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A bold, epic account of how the co-evolution of psychology and culture created the peculiar Western mind that has profoundly shaped the modern world. Perhaps you are WEIRD: raised in a society that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. If so, you’re rather psychologically peculiar.Unlike much of the world today, and most people who have ever lived, A bold, epic account of how the co-evolution of psychology and culture created the peculiar Western mind that has profoundly shaped the modern world. Perhaps you are WEIRD: raised in a society that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. If so, you’re rather psychologically peculiar.Unlike much of the world today, and most people who have ever lived, WEIRD people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist, and analytical. They focus on themselves—their attributes, accomplishments, and aspirations—over their relationships and social roles. How did WEIRD populations become so psychologically distinct? What role did these psychological differences play in the industrial revolution and the global expansion of Europe during the last few centuries?In The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich draws on cutting-edge research in anthropology, psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology to explore these questions and more. He illuminates the origins and evolution of family structures, marriage, and religion, and the profound impact these cultural transformations had on human psychology. Mapping these shifts through ancient history and late antiquity, Henrich reveals that the most fundamental institutions of kinship and marriage changed dramatically under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church. It was these changes that gave rise to the WEIRD psychology that would coevolve with impersonal markets, occupational specialization, and free competition—laying the foundation for the modern world.Provocative and engaging in both its broad scope and its surprising details, The WEIRDest People in the World explores how culture, institutions, and psychology shape one another, and explains what this means for both our most personal sense of who we are as individuals and also the large-scale social, political, and economic forces that drive human history. Include black-and-white illustrations.


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A bold, epic account of how the co-evolution of psychology and culture created the peculiar Western mind that has profoundly shaped the modern world. Perhaps you are WEIRD: raised in a society that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. If so, you’re rather psychologically peculiar.Unlike much of the world today, and most people who have ever lived, A bold, epic account of how the co-evolution of psychology and culture created the peculiar Western mind that has profoundly shaped the modern world. Perhaps you are WEIRD: raised in a society that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. If so, you’re rather psychologically peculiar.Unlike much of the world today, and most people who have ever lived, WEIRD people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist, and analytical. They focus on themselves—their attributes, accomplishments, and aspirations—over their relationships and social roles. How did WEIRD populations become so psychologically distinct? What role did these psychological differences play in the industrial revolution and the global expansion of Europe during the last few centuries?In The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich draws on cutting-edge research in anthropology, psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology to explore these questions and more. He illuminates the origins and evolution of family structures, marriage, and religion, and the profound impact these cultural transformations had on human psychology. Mapping these shifts through ancient history and late antiquity, Henrich reveals that the most fundamental institutions of kinship and marriage changed dramatically under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church. It was these changes that gave rise to the WEIRD psychology that would coevolve with impersonal markets, occupational specialization, and free competition—laying the foundation for the modern world.Provocative and engaging in both its broad scope and its surprising details, The WEIRDest People in the World explores how culture, institutions, and psychology shape one another, and explains what this means for both our most personal sense of who we are as individuals and also the large-scale social, political, and economic forces that drive human history. Include black-and-white illustrations.

30 review for The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

  1. 4 out of 5

    Ian

    My favourite non-fiction books are those that provide me with some new insight. It’s pleasant enough to read books that reinforce my existing views, but I don’t enjoy them as much as a book that presents me with new arguments and leaves me thinking about their implications. This book achieves that. There’s a lot in here that I find quite difficult to accept, but I have to concede that the author provides a mass of evidence for his arguments. The amount of research within the book is quite incred My favourite non-fiction books are those that provide me with some new insight. It’s pleasant enough to read books that reinforce my existing views, but I don’t enjoy them as much as a book that presents me with new arguments and leaves me thinking about their implications. This book achieves that. There’s a lot in here that I find quite difficult to accept, but I have to concede that the author provides a mass of evidence for his arguments. The amount of research within the book is quite incredible, which is just as well as I think Prof. Henrich’s thesis will have to stand up to some pretty heavy criticism from his fellow academics. I should warn the potential reader that the book has a lot of graphs! I may disagree with some of the detailed arguments, but overall it is hard to contest the author’s claim that “It’s no longer tenable to continue pretending that all populations are psychologically indistinguishable or that cultural evolution doesn’t systematically modify how people think, feel, and perceive.” Prof. Henrich’s starting point is that “Culture can and does alter our brains, hormones, and anatomy, along with our perceptions, motivations, personalities, emotions, and many other aspects of our minds”. One of his many examples was of interest to me personally. I have poor facial recognition skills, something which has caused me the odd embarrassment down the years. Professor Henrich explains this is a common feature of “highly literate” people, and I would think almost everyone on this site would come within that category. It’s apparently caused by overdevelopment of the parts of the brain that deal with language, at the expense of those parts that deal with face recognition. On average, highly literate people have poorer face recognition skills than the norm. Who knew? Having made the case for a link between culture and changes to the brain, the author highlights that all human societies formed on the basis of “family ties, ritual bonds, and enduring interpersonal relationships.” Such societies operated to different principles than modern Western ones. Land and property were held communally, and no single individual could sell or dispose of it. There were expectations around the sharing of wealth. There was a principle of group responsibility – any member of a clan could be held responsible for the actions of one - and in contrast to the modern western emphasis on “self-esteem”, what matters in kin-based societies is reputation, the esteem of others. The overall effect is to promote “conformity to peers, deference to traditional authorities, sensitivity to shame, and an orientation toward the collective (e.g. the clan) over oneself.” In kin-based societies, marriages are often arranged with a view to economic and social ties between families, and these ties are maintained over generations by practices such as cousin-marriage, polygyny, and marriage between in-laws, step-relatives etc. Everyone is ensnared in a complex web of obligations to other members of their extended kin. In Europe, the Catholic Church banned all of the above marriage practices, and also divorce. The Orthodox Church did the same, although the author argues they were not as strict (I wasn’t totally convinced by that last claim). Over time, the (unintended) effect was to destroy the kin-based structures that had previously existed in Europe. The nuclear family became standard, with individual ownership of property and lineal inheritance. This leads to the last part of the author’s argument. These changes to social structures explain why, from the Middle Ages onwards, the former backwater of Western Europe surged past other parts of the world in terms of economic and technological development. Freed from their familial obligations, Europeans could choose their friends and business partners, could migrate more easily to cities, and form voluntary associations with strangers. These changes promoted innovation, the growth of impersonal business dealings, and concepts such as individual rights, personal accountability, and universal laws. Events such as the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution were a consequence of psychological shifts that began centuries earlier. Despite the length of this review, it’s really a very poor summary of the complexity and nuance of the author’s arguments. I would recommend the book to those who have an interest in psychology or anthropology, but most of all to those with an open mind.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jason Furman

    The WEIRDest People in the World is among the best books I have read in the last five to ten years. In his earlier book, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (also an outstanding book), Joseph Henrich chronicled the success of the human species, grounding it in our ability to learn from each other and the co-evolution of culture and genes, a story that takes place over hundreds of thousands of years. The WEIRDest Peop The WEIRDest People in the World is among the best books I have read in the last five to ten years. In his earlier book, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (also an outstanding book), Joseph Henrich chronicled the success of the human species, grounding it in our ability to learn from each other and the co-evolution of culture and genes, a story that takes place over hundreds of thousands of years. The WEIRDest People in the World is effectively a sequel (but you need not read The Secret of Our Success first as the ideas are repeated/summarized in the new book) that zooms in on the last roughly 1,500 years to understand why the West was so successful in its rapid growth and conquest of much of the rest of the world. Henrich’s explanation over-simplified: the Catholic Church banned cousin marriage which broke up kinship networks, then Protestant churches emphasized reading and individual interpretation. The combination led to a new “WEIRD (i.e., Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic)” psychology that helped lay the foundation for individual rights, democracy, markets, innovation, and the success the West enjoys today. Aspects of this have been imitated elsewhere helping to spread prosperity. Some big think grand explanations for everything books take wild and creative stabs backed up by intuition but not much evidence. This book is creative (although maybe not “wild”) but is grounded in meticulous research, much of it done by Henrich and his team but also drawing on a wide range of other research by economists, psychologists, anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and others. Henrich can do page after page after page of evidence, scatterplots, descriptions of natural experiments and regressions, etc. It also has both fox-like qualities (summarizing everything around a single theory) but also hedgehog-like qualities (lots of causal arrows pointing every which way and bringing a lot of different explanations together). It also draws on such a wide range of material, criss-crosses so many places, that it shows Henrich as an impressive polymath, but not one who is out to impress but to prove, often with a list of eight arguments to make his proof. The core point and the one that I found completely persuasive in the book is that psychology varies across cultures and that for years Western psychologists made the mistake of studying WEIRD university students and thinking their psychology was universal. Instead, Henrich argues that there are lots of psychologies but broadly speaking they can be grouped into two sets of characteristics. WEIRD people are individualistic, self-obsessed, analytical, and see ourselves as unique beings that try to stick to impartial rules that are enforced by an internal feeling of guilt. In contrast, in many other cultures people are more focused on the group (often a kinship group), do not focus on their self realization, and try to do right by the people around them—a feeling enforced by shame in front of others more than internal guilt. Many other traits vary across these two types including patience, timeliness, whether morality is judged by intentions or outcomes, and much more. Henrich advances a wide range of evidence for this core point including laboratory experiments played across countries, within countries, and with different immigrant groups within countries, data on actual behavior like parking tickets and blood donations, observational studies, and more. Any given study by itself might not be completely persuasive but the large mass of them, many extremely careful, leaves relatively little doubt in my mind about this argument. Next comes Henrich’s explanation of the rise of WEIRD psychology as the consequence of the breakup of kin networks by the Catholic Church and the rise of protestantism and reading. I found this very plausible but far from a certainty, which is not Henrich’s fault but the difficulty of being completely certain about any aspects of historic causation, especially when everything moves together and causes everything else. Henrich, however, is not just making an assertion, he has a lot of evidence in the form of the history of banning cousin marriages, the correlation between the degree of cousin marriage and various psychological traits, and a number of different natural experiments that involve comparing areas that historically were under different religious rules. Finally, Henrich links all of this to the rise of western Democratic and market institutions, something I found highly plausible—and was completely persuaded that we over-emphasize the individual thinkers we credit with the modern world (Locke, Hume, Smith, Montesquieu) and underemphasize the deeper and more slowly evolving cultural and psychological roots of these institutions. I do have my worries about the argument. Psychological explanations of differences in growth have a long and sorry history, often fitting an explanation after-the-fact that was invalidated subsequently (e.g., the idea that Korean culture is incapable of generating growth which was dramatically disproven after 1950). Some of the “natural experiments” are so remote it is hard to know what to make about them, like some Swiss lord that died around 1,200 and then differences centuries later. This raises another issue with the timing of the psychological changes, which are sometimes portrayed as very deep and the result of factors centuries before and in other cases seem to change very quickly (see, again Korea). Some of the functionalist explanations for why different cultures/institutions evolved beg the question of why in some places but not others and the role of contingency. All that said, these are all sources of my uneasiness with unqualifiedly embracing the argument in the book and none of them really find fault with any of the empirical evidence or claims--all of which moved me a lot in Henrich's direction. The WEIRDest People in the World is definitely a long book. But it is really worthwhile. It does not just provide a new and compelling explanation of the rise of the West, it also makes one think about how many aspects of psychology that seem universal are really contingent and how these can change and adapt over time. Ultimately, the book left me with a profound awe for the human species that can understand so much about itself both by working collaboratively with a wide variety of intellectual tools and also by single individuals with enormous creativity and ability to synthesize evidence.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Stefan Schubert

    Henrich essentially does three things in this book: 1) He shows that the West is more psychologically different from other parts of the world than is usually assumed. 2) He argues that Western psychology was a major cause of the Scientific and Industrial Revolution, and why the West came to dominate the world. 3) He gives an explanation of how Western psychology developed. His theory is that the Catholic Church's rules against cousin marriage and a range of other customs that sustained "intensive k Henrich essentially does three things in this book: 1) He shows that the West is more psychologically different from other parts of the world than is usually assumed. 2) He argues that Western psychology was a major cause of the Scientific and Industrial Revolution, and why the West came to dominate the world. 3) He gives an explanation of how Western psychology developed. His theory is that the Catholic Church's rules against cousin marriage and a range of other customs that sustained "intensive kinship" broke the power of clans and paved the way for a more individualistic society, where people were less partial in favour of their kin. Methodologically, the book takes a cultural evolution-perspective, that Henrich outlined in greater detail in his previous book *The Secret of Our Success*. It's an extremely ambitious big-picture book. I can't evaluate all of the evidence, but it's highly thought-provoking and worth reading (even though it's long).

