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The Weirdest People in the World
How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
According to anthropologist Joseph Henrich, Westerners are weird, bearing little resemblance to people from other cultures or religious traditions. We are more individualistic, self-centered, reluctant to resemble others (we are non-conformists); we are patient, trusting, analytical, more prone to examining details than to contemplate the whole; we are obsessed with the intentions of others –and, surely, with our own; we place too much value on what we possess and overrate the qualities or talents we believe we have. These traits and others characterize us, according to him. They make up a special psychology, ultimately a product of our belief system and the way we have been moulded by the Western Church.
The Harvard University professor, author of today's book, argues that these features are the consequence of a set of norms –prescriptions and prohibitions– surrounding marriage and the family that the Catholic Church adopted in the early Middle Ages.
It is well known that religions have generally played a central role in shaping higher-level political and economic institutions. This has been possible, among other reasons, because beliefs can shape behaviour and other psychological elements. They act through the mechanisms of cultural evolution, shaping supernatural beliefs and ritual practices that widen the social circle, nurture internal harmony and enhance competitive advantages over other groups. The psychological impact of Christianity's belief in God's wishes, divine punishment, free will and life after death is combined with repetitive ritual practices that counteract tendencies towards impulsivity and deception, and promote prosociality towards co-religionists.
In the year 506, the Western Church, at a council held in Agda, France, took a decision that had profound consequences for the future of Europe and thus, albeit indirectly, for the future of humanity. In order to put an end to incest, it prohibited marriage between cousins, and from that decision it adopted a series of rules that extended the prohibition of marriage between members of the same family. At the beginning of the second millennium, the prohibition extended to sixth-degree cousins. Marriage with adoptive relatives, as well as with in-laws, was outlawed.
The Church also promoted marriages "by choice" of the spouses against the traditional practice of arranged marriages, and often required the newlyweds to settle in a residence separate from that of their parents. It also prohibited legal adoption, remarriage, any form of polygamy and concubinage. This set of rules dismantled family clans and kinships that were densely connected through multiple cross-linkages.
As a consequence, by 1500 much of Europe was characterized by a social configuration based on weak kinship relations, with monogamous family units, bilateral descent, late marriage and neo-local residence. The resulting nuclear families were small, weak and disparate. This social structure was clearly different from that which characterized most other societies, at least until they received European influence.
As institutions based on intensive kinship were diluted, people gained freedom of movement, both relational and residential. People chose their own connections (spouses, friends, partners, bosses). Family clans were replaced, as a preferred sphere of social relations, by voluntary associations, such as new population centers with their own status, professional guilds, universities or new religious organizations, for example. This phenomenon gave impersonal markets a boost and encouraged the rapid growth of cities. Guilds gave way to a variety of alliances and ultimately to joint stock companies.
In free cities and self-governing towns, greater levels of self-government developed. Urban growth, often under the leadership of merchants, generated increasing levels of integration into extensive commercial networks and a greater degree of impersonal trust, fairness and cooperativeness. In this environment, notions of individual rights, personal liberty, the rule of law or the defense of private property emerged.
In connection with the growth of trade, seaports also became increasingly important. Ports are enclaves similar to cities in that they promote impersonal, kinship-independent forms of relationships similar to those established in cities. Indeed, Western norms, practices and beliefs have been shaped by industry and commerce to a greater extent than elsewhere.
These voluntary associations mentioned above created their laws, principles, rules and systems of governance in such a way that the emphasis was on the individual, giving each member of the association rights, privileges, obligations and duties. On the other hand, these organizations needed to attract "nomadic" people and cultivate their adherence to these norms.
Because social norms shape people's motivations, emotions and perceptions, those who are brought up and live in societies with institutions based on strong kinship ties develop psychological traits that make it easier for them to adapt to the demands of the collectivistic environment of their dense social network. Intensive kinship norms reward conformity, obedience and intragroup loyalty, while discouraging individualism, independence and impersonal motivations that promote fairness and cooperation.
Thus, as intense kinship relationships were diluted and societies were no longer based on such relationships, a new psychology developed that promoted new ways of thinking, reasoning and feeling. These new ways of reasoning drove innovation and Western science. The ideas that germinated as a consequence of the phenomena described above flourished during the Enlightenment because the time had come for those ideas to be formalised and put down in writing in a structured and coherent way.
It is in this context that the foundations of the innovation that has driven Europe's growth and prosperity in recent centuries are set. The social and psychological changes unleashed by the Church's dismantling of intensive kinship opened up a flow of information through an ever-expanding social network that connected a great diversity of minds across Christendom. The factors that have shaped what the author calls the European collective brain are (1) apprenticeships institutions, (2) urbanization and impersonal markets, (3) transregional monastic orders, (4) universities, (5) the Republic of Letters, (6) knowledge societies, and (7) new religious faiths that not only promoted literacy and schooling but also made industriousness, scientific insight and pragmatic achievement sacred.
These are, in short, the main arguments of Henrich's book. It is now three years since its publication, but it is still being talked about and remains a reference in debates about the issues it addressed. It has been criticized in academic historian circles. It is often accused of being too reductionist in its attempt to explain, on the basis of relatively unimportant events, the development of the West over almost a millennium. Some of this criticism may be valid, of course. And there will certainly be many debatable details.
But it is also true that the text is full of analysis and data of different origins and nature, and that the author's arguments are well woven. In any case, attempts to explain our history on the basis of verifiable (or refutable) elements are always welcome, because they may well be wrong, but the simple task of falsifying them and providing arguments for debate is a source of additional knowledge. And it is quite possible that, if not in their entirety then to a significant extent, Henrich's ideas will serve to gain a better understanding of human history, society and psychology, and how they are intertwined.
Title: The Weirdest People in the World
Author: Joseph Henrich
Allen Lane, 2020.