Hold the West WEIRD

I pity the editor of Joseph Henrich’s latest book, The WEIRDest People in the World. The task she faced was daunting because this book desperately needs a narrower scope, a more focused argument, and a sharpened narrative. And that’s a shame, because somewhere inside this sprawling, multidisciplinary, meandering mess of a book there are some provocative and potentially groundbreaking arguments about one of the key questions in political economy generally and the development of Western Civilization specifically—why some areas of the world have become what he describes as WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) while others have not. It’s a broad topic, but any genuine advances made are diluted by the structural problems in the book.

The West and the Rest

Obviously Henrich isn’t the first person to ask the questions of how and why some places become rich and democratic while others don’t. There have been at least two Nobel Prize winners in economics who have tackled that question—Doug North and Angus Deaton. North argued that institutions help explain why some countries grow faster and become wealthier. Deaton approached the question of why some people are poor and others rich at the individual level. Jarod Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel makes a technological and resource-based argument to help explain the differences. Deidre McCloskey has focused on the role of ideas in the development of the West. So what does Henrich contribute to this critical research question? 

Since Henrich himself doesn’t do a great job condensing his “argument” into a thesis, let me give it a shot. People in the West are different because their brains have evolved differently. This evolution is the result of several major cultural factors, most notably the Roman Catholic Church. He argues that much of the world is still psychologically trapped in “kinship” models of society. People in these societies don’t share the psychological perspectives necessary to allow for thriving political, economic, and social structures that promote WEIRD institutions and practices. Henrich argues that key aspects of the Church’s moral teachings unintentionally allowed the Western world to break out of the insular kinship-based societies we see elsewhere. This helped the WEIRD world emerge and succeed.

Henrich makes a strong case that Catholic moral teaching about families, childbearing, and sexuality fundamentally altered the social, economic, political, and intellectual development of communities that adopted those practices.

And frankly once you sort through Henrich’s unwieldy text, you find he makes an interesting case in support of his position. He first presents experimental psychology research from around the world that shows how people in Europe and “the West” approach things differently than people elsewhere in the world. Those of us in the West are more individualistic, while folks in other parts of the world understand themselves as part of a broader web of family and friendship networks. For example, while Americans are more consistent in the way they act towards family members, work colleagues, and friends across all contexts, Korean and Japanese people are more adaptive based on the context of the audience. What is viewed by some as “flexibility” and social agility is seen by Americans as being “two-faced.” Westerners are more independent and individualistic and less likely to adopt opinions just because our peers, older family members, or bosses have them.

These differences extend to behaviors that affect how well markets and exchange can function in different parts of the world. WEIRD people are more likely to save and to forgo immediate satisfaction. So in Africa or the Amazon people will take a lesser immediate payment in psychology experiments rather than wait for larger payments weeks or months later. WEIRD people are much more likely to be more trusting of strangers, and are also more likely to be analytical in their assessments of people and situations. They will, for example, focus on the intent of individuals rather than emphasize their social connections, context, and personal relationships. This highlights another difference—WEIRD people feel personal guilt when they break rules, while others feel shame when their actions reflect on the families and groups to whom they are connected.

For most of human history we lived in what anthropologists called “kin-based” societies. These were smaller groups of individuals who were related through blood and marriage. This created close bonds within groups and kept levels of trust and connection high. That allowed us to do things like share food during times of scarcity, fight off rival groups and tribes, and maintain social cohesion in the absence of formal governments. Because these groups shared genetic material, they all had a shared interest in sacrificing to help others in the group. These groups were also deeply untrusting of strangers, engaged in far more frequent acts of violence against others outsiders, and were much more likely to live in societies that accepted the practice of polygamy.

This is the part of the book where Henrich’s experience and background in anthropology is valuable and helps the reader understand how much of human history was radically different from the world we live in today. He shows how in some parts of the world (for example, among native people living in small kinship groups in the Amazon jungle or in Fiji), researchers observe the same practices our ancestors followed—small kin-based groups who still marry cousins, live with their extended families, pass through rituals of kinship, and establish lifelong bonds of trust and commitment.

Henrich then claims that the world split when we “scaled-up” to intensive large-scale agriculture, urbanization, and higher population densities. In one part of the world kinship was awkwardly shoehorned into a changing social setting. In another part, the Roman Catholic Church’s emphasis on certain moral teachings caused psychological changes over more than a thousand years that were key factors in helping part of the world develop WEIRD values. The rest of the world kept the kinship norms, albeit in a slightly watered-down version. 

How did these two parts of the world differ? The Roman Catholic Church prohibited its members from marrying blood relatives and non-Christians, and from having polygamous marriages. The Church substituted spiritual kinship for blood kinship and encouraged newly married couples to move out of family homes. This helped to promote property ownership. According to Henrich all of these changes destroyed the roots of kinship society and put the WEIRD world on a path towards markets, property rights, universities, democracy, and more individualistic societies. The rest of the world largely continued to live in societies that couldn’t shake the deeply personal, insular, family-based social norms that prevent the development of robust markets, individualistic values, democratic norms, and property.

Using numerous examples, many of them bivariate but still intriguing, Henrich makes a strong case that Catholic moral teaching about families, childbearing, and sexuality fundamentally altered the social, economic, political, and intellectual development of communities that adopted those practices. He presents a lot of interesting research by anthropologists, economists, and historians that compares the growth trajectories of different European societies based on the timing and intensity of the application of Church teachings. Those areas that received and accepted the Church’s moral teachings sooner appear to have developed stronger markets, individualistic governance structures, broader social trust, and better education through more universities. He shows for example how proximity to the acceptance of Catholic moral teaching is strongly associated with the later development of robust universities and high levels of literacy. He also compares Europe and other parts of the world showing the same relationships.

