Human society begins with the band. The band is the basic social unit of the human species that includes both related and non-related people.

  • A band is small, so small that all members can know one another well.
  • A band is hard to join, easy to leave.
  • A band is a cooperative group of like-minded, like-hearted people.
  • People band the way birds flock: intuitively, easily, enthusiastically.
  • People band with others out of shared interest and need.
  • Bands have millions of years of our evolutionary history behind them. They work well for humans.

Much has been said and written about tribes. Tribe-building has even been misappropriated by corporate marketeers as a way to sell stuff. But tribes, genuine tribes, are not the basic building block. They are alliances of more-or-less autonomous bands, and start at around 500 people – big enough to allow young people to find unrelated mates.

Size: Bands typically range from 20 to 60 individuals. They can start with just a few people, and expect to grow only up to a point. Dunbar’s number (aka the monkeysphere) proposes a limit of 150, based on human neural ability to integrate people within ongoing relationships. But the closer the number of people inches toward that limit, the more friction and conflict, and the more “social grooming” is needed. Amish church districts typically encompass 20-30 families before division. Hutterites begin setting up a split when they reach about a hundred people. These are exceptionally disciplined, isolated farm colonies under a religious hierarchical leadership, and are able to hold it together up to 150 when the planned split is actualized. Most successful bands stay well under a hundred, and hive off a new band when they become unwieldy.

Entry and exit: If a group is easy to join and hard to leave, you have a cult. If hard to join and hard to leave, you have an ideological totality. If easy to join and easy to leave, you have a modern street or apartment building, or a “drop-in” commune. Historical bands have been fluid entities that have dealt with conflict by easy walking away. But they have not let just anyone join. Joining a band is a privilege that comes from the willingness to abide by the band culture, and the enthusiasm stemming from finding one’s kith and kin.

Like-mindedness: Like-mindedness can mean intolerance of minority views. But it is primarily a way to satisfy the longing to live with kindred spirits. Workable, well-functioning communities, not only bands but small villages or towns, have been traditionally composed of people who share history, basic preferences, values and beliefs, and a sense of belonging. Even among those who share such basic orientation, there is always enough disagreement to keep things lively. Social groupings that do not have a good measure of like-mindedness find it hard to get anything done; consider the political example of a country like Denmark that has been able to focus on the well-being of the citizens whereas in the States, the center does not hold. Perhaps “common outlook on life” would be a better term? Or “shared culture”?

As one commenter on another blog said in response to the claim that we just need to work harder to create community where we are, even if we find it difficult and draining:

    I think one of the things being missed is that in the modern world the people that surround us are arbitrary. They are not related to us either genetically or psychologically. Which is to say that we have nothing in common except that we live in the same neighborhood. A community is not an arbitrary collection of people who happen to live in the same area. Trying to make yourself care about that collection of people IS exhausting. Communities of the past were different because of intertwined relationships that extended into the past and were expected to extend into the future.

Natural instinct: All social animals have their own particular way to congregate together. The primate subfamily Homininae’s way is to form bands. Since banding is built into our genetic endowment, it cannot possibly be counter-intuitive hard work. It is far more likely that societies as they exist now throw massive obstacles in the way of those who would follow the ancient path. Human community is necessarily self-organizing, and regenerates spontaneously if given half a chance.

Interest and need: Bands form on the basis of actual everyday needs and interests. Working side by side is in fact one of those timeless ways of connecting naturally. Eating, playing and learning together are others. Coming together in a time of need is seen as so important among the Amish that they have prohibited lightning rods on their barns! When all these different parts of life are severed and forced into separate domains, the formation of natural communities is hamstrung. Banding emerges naturally when they all cohere into a seamless whole. The civic-minded early Americans described so eloquently by Tocqueville were still functioning within the remains of such a world.

Evolutionary success: Like chimpanzees, our ancestors lived in bands when they were swinging in the trees. Like gorillas, they continued to live in bands when they came down. They lived in bands through the two million years of earlier Stone Age. And great many sapiens groups continued with the band life until quite recently. This is the pattern that saw us evolve from tree critters to the top-of-the-food-chain foragers of the late Paleolithic. It enabled us to successfully navigate repeated ice ages and other severe challenges. It can help us survive the dangers facing us now.