We’re Weird As It Gets

13 May 2021
We’re Weird As It Gets - Featured image

The proper study of mankind is man

– David Hume

Can ‘Big Data’—quantitative analysis of massive databases—provide a new way of talking about Western Civilisation; one that sidesteps the cancel culture that aims to kill debate (and careers)? As it is, expressing an interest in and admiration for Western Civilisation in our postmodern world can be fraught. That has been the experience of the IPA with its Foundations of Western Civilisation Program (launched 10 years ago), as it has sought to research and illustrate the ideas, institutions and values inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition and the West, broadly defined.

The Weirdest People in the World

The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
by Joseph Henrich
Penguin (Allen Lane), 2020, pp704

Joseph Henrich is Chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, a place where you could quite easily get cancelled. Henrich’s current focus is on the WEIRD (“Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic”). That he is yet to be sent to (as the American economist Arnold Kling put it) the Correctional Institution for Dangerous White Supremacists is a function of his approach more than his conclusions. He has the historical perspective, but every hypothesis is tested by reference to time-series, comparative, and quantitative data, in whatever form he and researchers can get their hands on it.

Joseph Henrich

Joseph Henrich exploring the world.
Photo: Kris nibbe/Harvard

Normally when Western Civilisation is proposed as a research program those academics not explicitly hostile to its inheritance—and there are plenty of those—immediately move to cultural relativism. What about other cultures, such as the great civilisations of Islam, China and the sub-continent? This is said in response just to the existence of the program. This is why in the USA there has been a systematic (and largely successful) campaign to disestablish the ‘Western Civilization 101’ foundation courses run by colleges and universities for the bulk of the 20th century. No matter if the curricula had evolved along with changes to social understandings so as to give due weight to blights on the heritage such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade; their very existence was anathema.

Western thinkers were first to seek grounds on which universal claims could be made.

There also can be an anti-modern strand in the attacks. By teasing out the legacies of individualism and human rights we apparently are just privileging the West above traditional cultures which are more communal and sharing, in which the nuclear family is nothing compared to the warm embrace of the extended family/village/tribe. This slides into what the late Roger Sandall (1933-2012) dubbed the “Culture Cult”, and the fetish of “designer tribalism”, in which the reality of traditional cultures (which, of course, have their virtues) are rewritten so as to demonstrate their moral superiority over the West (hence a tendentious book such as Dark Emu sprouts in well-tilled ground). Only a few of those who champion the indigenous cultures assailed by Western depredations are consistent enough to also criticise other great civilisations for their encounters with traditional cultures.

Academics also love to play games with the methodology: the cheap shot being that no Western researcher can step outside their cultural and psychological baggage to make universal claims or to undertake cross-cultural comparison. Ironic, in that Western thinkers were the first to seek grounds on which universal claims could be made.

In recent years the assault of identity politics has meant the additional reading that because Western Civilisation is ‘white’, anything involved in its study and propagation is racist, and any conclusion that the institution and values it has bequeathed are worthy of propagation are ‘supremacist’. That the institutions if not the values have been adopted by peoples of all races, creed and colours is not admitted as a defence.

Presumably whiteness is a contamination in the Western memes of liberalism, democracy and human rights incapable of being expunged. And should we be surprised when non-Western non-democracies lift this critique out of the universities of the West and deploy it in the forums of global governance?

The argument runs that if Western countries speak in favour of the spread of democracy and human rights throughout the world, then it’s just privileging some strange notions they happened to develop and which have no relevance for other cultures. Not surprisingly this argument is also popular with autocrats and dictators the world over.

In Australia, we have the additional overlay that being grateful for the transplanting of the ideas, institutions and values of the West via settlement is misconstrued to also be inherently a celebration of all that meant for the indigenous peoples of our country.

In our secular intellectual culture there is also discomfort with acknowledging the contribution of Judaism, Christianity, and the legacy of the Medieval Church. Not just what people believed, but the religious laws and institutions which were important for so much of European history. Larry Siedentop, in Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014), did a masterful job illustrating how the laws and structures created by the Medieval Church laid—sometimes inadvertently—the foundations of the rule of law, individualism, and human rights (Siedentop’s book was reviewed here in the July 2014 edition of the IPA Review).

The Western mind is very different to all the rest.

