02/04/2007 10:09 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Us and Them ; an Illuminating Book

The front page of the NYTimes today was a real bummer. The latest Baghdad market bombing with the death toll topping 130, private contractors looting federal agencies, McCain signing up the marketing geniuses who brought us Swift-boating and the racist Harold Ford ad--but the one that really got me was headlined "Iraq Shadow Widens Sunni-Shiite Split in U.S" and went on to detail vandal attacks on mosques and businesses in Dearborn, Michigan.

That put me in mind of a book that takes a step back from current events and takes a long view (really long, as in evolutionary psychology) of the whole phenomenon. David Berreby's aptly titled Us and Them confirms what even the most starry-eyed observer of history would have to acknowledge at this point--namely, that there is some kind of innate human tendency to gather themselves into groups of Us and define themselves in often violent opposition to some handy Them.

This isn't in itself a new claim, but the great virtue of Berreby's book is the specificity of the argument. His paradigm is cognitive science as it has been practiced since Chomsky's revolutionary account of the human capacity for language. In a nutshell, the idea is that the brain is not a general mechanism for learning whatever happens to come along, but a set of precise programs, or modules, for learning very specific things that had adaptive advantages for evolving Homo Sapiens--programs for recognizing rules of syntax, for example, or human faces or for detecting cheaters or for altruistic behavior towards relatives in the same gene pool.

Deploying evidence from the anthropological record and from psychological experiments--somewhat in the manner of Malcolm Gladwell's early work--Berreby makes an iron-clad case for the existence of a module that drives people to identify themselves with some and against others--not only ethnically and racially, but in all sorts of circumstances, at camp, in the workplace, in Middle School. Berreby's gift for connecting concrete human examples with the more abstract arguments about the brain that drives his argument home.

But, in the end, I found this book weirdly comforting. It explains the grim historical record and so enforces a certain realism that I think is essential. We have to give up the utopian Enlightenment idea that humanity's inhumanity is just a product of superstition, of irrational antipathies inculcated and exploited by power hungry leaders. It is all of those things, of course, but this book makes it impossible to avoid the conclusion that people in general are very much inclined to go along. At the same time, Berreby makes it clear that the Us and Them program is malleable. It doesn't have us, we have it. It can contribute to genocide, yes--but it also gets channeled into, say, sports.

Go Bears!