I was born without the neural cluster that makes boys find pleasure in moving balls and pucks around through space, and in talking endlessly about men who get paid to do such things. I always knew I could never join a fraternity or the military because I wouldn't be able to fake the sports talk. By the time I became a professor I had developed the contempt that I think is widespread in academe for any institution that brings young men together to do groupish things. Primitive tribalism, I thought. Initiation rites, alcohol, sports, sexism, and baseball caps turn decent boys into knuckleheads. I'd have gladly voted to ban fraternities, ROTC, and most sports teams from my university.
But not anymore. Three books convinced me that I had misunderstood such institutions because I had too individualistic a view of human nature. The first book was David Sloan Wilson's Darwin's Cathedral, which argued that human beings were shaped by natural selection operating simultaneously at multiple levels, including the group level. Humans went through a major transition in evolution when we developed religiously inclined minds and religious institutions that activated those minds, binding people into groups capable of extraordinary cooperation without kinship.
The second book was William McNeill's Keeping Together in Time, about the historical prevalence and cultural importance of synchronized dance, marching, and other forms of movement. McNeill argued that such "muscular bonding" was an evolutionary innovation, an "indefinitely expansible basis for social cohesion among any and every group that keeps together in time." The third book was Barbara Ehrenreich'sDancing in the Streets, which made the same argument as McNeill but with much more attention to recent history, and to the concept ofcommunitas or group love. Most traditional societies had group dance rituals that functioned to soften structure and hierarchy and to increase trust, love, and cohesion. Westerners too have a need for communitas, Ehrenreich argues, but our society makes it hard to satisfy it, and our social scientists have little to say about it.
These three books gave me a new outlook on human nature. I began to see us not just as chimpanzees with symbolic lives but also as bees without hives. When we made the transition over the last 200 years from tight communities (Gemeinschaft) to free and mobile societies (Gesellschaft), we escaped from bonds that were sometimes oppressive, yes, but into a world so free that it left many of us gasping for connection, purpose, and meaning. I began to think about the many ways that people, particularly young people, have found to combat this isolation. Rave parties and the Burning Man festival are spectacular examples of new ways to satisfy the ancient longing for communitas. But suddenly sports teams, fraternities, and even the military made a lot more sense.
I now believe that such groups do great things for their members, and that they often create social capital and other benefits that spread beyond their borders. The strong school spirit and alumni loyalty we all benefit from at the University of Virginia would drop sharply if fraternities and major sports were eliminated. If my son grows up to be a sports playing fraternity brother, a part of me may still be disappointed. But I'll give him my blessing, along with three great books to read.