  4. 5 out of 5

    Henry Percy

    I borrowed this book from my local library, so I do not show up as a verified purchaser. All page numbers refer to the Kindle version. I learned a great many interesting things from this book, but so much of the methodology is troubling. I sent these observations and more (5 pages worth) to Mr. Henrich before posting this review. He informed me that the first item, which I thought was a typo, was correct, and my second point was not "on target," so he stopped reading. So much for intellectual cu I borrowed this book from my local library, so I do not show up as a verified purchaser. All page numbers refer to the Kindle version. I learned a great many interesting things from this book, but so much of the methodology is troubling. I sent these observations and more (5 pages worth) to Mr. Henrich before posting this review. He informed me that the first item, which I thought was a typo, was correct, and my second point was not "on target," so he stopped reading. So much for intellectual curiosity. This review does not include all the points that I emailed to him, and I have reorganized things for presentation here. The Ethnographic Atlas Henrich sets great store by the Ethnographic Atlas (p. 156), a “database of over 1,200 societies (ethnolinguistic groups) that captures life prior to industrialization … So, 99.3 percent of societies in this global anthropological database deviate from the WEIRD pattern.” I looked the Atlas up on the web and could find no way to sort the societies by population size, but I would venture to guess that many were a few thousand souls or less. In other words, an ethnolinguistic group of a thousand members counts as one, while the one billion or so WEIRD people also count as one. What are we comparing here? Nowhere does Henrich rigorously define WEIRD, so I have to guess which countries are in and which are out. I assume that WEIRD includes, say, Australia and the Czech Republic, but those two societies cannot possibly count as a single ethnolinguistic group. In Chapter 5, Note 2, Henrich tiptoes around some of the deficiencies in the Atlas and ends with this broadside: “But, the summary dismissal of the Atlas found in cultural anthropology and surrounding fields reflects a lack of scientific training, an aversion to quantification, and statistical illiteracy.” A little sensitive there? And what a tightly reasoned refutation: an ad hominem attack. Cast the disbelievers into outer darkness! Priming Chapter 4 is an extended discussion of “priming,” the modifications to people’s behavior after exposure to a stimulus. Henrich presents priming as a fact of human behavior, without qualifications. As it happens, after completing Henrich’s book I read Stuart Ritchie’s Science Fictions, also published in 2020. Ritchie begins Chapter 2 with a discussion of priming. Test subjects asked to name an object respond slightly faster when shown a fork if it was preceded with a picture of a knife or spoon. That is uncontroversial, and fairly trivial. But far more has been claimed about priming, that it alters behavior. Ritchie discusses Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate in Economics and author of one of the most popular psychology textbooks, published in 2011. One instance of priming Kahneman cites in his book is a study reported in Science: if you prime subjects with a screensaver of floating banknotes, afterwards they will “prefer ‘to play alone, work along, and put more physical distance between themselves and a new acquaintance.’” And all from watching a screensaver! I’m reminded of the folktale of nail soup. And Kahneman is not shy in the conclusions he draws from this moral tale: “’Disbelief is not an option. The results are not made up, nor are they statistical flukes. You have no choice but to accept that the major conclusions of these studies are true. More important, you must accept that they are true about you.’” Just one year after Kahneman’s text appeared, priming theory began to come apart. One of the seminal studies could not be replicated and had to be retracted. More followed. In 2017 Kahneman wrote, “The experimental evidence for the ideas I presented in that chapter was significantly weaker than I believed when I wrote it. This was simply an error: I knew all I needed to know to moderate my enthusiasm … but I did not think it through.” Congratulations to a Nobel laureate for admitting his mistake. To repeat, Kahneman retracted his assertions and apologized in 2017, three years before publication of The WEIRDest People. Was Henrich unaware of that? Shouldn’t that caveat be included, at least in a note? Henrich certainly knows of Kahneman, mentioning him briefly in the Preface as a “famed psychologist.” See also Ritchie, p. 94 on “romantic priming”: after being shown a picture of an attractive woman, men take more risks and spend more. “Proven” in 15 papers reporting on 43 experiments. Then David Shanks and colleagues did large-sale experiments and could not replicate the effect. Henrich's Appendix C contains another long disquisition on priming, in the midst of which this appears: “Priming results are always a worry, since they often don’t replicate.” That’s it. One sentence. And what a damning admission it is. If the very concept of priming frequently does not replicate, isn’t that a sign that it is a weak theory at best? Nevertheless, Henrich builds a tower of conclusions based on priming theory. Guilt vs. Shame On p. 34 Henrich defines “shame” and “guilt”: “shame” is external while “guilt is different; it’s an internal guidance system and at least partially a product of culture, though it probably integrates some innate psychological components like regret.” And just like that, “innate psychological components like regret” drop from the sky, a deus ex machina to salvage the theory. Is regret then genetic? Apparently those in WEIRD societies are born with guilt (original sin, anyone?), yet it mysteriously bypasses those in the rest of the world (perhaps they’re missing “innate psychological components like regret”), who are culturally dosed with shame. On p. 202 Henrich tells us that a researcher “used translations of ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ from nine languages to gather data on the frequency of Google searches involving these terms in 56 countries over the preceding five years.” We’re to believe that there are binary pairs of words in nine other languages that map precisely to “guilt” and “shame” in English? But “guilt” and “shame” are not even mutually exclusive in English (see Merriam-Webster). I know from my own efforts at translation that finding a word in the target language that captures all the nuances of a word in the source language can be nearly impossible for many terms, yet Henrich is confident that a researcher has done so for nine languages. Appendix B, Fig. B.2, shows the “Relationship between the frequency of searches for ‘shame’ vs. ‘guilt’ on Google and the Kinship Intensity Index (KII). The dashed line represents the zero line; countries above the line search more often for ‘shame’ than ‘guilt.’ Those below the dashed line search for ‘guilt’ more than ‘shame.’ The plot statistically removes the variation among the nine languages used, allowing us to focus on comparing the 56 countries.” And just like that the “variation among the nine languages” is made to "statistically" disappear. In no less than four places in the book (though not here) Henrich speaks of “statistical razzle-dazzle.” Having translated three books from Italian to English, I would love to know what kind of “razzle-dazzle” he or other researchers apply to eliminate variations within a language or between languages. Acceptance of Unscientific Polls P. 209: “Using MFQ data collected online from 285,792 respondents from 206 countries …” Self-selecting respondents to a survey on the internet are representative of what? And how, pray tell, does that research adjust for age, sex, education, income or any other variable? Yet Henrich draws sweeping conclusions from the results: “This analysis confirms … Overall, these findings … converge with [other] surveys. From these results, a picture is emerging.” Confirmation bias? Remember, Henrich charges anyone dismissing the Ethnographic Atlas with “statistical illiteracy.” Consider this: In 1936 the Literary Digest predicted a landslide win for Alf Landon over FDR from a poll of 2 million people. On the other hand, George Gallup predicted an FDR win based on a scientific survey of 50,000. So tell me again, sir, what "data collected online from 285,792 respondents" tells us? Farmers vs. Hunter-Gatherers P. 104: “With the ‘right’ set of institutions, farmers could spread across the landscape like an epidemic, driving out or assimilating any hunter-gatherers in their path.” Really, “epidemic”? Talk about loaded language. The book is permeated with a wistful, nostalgic air whenever hunter-gatherers are discussed. Perhaps Henrich should live as one for a year. I know, he has lived amongst various tribes, but he clearly did so as a Westerner (he mentions driving his car to the village to shop; it’s a safe bet he did not earn his shopping money by selling berries he had gathered). I would love to hear his report after he has fashioned all his raiment, doctored all his wounds, slain and gathered all his food, and especially defended “his” fishing holes and berry patches against all comers. I wonder what his attitude toward the “epidemic” of farmers would be then. P. 102: “The Matsigenka and other similar populations, which can be found sprinkled around the globe, provide important insights into the nature of human societies and the role of institutions and history in shaping our sociality and psychology.” There are 7.8 billion people on this planet, of which WEIRD populations comprise about one billion, while there are about 7700 Matsigenka, or one Matsigenka per 130,000 WEIRD people. Other tribes Henrich so frequently cites are even smaller. There is something unsettling about a discipline where vast, sweeping generalizations are made from outliers and applied to huge populations. In another instance, Henrich takes exception to the “claim that humans are ‘ultrasocial,’ vastly more cooperative than other species. My response is always ‘Which humans?’” Henrich thinks he has refuted the generalization by citing outliers. Nonrepresentative Populations According to Wikipedia, the richest ZIP Code in the US is in Montchanin, Delaware, with a per capita income of $654,485 (68 people live there), while the poorest Census Designated Place is Little River, California, with median household income of $3,194 (82 people live there). The median income for all households in the US is just under $64,000. In other words, those two areas are extreme outliers. Should we study the lifestyles, attitudes, and mores of the richest and poorest locales? By all means. Can we use those tiny populations to explain the behavior of the vast majority of the 330 million people in this country? Doubtful. Envoi Here's a challenge. Before reading The WEIRDest People, first read Stuart Ritchie, Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth. Then see how many of those problems apply to Henrich's volume.

  5. 5 out of 5

    C F.

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I have posted a full two star review on Amazon.co.uk under Charles Freeman. I have worked as a historian of European thought and culture for many years and bought this book as a result of the reviews. It fails at every historical level and I am amazed that the Professor Henrich did not check with his historian colleagues before writing it. He argues that the Church controlled marriages so successfully and with such restrictions from 400 AD that people were 'forced', his words, to seek mates from o I have posted a full two star review on Amazon.co.uk under Charles Freeman. I have worked as a historian of European thought and culture for many years and bought this book as a result of the reviews. It fails at every historical level and I am amazed that the Professor Henrich did not check with his historian colleagues before writing it. He argues that the Church controlled marriages so successfully and with such restrictions from 400 AD that people were 'forced', his words, to seek mates from other tribes or ethnic groups. False- marriages were not controlled by the Church until the sixteenth century and there is no evidence that they took place outside kinship groups.The whole of Henrich's argument follows from this misconception and so the book as a whole fails completely. Kinship groups from medieval society are usually unrecorded so his argument that the marriage laws broke 'cousin marriages' up is impossible to prove. Luckily by the fifteenth century we have full records from Florence and they show (see a Comment I have added to my Amazon review) that kinship groups were essential for social survival and recorded in detail. Then Prof. Henrich introduces the idea that European society as a whole developed WEIRD characteristics- notably individualism. In fact,the economic structure of society (largely work on the land) meant that very few people had the energy to be individuals and it got worse with industrialisation and the tyranny of the factory floor and the mines. (See E.P.Thompson's classic The Making of the English Working Class'.) Individualism was only possible for the MINORITY who were able to live off the profits of others. I think other readers will question whether WEIRD people form an ethnic (dare I say it 'white' group). And if they are assumed as a result of WEIRD psychology to be superior to non-WEIRD groups, then what follows? I leave it to others to make their own opinions. It certainly needs open discussion although the mass of adulatory endorsements and reviews suggest that this book should be considered one of the great books of the century and may inhibit discussion. Time and thoughtful reading will tell. Treat this book with caution. Charles Freeman.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Chad

    In a little parable that David Foster Wallace tells in his famous commencement speech, two young fish ask each other, “What the hell is water?” I like books that make me ask what-the-hell-is-water type questions. Books that challenge me to jump out of the cultural waters in which I swim to examine this liquid that I normally think nothing about. The Weirdest People in the World by Joseph Henrich is such a book. “Weird” is a double-entendre. It is, on the one hand, an acronym for Western, Educated, In a little parable that David Foster Wallace tells in his famous commencement speech, two young fish ask each other, “What the hell is water?” I like books that make me ask what-the-hell-is-water type questions. Books that challenge me to jump out of the cultural waters in which I swim to examine this liquid that I normally think nothing about. The Weirdest People in the World by Joseph Henrich is such a book. “Weird” is a double-entendre. It is, on the one hand, an acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Countries that are W.E.I.R.D. include the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia. We are psychologically peculiar (as the subtitle says). On the other hand, weird also means just that: weird, odd, out of sync (in this case) with the vast majority of the world, not to mention virtually all of human history. How did we get this way? In a word: Christianity. So Henrich’s argument goes. This is a grossly simplistic summation of his argument, but here goes nothing. As the church’s influence grew, she gradually undermined the ancient kinship networks by insisting on a new way of doing family. For instance, no more marrying close relatives (even cousins), no more polygamy, no more divorce. One man, one woman, for life. That, Henrich demonstrates, is weird. The ripple effect of these family changes—culturally, economically, educationally, geographically, psychologically—is impossible to overestimate. The church’s teaching on marriage and family life, Henrich argues, led to the creation of societies which birthed our western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic cultures. Is he right? I am no historian, so I will leave that to the experts, who, no doubt, will have a few volumes to say about Henrich’s argument. If for no other reason, I challenge you to read the book to discover just how weird you are. For instance, the fact that most of us think that marrying cousins (or other close relatives) is gross or backwards or morally wrong runs contrary to basically every culture throughout human history. As it turns out, we are the weird ones. Everyone else is normal.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Cav

