The WEIRDest People in the World

David Kaczynski, brother of convicted “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, speaks at a press conference in New York in 1999. (Reuters)
The argument put forward by Joe Henrich in his new book is audacious and surprising.

The Bedouins have a saying, “I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.” David Kaczynski, the brother of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was no Bedouin. When the Washington Post published the Unabomber’s manifesto, his brother immediately recognized the writing and informed the FBI who he believed was the author. Today, Ted Kaczynski sits in prison because of the information provided by his own brother. A Bedouin would be confused.

Harvard anthropologist Joe Henrich offers his explanation of the origins of this divergence between the values of the Bedouin and Americans, and its significance in world history, in The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.

Henrich’s argument is audacious and surprising. He begins with the fall of Rome and the Western Christian Church’s destruction of the powerful ancient families, and then connects this to the flowering of European liberalism and the scientific revolution over 1,000 years later. Of course, he starts at a small scale before moving to global history.

Societies differ based on the nature of their “family values.” If you are an American, David Kaczynski’s action may seem meritorious. But in most societies, there are strong taboos against turning in family members for crimes. In China, sons were not necessarily punished if they gave refuge to a father who was a fugitive from the law. The family was sacrosanct above larger, more abstract institutions. This is not true in the West. WEIRDest People in the World offers the intellectual genealogy for how this came to be.

By WEIRD, Henrich means “Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.” Though only twelve percent of the world’s population, these people account for 80-90 percent of the subjects in psychological research. Henrich and his colleagues have been arguing for over a decade that the focus on WEIRD psychologies in the academic literature gives us a distorted view of human cognition. Rather than deriving general truths about the human mind, psychologists may simply be describing the peculiarities of Western people.

This is not a surprising observation. Twenty years ago, Richard Nisbett wrote The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently — and Why. Nisbett’s dichotomies anticipate the characteristics of WEIRD cultures. People with a WEIRD outlook are individualistic, think reductively, and focus on personal attributes and intentions. In contrast, most humans are collectivist, think holistically, and focus on situations and relationships. An American meeting a stranger asks “what do you do?” In other cultures, one is more likely to be asked “who are your people?”

Henrich argues that the strange psychology of Westerners is a function of a historical accident. While some have suggested that the decline of religion in early modernity led to the rise of science and democracy, The WEIRDest People in the World details how the strength of the Western Christian Church after the fall of Rome seeded the institutions and orientations that would flower in the modern world.

Roman culture was not “peculiar.” It was centered around the family. Roman society functioned through the cooperation and competition between the elite lineages and their clients. At the end of the fifth century, the Western Roman Empire had ended as a political institution, while through the second half of the sixth century the rest of Roman society was torn asunder by decades of wars between the German barbarians and the Byzantines. Fewer than 50,000 citizens remained in Rome in 600 a.d. under the rule of Pope Gregory the Great.

The central role of the pope in Rome in 600 a.d. illustrates that after the fall of the Empire, the Christian Church remained the singular transnational institution standing. Thomas Hobbes stated that “the papacy is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire.” Western Europe’s barbarian rulers were weak and lacked the credibility of the Roman emperors. But the Church could provide them with institutional legitimacy. Even a ruler as powerful as Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans by the pope.

But all good things come with a cost, and in exchange for granting Europe’s barbarian rulers legitimacy, the Western Church demanded its own powers and domain of control. European Christianity had adopted from the Greco-Romans the norm of universal monogamy. The Western Church also barred adoption and enforced strong prohibitions on marriages between close relatives. Again, the Church initially adopted relatively narrow Roman prohibitions on incest, which would allow marriages between first cousins. But in the ninth century, they expanded the scope out to sixth cousins.

These rules limited the potential pool of mates for any aristocrat. And once a noble married, the emphasis on monogamy meant that only legitimate offspring could inherit property. Charlemagne had many concubines at any given time, but only one wife. He had only four legitimate grandsons, all sons of his fourth son. The emphasis on monogamy was radically egalitarian. The most powerful man in Europe had one wife at any given time, just like all the peasants in his domains.

The reasons for what Henrich calls the “Marriage and Family Program” (MFP) are obscure, but its consequences were significant. In the short term, the Christian Church prevented the emergence of elite extended family lineages which could accumulate power and property. Rather, over time the medieval Church became more and more powerful, as the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV’s abasement at the feet of the pope in the eleventh century illustrates. The Church also became exceedingly wealthy, often inheriting the lands of rich aristocrats who did not have legitimate natural-born heirs.

But the more important long-term consequence of the MFP was that vast spaces opened up in the culture for institutions unmoored from the family. The Church served as a model, with monastic communities bringing together unrelated men to cooperate and live together. The collapse of extended lineages meant that most Western Europeans lived in nuclear families, and young newlyweds started their own independent households. Cultures with a thick network of relationships take for granted that individuals can look to family to smooth their life path, but Western Europeans did not have that option. And so they developed guilds, fraternities, and assemblies. Medieval Europeans had to rely on Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” to give solidity to their lives because of the lack of extended families.

These institutions were often based around charters. Europeans became comfortable with the rule of law out of necessity because a world of strangers needed to rely on transparent abstractions, not what the Chinese call “guanxi” — networks of power. Western Europe’s literate elite, the clerics, by definition, did not have legitimate heirs, and so modeled a life outside of family networks. Scaffolded by the regularity of canon law, they began to resurrect abstruse Greek rationality. In northern Italy, city-states reemerged, modeled on ancient precedents, but given economic and cultural vigor by the individualism and rationality becoming the norm in Western Europe.

The WEIRDest People in the World makes a strong case that the Christian Church’s MFP was the cause for the transformation of Western European society during the medieval period. Henrich even points out that the Byzantine Empire, where the Church was subordinate to the state, did not enact the MFP, and today Orthodox societies are far less WEIRD — though no less Christian.

But the second half of the book is arguably much more tendentious, as the author attempts to answer the great riddle of economic historians, the “great divergence” between the West and the rest. Many of the great changes in European culture and economics that others might attribute to ideological revolutions, Henrich argues go back to the MFP through a sequence of events. The MFP rendered Western Europeans more analytic and individualistic and fostered the development of numerous intermediating institutions and trust in abstract rules. The WEIRDest People in the World argues all this set the stage for the capitalist revolution, modern science, and liberal democracy.

Henrich’s engrossing narrative is filled with neat facts and insightful theories. The sequence of coincidences and correlations across history, psychology, and anthropology make for compelling reading. It will be hard to come away from The WEIRDest People in the World without thinking that the unique and peculiar family structure of early medieval Europe, and the Church’s instrumental role, are not critical pieces of the broader puzzle. But this book is simply another volley in a long game that will continue for years as scholars continue to wrestle with why the modern world exploded first in Europe. Henrich brings the evolutionary thinkers to the table, joining the economists and historians. The coming years promise many new revelations, and perhaps an ultimate synthesis that answers the question of why the West stood out from the rest.


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