The WEIRDest People in the World
by Joseph Henrich
704 pp., $24.00
Christianity has blessed us with essential elements of the Western world that we should want to preserve, even while it has also produced corrosive pieces of our current cultural predicament. The bizarre political quasi-religion of antiracist wokeism, with its ressentiment-driven obsession with persecuted victimhood, and its fervent desire to crudely slice the world up into two starkly opposed moral categories, is incomprehensible without a Christian prehistory. These are the deep complexities, even contradictions, with which thoughtful actors in the modern West must wrestle.
Unfortunately when it comes to approaching the big question of the historical success of the Western world, its culture, and its institutions, most contemporary writers instead rigorously hold to the Nietzschean aphorism that a thinker is someone “who knows how to make things simpler than they are.” Long a primary topic of investigation for scholars with a world history perspective, it is now frequently addressed through the monomaniacal lens of critical race theory (CRT), the simplest form of thought yet devised.
On the civilizational issue the barren dogma of CRT gives the same answer as it does to all other questions. To insinuate a hierarchy of civilizations is illegitimate and elitist, unless Europe’s distinctive attribute is acknowledged as its immersion in racism, sexism, and other forms of illegitimate domination. In such a case a ranking system is possible, and the West is deeply mired in last place.
So much for those who merely pretend to be thinkers. But even when the question is taken up by serious scholars, simplicity remains the rule, and it is readily applied in Joseph Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World.
It may seem odd to accuse a nearly 700 page tome of advancing a simple case, but much of the book’s length is an endless summary of research backing up its claims. Readers seeking a cheat sheet may jump to page 472, where a figure outlines the major contentions of Henrich’s thesis.
The basic ideas are familiar, and even superficially sympathetic to a conservative sensibility. To wit, the causal force that produced Western civilization was the Christianity of the early Roman Catholic Church. The Church advanced what Henrich calls the Marriage and Family Program (MFP), a fundamental alteration of earlier marriage and kinship forms that emphasizes monogamy and a prohibition on close-kin marriages. This new cultural model pushed humans toward greater individualization and the pursuit of rationally calculated self-interest, which made it possible to trust those outside of one’s immediate kin, and which characterizes capitalist economic markets and participatory democratic political institutions.
Henrich uses the acronym “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) to describe the particular Western psychology, which made possible the two revolutions of modernity, the Industrial and the French. As Robert Nisbet described in his magnificent The Sociological Tradition, at the turn of the 19th century astute social thinkers of all political persuasions agreed on the broad consequences of these two revolutions; they signaled the victory of individualization, abstraction, and generalization. All of this was seen by scholars of the time as a crisis, and the thinkers Nisbet discusses were, almost to the man, troubled by the monumental effort necessary to reinvent the now-demolished basic structures of society.
There is no hint of moralizing in Henrich’s book. He describes and makes the case for his explanation, and moves on. While this is admirable in an academic text in the present climate—in which denunciation and moral posturing are much more common than careful scholarship— the reader is left at the book’s conclusion to conduct his own moral analysis of the ascendance of WEIRDness.
The Western mind met with successes, in social and personal terms, only so long as it did not forget its grounding in the religious belief that birthed it. As it turned out, though, the very nature of this kind of mind led it to values and behavioral predilections caustic to religious tradition and belief. The kind of person produced by the religious framework of the early Western Church evolved into something that progressively rejected the beliefs and practices of that Church and failed to do the work necessary to maintain its authority.
One might well ask, then: Is the WEIRD psychology a desirable destination for human moral development? Henrich demonstrates how much it enhanced economic exchange systems, which made the societies it dominated materially prosperous, but even the economic advances it fueled seem on the wane now that the cultural system of values that energized it is in decline.
Beyond the economic effects of WEIRDness are other consequences, some productive and others destructive of social order. Monogamy reduces male conflict and competition by ensuring that even men of low rank can procure mates. They will not, therefore, be as tempted to violent disruption of the social order as are young males in other societies.
But the move away from an extended family system leaves us more isolated and alone, attached to one another by ever looser bonds which are purely contractual and utilitarian. Self-reported alienation, loneliness, and anxiety are high in WEIRD world, as are suicide rates.
Though it has astronomically expanded human knowledge of the world, WEIRDness has paradoxically produced humans who are practically dumber than we once were. In societies without written records, individuals carry great bodies of knowledge in their heads: narratives, myths, and information about where and how to hunt, how to make tools, and what can and cannot be eaten in the environment. Modern humans require external sources for that information, and if we were placed in the deep woods without the proper manuals, events would quickly turn south for nearly all of us.
This functional impotence correlates neatly with WEIRD levels of competency, such that higher status members of modern societies are often the least capable of solving practical challenges. If your car breaks down in a deserted area, it’s better to be accompanied by a working-class, male, high school dropout than by a high profile professor from a prestigious university.
The Roman Church produced the MFP and WEIRD psychology, but Protestantism is a still WEIRDer version of Christianity, honing the anti-traditionalist individualism and egalitarianism already present in the Western Church to a sharp, dangerous point. It is a small step from a religion with a radically subjectivist orientation—wherein collective ritual practice is burned away, leaving only internal spirituality—to outright secularism.
above: a Western WEIRDo (deagreez / Adobe Stock)
The democratic impulse of WEIRDness also produces social pathology. The critique of hierarchy and traditional orders becomes intolerance of any difference that produces inequality. The tendency in elite circles to reject nearly all aspects of sex differences and to advocate for social policy that attacks them as moral evils is one of many examples.
The book’s simplicity is most evident in its assurance that culture alone drove the evolution of WEIRD minds. Speculation about contributions made by the unique genetic inheritance of relevant European populations is wholly absent here. Henrich believes genes contribute little to contemporary variation, and assumes only changes produced over the development of the MFP Christian culture era are at issue here.
But genetic variation was already present in regional populations when the cultural innovations of Western Christianity got underway, and might therefore have been an important element in that culture’s emergence and successes. Plausible explanations for why cultural innovations take place in one place rather than another must include possible contributions made by genetic variation.
The cost incurred by this simplicity affects Western societies’ ability to accurately evaluate their likely futures. In an interview about his previous book, which also deals with WEIRD culture, Henrich was asked if modern multiculturalist societies posed any problems for the maintenance of WEIRDness. He acknowledged that humans innately pursue two strategies, which sociologist Joseph Lopreato called homologous affiliation and heterologous contraposition. That is, we typically prefer interacting with those in our own ethnic/racial group and are more suspicious of those from other groups.
But, Henrich then asserts, so long as a shared language exists in the multicultural society, these in-group/out-group mechanisms can be negated. However, the lack of strong evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of a shared language in overcoming these difficulties is left unaddressed, as is the rejection of the idea of a unified culture and language by many multiculturalist activists, who view these as forms of oppression.
Henrich’s book, perhaps accidentally, provides a valuable service for the conservative Christian reader. It shows just how much Christianity contributed to the template of the liberal and progressive ideologies that are often in open conflict with it today. This is an exceedingly complex story—one that Henrich is not best suited to explore—but it is powerfully relevant for every religious conservative.