Henrich has (so far) managed to evade all the traps that lie in wait for public intellectuals by relying on scientific claims to knowledge. In the spirit of Big Data addressing the big questions, Henrich will overwhelm the reader with the sheer volume of studies he has undertaken as well as those he has mined (for a similar approach to adjacent topics, see also Paul Monk’s review of The Narrow Corridor by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in the Winter 2020 edition of the IPA Review).

In the first section of the book Henrich exhaustively analyses the unique features of the Western mind. He believes it is “psychologically peculiar” because it is not just one amongst world cultures whose attributes vary in some kind of haphazard way; rather it is very different to all the rest.

Henrich identifies the key features of the Western mind as being:

  • Individualism: self-focus, self-esteem, and self-enhancement; time thrift and hard work (value of labor); desire for control and love of choice (Australians are among the most individualistic of those measured)
  • Guilt (an individual phenomenon) is predominant rather than shame (what the village thinks)
  • Non-conformity is encouraged, and in surveys the WEIRDs even refuse to endorse ‘obedience’ as an attribute that needs to be instilled in children
  • Patience—famously tested by placing the marshmallow in front of the young subject—is in turn reliant on encouragement of self-control, which is hardened into neural pathways
  • Universal Rules: why is it that around the UN building in New York, where diplomats can claim immunity against parking tickets, the abusers of that rule are overwhelmingly non-Western? Hint: they would obey a rule which governed their in-group, especially if they thought someone related and/or some deity was watching
  • Dispositionalism: a tendency to see people’s behaviour as anchored in personal traits that influence their actions across many contexts (rather than the context-dependent judgements seen in non-Western societies governed by kin-based and communal values: theft from outsiders is seen differently to theft from insiders)
  • Impersonal Pro-social attitudes; privileging trust, honesty and cooperation, even with impersonal others
  • Intentions are what we infer and judge in other people (seen in our legal system as the test of mens rea, the guilty mind), in contrast to other cultures which focus on consequences and context
  • Analytic versus holistic thinking (for us, not everything is connected).

While presenting multiple tables and charts Henrich is at pains to acknowledge the great variations between the other world cultures, and believes we should in fact celebrate that diversity. He seeks not to judge the other cultures but rather to demonstrate that the WEIRD culture is always the outlier—on the extreme left or right of the scale. He also concedes there is variation within cultures and nations (measured trust in Sicily is half that seen in Italy’s north), and that there is nothing immutable about these attributes (Europe in 800 AD would have looked much the same as the rest). Hence it would be crazy to attack him as essentialist or racist, though no doubt some still will.

Papua New Guinean highland villagers

Papua New Guinean highland villagers: Henrich says pre-modern societies built on kinship simply don’t scale.
Photo: Gail Hampshire

Republican democracy was practiced before it was theorised.

Henrich is also at the cutting edge of using biological and evolutionary understandings to analyse culture. He provides neuroscientific data to show “we have evolved genetically to learn adaptively in ways that calibrate our minds and behaviour to the environments we encounter”. One mind-blowing finding he quotes is that members of pre-literate societies are much better at remembering faces and names (important when you need to know for your own safety who is and who isn’t in your clan or tribe) compared to modern literate types, because in learning to read (as a species and as individuals) we have taken over that part of the brain otherwise involved in recognizing faces, in order to identify and process letters and/or ideograms.

Our culture actually alters our neural pathways, and there is a process of cumulative cultural evolution, driven by individual and group selection processes, familiar to those who have followed the popular science works of British writer Matt Ridley, such as The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (1998).

The major part of the book is concerned with why the West diverged from the rest of the world’s cultures, and how that enabled us to become WEIRD. He finds it overwhelmingly attributable to the role of the Medieval Church, and its roll-out of what he calls the “Marriage and Family Program”. The Christian Church’s attitudes to kinship were a radical departure from what had gone before—in both its Jewish and Roman antecedents—dating as far back as the fourth century AD when the Roman Emperor Constantius prohibited men from marrying their nieces. More and more elaborate rules were made in subsequent centuries, but more importantly the Church gradually extended its authority over the feudal warlords (of whom most had retained the tribal marriage patterns of their German forebears) governing Europe. By about 1,000 AD sex outside wedlock was prohibited (concubinage was on the way out) and marriage between cousins was banned to the sixth degree.

