Why Do We See So Many Things as ‘Us vs. Them’?

We are wired at birth to favor our own group over others. But science might be able to help us move past what divides us.

Despite their many differences, Solomon Igbawua and Dahiru Bala were close friends. It began when they were schoolboys, running back and forth between Igbawua’s village and Bala’s settlement, only a mile or two apart in eastern Nigeria’s Benue state. They expected their friendship would endure the rest of their lives.

Compact and barrel-chested, Igbawua, now 40, is a Christian and a member of the Tiv, who have farmed Benue’s gently rolling green plains for centuries. Tall and thin, Bala, 42, is a Hausa Muslim. His people—the tightly intertwined Hausa and Fulani—live by herding sinewy long-horned cattle that range over much of western Africa. In many places such differences—of ethnicity, religion, language, culture, politics—are deadly. A few hundred miles to the north of where I met the men, Boko Haram wages war against all who don’t adhere to its version of Islam. Elsewhere in West Africa and beyond, herdsmen and farmers engage in violent attacks over access to resources. And other groups (races, tribes, nations, religions, sects) are locked in other conflicts throughout the world.

Until recently, though, that did not happen in Zongo, Igbawua’s village, or Daudu, where Bala lives. For most of their lives, they told me, there was enough good land for everyone. If cattle trampled a farmer’s field or a herder found his route to a stream cut off by a new fence, there were ways to settle those kinds of quarrels. “There was peace here, and harmony,” says Elizabeth Anyom, a Tiv.

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