    This one was a mixed bag for me. Author Joseph Henrich is a Canadian professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, and Chair of the department, according to his Wikipedia page. I put this book on my list after Henrich's appearance on Michael Shermer's Science Salon podcast, which I enjoyed. Joseph Henrich : The WEIRDest People in the World is a very in-depth dive into social psychology that expands upon its subtitle. It is a very long book: the versions I have clocked in This one was a mixed bag for me. Author Joseph Henrich is a Canadian professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, and Chair of the department, according to his Wikipedia page. I put this book on my list after Henrich's appearance on Michael Shermer's Science Salon podcast, which I enjoyed. Joseph Henrich : The WEIRDest People in the World is a very in-depth dive into social psychology that expands upon its subtitle. It is a very long book: the versions I have clocked in at ~20 hours for the audio, and almost 700 pages for the PDF. I think the page count here could have been cut down quite a bit for the sake of both brevity and clarity. The subject of this book is an extremely interesting one, but it could have been delivered in a more readable fashion. The writing here is decent, but the material is dense, and the reading is dry and arduous more often than not. The book is a very data-driven read; featuring a plethora of graphs, maps, and charts placed throughout. Henrich employs both large data sets as well as cites many different case studies here. Maybe a little too much, IMHO, having the reader losing the forest for the trees at times... I also think that some people unfamiliar with social psychology and its related jargon might find themselves a bit lost here at times. Some of the topics covered in these pages include: *Martin Luther, literacy and the protestant reformation. *Short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Patience; the marshmallow test. *The role of organized religion in social trust and the establishment of societal norms and taboos. I also felt that The WEIRDest People in the World had too many lists, that tended to bog the reader down, leaving them lost in the woods at times... The book could have also used better formatting for the sake of clarity. I felt that its thesis was not clearly summarized and defined at the beginning, which detracted from the message it was trying to convey. The thesis should have been laid out more clearly up-front, and then expanded upon in the later chapters. While social psychology is a very interesting field to me, and I was excited to see where the author would take this topic, I found most of the writing here to be too dry and long-winded for my tastes. The book started off well enough, but then quickly dove into the weeds. The data laid out in these pages could have made for a great story, but that story is not told here... 2 stars.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    I liked the book, there were a ton of interesting ideas there. But I did have some qualms. Some sections had overly long descriptions of social science experiments. I think a lot of charts shown were not really super helpful. A lot of that kind of stuff could have been in an appendix or website for people who wanted extra details. But there were a lot of interesting conjectures on how societal changes can affect personality and psychology (and vice-versa) and a good lesson that human psychology I liked the book, there were a ton of interesting ideas there. But I did have some qualms. Some sections had overly long descriptions of social science experiments. I think a lot of charts shown were not really super helpful. A lot of that kind of stuff could have been in an appendix or website for people who wanted extra details. But there were a lot of interesting conjectures on how societal changes can affect personality and psychology (and vice-versa) and a good lesson that human psychology is not best studied by testing American college students. Also I appreciated a lot of the history lessons in the book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Santiago Ortiz

    Psychology seems to have two realms: humans and individuals. Psychology researchers study how humans think, feel, learn, behave, etc… and therapists focus on individuals. There’s the sense that culture is just the background in which "psychologies” express themselves. A big part of this missconception comes from the fact that most of the findings in psychology belong to a very idiosyncratic sample of humans: Western, Educated, and from Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries (the WEIRD pe Psychology seems to have two realms: humans and individuals. Psychology researchers study how humans think, feel, learn, behave, etc… and therapists focus on individuals. There’s the sense that culture is just the background in which "psychologies” express themselves. A big part of this missconception comes from the fact that most of the findings in psychology belong to a very idiosyncratic sample of humans: Western, Educated, and from Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries (the WEIRD people). And as this book clearly exposes, this sample is truly weird, it posses a very unique psychology, deeply engrained with the also unique culture. But culture is the container of psychology as psychology is the container of culture. But how to understand and characterize this particular psychology? The book does two things: -the comparative approach: it contrasts our culture and ways of thinking and behaving against other cultures. This helps detach the reader from the conception that she’s “normal” and the “others” are exotic variations. -the historic approach: as biologist D'Arcy Thompson famously said “Everything is what it is because it got that way”, by tracing the incremental steps that lead to where we are know, the author helps us understand how and why those unique characteristics of our psychology and culture came to be. The result is a book that harmonichally combine psychology, anthropology and history, a book that’s insightful, paradigm-changer and fun to read.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Yannick M

    Extremely important book. Probably will fundamentally change the way they look at the world for many.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Joe Farmartino

    I'm a sucker for broad historical books that attempt to explain why cultures differ, especially with regard to the Great Divergence, where Western Europe separated from the rest of the world around 1500 AD and came to dominate/colonize the rest of the world. Joe Henrich's book "The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous" offers up the best argument I have encountered so far and is one the most fascinating books I have ever read. Put I'm a sucker for broad historical books that attempt to explain why cultures differ, especially with regard to the Great Divergence, where Western Europe separated from the rest of the world around 1500 AD and came to dominate/colonize the rest of the world. Joe Henrich's book "The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous" offers up the best argument I have encountered so far and is one the most fascinating books I have ever read. Put simply, Henrich's thesis is that the set of beliefs regarding marriage and the family within the medieval Catholic Church led to the demolition of Europe's kin-based network of clans that had previously ruled Europe. This shift began to alter European psychology in ways that promoted the growth of new institutions and voluntary associations like guilds, universities, monasteries, and cities with impersonal markets. These new institutions in turn created a feedback loop, further altering European psychology to make it increasing WEIRD (Western/Educated/Industrialized/Rich/Democratic) and paving the way for novel developments in government, religion, law, and economics that would propel Europe towards unrivaled prosperity. The key principle Henrich builds his argument on is that human beings vary psychologically based on their environment. The human brain has wide plasticity that allows us to learn norms that are based on our environmental context and surrounding culture. These norms then compete against one another via intergroup competition where the most advantageous norms for group cohesion win out as less cohesive groups are wiped out or absorbed into the more successful one. These cultural norms in turn co-evolve along with our genes that can alter our psychology and even biology in profound ways. Henrich's previous book "The Secret of Success" explains this in depth by citing examples such as how cultures harnessing fire to cook led to the human jaw and digestive track gradually evolving to be smaller since cooked meals were easier to digest. Culture drove biological evolution. Henrich's work is full of studies and data, much of which he has collected himself, which documents how WEIRD psychology differs from much of the world. WEIRD psychology is characterized by individualism, self-focus, analytical thinking, guilt rather than shame based motivations, less conformity, impersonal morality, patience, and less zero sum thinking. In contract, people from kin based societies are far less individualistic, put conformity to their clan above general rules, fear outsiders, and are more motivated by shame imposed by their community rather than individualized feelings of guilt. These differing psychological profiles show up all over today and can even be linked to different rates of parking violations by UN representatives who come from kin based societies. Henrich marshals a massive amount of data to show that extent of kin based institutions within a society shapes psychology drastically. The rates of cousin marriage (the best proxy for measuring kinship in a society) in a country allows Henrich to predict how accepting of representative democracy or economically productive a society is today. Henrich goes through extensive historical examples to show how the medieval Church’s marriage and family policy led to the rise of WEIRD psychology. This new psychology fueled the rise of voluntary associations, impersonal markets, urbanization, representative democracy, individual legal rights, and economic growth. The more exposure a society had to the Marriage and Family Policy (MFP) of the Church the less kinship based institutions survived and the WEIRDer it became psychologically. Perhaps surprisingly for a secular thinker like Henrich, he concludes that far from being a “Dark Age”, the medieval era set the stage for the rise of the modern world. On the Enlightenment, Henrich downplays the Pinkerian notion of the triumph of reason over religious superstition. Instead, Enlightenment thinkers built on work done by “their intellectual forebearers in the Church.” Henrich writes, “The bottom line is that Enlightenment thinkers didn’t suddenly crack the combination of Pandora’s box and take out the snuff box of reason and the rum bottle of rationality from which the modern world was then conceived. Instead, they were part of a long, cumulative cultural evolutionary process that had been shaping how European populations perceived, thought, reasoned, and related to each other stretching back into Late Antiquity. They were just the intellectuals and writers on the scene when WEIRDer ways of thinking finally trickled up to some of the last holdouts in Europe, the nobility” (429). Henrich refers to this WEIRDer way of thinking (individualism/analytic thinking/impersonal prosociality) as “psychological dark matter” that had long slowly manifested across Europe in the institutions that would shape the modern world. Overall, Henrich’s argument is very convincing and has impressive explanatory power. Books like “Why Nations Fail” point to the role of inclusive institutions in the success of the West, but they struggle to explain why these distinct institutions arose in the first place. Henrich has no such problem. He has chapters devoted to developments in law, science, markets, and innovation that trace how Europeans new ways of thinking and their unique institutions drove political and economic development. These chapters contain speculation and anything as complex as historical causation is never going to be a slam-dunk. However, the sheer weight of his argument gradually accumulates and becomes quite persuasive. However, I did find Henrich’s repeated emphasis that the Church “stumbled upon”(471) it’s marriage and family policy as some kind of “accidental genius of Western Christianity” to be somewhat odd. Henrich concedes that the church came up with the MFP “for a complex set of historical reasons” (179) and affirms that he is more interested with the downstream impacts of the MFP on European psychology and history. At times, he seems to suggest that the Church’s motives were merely a cynical scam to monopolize inheritances and Henrich mostly ignores Christian theology throughout the book. In the footnotes, Henrich mentions, “The motivations of Church leaders aren’t paramount. Church leaders, just like the leaders of the Isis cult or Nestorian Christianity, may have developed their beliefs, prohibitions, and prescriptions based on deep religious convictions; or, some may have been playing political games for their own enrichment. It doesn’t matter” (539). As a believer in human depravity, I’d say it’s always some combination of the two, but I’m surprised that Henrich does not have more interest in the actual ideological motivations behind Church policies. After all, he spent 600 pages explaining how these policies led to the rise of the modern! For some, like Tufts Professor, Daniel Dennett, who reviewed the book in the New York Times the motivations certainly matter. As an arch atheist and anti-Christian polemicist, Dennett affirms, “The genius was accidental, according to Henrich, because the church authorities who laid down the laws had little or no insight into what they were setting in motion, aside from noticing that by weakening the traditional bonds of kinship, the church got rich fast.” I am not sure if Henrich would agree with Dennett’s synopsis. Henrich’s work is more nuanced and does not argue that every Church leader was a mercenary. Still, Henrich is very uncomfortable when it comes to religious motivations. Henrich has an entire chapter on WEIRD monogamy that clearly shows the Church’s deep religious convictions fueled major components of the Church’s marriage and family policy. Henrich describes how the Church worked to end sexual slavery, polygamy, and instill an equal expectation of fidelity for both men and women. This combination subsequently led to lower testosterone levels in Christian Europe, as “the Church, through the institution of monogamous marriage, reached down and grabbed men by the testicles” (273). As a result, this “peculiar version of monogamous marriage, unintentionally created an environment that gradually domesticated men, making many of us less competitive, impulsive, and risk-prone while at the same favoring positive-sum perceptions of the world and greater willingness to team up with strangers. Ceteris paribus, this should result in more harmonious organizations, less crime, and fewer social disruptions” (281). The word “unintentionally” is doing a whole lot of work here. Monogamous commitment and social equality among men and women in marriage were fundamental components of the early Church’s message and come directly out of Christian scripture. The classical historian Tom Holland writes in his book “Dominion” regarding Christian marriage that “the insistence of scripture that a man and a woman, whenever they took to the marital bed, were joined as Christ and his Church were joined, becoming one flesh, gave to both a rare dignity…Here, by the standards of the age into which Christianity had been born, was an obligation that demanded an almost heroic degree of self-denial” (282). Henrich agrees that this new conception of monogamous marriage was “neither ‘natural’ nor ‘normal’ for human societies – and runs directly counter to the strong inclinations of high-status or elite men-it nevertheless can give religious groups and societies and advantage in intergroup competition” (281). Henrich expounds on the impact of this change, “Church monogamy also meant that men and women of similar ages usually married adults, by mutual consent, and potentially without the blessing of their parents. Of course, the greater parity of modern gender roles was a long way off in the Early Middle Ages but monogamous marriage had started to close the gap” (282). Tom Holland also points to this seismic shift. “The Church, in its determination to place married couples, and not ambitious patriarchs, at the heart of a properly Christian society had tamed the instinct of grasping dynasts to pair off cousins with cousins. Only relationships sanction by canons were classified as legitimate. No families were permitted to be joined in marriage except for those licensed by the Church: ‘in-laws’. The hold of clans, as a result, had begun to slip. Ties between kin had progressively weakened. Households had shrunk. The fabric of Christendom had come to possess a thoroughly distinctive weave” (285). While Holland recognizes the religious convictions that drove this revolutionary process, Henrich either sees random chance or punts on the question of motivation altogether. Henrich filters everything through his approach to cultural evolution and intergroup competition. Countless religions all compete against one another and revolve around myths. The Christian myth happened to work best in competition with other groups in the religious cauldron that was the Mediterranean world of antiquity. After winning out, Christian Church policies slowly transformed European psychology, fueling its unrivaled prosperity. Henrich describes how Christian influences are so profound that “even nonreligious Americans (like me) seem a bit ‘Protestant’” (421). In the cosmic sense for a materialist like Henrich, everything is accidental and organizations “stumble upon” their beliefs since cultural evolution runs everything in the background, favoring scenarios where “people’s explicit theories about their own institutions are generally post hoc and often wrong” (86). While I think Henrich has a point about how banning cousin marriage to an extreme degree in the medieval church had profound consequences, some of which were surely unanticipated (i.e., medieval popes weren’t actively plotting how to fuel the Industrial Age), I think he fails to recognize how much the Church’s policy on things like divorce, equality between the sexes, and monogamy are at the heart of Christian religious conviction. Implementing them in Europe was not accidental. Taming men’s exploitive sexual appetites was not an unintended consequence, but the goal from the start. Great harmony, self-regulation and a unifying Christian identity line up with the gifts of the Spirit. Maybe the Church was on to something. For Henrich, I think the failure to consider these ideas is a blind spot in his secular perspective. Perhaps establishing the motivations behind the Church’s marriage and family policy does not matter for his argument, but I suspect that he does care. How can you not be curious about the motivations of men and women who remade the world and ultimately paved the path to modern civilization? The motivations certainly matter to someone like Daniel Dennett, with his cynical takeaway and convenient dismissal of the West’s Christian heritage as nothing more than an accidental result of policies masterminded by greedy priests. If anything, by properly rooting the Church’s hugely influential Marriage and Family Policy in history, readers will better understand history. I suspect that Henrich is probably uncomfortable with the idea that Christian theology is the basis of modern WEIRD culture. His research has pointed him to the unique and decisive role of the Church, and his analysis fits nicely with many other historians who have pointed to the role of Christianity in the rise of the West. However, as a secular thinker, Henrich is far more comfortable in the world of intergroup competition than in the minds of medieval churchmen, and I think his analysis about the motivations behind the Church’s Marriage and Family Policy suffers as a result.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Peter McCluskey

