend with such gray areas.
In order to be considered social an insect species must abide by the three following rules: 1) individuals of the same species cooperate in caring for the young, 2) there is a reproductive division of labor with sterile workers tending to reproductive individuals, and 3) there is an overlap of at least two generations capable of working in the colony. In many cases there is also a division of labor within a colony such that some workers forage and some workers defend nests or colonies. These soldiers use pheromones or cuticular hydrocarbons to detect fellow nest mates. If your “smell” meets the criteria, you are in. If not, no entrance. The process is essentially a chemical reaction, either yes or no. It is this type of chemical reaction that needs to gain greater prominence in our decisions concerning who gets in and who is kept out. (You have made it this far. Do not stop reading now because I guarantee you will come to the wrong conclusion.)
I hear the collective gasp of “Jeff, of all people! Are you actually saying that we should be so black and white about who we include in our lives?” No, in fact something totally different. I am saying we should pay more attention to the chemical basis of decision-making.
My sense is that the world is becoming more homogenized into two camps; either you are with us or you are against us. My analogy rests on the idea that perhaps if we paid a bit more attention to the chemical response we feel (note I am avoiding the term heart, mostly because I am at a loss for how to define it), we may ultimately be more gentle and accepting of the world and those around us. We might create stronger and healthier tribes and communities. How many times have you heard stories of politicians “reaching across the isle” and actually accomplishing something productive? It warms your heart, right? And it probably warmed theirs too.
And that “warm heart” feeling is just the point. We should trust it more and seek to include it in our lives. But it is hard to do that when the mind is set on the default of my group or their group, avoidance of risk, and fear of making the wrong decision. Try walking down the street this weekend and see what your heart (there you go, I used it) tells you about the people you meet. Yea, take a risk and shut your mind down. I dare you. Either way, you are still part of my tribe.
Thank you for reading.