Writing from Islamic Spain in 1068, scholar Said ibn Ahmad describes the different nations of the world. Some, like the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Egyptians, Indians and Jews, he writes, have clearly made a contribution to civilisation, while others, whom Ahmad describes as “barbarians,” have not. According to him, the barbarians of northern and western Europe lack “keenness of understanding and clarity of intelligence” and are “overcome by ignorance and apathy, lack of discernment and stupidity.”
During the modern era, Ahmad’s northern barbarians came to dominate the world, making up for their previously poor showing with the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and constitutional democracy. How these ideas took off in a previously uninspiring cold and soggy backwater is one of the great questions in human history.
Joseph Henrich, Chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, provides a plausible and thought-provoking explanation in The WEIRDEST People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. His argument is that WEIRD people—Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic—have psychological characteristics that differentiate them from most other human beings who have ever lived. These characteristics are not innate, but developed as our societies changed. As Henrich puts it, “our minds adapt, often over centuries through cultural evolution, to the institutional and technological worlds we encounter.” The split between the WEIRD and everyone else began when the medieval church started dismantling Europe’s traditional kinship institutions and, over time, led to the rise of impersonal markets, the regulation of in-group competition and the broad and mobile division of labour in urban centres: modernity, in other words. We tend to overlook the underlying psychological factors, he argues, because most modern psychology studies use WEIRD subjects. This makes these WEIRD characteristics look normal, when, in fact, WEIRD people are often at the far end of the spectrum.
Do you obey authority figures you have never met? Scoff at the thought of an independent adult child being expected to obey her parents? Think nothing of handing your money or property over to a business owned by a stranger for safekeeping? Grimace at the idea of marrying your cousin? Chances are that you’re WEIRD. Most westerners would agree with you, but most non-westerners, including hundreds of generations of your own ancestors, would not.
Henrich cites a number of studies showing measurable differences in behaviour between westerners and non-westerners. For example, should you lie to help a friend in a dispute with a stranger? Respondents in western countries overwhelmingly think not, but respondents in more traditional non-western societies are more open to the idea.
Henrich cites an illuminating anecdote from Afghan-born author Tamim Ansary. Ansary asked a man in a rural village what it had been like to vote in Afghanistan’s first election after the downfall of the Taliban. The man told Ansary that he marked the pieces of paper as the men from the city directed him to, but found the whole election unnecessary. There was no doubt as to who would represent their village in the legislature—a man called Agha-i-Sayyaf. “His family has lived here since the days of Dost Mohammed Khan and longer … did you know that my sister’s husband has a cousin who is married to Sayyaf’s sister-in-law? He’s one of our own,” the man explained to Ansary. To the Afghan villager, the election was not about choosing between competing parties or ideologies. He considered it natural to prefer a known local authority figure with whom he had ties of kinship over everyone else.
From Traditional to WEIRD
Henrich first thought of writing the book when he was teaching a course based on Jared Diamond’s 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond argues that world history up to about 1500 AD, including the rise of advanced civilisations in the Mediterranean and South Asia, as well as the fact that Europeans colonised the Americas and not vice versa, can be largely explained by the geographical distribution of domesticable plants and animals. Henrich wanted to find a similarly broad explanation for the developments of more recent centuries. But while Diamond looked to geography, he looked to psychology.
Humans have traditionally lived in small groups defined by kinship networks. When the Greeks and Romans encountered them, the Celtic and Germanic peoples of northern Europe still lived in such societies. They would have thought about political leadership in exactly the same way as the Afghan villager in Ansary’s story. Even the ancient Greeks and Romans, whom we think of as the founders of modern western civilisation, valued extended families and local gods far more than we do today. Henrich argues that the shift to a modern individual society was driven by the Catholic Church’s restructuring of the “oldest and most fundamental institutions” of family and religion. The church’s marriage family program (or MFP, as Henrich calls it) prohibited cousin marriage, polygamy and divorce, encouraged newly-married couples to set up their own independent households, prohibited clergy from marrying and allowed people to bequeath their property however they wished. The unintended effect of these reforms was to break down extended families as political units and create new non-family church-based networks. Henrich argues that these reforms paved the way for further non-kinship networks, such as the late Medieval universities, guilds and town councils, which, in turn, provided the foundations for science, state secularism, capitalism and constitutional government.
Why the West?
As I have written elsewhere, any explanation of western Europe’s success must include both place and time. Why did modernity arise in northern and western Europe and not elsewhere, and why did it arise in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and not before? Henrich’s argument accounts for both and, as he explains, better fits the evidence than alternative theories based on genetics or wealth.
Henrich’s prose is readable and accessible, but at times The WEIRDest People in the World is dense with figures and studies. Henrich clearly aimed to be comprehensive—and it has paid off. Other writers have explored the differences in thinking between the residents of modern industrialised societies and those of traditional communities (including Jared Diamond in his 2012 The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?), while others have looked to the medieval church for the origins of the ideas of the modern west (such as Larry Siedentop in his 2015 Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism), but Henrich is more rigorous than either in his use of hard data. There is certainly more to be said on the origins of the Enlightenment and the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, but The WEIRDest People in the World tells a story which holds together from start to finish.
Henrich ends by reminding us that our minds will continue to adapt and change. Future humans will struggle to understand how we think today, just as we often struggle to understand the thinking of premodern people. If his overall argument is correct, we may adapt to our changing society by becoming, if anything, even WEIRDer.