Similarly, the Cluniac reforms to the monasteries had created autonomous institutions from what had previously been merely another domain of the local feudal lord (with members of his family holding the key positions).

This approach is in stark contrast to a great number of the world’s cultures, which to this day lie along a continuum from being indifferent to cousin marriage to actively encouraging it. The Monastic reforms had other effects: unlike in religious communities elsewhere the rules of the monasteries included entreaties to productive work, not just prayers. Hence the unmatchable illustrated manuscripts of Medieval times, and/or the German ales and habanero sauces (to name but two products) offered by monasteries to this day. Incredibly, Henrich is able to draw a direct correlation between current rates at which people in different parts of Europe agree that “hard work is important for children to learn”, and the density of Cistercian monasteries in that region in 1300!

Just being rich doesn’t drive psychological change.

In the developments of later years the theology behind the changes brought about by the Church was less important than the sociology. The major advantage of marriage within kin-groups is that it ensures the inheritance stays within the family. With cousin-marriage banned, assets can not only be dispersed over time, but the probability of a family line being extinguished altogether (for want of live children) is dramatically increased. Henrich, like Siedentop, is alive to the incentive this created for the Church, which then became the default destination for the assets of the deceased. The wealth the Church accumulated was in turn one of the reasons it was able to prevail over the secular rulers for as long as it did.

Then we had the effect that individuals, unable to rely on extended kin-groups, had more incentive to form voluntary associations for mutual support, such as the guilds that became the bedrock of the governance of Medieval cities. With their egalitarian ethos, willingness to incorporate strangers, and internally democratic procedures, these in turn provided a model for the processes of democratic states that were later to emerge. Republican democracy was practised before it was theorised, in other words. It was, Henrich says, a revolution of the middle classes of society, that spread upwards and down, as the egalitarian middle class, commercial and individualistic, increasingly enforced its moral outlook and egalitarian practices on the nobility and the peasantry.

Reinforcing sociological pressures and changes in psychology proliferate and reinforce each other, encouraging the take off in prosperity that in the developed parts of Europe can be seen from the 12th century onwards. The mercantile Italian cities of the north, and their counterparts in northern Germany and the lowlands, harnessed the growth in impersonal trust to encourage free exchange at their justly famous trade fairs.

This was also the period after which materialistic explanations for differential economic outcomes—such as those put forward in Jared Diamond’s Gun, Germs and Steel, with its reliance on explanation like the “lucky latitudes”—cease to have weight. Henrich is explicit that Diamond’s theory weakens after about 1200 AD, and …

doesn’t help us account for why the Industrial Revolution began in England, or why the Scottish Enlightenment first began to glow in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Later, the Reformation created yet another incentive for literacy, as the Protestants sought to ensure all could read the Word of God for themselves. The Church responded with a renewed interest in mass education, and literacy levels in Catholic Europe also began to take off.

He further finds that if theology was determinative, then the societies of the Christian Orthodox world would mirror those of the West, but they do not. The difference was that the Eastern Church’s prohibitions of cousin marriage were nothing like as extensive (or as enforced) as in the West, and indeed to this day priests can marry. The granular maps of where we see the WEIRD psychological profile follow almost exactly the reach of the Medieval Catholic Church. The difference in degree between northern and southern Italy can be traced back to the line across the Italian peninsula that was the extent of the Carolingian and Holy Roman Empires, which worked for the most part to enforce Church edicts.

This is just a rough summary of the book and its conclusions; one which doesn’t do full justice to the incredibly strong data sources and analytical techniques Henrich brings to bear, and nor has it covered all of the conclusions Henrich has been willing to draw from his data. For instance, in a challenge to those who attribute the great movements of history to the impact of changing ideas (people like me, for instance), he says:

The much-heralded ideals of Western civilization, like human rights, liberty, representative democracy, and science, aren’t monuments to pure reason or logic … Instead, these institutions represent cumulative cultural products … that trace their origins back over centuries …

For this reason multidisciplinary academic Deirdre McCloskey—author of The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2007) who traces the great explosion in scientific and industrial enquiry to ideas promulgated in the golden age of classical liberalism and Enlightenment—has criticised Henrich’s work. On the other, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (he of ‘Black Swan’ fame) wrote last year a fascinating article headed Religion, Violence, Tolerance & Progress: Nothing to Do with Theology which is thematically consistent with Henrich in rejecting the idea that we can explain differences between groups merely by reference to the differences in what they purport to believe.

