“Homo sapiens evolved to think of people as divided into us and them. Us was the group immediately around you, whoever you were, and them was everyone else,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. Humans evolved in small tribes, and if you have ever been part of a small club, you know that your small group can adopt a number of distinguishing quirks. Whether it is the name your group adopts, where your group chooses to meet up, or what tv show everyone in your group happens to like, small and random factors can become important distinguishing markers of your group. Larger factors can also become dominant distinguishing factors. Say you are part of a small running team whose goal is to win a big race. Your group is going to have a different culture, attitude, and expectation on individuals compared to a group that just wants to finish the race. Or imagine you are part of a quilting group in the Midwest. Your quilting group may be more interested in very different style than a quilting group meeting in south central Los Angeles. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine (or perhaps stereotype is more accurate) the Midwest group including country song lines on their quilts while the group from LA wrote, “sí se puede” on their quilts.
The small tribes our ancestors evolved within probably varied as much as the running teams and quilting groups I imagined above. With so many small differences and large differences possible, each tribe became unique, especially if they didn’t have a large amount of interaction with other tribes. Slowly, over time, groups grew, multiplied, and had more opportunities to interact. Initially, their differences would have been incredibly obvious, and the us versus them mindset would have been front and center. Two ancient tribes meeting would have been like our competitive and participatory running teams meeting each other on race day. Or like our Midwest and South Central LA quilting groups sitting next to each other at a restaurant before a quilting convention. They would have recognized their similarities, but their differences would have stood out as much or even more than their similarities. It would have been easy to fall into in-group and out-group thinking, considering the in-group to be the correct way to approach running or quilting (or being human) and the out-group to be erroneous, dangerous, or just strange. Luckily for us, humans have adapted beyond us versus them thinking (to some extent) to enable us to have cooperative and relatively peaceful modern cities, countries, and even global governance and development organizations.
Harari continues, “Merchants, conquerors, and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, us vs them, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind.” At the end of the day, the quilting groups can trade materials, ideas, and techniques. They can engage in economic transactions and become united, and slightly less in-group versus out-group oriented through trade. The fast running team could recruit a couple of the strong runners from the non-competitive team, effectively conquering the slow team and leaving the slowest of the slow without a team to continue running with, uniting the two teams through conquest (and eliminating some from the sport which isn’t necessarily great). Both groups, our runners and quilters, could also find themselves motivated by prophets. Our quilter groups could find that they both read the same quilting magazine or follow the same quilters on Instagram. Our running groups could be equally inspired by the Olympics and could find that they all participate on the same running message boards on letsrun.com. Even beyond intra-group unification, the quilters and runners could be connected on a larger scale by all using the same social media channel to coordinate their events and activities or all traveling to the same place for events. Throughout human history, all of these examples, Harari argues, have occurred, bringing people closer together and slowly but surely reducing our us versus them mindset and creating more space for us to be similar even if we are still unique. We seem to default to seeing the differences in others and closing in around the groups we identify with, but other factors continue to unite us with other groups, expanding the circle of who is us and reducing who is them.