The absorbing question of why and how human beings divide people into groups—“us” and “them”—takes the author on a sometimes meandering journey into anthropology, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience.
Early in the history of every society, journalist Berreby says, people discover a hidden language of “us” and “them,” a human-kind code as it were, that speaks directly to the unconscious mind. Using this code, leaders can shape people’s emotions and thus their actions. Belief in the existence of a particular human-kind can have real consequences for the people placed in that category. When people see other people not as human beings but as tokens of a category, it becomes easier to treat them as nonhumans, to demonize them, even kill them. Berreby looks at other ways in which human-kind beliefs affect people’s lives—in medicine, when assumptions are made about disease on the basis of the race of patients, or in the legal system, when ethnic profiling is used to screen for potential law-breakers. While science can group people using various genetic markers, the groupings that result do not match the categories created by history and culture, such as races, nations and ethnic groups. Each of us, the author points out, is simultaneously a member of many different, overlapping and changing human kinds, and the group that we identify with at any given moment depends on the situation. Similarly, the categories we slot others into are constructs arising from psychological and cultural beliefs and experiences, not scientific facts. Berreby reminds us that the human-kind code lies in the mind, shaped by human nature, but just how it is used, for good or for evil, is up to the individual who owns it.
A provocative investigation of the tribal mindset that has reverence for our time.