He says, for example:

Catholicism has not changed; people and their culture did. Last time I checked, the scriptures have not been modified; they were the same during the Inquisition, before the inquisition, and now.

Thus does Henrich challenge not just the narratives of the left, but also some of the more classically liberal ideas of progress. His research favours evolutionary explanations which stretch over centuries instead of the short and sharp model of an ‘industrial revolution’ or a ‘scientific revolution’.

The central problem of pre-modern societies is they simply don’t scale.

Henrich provides a powerful explanation for why, in many cases, well-meaning attempts to transplant institutions of liberalism and prosperity to the developing world failed:

Often, especially in formerly non-state societies, the newly transplanted institutions created a misfit with people’s cultural psychology, leading to poorly functioning governments, economies and civil societies.

Similarly, just being rich doesn’t drive psychological change. In non-WEIRD societies there are still elites materially comfortable (perhaps on the back on the rest), but they remain non-WEIRD in outlook. The Marxist/materialist explanation for the values simply falls apart.

Henrich spends a large section of the book looking at pre-modern societies and pointing out the central problem that—no matter how attractive the culture and religious practices may be for those within the group—they simply don’t scale. There are inherent limits to the breadth and complexity that can be achieved by societies built on kinship. The ‘humbugging’ seen in remote Indigenous communities—the pestering for money by relatives quaintly defined as “unreasonable or excessive demands from family”—which so undermine incentives to personal exertion and capital accumulation, is just an example of a pattern seen all over the world. As is the appropriation of resources meant for all by one particular clan or family group, a practice which in many societies is barely seen as exceptional or unjust, even by the victims (who simply seek to displace those in power with their own group).

One global trend which is independent of cross-cultural patterns is urbanisation. The more people live in cities, the more they resemble the WEIRD pattern. There are incentives towards patterns in trade, employment and marriage independent of traditional kin-based institutions.

I have reviewed this book at such length because its findings refute the idea that studying Western Civilisation and ideas, institutions and values is somehow illegitimate. Yes, other cultures have their own unique ideas, institutions, and values, but Western Civilisation is the outlier so it has to be understood if only to illustrate the full spectrum of human potential.

Also, the uniquely Western approach led to unprecedented success, be it measured as GDP or other indicators of human development. These gains are precious, and derive from gains from trade and education made possible by individualism, impersonal trust, hard work and creativity. Attempts to tear down the culture from within puts those gains at risk. Even if you are absolutely obsessed with denouncing (Western) Empires and supporting ‘decolonisation’ of culture and institutions, you have to first understand what those institutions are, how they came about, and what function they serve, because they give us all that we have.

As Deidre McCloskey also said recently of the American experience:

Liberty made us rich and made us pretty good, too. People will say that slavery and Indian removal and worker exploitation also made us rich. No, they didn’t. You’re mistaken. Feel guilty about the evils, but do not think they were contributions to riches.

Neither should this celebration have any overtones of ethnic supremacy. The success of the liberal democracies in East Asia such as Japan, Taiwan and Korea are just some examples of how products of Western Civilisation have been made universal and can be successfully incorporated by cultures that once would have looked quite different (Henrich examines the evolution of Japan quite extensively).


Osaka: Japan’s success as a liberal democracy is an example of how products of Western Civilisation have been made universal.
Photo: Richard Conrad

The book is long and dense with facts and conclusions, so it has not made the splash in the wider intellectual world that it might. Also, some who might be sympathetic simply prefer traditional historical and intellectual accounts to those of Big Data, whereas I believe the two are complementary.

Just as Big Data helps explains the links between state formation and economic prosperity, as seen in ‘Freedom’s Narrow Corridor’ (IPA Review, Winter 2020), Henrich has rounded out the picture by demonstrating the evolutionary psychology of Western societies. I expect these complex approaches to filter down into general intellectual debate.

Attempts to cancel Henrich and others like him should be viewed as evidence of impact. The study and appreciation of Western Civilisation will be revitalised—if not necessarily in the universities of the West.

This article from the Autumn 2021 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Executive General Manager, Scott Hargreaves.

Support the IPA

If you liked what you read, consider supporting the IPA. We are entirely funded by individual supporters like you. You can become an IPA member and/or make a tax-deductible donation.