Sebastian Junger: Our Evolutionary Need For Community

Peabody award-winning author Sebastian Junger joins our podcast this week. Junger is well-known for his NYT-bestselling books The Perfect Storm and War, the latter of which was written after a 15-month tour of duty in the most dangerous outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.

Based on his observations while in Afghanistan, Junger noted how much troops in combat valued the social solidarity of their units. In fact, he noted that the loss of this cohesive community, with its sense of purpose and shared responsibility, created prodigious psychological strife when these soldiers returned and tried to re-integrate into civilian life. This dynamic is not just limited to the military; any collection of humans working in tight-knit groups under stress, united in purpose, evidences similar behavior (Peace Corps volunteers, trauma care physicians, etc).

In his latest book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger explores our evolutionary wiring for community, and paradoxically, how our modern aspirations for “success” and “wealth” attempt to distance ourselves from it – making us unhappier and emotionally unhealthier in the pursuit:

When I was young I had mentor and uncle figure named Ellis, who was half Lakota Sioux and Apache. He was born literally on a wagon out West during the Depression. When I was young he said to me, that white people on the frontier were constantly running off to join Indians. But the Indians never ran out to join the white people. That the flow of humanity was towards the tribal. And I wondered about that; I thought about that my whole life. That even captives, people who have been captured along the frontier by Indians and were given the chance to go home...often didn't want to.

Many, many years later I was with American soldiers in Afghanistan and I noticed a similar thing. After a very, very rough deployment, the guys I was with got back to Vicenza, Italy with their mates. They had a good time for awhile but then something settled in and a lot of them said that they didn't want to go back to America. They actually wanted to return to the war.

And it reminded me of what Ellis said. What is it about civilization, about modern society that's really so deeply unappealing even to people who have benefited from its wealth and from its stability? And so, my book is really about that. It's about our ancient human preference for community and what happens when you lose that. What happens when you lose that in modern society, what happens to mental health, to PTSD, to social cohesion? Rampage shootings go up, just like the tragic one in Orlando. A lot of things fall apart when community falls apart.

Keep in mind that if you put soldiers in a platoon -- it's about 40, 50 least the platoon I was with was all men -- and you put them in a remote area in combat. Or even not in combat -- most of the military actually doesn’t fight directly. But they're sleeping soldier to soldier on the ground or in their barracks. And they're eating meals together. They're doing everything together, and they're completely dependent on each other for their survival. That's our human evolution, that's what we evolved for. That's the kind of life that humans are adapted to. So, when you put people in that environment, they respond incredibly well because in a kind of genetic sense, it's familiar.

But it's not just restricted to soldiers. Civilians also: people in London after the Blitz, reported that they missed the Blitz. Think about that. 30,000 Londoners were killed by German bombs; strangers were sleeping shoulder to shoulder in the subway platforms, digging people out of rubble. It was an awful, awful time. And yet, people said that they missed it. What they missed was the social solidarity, the sort of 'us versus them', 'we can do this'. One lady told me 'We would have all run out of the beach with broken bottles to fight the Germans if we had to'.

Humans are wired for and have adapted to surviving in extremely tough circumstances. We're actually not adapted to stability and peacefulness in some ways. It allows us to pursue a kind of individualism that leaves us deeply unconnected to groups and being part of a group -- the things that make people feel physically and emotionally safe. And when you lose that -- although there are great benefits to individualism, obviously -- but when you lose that, it makes people really quite vulnerable to all kinds of mental illness and sort of psychic disturbances.

Click the play button below to listen to my interview with Sebastian Junger (35m:02s)

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

And hence the one-world government's fear of Racism. They have to put us all through the blender and make a smoothie of us.

And Jesus said "Thou Shalt not be a Racist ".  

I make a prediction. If we don't have a Carrington Event or some other unspeakable show stopper then the milk will curdle into clumps of 120 people. ( Dunbar's number). Which suits this Pagan.'s_number

Excellent post and interview.  I've personally been "working" at establishing community at three places: The New Age Center in Nyack, NY; the Point of Infinity Retreat Center in the Catskills; and, finally, the Awareness Center of Costa Rica (recently renamed Tierra Sagrada=Sacred Land). Try for some info, if you wish.
My experience has been that the greatest thing about retreats is that they DO CREATE the sense of community talked about above. The feelings of togetherness, belongingness, meaningfulness, etc., easily allows "community" to emerge.  It's there in all of us and just needs the opportunity to express itself, in a safe and welcoming environment.  

And I had hoped that much of that would spill over into establishing an on-going PHYSICAL community with shared aspirations and ideals.  Unfortunately, once over, even though most everyone LOVED the experience, they then just go off on their own individual track, for a variety of reasons.  Sure, they stay in VIRTUAL contact, but after awhile even that slows down.  Sometimes I just want to give up but maybe I am wired, as stated above, to keep trying.  Money seems to play a large part as does long-held habits, and many, many other things.  

The eternal question seems to be: HOW to balance togetherness with separateness, community with individualism (whether in a marriage or a large community), responsibility with freedom, etc?

Years ago I read Walden Two, by B.F. Skinner, after the famous Walden classic, and thought he was on to something.  However, the history of "Community" as been rather unconvincing that it might work, UNLESS there is one LEADER (guru, etc.)  backed up by a larger organization, with tons of money, and even then many of the adherents end up being used by the group.

I really like the "national service idea."  That everyone MUST put in at least one full year doing such work. But how pay for this?  Right after college?  Right after high school? And then we might need another bureaucracy to supervise them, no?

Maybe the coming total (?) collapse will bring forth the communities so desired??  At least, maybe SOME will develop as we go through The Fourth Turning.

Thanks to both of you and to Adam's GREAT post on his PORTFOLIO (very useful)


I remember the names of the friends I served with on the D.M.Z. ; met  some government guy from the county office yesterday can't remember his name.

Great article and interview. I was going to purchase this book today before I viewed this article - and still will.

Tribes are here!

Its every sports team, it's every business team, it's families, communities, neighborhoods, religious places of worship, political groups etc… everywhere you go you will be on a team. If you want to be on a winning team in life you have to know what makes teams win. The most important thing is to know your role that will bring success to your team and perform that role to the best of your ability. You are on multiple teams throughout life so you will have to know how to play multiple roles. We know what goes into winning teams - yet - so few people on these teams (communities) know their role. If you don't know what goes into successful teams, then read bio's/books on great leaders in sports, business and life in general. like Sebastian Junger. For America to be successful we need strong leadership. Bingo!!! - we aren't going to find it with our government leaders - so each one of us has to realize it is up to us to fill in the gaps within our own TRIBES. 

I function better within a team/tribe. The greater the mission and sacrifice the better I feel about myself. A lack of a strong mission, deficient leadership, lack of effort/discipline or being on a weak or dysfunctional team brings about problems - individual and group. To me its all about TRIBES. 

Thanks, Chris, for introducing your readers to Sebastian and his book. I'm looking forward to reading it. Meanwhile, readers may want to check out this inspiring website:, which explains one way to create your own local "tribe." I'm planning to start something like this soon in Portland, OR. Their e-book is full of valuable info, and they also offer workshops.


thank you for posting that link.  Bill And Zoe stopped by my house for a visit a while back and heard about their tribal efforts in person.  

I really admire everything that Bill Kauth has done in large part because he was a co-founder of the Mankind Project of which I am an active member.

Let us know how your experiment goes, and perhaps it's time to have Bill and Zoe on to discuss their newest, ground-breaking adventures.