    Wow! Henrich previously wrote one of the best books of the last decade. Normally, I expect such an author's future books to, at best, exhibit regression toward the mean. But Henrich's grand overview of humanity's first few million years was merely a modest portion of the ideas that he originally tried to fit into this magnum opus. Henrich couldn't quite explain in one volume how humanity got all the way to industrial empires, so he split the explanation into two books. The cartoon version of the i Wow! Henrich previously wrote one of the best books of the last decade. Normally, I expect such an author's future books to, at best, exhibit regression toward the mean. But Henrich's grand overview of humanity's first few million years was merely a modest portion of the ideas that he originally tried to fit into this magnum opus. Henrich couldn't quite explain in one volume how humanity got all the way to industrial empires, so he split the explanation into two books. The cartoon version of the industrial revolution: Protestant culture made the West more autistic. However, explaining the most important event in history makes up only about 25% of this book's focus and value. Henrich doesn't want us to think of it as the most important event - because he views it not as a single event, but as a stage in a long process. Most books on the industrial revolution concentrate on some subset of the 1500-1800 time frame. WEIRDest People devotes a majority of its attention to the prior millennium. When I last reviewed a book on the industrial revolution, I was pessimistic about ever getting enough evidence to distinguish between too many plausible hypotheses. Henrich found a solution: most of the proposed explanations describe features that contributed to the industrial revolution; they follow naturally from the way that WEIRD culture (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) altered our psychology. Important aspects of this new culture / psychology include: analytic thinking, nonconformity, impersonal prosociality (trusting strangers, treating them fairly), and internal attributions (e.g. the idea that a good afterlife depends on internal mental states, rather than rituals). Along the way, Henrich provides at least partial answers to a surprising number of questions that I carelessly neglected to ask, such as: * how do rules about cousin marriage affect conformity (as measured by the Asch Conformity Test)? * how strong is the correlation between how individualistic a society is and its rate of innovation? * why does Latin have 25 words for prostitute? * how did the peculiarities of rice cultivation affect the ability of southeastern China to develop science? * how do social safety nets influence a society's rate of innovation? Much of Henrich's focus is on this key question: how do increasingly large groups of people cooperate enough to form increasingly large societies? The Dunbar Number and its cousins There's a phenomenon that is somewhat well known among financial traders of a limit of about 20 stocks, beyond which traders can't remain sufficiently aware of the details to be a competent market maker. Henrich describes what is likely another manifestation of the same phenomenon in "truly individualistic" human cultures, such as the Matsigenka, where hamlets rarely get as large as 25 people before nuclear families decide they prefer to set off on their own. I've also noticed a seemingly similar phenomenon in business, particularly in a dot-com where I worked that rapidly grew from 4 to 75 people. At some point between the 20 person size and 40 person size, it switched from feeling like users were part of the company's community, to a feeling that users were distant people who were dealt with via specialists such as customer service. Also, internal politics went from not being detectable, to being important. Sadly, Henrich doesn't mention a name for this 20-25 entity limit. Nor does he name the Dunbar Number, despite providing important insights into how cultures manage to create social groups that are bigger than the Dunbar Number. Dunbar-sized tribes often end up with rituals that artificially create interdependence and kin-like bonds that help hold the tribe together. Switching from a system of bilineal descent to unilineal descent prevents some kinds of conflicts between extended families. Some other norms that promote harmony in large villages include: arranged marriages, making entire clans responsible for harm caused by any clan member, and well-defined hierarchies. The Evolution of Religion There's at least one more size limit, well above the Dunbar Number, where rituals that expand kinship become inadequate for further expansion. To overcome that, societies needed Big Gods who can command subjects to cooperate with distant co-religionists. Belief in heaven and hell correlates with (and likely causes) a large increase in economic growth. Alas, belief in heaven alone doesn't seem to be very valuable. A similar pattern is seen for belief in supernatural punishment in societies before European contact. The estimated probability of a historical transition to a complex chiefdom when no such punishment existed was - surprisingly - close to zero. By contrast, when ancestral communities already had beliefs in supernatural punishments for important moral violations, there was a roughly 40% chance of scaling up in complexity every three centuries or so. Those religions succeeded better if they destroyed the kinship institutions that had previously been needed for scaling up past the Dunbar Number. Why? Kin-based clans interfered with loyalty to larger, more abstract groups such as Christianity or nations. Here's a quote from a politician in contemporary Pakistan that illustrates how kin-based group identity conflicts with newer, larger social groups: "I have been a Pashtun for six thousand years, a Muslim for thirteen hundred years, and a Pakistani for twenty-five." How? By changing many rules involving marriage and family relations. That included banning the marriages between cousins (a ban which sometimes extended to sixth cousins), and requiring monogamy. Don't assume you can design your own religion: the powerful Mughal emperor Akbar the Great tried to unify his Muslim and Hindu subjects by making his own highly tolerant religious creed ... At its peak, the powerful emperor's religion accumulated a total of only 18 prominent adherents before vanishing into history. My point is that throughout human history, rulers needed religion much more than religion needed rulers. I sometimes got the feeling that the Western Christian church's success at stamping out kin-based institutions had to be mostly due to careful planning and foresight, but Henrich implies that's mostly hindsight bias, and calls the process "accidental genius". Henrich has good arguments that cultural evolution includes an important amount of semi-blind trial and error, but I suspect he goes a bit overboard with this line of thought. E.g. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 clearly describes levirate marriage as an obligation. How does unplanned exploration of cultural variation get from there to declaring levirate marriage a sin, while still treating the bible as the word of God? Fukuyama has a better model for that than Henrich: in The Origins of Political Order, he implies that the church had a fairly deliberate strategy of destroying the kinship ties that were hindering the church's goal of inheriting property. Note that it's fairly WEIRD of me to care about whether the church's strategies were intentional. Flynn Effect The power of Henrich's model can be illustrated by asking how it explains the big 20th century increase in IQ. Henrich doesn't discuss this topic directly, but if I'd read WEIRDest People before learning of the Flynn Effect, I expect I would have found the Flynn Effect unsurprising. It seems like a natural consequence of thinking styles that became more analytical, abstract, reductionist, and numerical. Moreover, Henrich's model provides clues as to why low-IQ cultures are reluctant to adopt the changes that raise their IQs. It's not that they're lazy or held back by harmful mutations (Henrich doesn't dismiss the existence of those problems; instead, he convinced me that WEIRD culture shifts are more powerful explanations). An important insight is that people take cues from their environment early in life, and use those cues to invest in cognitive features that are expected to yield the most benefit. WEIRD culture gets people to invest more in high-IQ cognitive features, at the cost of less investment in skills that foster social ties (e.g. learning to read at early age seems to impair facial recognition). "WEIRD people are bad friends" - beliefs such as impartial rules, and moral universalism have important social consequences. E.g. WEIRD people are less willing to lie in court to keep their friends out of jail. It looks hard to separate that effect from the cognitive styles that promote high IQ. There are also trade-offs between analytical thinking and holistic thinking. IQ tests tend to favor the analytical approach that Western societies reward, while kin-based societies reward holistic thinking more (see Ecocultural basis of cognition: Farmers and fishermen are more holistic than herders). Comparison with Related Explanations Many other books on the industrial revolution now sound like the proverbial blind men and an elephant. * In The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama sees about 20% of what Henrich sees, and is the only person I'm aware of that traces the origins of key features further back than does Henrich. Fukuyama also explains better why the industrial revolution happened in Europe rather than China. This now looks like clearly the second most important book on the industrial revolution. * State, Economy, and the Great Divergence, by Peer Vries identifies a modest fraction of the cultural differences that Henrich discusses. Vries seems to disagree with Henrich about the mobility of the average British worker, but otherwise supports Henrich more than I recalled. Vries' expertise as a historian lends credence to Henrich. I wish I had time to carefully recheck the extent to which Vries' evidence supports Henrich, but Vries is hard to read. * Nick Szabo's Book Consciousness explanation captures a medium-sized portion of Henrich's vision, and the two complement each other fairly well. * The Institutional Revolution: Measurement and the Economic Emergence of the Modern World, by Douglas Allen examines cultural changes around the time of the industrial revolution. Allen agrees with Henrich that cultural adaptations to new conditions drove economic advances. Their ideas are fairly compatible, yet there's surprisingly little overlap between the two books. * The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, by Kenneth Pomeranz raised the bar by pointing out that leading discussions of the industrial revolution failed to explain why Europe did better than China, but Pomeranz went overboard in claiming those two regions were similar. Pomeranz tried to argue against cultural explanations in general, but seemed confused as to how culture could explain more than differences in luxury goods. Were older cultural explanations (such as Max Weber's?) really that weak? * Where Is My Flying Car? by J. Storrs Hall almost sounds like a sequel to Henrich's books, explaining how Western culture is decaying due to problems such as Christianity being replaced by religions that are less well adapted to modernity. Henrich has increased my confidence that Where is my Flying Car? is more than half-right about the causes of the Great Stagnation. How Credible? I'll guess that the book is about 80% correct. Henrich exaggerates and oversimplifies a modest amount, but he seems to be a pretty careful researcher, actively trying to find empirical tests of alternate causal models. He often cites evidence that isn't especially compelling, but he's careful not to depend much on any one piece of evidence. E.g. he apologizes for only being able to cite one study each for the claims that the BIG-5 personality dimensions and endowment effect are not universal. The book is somewhat limited by only having a sample size of one for some of his broadest claims, but Henrich manages to find a larger sample size for many interesting sub-points. E.g. I had assumed that China's one-child policy was tricky to evaluate because it was only imposed once. Yet Henrich points us to Sex ratios and crime: Evidence from China, showing that we can get sort-of-causal evidence from comparing provinces that implemented the policy in different years. Yes, it sure looks like the policy caused crime to increase (the policy may have also had desirable effects via weakening kinship ties - Henrich doesn't express any overall opinion on the policy). Henrich has a remarkable range of expertise (anthropology, evolutionary biology, engineering, psychology, and economics); these maybe make him better than a historian for the purpose of this book. Historians are apparently upset at being bypassed, and at the inadequate nuance of a shorter version of WEIRDest People, but their disagreements don't sound particularly important to me. Conclusion This book is essential reading for any serious scholar of human nature. Not only does it demystify some of the most important processes of human history, but it also provides an unusually balanced view of how Western culture compares to other cultures. Henrich discredits both "all cultures are equal" worldviews, and most of the common claims of Western superiority. Western culture is genuinely superior in key respects, but that superiority comes with possibly large downsides. Henrich is a master at organizing large amounts of evidence into an understandable package. Please don't treat this review as an adequate substitute for reading the book. I can't describe enough of Henrich's model to sound half as convincing as Henrich's full description is. I only hope to whet your appetite enough to convince you to read the book. P.S. I was maybe a bit misleading when I used the word autistic to describe the psychological changes that Henrich attributes to Christianity / Protestantism. I can't confirm that he's even familiar with autism. I find it to be a convenient label to approximate his more nuanced, but hard to summarize, description of Western psychology.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Nilesh