His section on the differences between societies that prohibit or accept polygamy is well done and important. He logically shows the reader the practical problems that polygamy creates among younger men of lower social status. Polygamous groups stay small and regularly expel young men who become prone to violence and socially destructive behavior once they are effectively excluded from the marriage market. His evidence for the importance of monogamous marriage in taming male aggression is compelling.

Details Matter 

If Henrich had stopped here, I’d say that his book would be a very interesting contribution to the literature he’s addressing. Unfortunately he doesn’t, and here is where the serious problems begin to crop up. While the book’s organizational structure is both thematically and temporally schizophrenic throughout, it becomes particularly difficult to follow in the third part. He simply compresses too many topics too quickly in the later chapters. As a case in point, chapter 12 purports to explain how Western law, science, and religion all developed as a result of his arguments. There are vast literatures on each topic, and despite the fact that the book already has 150 pages of citations and notes, he still misses many important authors and issues to make these chapters useful.

While guilds were important to the growth of specialized trades and European cities, their role in the development of markets was certainly mixed at best.

For example, his discussion of the early development of trade focuses primarily on how challenging exchange must have been in light of the kinship-based societies we lived in. However, this runs completely contrary to a lot of well-known literature. There is no reference to Paul Seabright’s The Company of Strangers which addresses the very same point, but with a different understanding of the development of social trust. His historical work on Europe leaves out Douglas North, any discussion of the political pressure that kings were under to encourage the growth of cities to fund wars, or any mention of how the Roman Catholic Church’s most adherent nations, Spain and France, became economically backward as compared to Protestant England and the Netherlands.

Which brings me to Henrich’s “discussion” of the impact of Protestantism on markets, which minor thinkers like Max Weber have addressed. While he at least cites Weber, his presentation of Protestantism as a “booster shot” to the Roman Catholic Church’s initial teachings is confusing. Initially in the book he says that Protestant theology encouraged individuals to read the Bible for themselves, which isn’t a controversial point. This enhanced the demand for education in those parts of Europe. However when he discusses Protestantism later in the book he tries to make the case that mainline Protestantism is still responsible for vast differences in the way that Europeans and others are WEIRD. But this leaves out two factors. First, actual religious practice in much of Western Europe is at levels so low as to make it difficult to believe that Protestantism is still doing the heavy lifting here. Secondly, he lumps together all Protestants in using contemporary psychology research. He argues that “Protestants” view things with a stricter moral lens. But he makes no claim about how Evangelical vs Mainstream Protestants react to moral issues. This makes one wonder how sensitive he is to the subtlety of different religious practices and faiths. It looks to the reader as if Henrich found some contemporary research on the topic, threw it against the wall, and hoped it would stick, instead of crafting a thoughtful argument.  

In another confusing part of the book, he writes glowingly of guilds during the Middle Ages and their ability to expel “rule breakers.” Never mind the fact that guilds were and are some of the biggest opponents to the development of free markets in the world, and the “rule breakers” were individuals who sought the freedom to operate outside of the guild monopolies. While guilds were important to the growth of specialized trades and European cities, their role in the development of markets was certainly mixed at best. Also absent is any clear discussion about the evolution of property rights in explaining the emergence of markets. And the reader is hard pressed to understand how his arguments about the role of the Church alone directly influenced the development of Western property rights. Many of the passages purportedly explaining the explosive growth of Europe could really benefit from directly addressing the legal standing of property rights and their emergence from political battles in specific countries in that area. I suspect because he doesn’t have a good explanation for the link, he simply glosses over it.

And finally there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room: if Henrich is right, what does this tell us about the possibility of underdeveloped countries moving forward today? In particular, what are we to make of China and India as their economies and political systems evolve? Henrich largely punts on these two countries, but he does in passing mention that nations like Japan and South Korea were able to move away from purely agricultural economies to more industrialized ones and then adopt institutions based on Western models. However this quick hand waving undermines his entire argument. If Japan and South Korea are able to just shift away from agriculture and adopt Western legal codes and political institutions, why haven’t dozens of other countries been able to do this? The reader is left both wanting more and feeling overwhelmed by the mountain of studies Henrich presents as he makes his main argument.

We should never discourage an author from trying to show breadth in his work, and clearly Henrich values interdisciplinary research. He should be commended for that approach. But there are numerous examples where he seems tempted to stray into deep waters without a life vest. The most glaring example of this was his discussion of the impact that wars might have on what he calls “thinkability”—the range of conceivably possible institutions that might emerge in the aftermath of a conflict. Fair enough, but in discussing the American Founding he writes that the US went from “a loose confederation of 13 independent colonies before the Revolutionary War to a single unified state with a strong federal government after the war—forged in the crucible of the Revolution we became ‘Americans’ instead of ‘Virginians’ and ‘Pennsylvanians’”(emphasis added). Skipping over the Articles of Confederation, arguments over the Constitution, and the Civil War may not be such a big deal for an anthropologist who thinks in long chunks of time. But for those of us trying to understand changes that have occurred within those chunks of time, the details, and Henrich’s omissions, matter—a lot.

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