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Tribal Animals and Complex Choices

I'm going to jump around like water on a hot griddle, but stick with me and I promise you I'll tie it all in at the end.

For those of you who haven't had the priveledge, I'd like to recommend a book--and successive video series--Desmond Morris' "The Human Animal." Desmond Morris is a zoologist. His life's work has been the study of the animal kingdom and the complex study of animal behavior. With what I consider to be a stroke of genius, Mr. Morris turned his razor-sharp observational instinct upon the most commonly misunderstood animal on this planet: Us. He studied man in his native habitat, and from a purely zoological point of view, went about writing the most insightful treatise on humanity that I have ever encountered. Forget psychology. Forget anthropology. I promise you will learn more about the talking monkeys that occupy your surrounding cubicles than you would in any other study.

One of the most important things I learned from Mr. Morris' book is that human beings, by nature, are tribal animals. As part of his research, Mr. Morris ran a test on behavior of the tribal society. He first started with a primitave enclave of humans. The African tribe he studied number around a hundred. He--through an interpreter--asked one of the members of the tribe to pretend that he was injured and unconscious and lie on a well traveled path just outside the village. The very first tribesman that came along through that wooded path immediately stopped, assessed the situation, then called for help. He never left the side of his tribesman, checking for injuries even as additional help was on the way.

The same test was run in New York City. A well-dressed man was asked to lie down upon the sidewalk and feign unconsciousness. He was stepped over. He was ignored. He was scowled upon. To the city dwellers, he was nothing more than the trees had been to the African native; something to be passed by on the way to their eventual destination.

Does this disprove Mr. Morris' theory of the tribal nature of humans? Not at all. By its very nature, a tribe can only exist within the confines of a limited assemblage. The limits of direct responsibility and overwhelming compassion are finite. Were these New York street dwellers any less compassionate? Well, that's an argument that can go either way, but in my estimation they weren't. Had the man been a member of their tribe--defined by the names in their address book at home--they would have stopped just as quickly to render assistance. In an advanced society, tribes are enjoined through choice as opposed to an accident of birth and necessity. We have the power--and the corresponding responsibility--to decide into which receptacles we will place our love.

This is accepted as true in all but the most important sense. You can choose your wife. You can choose your friends. You can even choose not to choose. But, they say, you can't choose your family. And while this is certainly true, family isn't tribe. Well, not always. An argument can be made that when a human male and female produce offspring, they are a tribe. But as anyone who knows the divorce rate in this country can verify, choice is definetely involved.

As we grow beyond the necessity of having nourishment and shelter provided for us, we move into the realm of true tribal relations. No longer needing our parents, most of us choose to move on, counting our new friends and loved ones as our tribe, with a passing nod to the old on the anniverseries of certain tribal rituals and religious festivals. We visit out of a sense of repayment or continuing need, not true tribal belonging.

And I have news for you:

Your parents, despite the fact that all children young and old forget this, are human beings, too. They choose their own tribes. It's our nature. And you know what? Nowhere is it written that your parents have to love you. Sure, almost every person you meet will tell you that it's true. But it's bullshit. They have to care for you when you are young because the law says they do, and certain biological, protective urges come into play that are purely Darwinian in their usefullness. But once you can get up on your wobbly legs and run with the rest of the herd, your on your own, baby. They may even give you a head start in the form of a good education or certain financial privledges, but in the end, it's either sink or swim.

And while it's true that we only really become interesting after we can run with the rest of the herd, your parents are under no obligation to include you in their tribe. They've fulfilled their biological imperative to procreate, and have protected their young while they were vulnerable to predators. If your parents still love you, its due to choice.

So on this father's day, let's all try to remember this, shall we? If your dad still seeks your company, pat yourself on the back for being lovable enough to keep around. Then, remember that he loves you because he wants to. He can say anything. He can pay all the lip-service he wants to the supposed obligation of a parents' duty to his children. But if you look in his eye and still see pride, if there is compassion and friendship and genuine affection that brings a sparkle to his gaze, remember: He's chosen it.

He's chosen you.

Isn't that cool?

Joseph Haines, signing off from The Edge of The Abyss

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