    In the times we live in, it is not easy to unabashedly glorify a race as highly successful and sing songs of its unique facets as reasons behind that success. This is particularly difficult when the unique list consists of cultural norms and practices that might be widely unacceptable in other civilizations, implicitly demeaning others' practices. The provocative book on the WEIRD does this and far worse. The author spends almost no effort on sugarcoating by highlighting any of the WEIRD culture In the times we live in, it is not easy to unabashedly glorify a race as highly successful and sing songs of its unique facets as reasons behind that success. This is particularly difficult when the unique list consists of cultural norms and practices that might be widely unacceptable in other civilizations, implicitly demeaning others' practices. The provocative book on the WEIRD does this and far worse. The author spends almost no effort on sugarcoating by highlighting any of the WEIRD cultures' adverse outcomes. He agrees in passing that there have been a few substantial ones, but the book sticks to its purpose of explaining why a particular group of people could embark on a substantial innovation quest while others could not. The claims that different races are psychologically wired differently and the causes lie in their cultural history are sensational, if not outright sacrilegious. The author explicitly links these claims to these races' economic and lifestyle divergences, which is even more scandalous. The book might not sit easily with a lot of people, but it is a compelling read with myriads of powerful and highly original arguments. If the text smacks of triumphalism of some kind, which could be abused by bigots with relevant agendas, it is a small side effect as those with perverse purposes do not necessarily need such books. The main point about the co-evolution of psychology and culture is staggering. It might not be as theoretically solid as the author thinks, but it is worth exploring and knowing. That certain first Catholic, and subsequently Protestant, habits bred individuals that were less connected to and who less identified with their kins, which became the seed that eventually bloomed to market-oriented, selfish homo economicus is not an easy construct. The book makes the case solidly. With many case studies, historical anecdotes, and behavioral experiments, the author has something new to offer in virtually every section of the book. Even those who vehemently disagree with the conclusions could walk away with a lot of new knowledge and information, given the breadth of the academic landscape traversed by the author. From simple things like how people from different races respond to a simple question like who are you to the parking tickets of different countries' delegates at the UN, the distinction between guilt and shame to the way different cultures interact with strangers, how literate people's brains behave in recognizing faces to polygamy's impact on hormones...the book fluently moves from one new set of information to the next with staggering clarity and alacrity. As more work is done and more books are written on the idea threads that originated in this book, a lot of criticism will be heaped on every logical leap made in the book. The bigger issue is what it means for future: WEIRD tendencies were great for a particular stage in human evolution - like in the last five- or so hundred years, but they would not have worked well in a hunter-gatherer community, for instance. Or, not when one is fighting a pandemic! There is a massive transformation in many other societies in the post-tech world because of the changed lifestyles and information availability. From the author's well-argued different psychological starting points, one can argue, different societies are psychologically transforming differently and will likely have completely different economic evolutions going forward. In other words, it is quite possible that WEIRD may not remain economically ahead forever. In summary, this is one of the rare works which will spawn a new field. The author's style and writing skills supplement staggering conclusions and mountains of new information/arguments. Worth reading multiple times.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Alex Zakharov

    “The WEIRDest People in the World” will undoubtedly and deservedly become a classic in sociology, despite the fact that Henrichs’ thesis per se is not particularly new. After all, the importance of impersonal institutions for state development has been widely acknowledged (e.g. Henry Maine’s famous “from status to contract” concept), the underappreciated effect of Catholicism on European societies has been repeatedly pointed out by Francis Fukuyama, and the role of competition and experimentatio “The WEIRDest People in the World” will undoubtedly and deservedly become a classic in sociology, despite the fact that Henrichs’ thesis per se is not particularly new. After all, the importance of impersonal institutions for state development has been widely acknowledged (e.g. Henry Maine’s famous “from status to contract” concept), the underappreciated effect of Catholicism on European societies has been repeatedly pointed out by Francis Fukuyama, and the role of competition and experimentation in driving ideas and innovation has been explored by Joel Mokyr and Deirdre McCloskey. Henrich’s chief contribution is to integrate various lines of thinking into a unified framework, explicitly specify the direction of causality, and quantify causes and effects. Specifically, he claims that Western Christianity’s policies towards marriage and family were directly responsible for the breakdown of kinship based institutions. Furthermore, the breakdown of these kinship based institutions led to a particular and historically-unique psychological profile, a profile geared towards individuality, impersonal pro-sociality, and analytic thinking. In Europe, this profile animated the emergence of guilds, free cities, and universities which in turn accelerated the rate of innovation, culminating in Industrial Revolution. And that, in turn, spawned a number of what he calls WEIRD societies (Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic). Henrich has been criticized for being cavalier with the data, and frankly the criticism is deserved. The precision of claims such as “a century of exposure to Western Christian Church cuts cousin marriage rate by 60%” are difficult to take too seriously, and many of the data-driven charts in the book seem more ambiguous then Henrich’s interpretation of them. That said, Henrich does present multiple sources of diverse types of data including marriage patterns, growth of voluntary associations, psychological variation, testosterone levels, church exposure, and literacy, and all findings are pointing in the same direction. Henrich also presents a slew of other evidence supporting his thesis. For example, a long dated list of family planning polices enacted and enforced by Western Christian Church over 800 year period is quite effective. Overall, he builds a very convincing case, and while we can scoff at some specifics, the directionality of his claims is on the money. My only substantive criticism is not related to Henrich’s central thesis, but to his foray into genomics. Near the end of the book, Henrich asks whether observed psychological variation is a result of nature or nurture. To answer, he constructs an arcane argument suggesting that WEIRD psychological traits must be primarily shaped by culture, and that genes, if anything, would have pulled in the opposite direction. That is utter nonsense. We don’t need to construct a theory of whether culture dominates psychological variation or genes do, we can measure it directly. And in fact, the source of psychological variation in humans (the bread and better of behavioral genetics) is not in dispute – heritability of most psychological traits is at least 50%. As such, any social science theory that predicts that genes have no role to play in psychology can be immediately falsified. Still, the book is a must read, get to it.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Caroline

    This is a sort of broad and ambitious book. The author is an anthropologist and one of the people who coined the term WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) to describe the populations most psychological studies are done on. The book covers: - a review of the literature on cross-cultural psychological differences - a review of the anthropological research on how cultural norms evolve and how they interact with people's psychology - the author's theory of how WEIRD societies end This is a sort of broad and ambitious book. The author is an anthropologist and one of the people who coined the term WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) to describe the populations most psychological studies are done on. The book covers: - a review of the literature on cross-cultural psychological differences - a review of the anthropological research on how cultural norms evolve and how they interact with people's psychology - the author's theory of how WEIRD societies ended up being so unusual and successful, tracing back to the marriage- and family-related policies of the Catholic Church in the medieval era. I found it super interesting and compelling. My favorite things: For one, I'd heard the term WEIRD, and I knew about some studies showing cross-cultural psychological variation. But actually system-1 understanding that not everyone thinks like me seems really hard, and really important. Tbh I already have enough trouble with the fact that other people in my very specific subcultures sometimes think in different ways from me. But did you know non-WEIRD people: - don't experience the endowment effect - give very little to the other person in the ultimatum game (and are totally fine with being given very little) - don't show much correlation between happiness and self-esteem - have less differentiated personalities? (ie the Big 5 doesn't apply, there are < 5 factors) For another, his picture of history through the lens of cultural evolution made a lot of things click: it felt like trad done right. What drew me to trad thinking was that it seemed to get a lot of things right that most people around me would frustratingly miss; I'd hear lots of people criticizing organized religion, or monogamy, or something, without ever seeming to reflect on how long it had existed, or how successful and prevalent it was throughout different human societies, and wonder why. This book asks why, and comes up with answers: organized religion and monogamy were both hugely important to the success of earlier human societies, and those that had them outcompeted those that didn't. But it also doesn't stop there: modern WEIRD culture, which promotes lots of things like "individualism" and "innovation" and "questioning tradition" is the most successful culture in history. I ended up with a feeling of smug superiority to parochial traditionalists; as an unmarried, childless woman residing halfway across the world from my family, with an individualist psychology, a high level of market integration, and strongly universalist, utilitarian beliefs, I'm actually at the apex of Western civilization: the true successor to a thousand years of Western tradition from Charlemagne through the Enlightenment to today.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    There are a vast number of books devoted to answering the question "Why did European countries happen to dominate the world between 1500 and 1900?" This book is another entry in that pile and to my mind makes an interesting and unique contribution. In his 2015 book, "The Secret of Our Success", Henrich argued that the key quality that makes humans different from other animals is our biological ability and inclination to IMITATE each other. This CULTURAL evolution allows us to change much more rapi There are a vast number of books devoted to answering the question "Why did European countries happen to dominate the world between 1500 and 1900?" This book is another entry in that pile and to my mind makes an interesting and unique contribution. In his 2015 book, "The Secret of Our Success", Henrich argued that the key quality that makes humans different from other animals is our biological ability and inclination to IMITATE each other. This CULTURAL evolution allows us to change much more rapidly (within a few HUNDRED years) than we would with GENETIC evolution which takes THOUSANDS of years. In this book Henrich highlights several milestones in human cultural evolution : (1) The development of sophisticated kinship practices which regulate things like who can marry who and how people are supposed to treat each other (2) The emergence of sophisticated rituals, such as initiation ceremonies, ancestor ceremonies, harvest ceremonies, funerals (3) The emergence of the idea of Gods (4) How the Catholic Church's ban on cousin marriage may have created the modern world (5) How protestants invented the notion of the individual For each of these he gives very plausible ideas on how they might have developed and sketches what impact they had on society. He draws on historical evidence and some very interesting psychological experiments on contemporary populations. CONCLUSION: (1) I really like how Henrich manages to talk about culture without sounding at all racist or Eurocentric which is no small feat in a field in which many other books essentially state "Western countries thrived because Western culture is just so obviously superior to all other cultures!" (2) I think this is a convincing explanation for why "spreading democracy" and in general trying to impose Western Style institutions probably won't work, at least not quickly. If the psychology of the population is too different from WEIRD psychology, these norms and institutions simply won't work very well. QUESTIONS (1) Where do we think cultural evolution will take us in the future. Between the influence of smartphones, changing gender norms and online commerce, what new psychologies will dominate in the coming centuries? (2) He only discussed Catholics and Protestants, I would have been interested in an examination how the cultural innovations of Ashkenazi Jews (who also lived in Europe) as well Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists and how this impacted their societies. Maybe someone is working on that right now!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Henri Tournyol du Clos

    This is an important thesis, but you should read the papers on which it is built and ignore this bloated monstruosity. Henrich cannot write, that should be obvious to everyone by now.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jose

    This books belongs to the glut of books that have appeared in the last decade or so and that ask the big historical "everything" questions. Maybe the avalanche started with Jared Diamond's "Germs, Guns and Steel" which attributed the rise of the West to physical conditions like climate, geography and such. Yuval Noah Hariri's "Sapiens" followed suit with his popular theories in which collaboration seems to be the key to happy civilizations and where he lets his imagination run a bit too often. I This books belongs to the glut of books that have appeared in the last decade or so and that ask the big historical "everything" questions. Maybe the avalanche started with Jared Diamond's "Germs, Guns and Steel" which attributed the rise of the West to physical conditions like climate, geography and such. Yuval Noah Hariri's "Sapiens" followed suit with his popular theories in which collaboration seems to be the key to happy civilizations and where he lets his imagination run a bit too often. I would add Steven Pinkert's "Enlightment Now" which takes an approach based on language and cognition, an approach I find most appealing in that it is more based on human innate capacities, sometimes despite external factors. If stretched, one could throw in Jordan Petersons's (another Canadian) theories about the risk involved in tossing away the founding myths. mostly religious, that gave us the world we live in today, a theory that has appealed to the most atavists among us for all the wrong reasons. Most of these authors try to explain the exponential growth and expansion of power in the Western nations in a very short period of time comparatively speaking. Henrich notices how most experts tend to forget the cultural element, the fact that people learn things and accumulate knowledge not only from their environment but from each other. Not just knowledge (which plants to eat, how to hunt) but cultural norms about marriage, time, patience, obedience, war, exchange of goods, etc.. If we had innate tools to survive, we could be dropped in the middle of the jungle and, just like animals, find our means for food and shelter. But we don't. We would die within a week or two if he hadn't been taught. So our innate wisdom only takes us that far. The book has some fascinating food for thought. It starts with the premise that most anthropological, sociological studies have used westerners as samples, particularly american students. These studies have reached universalizing conclusions that are myopic. WEIRD is the acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. Precisely what those American students and the inhabitants of Western societies are and precisely what makes them not the norm but the exception. A group whose psychological and social experience diverges greatly from that of most populations during most of history and even today. The author takes pains to explain successful societies and cultures are the product of many factors but what we call Western culture was facilitated by some very specific *cultural* developments that fell on a psychological broth prepared to receive them. If I had to sum his thesis : For centuries, societies built up civilizations based on kinship, where people's identity was tied up with that of the tribe and the relationships they formed within their group. This is still the case in most of the world with people defining themselves according to their relationships, their clan or tribe and westerners defining themselves more in terms of their accomplishments, not their relations. As some groups became more successful than others or clans merged, they formed larger groups but not necessarily smarter or more democratic ones. As groups enlarged, the need to survey the built-in norms gave rise to religions and other institutions layered on top of the tight kinship ties. Religions became a way to enforce the customs, with gods and goddesses that were simply embodiments of the hierarchy, gods you could hide from or negotiate with. Kings and pharaohs and emperors claimed divine origins to justify their ascendancy and shamans or priests performed the rituals deemed necessary to appease the deities, etc... But religions rarely modified the underlying psychology and culture, just expanded on it. This explains why in China, for example, parricide was punished much more harshly than infanticide. Because the respect to the elders is much more important in Confucianism. Or why many cultures do not consider "intention" when a crime is committed. Or why shame can be brought to your family because one member has committed a transgression even if the family at large had nothing to do with the offense. Polygyny or marriage among close relatives remained frequent. The aggressive defense of privileges in the aristocracy or the military was based on the premise that ones' status was tied to the organization, not one's merits which were assumed. Heinrich uses several tests o measure the level of kinship in different populations, from the most primitive to more integrated ones. Turns out kinship is strongly correlated to marriage among cousins and how people self-define, as well as relations with other clans. As apes, we are aggressive towards other clans by default. All these notions are abhorrent to the Western concept of individuality and impersonal pro-socialization. Societies with a strong kinship cohesion abhor change and quash anything that questions the order. So what did alter the Western mind so that it became fertile towards innovation, free markets, science, individualism and trust with strangers? Henrich places the merit on great part to Christianity which would come a shock to many. It wasn't an instant transformation and it was not without massive terrifying events like slavery, conquest, colonialism and such but, it also came loaded with the tools to auto-correct itself. According to Henrich, Christianity destroyed the kinship ties that bonded tribes together and forced a much more fluid society. The avalanche of norms regarding marriages among relatives, the banishing of polygyny and adultery, the legitimacy of children and the marriage among people of the same religion, not tribe, even priests celibacy, disrupted centuries of tribal custom. The Christian god becomes an impressive invention, it can't be fooled, it is universal , it sees everything and allows for shame (group) to become guilt (personal). While I was reading the book, I could think of many examples where the Church was a force of conservatism and backward thinking and yet, the author was skillful in pointing to a larger picture. It uses a Kinship measurement index based on sampling certain traits and measures it against the physical presence of the Church in geographical areas and the Marriage Family Program MFP instituted there. It also samples how it corresponds to the willingness of people to donate blood or pay their parking tickets according to their upbringing for example. Or the willingness to protect a relative from justice even in the event of a crime being committed. The Church itself spawned its critics and gave way to the Protestant religion which embraced an even more individual relationship with God. It advocated literacy in order for the faithful to read the Bible by themselves, in their language. It emphasized personal responsibility and hard work almost as a symptom of God's love. Universities, unlike madrassas, were formed by those who disagreed with other centers of learning. Guilds and organizations were voluntary associations, not tied to families or clans. Independence, nonconformity, and a willingness to work with strangers let to the Wests' dominance. Many questions remain unanswered , especially regarding the inherent qualities of Christianity beyond the marriage rules or the influence of other factors.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Pete

