In whom do you put your trust? Evolution has crafted several answers, yet one solution to the problem is completely unique to humans. We innovated tribes. In my book “Our Tribal Future” describing the applied evolutionary anthropology of coalition cognition, I offer an operational definition of a tribe, which is: a meta-group – an intersubjective belief network – that uses symbols as tokens of identity signaling membership in a coalition.1 It serves the function of bootstrapping cooperation amongst strangers within the shared mythology of a beyond face-to-face social network. It is a type of secret society at scale, where the signals of coalitionary alliance serve as the ‘secret password’ to gain the rights, responsibilities, and benefits of the collective “imagined order.”2 No other species on the planet has this amazing capacity at their disposal. At the core of this human adaptation is the solution to the riddle of how a human mind, which was crafted to work with people we know, evolved the instinct to work with people we don’t. But there was a cost, and the result was a seemingly intractable paradox embedded in humanity’s moral compass.

Tribalism as a Mental Immunity Disruptor

When did tribes evolve? Paleo-archaeological evidence demonstrating a group of “us” traded their unique goods to a group of “them,” some 300,000 years ago.3  Resultant was the encoding of the Tribe Drive in our DNA. This tribal cheat sheet leveraged our species' capacity to create and transmit memes in a way that allowed individuals, with no prior interaction, to see strangers as trustworthy. If a meme is a unit of culture, then a memeplex is a network of units that are part of a larger whole.4 With each of humanity’s tribe's cocreation of their own memeplexes, it was inevitable that these memeplexes – perniciously linked with identity-protective cognition – would engage in competition for the wayward minds of our species.

For example, religion, language, music, ritual, consumer behavior, clothing, and food can all emit such signals. If your signal is received as dishonest, you forfeit entrance into the tribe. But if you pass the test, and you are treated with a positive bias by your fellow members, then you are bestowed with tribal identity and the host of privileges and responsibilities that come with it. Humanity had a new way to bootstrap cooperation, but the feature contained a bug. In fact, to the point of thinkers championing the new science of Cognitive Immunology, the bug may be quite literally a viral contagion that compromises the mind’s capacity to filter and shed bad ideas.5 Once there is an ingroup, so too there is an outgroup. Human groups, buttressed by a freshly evolved coalition cognition outcompeted groups without the Tribe Drive. And so all humans today have inherited identity protective cognition6 – the tendency to unconsciously dismiss evidence that does not reflect the beliefs that predominate in our own groups.

Tribalism is the root that explains the most pernicious “isms” of our time, thus it’s worth defining. Tribalism is the belief that different identity-based coalitions possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another. Sound familiar? It should. If racism is the belief that skin color can distinguish people as superior or inferior, then tribalism–using skin color as a predictive factor in-group identity–is the root code of this phenomenon. This is profound because if we want to solve racism, we have to understand tribalism.

The Trust Paradox

A paradox can be defined as the contemplation of a seemingly self-contradictory statement that can help to illuminate a larger truth. Inherent in our nervous system, all humans have three – seemingly paradoxical – competing moral senses. These brain regions evolved to serve distinct functions, and thus compete for neural resources when assessing moral outcomes.7 The most ancient and core is our nervous system, which cares little for anything except for survival. A more recently evolved, but still, quite old neural structure is the limbic system which seeks to maximize principled outcomes that preserve harmony for your group. The newest system is the high-minded “forebrain” which seeks logical, reason-based, idealist utilitarian outcomes. When confronted with the trust dilemma, how do we solve the problem when different parts of our brains seek different solutions to the same problem?  

I call this the Trust Paradox.

The first answer from life was: trust family. Scientists call this kin selection. It is intuitive as it is elegant, which is why most humans don’t flinch at the “family first” moral and modern politicians still run on this half-a-billion-year-old platform. The problem is scale. Kin selection works until you ratchet up complexity in species brains, lengthy memories, and networked social behaviors.

The next solution, much rarer in the animal world, was the evolution of friendship. Friendship, at its core, is non-transactional. It serves as a kind of natural insurance policy that was a radical and innovative answer to the trust paradox. Yet, both these solutions engaged cognitive mechanisms that harnessed sympathy in the mind of our ancestors towards face-to-face, communal relationships. In other words, you have to know who your friends are, and this means strangers are precluded. Thus, friendship does little to scale cooperation beyond the size of a paleolithic band of humans.8

The evolution of tribalism then was a radical update for Homo sapiens. But embedded deep within it was a malicious virus. The tribalism virus can be lethal to mental immune systems. Thanks to the budding science of cognitive immunology, we now are coming to understand mind viruses as not just metaphors but real, measurable things that adversely affect human wellness.  The mind actually has an immune system that protects against parasitic, bad ideas, and certain types of thinking which are disruptors to healthy mental well-being. The Tribe Drive launched our species to unparalleled success; this ascendency has even been dubbed the “Social Conquest of Earth.”9 But even through this conquest and in the process of its spread, there has been embedded within it a virus. The result is a global pandemic of tribalism that threatens the very existence of our species.

We need a vaccine for the tribalism virus and a novel solution to the Trust Paradox.

A Tribalism Vaccine

Just like a biological virus, the key to creating a tribe vaccine is by finding weakened parts of the virus—tribal antigens if you will—that trigger a mental immune response that strengthens the mind against its more pernicious forms. Creating vaccines under a time crunch is no small feat, but as we have seen in recent years, it is possible. Just as we eradicated smallpox from the human species forever, we need to extract tribal antibodies to produce a vaccine to inoculate it from our species forever.

