Tribal Centaurs and The Myth About Human Nature

By Immanuel Lokwei,

Scholars have tried to make sense of the phenomena that is man. Some typical of their reductionist tendencies have tried to induce a single explanation of what man is. Man or human nature they argue is bad, or good if they are of the Confucian variety.

We Kenyans too have not been exempted from this temptation to understand, reduce and even convolute the meaning of man. In social sphere, cautions are dispensed like never before. Don’t marry a Kikuyu lady, didn’t you not just recently read about the lady who conspired to murder her “well-off” husband? But the so-called conventional wisdom varies; it is only region/tribe-specific and certainly context-sensitive. If you happen to be a Kikuyu who hails from Murang’a perhaps you might be warned against marrying Nyeri women though you all belong to the same ethnicity. Depending on the tribe and the context, an enormous encyclopedia exists that cautions differently on modes of associating within and beyond ones ethnicity. But what is man?

Stereotypes, stereotypes about tribes in particular, though often are inflated conclusions drawn from few and isolated cases and often lack that predictive power and accuracy they claim to hold, nonetheless make reference to cultural and environmental forces that shape habits of people entrenched in those cultures and inhabiting the specified environments. Cultural and environmental determinism is real; but these forces are not absolute. Man has defied them as much as he has been receptive to them.

The history of man as we have it is neither linear nor logical; it does not make sense at all. We have seen especially during politically heated times, an individual or individuals from a certain tribal blocks acting autonomously and contrary to what our mental encyclopedia expects. On a personal level, I have had to wade off many opportunistic advances (economic-oriented) from one former girlfriend though she is nothing close to a Kikuyu. In short, though the majority of individuals from a single tribe might cluster a particular part of a behavioral graph, we cannot fail to see numerous outliers who never cease to baffle us. What can unravel these anomalies?

Existentialism can. But first echoing Thomas Kuhn, our tendency to stereotype people originates if not from the desire to solve the puzzle of the social world and ease our path in it then from “the fear of everything individual.” Unfortunately unlike scientific paradigms which get redefined under new knowledge, stereotypes once born and confirmed by a few cases seek out indiscriminate application. “The crowd possesses no idealism, and hence no power of retaining impressions in spite of contrary appearances.” [Soren Kierkegaard]. To uproot these stereotypes, one must uproot a generation or two. This is because, as Nietzsche argues, many people “hide behind customs and opinions” and since these are the sine qua non of stereotyping habits, individual’s ability to apprehend the narrowness of his stereotypes is therefore affected.

What stereotypes do not accommodate, existentialism explains; and it does so by debunking any attempt to give an atomistic explanation of man or group of people. Jose Ortega, the existentialist of choice argues that man in her anthropological space is “a kind of ontological centaur, half immersed in nature [biology, culture and environment], half transcending it.” And that “man is a substantial emigrant on a pilgrimage of being, and it is accordingly meaningless to set limits to what he is capable of being.” This is why a Kikuyu can act like a “Turkana”, and a Turkana like everyone and no one. Stereotypes and reductionist discourses about human nature, though occasionally on point, often mislead. Each person or group is capable of anything, including nothing.

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