Excerpt from Us and Them by David Berreby, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Us and Them

Understanding Your Tribal Mind

by David Berreby

Us and Them
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2005, 384 pages
    Oct 2008, 396 pages

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All good people agree, And all good people say, All nice people, like Us, are We And every one else is They.
- Rudyard Kipling, "A Friend of the Family".

Scientists, when they turn their attention to people, usually talk about the entire human race or about the individual human being. Those are two faces of the same idea. Truth about all is truth about each; a theory about the mind or morality applies to everyone who ever lived, as well as to you in particular. Either perspective yields big explanations, which make many predictions to test and suggest many experiments. It's where researchers like to be - working on "the" genome, or "the" brain, or "the" self.

They aren't nearly as comfortable with the categories in between one person and all people - the ones that researchers, like everyone else, use when they're off duty, away from their work. Categories like Americans and Iranians, Muslims and Christians, blacks and whites, men and women, southerners and northerners, doctors and lawyers, gays and straights, soccer moms and NASCAR dads, outgoing people and shy types, smart ones and lucky ones. Those - and all other labels that define more than one person but fewer than all - are what I (following the philosopher Ian Hacking and the psychological anthropologist Lawrence A. Hirschfeld) call "human kinds."

Human kinds, whose memberships fall between All and One, map a much more variegated world than that one-size-fits-all label Homo sapiens. Some human kinds are types, like cranky old men and plumbers. Others are cultures, like Basques and Thais. Some are old and populous, like the category Japanese or Jain; others are small scale and recent, like "former graduate students of Steven Pinker."

Some human kinds even include nonhumans. Your family, for example, might include a dog or a cat for which you feel more and do more than you do for faraway people. And human kinds may also enfold nonliving things - like flags, sacred books, and graves - that are revered and protected as if they too had lives to live and lose.

Human kinds are infinitely divisible: examine one, and you find inside it subcategories and, inside those, still more. For example, military veterans are a distinct kind of person from those who did not serve; Navy vets are distinct from other services; those who served in the brown-shoe navy (its aviation-related services) are distinct from the black-shoe navy (other ships), and among the black-shoe vets submariners are their own tribe, and so on and on. Some human kinds, we are told from a very early age, we were born into - families, races, ethnic groups, religions, and nations. Other kinds are based on bodies: male and female, athletic or disabled. There are other kinds that other people put us into, like nerd or jock, Bible-thumper or Godless secular humanist. There are the kinds we join by passing special tests, like doctor or accountant. And the ones we join to make a living, like pizza guy or copyeditor. There are happenstance human kinds, like "women in the ladies' room on the 8:15 ferry." There are others we sign ourselves into by conviction, like the National Rifle Association or the Democratic Party, and some we join because we think we must to survive - like gangs, militias, and secret societies.

Some human kinds make sense only because members see and depend on each other every day, like the soldiers in a combat unit. Others consist of people who never meet, like the millions of fellow citizens those soldiers defend. In other words, human kinds serve so many different needs, there is no single recipe for making one. Parentage makes a person a Brahmin, training makes her a soldier, sending in dues makes her a member of a religious congregation. She can convert to Islam, but not to Chineseness; she can marry into Protestantism, not into liberalism.

Copyright © 2005 by David Berreby.  No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.

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