Many Native American tribes would consult a shaman before embarking on a hunting expedition. In one tribe, a shaman would take a caribou bone, carve on it images of the kind of prey the tribe were keen to find (buffalo, deer, trailer-park video-poker addicts) and then place it on a fire. At some point the heat of the fire would cause the bone to split. The hunting party would then set out unquestioningly in the direction of the line of the crack.
This is of course a completely insane practice; the kind of irrational, superstitious nonsense that would have Richard Dawkins foaming at the mouth. Except it isn’t. In fact, it’s rather brilliant.
One hundred years ago there was no surefire way of predicting where to find a buffalo herd. But there were two ways to improve your odds when hunting them. First it is better to keep moving. Secondly it is a good idea not to hunt buffalo alone: hence it is vital for the group of hunters to stick together — and to maintain internal cohesion and solidarity. Once you get disunity or dissent (‘I told you we should have gone west this time’ or ‘Why didn’t we go fishing instead?’) your odds of success fall dramatically. Since disobeying the shaman was unthinkable, this kind of dissent almost never arose. A sociologist would say that the bone-cracking ritual helps create gemeinschaft rather than gesellschaft — it helps individuals subordinate their different interests to the common good. A military man would call it camaraderie.
Once you understand that man is a eusocial species (humans were recently described by the evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt as ‘90 per cent chimp, 10 per cent bee’), many seemingly arbitrary and irrational religious practices reveal a remarkable hidden intelligence. They may not seem to make sense intellectually, but behaviourally they work.
The shaman’s instruction is also a ‘binary instruction’ (any deviation is perceived as wrong). These seem to be far easier for our instinctive brains to follow and obey than more complex, quantitative forms of moral instruction. How often do you break the speed limit? Almost every time you drive a car. But how often do you deliberately run a red light — even at 2 a.m.? Perhaps once a year.
Our brains seem naturally to work this way. Virtue, sin. Four legs good, two legs bad. Kosher, treif. Haram, haraam. Coke or Pepsi. Red or white? Us and them.
Notice that in the Bible, they don’t diet, they fast. And food is either acceptable or not. I have recently abandoned attempts to follow a calorie-controlled diet, and instead eat what I like except bread, potatoes, grains and sugar. This good-food/bad-food Manichaean approach works remarkably well. In fact it becomes self-reinforcing — after a few weeks I began to find the sight of Danish pastries mildly revolting (just as vegetarians rapidly become disgusted by the idea of eating meat). This methodology also benefits from social reinforcement: if your wife or husband follows the diet as well, your own behaviour improves — you simply don’t buy any carbohydrates when you shop. Hence there is no danger of eating any carbs, since there aren’t any in the house. Quantitative, calorie-restricting diets don’t work this easy way — they require the constant, conscious exercise of vigilance and self-restraint.
Yes/No binary rules provide much better software for our lizard brains to operate by than quantitative rules. Want to cut down on your drinking? Don’t rely on counting units — it demands too much of your limited capacity for self-control. Instead just be sure not to drink alcohol on three days every week.
There are probably good evolutionary reasons for this binary tendency in our brains. If attacked by a neighbouring tribe, your chances of survival were far better if you all fought — or you all ran away. A half-hearted defensive approach, or sitting around endlessly debating ‘the third way’, would be a recipe for extinction.
The problem with a lot of legislation and rationalist political thought is that it creates over-complex codes for human beings to live by which are designed for people ‘as they should be’ not ‘as they really are’. As Haidt observes, all political ideologies effectively predate recent insights in evolutionary psychology. And so they effectively start a rational model and impose them on peoples’ minds, rather than working the other way round.
To give just one example, the attempts to create a united Europe (whether or not you agree with the goal) have been woefully misconceived. The idea was to create economic union, which would lead inexorably to political union and then to a cultural and emotional union.
This is completely backwards. Start with psychology and work from there.
‘Europe can only be united by the heartfelt wish and vehement expression of the great majority of all the peoples in all the parties in all the freedom-loving countries, no matter where they dwell or how they vote,’ said Churchill in 1948.
If people really are naturally binary, it is hard to achieve this ‘heartfelt wish’ in the absence of a collective threat. The US nuclear shield in 1948 essentially meant that Europe was not quite frightened enough of the Soviet Union to achieve this.
But there is another way to solve this problem — assuming you want to. Which is to create two united Europes. The proposed map is in the centre of this page.
The way I have arbitrarily divided the EU here is based on a (nice) blue Europe of countries where they use subtitles for foreign television and films — and a (rubbish, nasty) red Europe where English language films are dubbed.
Well, not entirely arbitrarily. There is a kind of logic to the split. Precisely because subtitling exposes people to 20,000 hours or so of spoken English by the age of 20, the quality of idiomatic spoken English is far higher in the blue countries than in the red ones. (Let’s face it, a common language is more economically valuable than a common currency.) But there will be other similarities starting to emerge in your mind — whether you like it or not. The blue countries tend to be historically maritime and more international in outlook. They have a better sense of humour. The people there don’t grow ridiculous mullets. Each half has a healthy mixture of puritanism and sunshine. Only a couple of the blue countries will be using the euro in 2014. You can add to this list at will.
Simply by dividing Europe in two, you are starting to see sudden affinities with the blue group. It’s innate. Some of these similarities may be genuine — for instance, at a cultural level, I can see no significant cultural divide between the UK and the Nordic countries and the Netherlands; something Brits would quickly realise if they occasionally travelled north for their holidays. But others are simply a product of our minds’ selective search for justification.
The forerunner of this idea was an experiment involving 22 boys, ages 11 and 12, whom psychologist Muzafer Sherif brought together at Oklahoma’s Robbers Cave State Park. He and his team placed the two groups on separate buses and drove them to a Boy Scout camp inside the park. At the camp, the scientists put the two groups of boys separately about a half-mile apart and at first kept secret the existence and location of the other group.
Admittedly this experiment (which would be outlawed today) almost led to carnage. But the emerging awareness of another group in the park inarguably created extraordinary solidarity within the groups. It seems that a hormone called oxytocin may be involved in this process.
This divide-unite approach already works in hundreds of the world’s longest-lived institutions. The colleges of the University 0;of Cambridge all compete with each other in many ways — but are undivided over one question: they agree that Oxford is a jolly bad place. Twenty-four years after leaving, I am far more alarmed by David Cameron being Oxonian than Etonian.
A middle-class Manchester City fan and a working-class Leeds United Fan will have nothing in common — ostensibly. Until you mention Manchester United. At this point, all differences will be forgotten as they bond in their shared loathing.
At present, most people’s mental map of Europe is ghastly. It resembles an appallingly dysfunctional flatshare where the two self-appointed landlords are in a slightly pervy and sado-masochistic relationship, but still feel happy to lord it over everyone else. This can’t continue.
There is no ‘us’ without a ‘them’. If you want supra-national allegiances to form, try talking to Denmark and Sweden first. If that fails, perhaps we should give up and apply to become a province of Canada. There are no constitutional difficulties, since Canadians are largely loyal to the Crown. Why? Precisely because the Americans weren’t.
We define ourselves by what we’re not.