    The WEIRDest people in the World (2020) by Joseph Henrich is a very interesting account of how the psychology of the West is different from other societies and how this psychology worked historically in the West. WEIRD people are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. Henrich is a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard. Henrich starts by looking at how psychologists test people in the West and very often assume that people in all cultures are the same. Indeed, much of The WEIRDest people in the World (2020) by Joseph Henrich is a very interesting account of how the psychology of the West is different from other societies and how this psychology worked historically in the West. WEIRD people are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. Henrich is a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard. Henrich starts by looking at how psychologists test people in the West and very often assume that people in all cultures are the same. Indeed, much of psychology research has been done on volunteering undergraduates. Henrich points out that the five personality dimensions are not universal across cultures. Henrich then starts to look at how important kinship ties are across cultures. This leads him toward looking at history and he describes how the Catholic Church banned polygamy early on, resulting in male behaviour changing dramatically, no longer where there many low status males who had little stake in the future and no longer were high status males free to keep trying to get more wives. Henrich then points to another feature that made Catholicism different from most world religions, namely that it opposed cousin marriage. Henrich states that this is very important as it broke up clans and made people no longer live with clans. It also made them treat non-relations more equally and more fairly. People were also less tied to a clan so they could move to a city, many of which, in contrast to cities in India and China, had people who were declared ‘free’ and were less bound by rules than most farmers. Henrich uses various lines of evidence, many statistical, to support his arguments. Without a doubt much of what is in the book is correct. Henrich cleverly uses historical records to put forward his thesis. Henrich looks at the growth of competing civil institutions such as Universities and monasteries and how their competition also drove progress. The book also uses various anecdotes to illustrate the points being made. The Weirdest people in the World really surprised me, I thought it was going to be a book about how Western psychology is different, I didn’t expect it to go into the role of how institutions have driven much of that change and how this has affected history. It’s really a fascinating read.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Justina

    A very well-argued book with a great selection of examples and exploration of the implications. Henrich goes out of his way to convince you the relationships hold (drink for every time he says the results stand even after holding x number of factors constant). The ingenuity is the acronym and the central insight is that many sweeping conclusions about human psychology including assumptions used in economics apply specifically to people in democratic, rich Western societies, who are historical an A very well-argued book with a great selection of examples and exploration of the implications. Henrich goes out of his way to convince you the relationships hold (drink for every time he says the results stand even after holding x number of factors constant). The ingenuity is the acronym and the central insight is that many sweeping conclusions about human psychology including assumptions used in economics apply specifically to people in democratic, rich Western societies, who are historical and global outliers. Even the *dimensions* of personality -- for instance extraversion versus introversion -- are shaped by the need to develop individual niches to thrive in these particular countries. What is amazing is the way that particular psyche has developed thanks to the unintended consequences of institutions such as Christianity, which might have banned cousin marriage and discouraged inheritances for arbitrary/selfish reasons but have instead completely reshaped the future of a few continents. The conclusions of this book are a testimony to persistence. (As someone raised in a non-WEIRD place with colonial ties to a WEIRD country and educated in one of the WEIRDEST countries of all, I am amused to find some hybrid qualities in myself...) A few questions that came to mind while reading this: - The book is understandably focused on the benefits (prosperity) of the West. What are the downsides of that psychology and the benefits of more intensive kin-based networks? - Given the benefits of Christianity outlined in the book and declining religiosity in contemporary Western societies, should we think of us as having fully reaped its benefits already or is there still upside to having religion play a bigger role? - What are the implications of these psychological differences to promoting human rights/democracy/free-market capitalism in non-WEIRD countries? (There is an intriguing but brief discussion of this at the end)

  21. 4 out of 5

    Greg

    This book is a very empirical look at how people not living in capitalist liberal democracies--the typical experience for humans until the last 100 years--tend to behave towards each other. It has a similar message to Jared Diamond's "World Until Yesterday"--human cultures have been much, much more diverse than we normally think, and the "average" culture on many dimensions is far from ours. A great example is marrying a cousin: it was typically encouraged in the past, but it's considered legall This book is a very empirical look at how people not living in capitalist liberal democracies--the typical experience for humans until the last 100 years--tend to behave towards each other. It has a similar message to Jared Diamond's "World Until Yesterday"--human cultures have been much, much more diverse than we normally think, and the "average" culture on many dimensions is far from ours. A great example is marrying a cousin: it was typically encouraged in the past, but it's considered legally and morally wrong in most countries today, and it's not because it causes more genetic problems (See https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/04/us...). Henrich explains this cultural feature and a host of other ones by way of the Catholic Church's centuries long effort to take power away from traditional clans, tribes and family structures. In Henrich's empirically-supported account, this pecularity of European history freed people to act more as individuals, paving the way for the Renaissance, free markets, science, democracy and all the things we usually associate with modern Western prosperity. It's a big theory of history that will make you think.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Emil O. W. Kirkegaard

    Highly recommended. Main theory about the importance of the church rules is perhaps not true. See Kevin Macdonald reply in mankind quarterly.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Vadim Polikov

