Book review of “Tribe”, a deep dive into the foundations of our pull toward community

Tribe: a book on homecoming and belonging
by Sebastian Junger

When I went to the National Cohousing Conference, held in Nashville in May, I kept hearing the book Tribe being referenced. Now that I have read it, I understand why. There is a reason we and others are so drawn to cohousing. Without ever mentioning cohousing, Junger explains why the idea of community is so central to all human beings. And community is what cohousing, at its core, is all about.

To quote the book, “Decades before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin lamented that English settlers were constantly fleeing over to Indians, but Indians almost never did the same.” Why? One of the things that was tempting about native life to white settlers, Junger notes, was its “egalitarianism.” That he says, is built into our genetic structure because “genetic adaptations take around 25,000 years to appear in humans” and we have not lost our egalitarian instinct that hunter gatherers needed to survive 5,000-10,000 years ago. These hunting groups likely formed coalitions to counter any male that tried to be dominant, the book says, because it would have been counterproductive to the group. Our current society is based on selfishness and status, while the hunting groups were based on sharing and cooperation.

I would guess many of us have struggled with authority. This may be part of our genetic make up, and it is possible that a part of us recognizes that as authority goes up, community goes down. Mainstream society stresses individualism over community. Junger quotes anthropologist Richard Boehm’s 2007 study of present day hunter-gatherer societies. Boehm notes that, “The human conscience evolved in the middle to late Pleistocene as a result of hunting large game. This required cooperative, band-level sharing of meat.”

We evolved as a communal species, and when that sense of community dwindles, we can lose a part of ourselves that wants more than individual status and material wealth. The book is full of examples of that sense of community, its fulfillment and its purpose happening in ways and places we would not normally guess to be possible. One of those is the current U.S. combat veterans ironically being happier during combat than they were upon coming home, likely because of–the book says–their loss of closeness and the breaking of intimate bonds that combat life gave them. This may explain some their subsequent PTSD upon their return.  

Another example comes from the time of the bombing of London by the Nazis during WWII. Experts had predicted that up to 4 million people would have a psychiatric breakdown in England.  But “as the Blitz progressed, psychiatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down,”the book notes. “Even epileptics reported having fewer seizures.”

Why did this happen? “When people are actively engaged in a cause their lives have more purpose…. with a resulting improvement in mental health,” H. A. Lyons wrote in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research in 1979.

I think the reason the book Tribe was referenced so often at the National Cohousing Conference was because people there believe that the cohousing model puts us back into a situation that we are very suited to. Cohousing creates a structure that is egalitarian, not based on authority, and similar to what hunter gatherers practiced. It puts us in a setting that allows for the privacy of one’s own home, but subtly and continually routes us past the common house where we can encounter others in a nonthreatening way.  And since these people, like us, “are actively engaged in a cause, their lives have more purpose, and there is a resulting improvement in mental health.” The cause that people are actively engaged in is cohousing itself. That cause is the common good of keeping the cohousing group viable, functioning, and sustainable. That cause that becomes a purpose, is realizing that what I do impacts my neighbor, and that we are all in this together. This is probably why, studies show, that people in cohousing live longer and volunteer in the larger community more than people outside of cohousing. We are meant to be in community, and we do better when we do.

–Brian PaStarr, TCCN board member