tribal drum
Non-religious approaches to knowledge have significant tribalistic tendencies of their own.

Considering the tribal origins and ongoing nature of most religions, as well as the extent of their sway in matters of the mind, it has never been particularly easy for people to formulate or propagate ideas outside the mindset of a tribe.

Marginalizing religion under the unyielding official atheism of Communist regimes certainly didn’t help.  This merely substituted a different tribe, the Party, as the unchallengeable source of all knowledge.

Even the scientific revolution has made less of a dent in tribalistic approaches to knowledge than we might think.  While contemporary debate at the frontiers of knowledge can be vigorous and sometimes even fierce, it tends to occur more in the context of competing schools of thought (i.e., academic or scientific tribes) than of 100% original ideas by unaffiliated individual people.

The groves of academe are not alone in approaching ideas in this manner.  The profit-driven, and therefore ostensibly more adaptive and pragmatic, world of technology startups and venture capital tends to operate in a very similar manner.  Venture capitalists speak unabashedly about their tendency to “hunt in packs”--which can sound dashing when phrased in this manner, until we realize that it could just as easily be described as being afraid to make judgments without the concurrence and support of a tribe.

Part of the reason VCs tend to have a herd mentality is that it’s not really their own money they’re investing, and in order to get people to kick into their funds, they need to be involved in fields that are generating an appealing buzz.  The resulting faddishness can be enough to make even a teenager’s head spin.

For example, at the turn of the millennium, what was hot in the world of venture capital was anything that could be done on the Internet--whether or not there was anything about the business model to indicate that it could be profitable.  Then in the dot-com bust that predictably followed, investors entered a period of being just as irrationally terrified of cyberspace, shrinking back in horror at almost anything having to do with the Web.

People who live on the economic leading edge didn’t prove to be any more astute or less tribal in what followed the dot-com era, the boom and ensuing bust in housing-based finance.  In the aftermath of this industry’s meltdown, it became clear that almost nobody so much as pretended to comprehend the arcane new financial instruments into which they suddenly found themselves pouring vast sums of other people’s money.   It was enough for most people that “everybody said” this was a good thing to be doing. The tribe had spoken, and who were they to question its wisdom?

On balance, the world of cutting-edge investments isn’t quite the brave new world it is commonly touted as, where the most insightfully bold and original ideas can be counted on to prevail over the dull and timid conventional wisdom.  It is more an environment where people look to the consensus of a smaller circle of “next big thing” chasers to try and determine what is about to become the conventional wisdom.   It still tends to be heavily tribal;  things typically just revolve around a smaller and more futuristically-oriented tribe.