    Wow. Wow. Wow. Every decade or so a book comes along that upends an entire discipline and offers an entirely new perspective, opening up new avenues and ideas to explore. The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt did that for Psychology, giving us a new way to understand why people hold the moral views they have and why they disagree. Even more rare is the book that melds two disciplines into a combined theory to explain the world. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond combined Anthropology with Hi Wow. Wow. Wow. Every decade or so a book comes along that upends an entire discipline and offers an entirely new perspective, opening up new avenues and ideas to explore. The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt did that for Psychology, giving us a new way to understand why people hold the moral views they have and why they disagree. Even more rare is the book that melds two disciplines into a combined theory to explain the world. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond combined Anthropology with History to explain why Eurasian societies such as European, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Chinese societies were able, by the year 1500, to dominate societies in Africa, North and South America, and Australia. And then, perhaps once in a generation, comes a book that synthesizes several vast, diverse disciplines and forges them into a new worldview, a new lens, a new consilience that suddenly snaps the pieces together and opens a new understanding of our world. I believe this is such a book, even if it is hiding behind a workmanlike writing style, an underwhelming title, and a relatively unknown author among popular writers (he is well known in the academic community as the chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, but this is only his second popular book). There is an old joke about the engineer who comes to fix a complicated broken machine. The engineer spends an hour exploring the machine and leaves after making just one chalk mark on a small piece of the machine, proclaiming “replace this piece.” The plant manager replaces the part and is thrilled to discover the machine working as new, until he gets the engineer’s bill of $5,000. Furious at the price, he asks for an itemized account, expecting the engineer to back down. The itemized bill comes back: One Chalk Mark: $1 Knowing where to put it: $999 I’ve been on a personal reading journey through world history, anthropology, sociology, and psychology over five years and over 100 books and only now can I read this book and understand why this one is special. Only now can I put that chalk mark on the complicated edifice of arguments and counter arguments about European History, the Industrial Revolution, and the role of institutions, culture, and geography in economic development, and say “this is the key to the whole machine.” Previously contradictory arguments turn out to be complementary and, like a complicated mathematical equation with a simple solution underneath after all the terms cancel out, a new understanding of the last 1000 years of human history takes shape. This book combines the three disciplines of Anthropology, Psychology, and History to explain why Western Europe and its offshoots have been the dominant economic, political, social, and scientific powers of the last three hundred years and until today. This book completes the story begun in Guns Germs and Steel, which ended its analysis in the year 1500. Like the chalk mark, the argument is simple: Before 500 AD, all major civilizations organized their societies on a foundation of kin-based institutions, which are universal because they are built atop our innate genetic tendencies for mating, parenting, social status, and alliance formation. These kin-based institutions include patrilineal hierarchies, patrilocal residence (new couples live in the husband’s parents house), arranged marriages, and corporate responsibility and ownership (the whole clan is responsible and owns the land), among others that are well known to anthropologists. These institutions create a certain kind of psychology, certain specific types of governance, and certain social institutions as these societies scale. Most societies, even today, are still built on the same kin-based foundation of clans, tribes, family groups, and ethnic groups - with one very specific exception. Around 500 CE, the Western Church in Europe happened upon a set of policies that (unintentionally) destroyed these kin-based institutions while at the same time making the Church itself more powerful. This opened a previously inaccessible path of human cultural development that led to the unique Western family pattern we know today: monogamous, consensual marriages, nuclear families with neolocal residence (the new couple lives on their own), late average age of marriage with many women never marrying, smaller families and lower fertility, and a pre-marriage labor period. As kin-based institutions atrophied and Christians could no longer depend on that vast extended network of kin and its established hierarchy of social relationships, a uniquely individualistic psychology took root. By 1500 CE, after 1000 years of effort by the Church grinding away at these kin-based institutions (these are deep-seated institutions and do not disappear quickly or easily), Western Europe had large numbers of people who saw themselves as individuals, who created non-kin based institutions such as representative governments and market economies, and who had an entirely different psychology around novelty, strangers, and abstract concepts like natural rights and the rule of law. The intention behind the Church’s actions is irrelevant. It could have been a specific reading of the scriptures by Pope Gregory I, it could have been a power grab at the expense of traditional kin-institutions, it could have been overactive natural incest repulsion by some top Church leaders, or it could have been a “random” cultural mutation. In any case, it stuck, and spread, as it made the Church stronger and created incentives for kings like Charlemagne (who was competing with kin-based aristocrats) to add military enforcement to Church edicts. The strength of the argument is bolstered by detailed case studies of how such “cultural mutations” can arise and spread by cultural equivalents of blind natural selection. This is clearly an area of deep expertise for Heinrich and builds on his prior book “The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter” (another fantastic book with a terrible title). So what’s the big deal? 1. By fingering the subtle difference between institutions built on impersonal laws and norms, and those built on particular kin-based norms, Henrich neatly solves the mystery of why Europe was first to develop the Industrial Revolution, why it was first to build representative governments, and why Europe and its offshoots still dominate world markets and world politics. 2. It explains why development has been so hard in places like Africa (which still runs on kin-based institutions) and the Middle East (where Islam holds sacred a set of family instutions that leads to even stronger than normal kin-based practices), even when successful formal institutions like constutitions and legal codes can be copied from the West. 3. Clever historical data mining (published in Science by Henrich and collaborators) shows that the length of time an area was under the influence of the Church’s unique “marriage and family program” is directly correlated to the unique psychologies of Western Europe. This helps explain why areas like Eastern Europe and Latin America are somewhere in between Western Europe and Africa when it comes to development and the strength of successful impersonal institutions and rule of law. 4. It shines a light on costly blunders like imposing liberal democratic institutions atop a kin-based infrastructure, like the US attempted in Iraq and Afghanistan. 5. It helps explain why interventions such as getting girls educated are so effective in development (because not only do you have more human capital, but kin-based institutions that rely on girls marrying young and having lots of children are degraded), while other interventions that ignore the kin-based foundations of most societies fall flat (like trying to train entrepreneurs, expecting market norms to develop as they do in the West). 6. It explains why those who focus on the role of institutions in the success of nations, like Acemoglu and Robertson in Why Nations Fail are right AND why those who focus on the role of culture (aka a nation’s particular Psychology) like Samuel Huntington and Alan MacFarlane are also right. There is a detailed discussion of how a unique psychology leads to specific institutions and how those specific institutions feed-back to further change psychology. 7. Because the Church focused its enforcement on the middle classes (they would be rich and powerful enough to be noticed by the Church, but not so rich and powerful as to circumvent the rules through money or force as the nobility did), and because urbanization and market exchange accelerated the trends the Church began, the rural farmers took longer to adopt this new psychology, and the elites were the last holdouts. At the same time, certain populations held onto their kin-structures much longer, like the Scots and the Irish because they didn’t fall under the Church’s marriage and family program until much later. This helps explain psychological differences in modern day populations, such as the American South, which has a more “honor” based culture and a different set of moral preferences, which track much more closely to those one would find in kin-based societies. There is a real difference between 1500 years of the Church’s “marriage and family program” and 1000 years, 500 years, or just 100 years of colonization. 8. One can take this even further and see that the three extra “thick” moral foundations that those on the political right care about (Loyalty, Authority, and Purity - see Haidt’s work) are the same ones you would expect to be important in a kin-based society, as compared to the two “thin” main ones (Care/Harm and Equality/Fairness) that dominates the morality of people on the political left. Does our moral compass and our political orientation depend on the strength of the kin-based institutions of our homelands hundreds of years ago? It is no surprise that Henrich and Haidt met weekly as Henrich was writing this book. I’ve started noticing the morality tales in modern movies often focus on the competition between kin-based and impersonal/individualistic moralities. In Avengers: Civil War is Captain America a hero for helping his friend (kin-based) or a criminal for violating an international treaty (impersonal)? Should Moana stay on her island and fulfill her role as Chief (kin-based) or follow her own path (individualistic)? 9. A lot of fascinating ground opens up if, through this new lens, one looks at a continuum of morality/psychology from “kin-based” (personal, kin-based, and holistic) to “WEIRD*” (impersonal, individualistic, and analytical) and sees a directionality to this development. The world is becoming more WEIRD and less kin-based as the WEIRD psychology outcompetes (culturally, economically) the kin-based areas of the world. There are millions of people eager to sever their kin-based bonds to immigrate to the US so their kids grow up WEIRD and wealthy, and very few who want to leave a WEIRD country to immigrate to a kin-based society to strengthen their kinship bonds. Yet as we get more WEIRD and less kin-based, we feel more isolated. The kin-based social straightjacket also kept us warm and safe. We humans need to feel like we are part of a group that cares about us and has our backs - we have trouble being atomized individuals in a sea of strangers, which leads to anomie, depression, and suicide. We felt warm but constrained when kin-based organizations provided protection, insurance, and security and cared for the sick, injured, poor, and elderly. When those institutions were stripped away by the Western Church, we created new impersonal organizations in their place, such as mutual-aid societies, religious organizations, clubs, and local town councils. All those civil society institutions that appeared between the government and the individual replaced the kin-based warm hug, yet now those are withering away as the government and the market take on more and more of their roles (more efficiently). Consider the evolution of responsibility to care for the poor (in Western Europe/America): The clan → The Church → the charity → the local government → the Federal government In each step you may have an increase in efficiency, an increase in coverage, but also decrease in the personal connections between members of society. *Note that WEIRD is the book’s shorthand for Western Europe and its offshoots and stands for “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic” [end list] This book solves the historical riddle of “Why Europe” while at the same time opening up brand new horizons of analysis and integrations between psychology, history, and anthropology. I believe Henrich was able to synthesize a topic that frustrated generations of historians because he was an outsider, approaching it from an anthropological and cultural/psychological perspective. As an anthropologist he was able to see how unique and weird our Western European culture truly is when compared to the huge variety of other cultures (virtually ALL of them kin-based) around the world. His 2010 Nature paper “Most people are not WEIRD” was a clarion call for changes in the way psychological research should be conducted (it should not be conducted just on Western university undergraduates, because those results are not “human psychology”, they are “WEIRD country” psychology). The book also wrestles with culture in a revolutionary and useful way. Culture is a squishy topic that serious historians shy away from, but this book shows how it can be reduced to measurable psychological traits, grounding culture in a framework that can make it tractable in a scientific/lab setting. Injecting psychology into the analysis was the unique stroke of genius that led to these insights. Whereas culture is broad and undefined, psychology can be measured across different countries and peoples. There are some weaknesses in the book. The data could have been tighter (the correlations are all in the .3 to .7 range), and he addresses some of the data limitations (although its enough to get published in Science). The writing is uninspired, although its clear and easy to understand. There are certainly further directions he could have explored. But all of this is minor criticism, the book is a complete game changer. See first comment (mine) for Further Reading I recommend (if you want to see the beauty of how this book ties all these threads together).

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jukka Aakula

    Probably the best non-fiction book I have read. This made the same kind of impression on me as Dawkins' "Selfish Gene" 36 years ago or maybe Avner Greif's "Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy". I have followed Henrich for a long time - read all his books and most of his scientific articles - I see his work as a continuation of the older guys Pete Richerson and Rob Boyd. Their paper "Punishment allows the evolution of cooperation (or anything else) in sizable groups" made the idea of n Probably the best non-fiction book I have read. This made the same kind of impression on me as Dawkins' "Selfish Gene" 36 years ago or maybe Avner Greif's "Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy". I have followed Henrich for a long time - read all his books and most of his scientific articles - I see his work as a continuation of the older guys Pete Richerson and Rob Boyd. Their paper "Punishment allows the evolution of cooperation (or anything else) in sizable groups" made the idea of norm psychology to be based on sound formal theory: Altruistic Punishment inside a community creates a basis for diversity between communities (between-group diversity) and in-group homogeneity. That makes competition between groups a motor of human progress. Cultural group selection. Henrich's book develops the idea of "cultural group selection as a motor for human progress" further. Much further. How groups e.g. solved the problem of scalability by cultural evolution was already discussed in his previous book "The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution...". But here we hear e.g. about the Ilahita Arapesh who succeeded to innovate and break the "300 rule" by institutional development and create a 2500 member community. "[Anthropologist Donald Tuzin] set off to investigate. How was Ilahita able to scale up? Why didn’t this community break up like all the others?" The main contribution of this book is to how Europe - or actually the Western Church - succeeded kind of by accident to deconstruct the clan-based system and construct individualism. The Western liberalism mostly takes the individualism as natural. Henrich shows that is not the case but construction of individualism required a long-lasting and determined Marriage and Family Policy by the Church. And the construction of individualism has had a strong impact on psychology, institutions and biology. There is lot of statistical analysis behind the hypothesis. This is not a light hypothesis. Once clan-based society was deconstructed, the European human was kind of left alone. Free - in a relative sense - to join voluntary organizations e.g. city-states like Firenze or Venice, guilds and monasteries of many kinds competing with each other but also allowing networking between the new individuals. Whether he was able to join a community was based not anymore so much on his background but more on his skills and reputation. (Nobility was actually the last group in Europe to leave in a culture of honor or clan-based culture.) The birth of individualism and voluntary organizations and the weakness of the European state strengthened the group competition and thus cultural group selection. With more progress.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Harsha Varma

    What could be the reasons for the incredible growth seen in the West over the past 500 years? Joseph Henrich makes a compelling argument that an edict passed by the Catholic church banning cousin marriages could’ve played a crucial role. The Church prohibited marriage to blood relatives, including distant relatives up to sixth cousins. This led to a more fluid society where people had to look farther for spouses. The Church also encouraged neolocal residence post marriages. Neolocal residences m What could be the reasons for the incredible growth seen in the West over the past 500 years? Joseph Henrich makes a compelling argument that an edict passed by the Catholic church banning cousin marriages could’ve played a crucial role. The Church prohibited marriage to blood relatives, including distant relatives up to sixth cousins. This led to a more fluid society where people had to look farther for spouses. The Church also encouraged neolocal residence post marriages. Neolocal residences meant that people in their early twenties were already the heads of their households and became more entrepreneurial, unlike other communities where elders still called most of the shots. In the wake of the Church’s demolition of intensive kinship, people became increasingly individualistic, independent, self-focused, nonconformist and relationally mobile. This breakdown of intensive kin-based institutions opened the door to urbanization and the formation of free cities and charter towns, which began developing greater self-governance. Often dominated by merchants, urban growth generated rising levels of market integration and higher levels of impersonal trust, fairness and cooperation. Cities also allow people with different skills and areas of expertise to encounter one another, discover complementary interests and collaborate. People joined voluntary associations that fit their interests, needs, and goals. At the same time, weak kinship ties, greater residential mobility and an expanding list of rights and privileges in town charters guaranteed individuals substantial freedom to join a growing list of associations, apprenticeships, guilds and occupations. This social environment meant that individuals had to “sell themselves” based on their personal attributes and specialized abilities, not primarily on their friendships, lineages, or family alliances. At an individual level, this increased people’s desire to come up with new ideas and improved techniques to uniquely distinguish themselves. The book’s broad point, that in societies where kinship intensity is lower, citizens have to trust others more and contribute more to the society as they do not have a kinship safety net makes sense. When relational bonds are fewer and weaker, individuals need to forge mutually beneficial relationships, often with strangers. To accomplish this, they must distinguish themselves from the crowd by cultivating their own distinct set of attributes and achievements. Success in these individual-centred worlds favours the cultivation of greater independence, less deference to authority and more concern with personal achievement. A caveat though. I think a lot of aspects were in play: representative governments, the rise of impersonal commerce, the discovery of the Americas, the length of European coastlines, colonialism, the Enlightenment thinkers, the development of a culture of science etc. It's difficult to say which had a greater impact and to separate correlation from causation. Overall, I think the book presents an interesting theory into how the individualistic tendencies of the west might've kicked in vis-a-vis the collectivistic ideals of the East. It is a fascinating read. P.S: Progress in human societies: 1. The secret of our species’ success lies not in our raw intellect or reasoning powers but in our capacity to learn from those around us and then diffuse what we learned outward, through our social networks, and down to future generations. 2. Over time, because we learn selectively from others and integrate insights from diverse individuals and populations, the process of cultural evolution can give rise to an ever-growing and improving repertoire of tools, skills, techniques, goals, motivations, beliefs, rules and norms. 3. This body of cultural know-how is maintained collectively in the minds and practices of a community or network. 4. If knowledge sharing in this network is wide-based and not limited to kin-based, progress would be faster. 5. Narrow self-interest favours secrecy, while the collective brain thrives on openness and the flow of information. 6. This along with intergroup competition can speed up learning. 7. Younger people are less risk-averse and less tied to tradition, so any institutions that favour putting younger people in charge will be more dynamic. This would speed up experimentation and innovation.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Neil

    +extending Guns, Germs, Steel. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/12/bo... Not marrying cousins as an edict => rise of W.E.I.R.D / individualistic thinking ? Worth exploring. +extending Guns, Germs, Steel. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/12/bo... Not marrying cousins as an edict => rise of W.E.I.R.D / individualistic thinking ? Worth exploring.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Norton

