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TRIBES by Desmond Morris


by Desmond Morris, Peter Marsh

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1988
ISBN: 0879053364
Publisher: Gibbs Smith

Second-rate (but nicely illustrated) anthropological musings on humanity's tribal ways; by Morris, best-selling author of The Naked Ape and Bodywatching, and Marsh, editor of Eye to Eye (p. 1144). The authors' primary thesis--that "man is a tribal animal"--isn't new, and many of the examples promoting that thesis here will be familiar to most readers. Moreover, the authors disagree on the roots of tribalism--Morris contends that the hunting of small game by monkeys marked the origins of the "active cooperation" that forms the glue of tribalism; contrarily, Marsh states that primates did not eat flesh and that such cooperation began with hominids. Greater consistency, if not greater insight, graces the main body of the text, presumably written by both authors, a cross-cultural survey of tribalism as it manifests in bonding patterns (territories, religions, etc.), rites of passage (circumcision, lodge rites, etc.), emblems of allegiance (clothing, tattooing, etc.), sex and courtship (weddings, polygamy, etc.), and sport and spectacle (soccer, Trobriand cricket, etc.). Most of this material, while lightly intriguing, suffers from anthropological reductionism (e.g., the definition of myths as merely "stories which have no basis in troth or reality but which provide a rationale for religious beliefs and practices"), and also a British coloration--many examples of modern-day tribalism (financiers in "the City"; swells at Derby Day; Rowdies) are drawn from aspects of British life perhaps unfamiliar to American readers. Only in the final section, on "Aggression and War," do the authors make a truly provocative point: that much contemporary violence stems from our civilization's discouragement of tribal urges. The 100 photographs, 80 in color and many startling (full-body tattoos, scarred Africans, etc.), illustrate the text with punch; overall, though, this is just a well-packaged exercise in the obvious.