Within tribalism lies the key to the ultimate prosocial enterprise: species-level cooperation. In the same way that we “needed” smallpox to develop a weakened form of the virus so we could use it to inoculate it into oblivion, we can use the existing virulent form of tribalism against itself. I believe it is possible for the tribal “My Side” biases embedded in the human code to be used as the very catalyst for human cooperation on a scale never before witnessed. If we reach herd immunity against the tribalism virus, it could lead to what David Sloan Wilson calls a “Major Evolutionary Transition” for Homo sapiens. Major Evolutionary Transitions happen when species “choose” cooperation over competition as the predominant strategy. But how do we do it?

We need to identify the core compromiser or “disruptor” of mental immune systems. Cognitive immunology may have identified it. That thing that drives our vulnerability to ideology is willful unreason. Also known as “willful belief,” it corrupts cognitive immune systems by degrading the mechanical linkage between critical thinking and belief revision. The worst kind of immune compromising disruption: identity-based unwillingness to yield to evidence. If willful unreason is the root cause of the spread of bad ideas, it should come as no surprise that its opposite is the key mental immunity booster that gives the greatest number of protections against them. Cognitive immunologists call this metabelief, which simply means “belief about beliefs.”10  When I use the term metabelief, I specifically mean the good, cognitive immune-enhancing kind. Metabelief, therefore, is the precept that beliefs should change in response to evidence.

The tribalism virus is the combination of willful unreason that is pegged to identity. Individuals that share group identity unconsciously bias nearly every category of information in the social world.11 It should be clear then, that if we are going to have any shot at overcoming the tribalism virus we’ll need to leverage identity-protective cognition to use group membership to counter its worst effects. Fortunately, science points the way to what type of construct is up to this seemingly impossible task. We will have to fight fire with fire, and use the power of sacred values to enshrine the tribe vaccine’s distribution to humanity and stop the global epidemic of harmful ideas.

A sacred value is one that an individual observes as absolute and inviolable—even thinking of breaking a sacred value is a social taboo. Sacred values differ from material values in that individuals feel honor-bound to uphold them. Importantly, sacred values are powered by identity-protective cognition that comes with identifying with the community that originated that value. Thus, to counteract the tribalism virus with a tribe vaccine, we need to combine metabelief with identity protective cognition. To vaccinate the world from the tribalism virus, we need herd immunity of people who hold metabelief as their sacred value pegged to a single “community of inquiry” tribal identity.

This is what I call a Metatribe.

The key lies in identity-protective cognition protecting the spread of good, not harmful, ideas. Humanities’ way forward then, is not to destroy our current identities, but to adopt a unified series of multilevel coding and at the top, beyond face-to-face—one single team human identity, with a single sacred value. This is the Metatribe.

The two most critical ingredients that make up vaccines are immunogens and adjuvants. The immunogen refers to a molecule that is capable of eliciting an immune response by an organism’s immune system. By introducing weakened forms of the virus to the immune system, an antigen binds to the immune system and is indexed as “bad.” The second element is an adjuvant. An adjuvant is used to prime the immune response with a set of instructions that result in a stronger, more effective immune response. The tribalism vaccine’s immunogen is the antigen of identity protective cognition coupled with the adjuvant set of instructions of metabelief. To “administer” the tribe vaccine to people who choose to be inoculated from it, the key is identifying and practicing a metatribal creed with the power to inoculate individuals against harmful ideological thinking.

The syringe delivery system for the tribalism vaccine needs to leverage humanity's penchant for social norm creation and regulation to facilitate its spread. Historically, tribal creeds have served this purpose. What then, is an effective Metatribal creed to for the long-awaited tribalism vaccine?

I am a member of Team Human.
Our creed is that beliefs can change in light of evidence.
We are a community of inquiry where beliefs are deemed reasonable if they can
withstand reasonable challenges to their veracity.
We are the Metatribe.

By using tribalism’s formula against itself Homo sapiens may be at the dawn of a Major Evolutionary Transition. The arc of the tribal universe is long, but it bends toward oneness. Tribalism itself may yet be the key to saving the world.


[1] Samson, D.R., (2023) Our Tribal Future: How to channel our foundational human instincts into a force for good. (St. Martin’s Press)

[2] Harari, Y. N. (2014). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind, Random House.  

[3] Merrick, H.V., F. Brown, and W. Nash, Use and movement of obsidian in the Early and Middle Stone Ages of Kenya and northern Tanzania. Society, culture, and technology in Africa, 1994. 11(6): p. 29–44.

[4] Velikovsky, J., The holon/parton theory of the unit of culture (or the meme, and narreme): In science, media, entertainment, and the arts, in Technology Adoption and Social Issues: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications. 2018, IGI Global. p. 1590–1627.

[5] Norman, A., Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind-Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think. 2021, New York: HarperCollins.

[6] Kahan, Dan M., Misconceptions, Misinformation, and the Logic of Identity-Protective Cognition (May 24, 2017). Cultural Cognition Project Working Paper Series No. 164, Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 605, Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 575

[7] Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst, Penguin. 

[8] Dunbar, R. I. and R. Sosis (2018). "Optimizing human community sizes." Evolution and Human Behavior 39(1): 106-111.

[9] Wilson, E.O., The social conquest of earth. 2012: WW Norton & Company.

[10] Pennycook, G., et al. (2020). "On the belief that beliefs should change according to evidence: Implications for conspiratorial, moral, paranormal, political, religious, and science beliefs." Judgment and Decision making 15(4): 476.

[11] Baumeister, R. F. and M. R. Leary (1995). "The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation." Psychological bulletin 117(3): 497.