    If you are reading this review, you are probably from a WEIRD culture – Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. Your psychology differs significantly from the mindset of traditional societies and, to a lesser extent, wealthy contemporary Asian societies. In ways consistent with this psychology, your society’s social, economic and political institutions are also very unusual in human history. As a general observation this is not novel. In an early chapter of The Weirdest People in If you are reading this review, you are probably from a WEIRD culture – Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. Your psychology differs significantly from the mindset of traditional societies and, to a lesser extent, wealthy contemporary Asian societies. In ways consistent with this psychology, your society’s social, economic and political institutions are also very unusual in human history. As a general observation this is not novel. In an early chapter of The Weirdest People in the World, Joseph Henrich acknowledges the cross-cultural psychology work of Harry Triandis and Geert Hofstede. Decades ago their surveys mapped attitudes and beliefs across countries on an individualism (Western) versus collectivism (the rest) scale. The Weirdest People's contribution is an ambitious bringing together of history, anthropology, evolutionary theory, theology, sociology, economics, political science and a bit of biology to explain how WEIRD psychology developed. As with any history of the West Christianity is central. Christianity replaced tribal gods with a universal god that rewarded or punished certain behaviours. The old tribal gods often weren’t particularly moral. According to Henrich, ‘they could be bribed, tricked, or scared off with powerful rituals’. The Christian god’s judgment was not so easily avoided. For Christians, whether they went to heaven depended on how they behaved while they were alive. By setting the rules for going to heaven, the Catholic Church could shape the actions of believers. A significant use of Church power, on Henrich’s account, was what he calls the Catholic ‘marriage and family program’. From around 400 CE this program began dismantling the intensive kin-based institutions of traditional societies. The arranged marriage is an instrument of kin control. Under Catholic rules, however, the bride and groom both had to publicly consent to marriage. While this did not directly prohibit arranged marriages, it shifted power from the family to the individual. Eventually love marriages became the norm. Newly married couples were encouraged to live independently together, rather than remain in extended households, creating the nuclear family. Choice of spouse did not extend to relatives. The Church banned cousin marriage. According to Henrich, only a quarter of global-historical societies have forbidden cousin marriage. Across the world about one in ten marriages today is to a close relative. Rules against cousin marriage extended spouse searches outside local communities, creating wider social connections than are usual in tribal societies. Under Catholic rules, only monogamous marriages were permitted, a restriction that Henrich says has applied in only 15 per cent of global-historical societies. Monogamy reduced male-to-male competition and violence by minimising the number of low-status males with few prospects for sex or marriage. It seems to generate ‘WEIRD endocrinology’, as men with one wife and children have lower testosterone levels, and with that a lower propensity to take risks, drink, gamble, or get arrested. Of course people did not always follow the marriage and family program, and the Catholic sale of ‘indulgences’ to absolve their sins was one trigger for the 16th century Protestant Reformation. But the Reformation’s greater significance was creating personal relationships between believers and God. As many other books have also documented, this was very important to the rise of Western individualism. Once people can decide on their own religious beliefs they start to think the same way about other things. The weakening of kin ties and the rise of individualism created space for new forms of social organisation, ‘voluntary associations based on shared interests or beliefs rather than tribal affiliation’. Among the early examples were church-linked mutual aid societies that performed some of the welfare functions of extended families, universities, and guilds of tradesmen. These organisations were supported by an increased division of labour, with more people specialising in clusters of tasks that turn into occupations. In traditional societies most people are generalists. Higher productivity from task specialisation has long been noted, but Henrich argues that specialisation also contributes to more distinct personalities – a ‘sociable salesman, conscientious craftsman, scrupulous scribe, or pious priest’. He suggests that people increasingly select occupations that fit their temperaments and attributes, and then hone those attributes in competition with others. An implication of this is that the big-5 distinct dimensions of personality – openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – are really the WEIRD-5. Henrich reports that studies in Hong Kong and Japan find four rather than five distinct personality dimensions; even that may over-estimate the number due to WEIRD-biased samples of university students. In a Bolivian traditional farmer-forager society only two personality dimensions were found. The effects of markets on personality and social connection have long been debated. To communitarian critics markets foster selfishness and weaken social ties. But Enlightenment intellectuals, living in an era of expanding markets, advanced the seemingly contradictory thesis that markets increase civility and cooperation. Henrich thinks that they both have a point but are talking about different things. Markets are in the mix of institutions and attitudes that led to WEIRD culture. The more needs people meet through trade the less they rely on their tribe or family (reduced ‘community’). In traditional societies needs are met through strong obligations within the tribe or extended family. In market societies these obligations are typically weak outside the parent-child relationship. By the 14th century in England, most people lived within a two hour walk of about 1200 weekly markets where people could buy and sell goods. Trades are often with strangers or people outside tight tribal or family networks, making an individual reputation for fairness and honesty valuable in a market society. Henrich reports on anonymous ‘ultimatum games’ played in different countries. A person is given a sum of money and has to offer part of it to another person. If the other person refuses the offer both parties get nothing. In WEIRD cultures, the average offer is 48 per cent of the money at stake and offers of less than 40 per cent are often rejected. In traditional societies the average offer is around a quarter of the money and few offers are rejected. WEIRD players know the norm of fairness and either observe it or enforce it. WEIRD culture permits the pursuit of individual self-interest, but it is constrained by stronger norms about relations with strangers than are found in traditional societies. Market societies are strong on what Henrich calls ‘impersonal pro-sociality’, where trust between strangers supports cooperation in markets and within organisations. Tribal societies are strong on ‘interpersonal pro-sociality’. Their norms require more sharing within the tribe than in market societies but limit cooperation with outsiders. The Weirdest People in the World is a very interesting and stimulating book. It is so wide-ranging that only a polymath could judge the overall argument. Whether or not its historical explanation of WEIRD culture is entirely right it usefully reminds WEIRD people that what they think is normal is, as the book’s title suggests, weird.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Brahm

    This book is of a type I call "history through the lens of 'x'", where an author provides (or attempts to provide) a plausible answer to the question, "how did we get here?" framed in a certain field of study. In this book, the author is Henrich and the lens is 'the co-evolution of culture, psychology, biology and economics'. This book suffers from a bit of a title problem because it sounds like the freak book from Curb Your Enthusiasm. WEIRD is an acronym for: -Western -Educated -Industrialized This book is of a type I call "history through the lens of 'x'", where an author provides (or attempts to provide) a plausible answer to the question, "how did we get here?" framed in a certain field of study. In this book, the author is Henrich and the lens is 'the co-evolution of culture, psychology, biology and economics'. This book suffers from a bit of a title problem because it sounds like the freak book from Curb Your Enthusiasm. WEIRD is an acronym for: -Western -Educated -Industrialized -Rich -Democratic The acronym is used frequently throughout the book and ends up making sense in context, but yeah, I'm not a fan of the title. This is a tricky book to summarize but there are some great key ideas. And I'll cheat a bit using the summary chart on p472 to help me out. For a start, WEIRD populations are in the global minority, though WEIRD people think of ourselves as normal, baseline humans. This couldn't be further from the truth (Henrich argues) in the sense that WEIRD-o's (my term, not his) have dissolved ancient and "traditional" kinship, clan and family structures, which was due to a slow burn of church pressure in Europe from ~300 CE onwards. Specific changes included: monogamous marriage only, no kin marriage (close cousins, uncle/neice, etc.), no arranged marriage, neolocal residence (newlyweds live on their own, not with parents), plus changes to adoption and inheritance rules. This had big social consequences: Dissolution of intensive kinship (think: clans, very extended families) weakened ties to extended kin. This created relational and physical mobility but also a dependence on the church as it replaced that kin group. Henrich argues the culture changes started rewiring WEIRD brains to the effect of increased individualism and analytical thinking, more guilt, less shame, increased patience (think: markets, saving, investing), etc. Now if you're raising your eyebrow and thinking, this book sounds like it's pumping the tires of Western Europeans a bit too much, Henrich lays out some ground rules early on p37. It's not about WEIRD vs. non-WEIRD, it's not about saying WEIRD populations are better than non-WEIRD, there are high level trends but they are not the be-all, end-all, and none of these generalizations should be ascribed to individuals, tribes, nations, ethnic groups, etc. It's about how and why psychological changes continue to change over time. Two of the most interesting takeaways for me: 1. How culture, psychology and biology are intertwined. Of course as an engineer this is new to me. We should be cautious about accepting study results of WEIRD populations (e.g. US university students) as baseline human behaviour data; it's difficult to look at psychology without also looking at culture and societal evolution. For example Henrich shows that popularized behavioural economics experiments (in past books I've enjoyed: Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness) have totally different results in communities with intensive kinship structures intact. Human psychology vs. WEIRD psychology. 2. How abnormal and recent WEIRD family structures are, in the grand scheme of things. p477: "Japan... began copying WEIRD civil institutions in the 1880s... including prohibitions on polygynous marriage... the Chinese Communist government initiated a program in the 1950s to abolish clans, polygyny, arranged marriages, unions between close relatives... In South Korea, the government passed a Western-style civil code in 1957 that required the consent of both the bride and groom to marry, prohibited polygynous marriage, and forbade marriage to relatives out to third cousins, through both blood and marriage". Like I find it mildly mind-blowing to imagine how massive those changes actually could be (or are) to the structure of families and societies. Couple criticisms. Chapter 6 was tough to get through - too many hard-to-decipher scatter plots with random-looking data with trendlines drawn through them. A few other dry spots and I am sure, some gaps in the theory. Nonetheless very interesting so I'd say 4 or 4.5 stars. Don't get too intimidated at 700+ pages. Over 200 are references, so the content is <500 pages. But, a great random read - received from my mom for Christmas!

  29. 4 out of 5

    Zo

    There are two main claims to Heinrich's book: 1) There are significant patterns of psychological difference between W.E.I.R.D. societies and pretty much all other human societies/cultures. These differences are crucial for understanding why WEIRD societies are the way they are, but have mostly been ignored by academic psychology and economics, which have formulated their theories as if all of humanity conforms to WEIRD psychology. 2) The Catholic church prohibiting cousin marriage and other intra- There are two main claims to Heinrich's book: 1) There are significant patterns of psychological difference between W.E.I.R.D. societies and pretty much all other human societies/cultures. These differences are crucial for understanding why WEIRD societies are the way they are, but have mostly been ignored by academic psychology and economics, which have formulated their theories as if all of humanity conforms to WEIRD psychology. 2) The Catholic church prohibiting cousin marriage and other intra-kin marriages is responsible for making European cultures less kinship-based than any other society in the world; that dissolution of kinship ties is responsible for the psychological and cultural differences we see between WEIRD societies and all others. There are many intermediary causal effects that Heinrich details which contributed to widening the gap between WEIRD psychology and other cultures, but it is the marriage norms which catalyzed the process. As Charles Freeman's Amazon review makes clear (https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-re...), I think Heinrich provides insufficient evidence that 2) is as strong as he claims. Heinrich likely overestimates how much the Church actually was able to influence marriage norms, and underestimates how much other factors that either pre-existed Church marriage norms or came after but independently of the church played a role in creating the psychological differences Heinrich highlights. But the wealth of evidence Heinrich does present is enough for me to be convinced he's onto something very important. The Church's reorientation of marriage norms should become a standard part of the story about why the west is the way it is. More interesting than the empirical question of how right Heinrich's explanation is is how Heinrich's exposition of our psychological genealogy should make us feel. What Heinrich's work seems to show is that the creativity, innovation, and wealth of western societies is in large part a product of individualism, analytic thinking, and emphasis on impersonal equality rather than interpersonal selflessness. How should we feel about the moral foundations of western society if it leads to positive consequences in terms of wealth, knowledge, cooperation, and respect for strangers, but also makes people more self-oriented, fundamentally less caring for their families, workaholic, and more prone to suicide and loneliness? Acknowledging these tradeoffs is something that goes back to Max Weber (at least), but Heinrich's evidence makes those questions pop to the fore. I also wonder how much the analytic/holistic thinking divide can be used to explain divergent philosophical understandings of metaphysics and language, and how analytic methods of thinking can be justified as true in certain domains versus others. Does it make sense to say that analytic ways of thinking about science are true, but for thinking about normative matters like language they are misguided? Obviously that is a gross simplification, but I think there are real questions here about the defensibility of notions like "rationality" in light of its genealogy that, at least for me, are difficult to know how to think about. This book constantly prompted me to question my own cultural/moral inheritance, and left me uneasy as to how to "defend" it. Heinrich is sometimes repetitive, not always the most exciting writer, and falls prey to many of the ills that big history social science books do; yet, this is one of the best iterations of that genre. Lots of fascinating studies are presented, and for me at least, I felt like I was learning genuinely new macro-history hypotheses. Will be interesting to track the reception and refinement of his account over time.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Edmund Wigley

    Continuing where Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel) left off, Joseph Heinrich expands the original thesis of West / East developmental divergence from geographic to include religious and social factors. The book does not have the same rigour and conclusive feel as G, G & S does. Religious and social influences lack the same definitive structure for one. It’s much harder to plot a graph of kinship against GDP than it is to plot count of domesticated animals against GDP. It is even harder to plo Continuing where Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel) left off, Joseph Heinrich expands the original thesis of West / East developmental divergence from geographic to include religious and social factors. The book does not have the same rigour and conclusive feel as G, G & S does. Religious and social influences lack the same definitive structure for one. It’s much harder to plot a graph of kinship against GDP than it is to plot count of domesticated animals against GDP. It is even harder to plot kinship against conformity. So the conclusions are often a lot more subtle. This being said, there are some fascinating examples of how biased we are to western psychological studies and the broader consequences this may have. The most interesting chapters centre on the role that religion, in particular the Catholic Church, had in forming our family structure through its Marriage and Family Programme (MFP) and its consequences on the degree of kinship. Ultimately by stopping you marry your cousins the church forced us spread our wings and form greater unity vertically to the church than horizontally to our kin. He goes on to show how this forms the basis of our culture, our degree of impersonal trust, conformity, individuality etc. Where i began to struggle with this book are some of the conclusions regarding the influence on market place practices and particularly the proposed panacea that intergroup competition is held to be. Here Joseph bites off more than he can chew. He will quite often miss important factors, who defines the group, what are the number of groups, how large is the group compared to the individual, what is the role of the individual in the group and perhaps most importantly where is the state in all of this? I feel the entire book would have been stronger if this was just left out, it feels unfinished and not robust.

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