The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.
Joseph Henrich’s big, impressive, and fun book should appeal to scholars across a broad spectrum. Historians, sociologists, economists, church historians, psychologists, cultural historians, and educators will find much to ponder and process in The WEIRDest People in the World. Henrich tells the story not of how the West was won, but how it was born. He claims to have discovered a single key to what makes the Western world so different from every other culture. His story is fascinating and useful, but not entirely convincing.
Henrich’s book begins at the end, by explaining that people who are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—WEIRD—are different from everyone else in the world because of literacy. Over the centuries, changes in culture altered our brains and behaviors, with the result that reading has become a primary and defining activity of people in the West. This situation is not the case in most other places, and our failure to perceive this has made understanding people from other cultures extremely difficult. Psychologists have mistakenly used Westerners—primarily college students—as the norm for their studies and conclusions regarding human nature; and doing so, Henrich asserts, has skewed our understanding of psychology and culture worldwide. Joseph Henrich is out to set things straight. Western people are not the norm for human social, cultural, and psychological studies. They’re just WEIRD. In a recent article, Joseph Henrich explained his view of the rise of literacy in the West:
After bubbling up periodically in prior centuries, the belief that every person should read and interpret the Bible for themselves began to rapidly diffuse across Europe with the eruption of the Protestant Reformation, marked in 1517 by Martin Luther’s delivery of his famous 95 theses. Protestants came to believe that both boys and girls had to study the Bible for themselves to better know their God. In the wake of the spread of Protestantism, the literacy rates in the newly reforming populations in Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands surged past more cosmopolitan places like Italy and France. Motivated by eternal salvation, parents and leaders made sure the children learned to read.1
How we arrived at this unique and empowering place is a fascinating story, and in The WEIRDest People in the World, Henrich tells it in page-turning style.
Henrich is the chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, and that explains his approach to understanding what makes people in the West so WEIRD. His book is divided into four parts: Part I: The Evolution of Societies and Psychologies; Part II: The Origins of WEIRD People; Part III: New Institutions, New Psychologies; and Part IV: Birthing the Modern World. His operating thesis is that changes in culture effect changes in our brains, which in turn effect changes in culture, and so on. This transformation is how cultures and brains evolve together. Cultural changes unique to the West proved to be for whole peoples and cultures the “escape velocity” from the kinship and tribal social organizations that still define most peoples in the world. Specifically, what Henrich refers to as the medieval Catholic Church’s Marriage and Family Program (MFP) liberated Western populations from the kinship relationships that had defined them time out of mind, and set them on a path of independence, mobility, education, entrepreneurship, and innovation, grounded in literacy. The West, as we know it, is the result.
Henrich writes in a lively and winsome, yet scholarly, style as he traces the West’s emer-gence from the social and cultural trappings of early societies. His study employs methods of research, testing, and evaluation that cross all the disciplines previously mentioned, and blend together into a strong central narrative of emerging and increasing WEIRDness. Henrich argues that human psychology and culture enjoy a symbiotic relationship as they evolve from primitive to modern states. His research takes us into remote cultures and societies of the under-developed world, communities and people groups of the developing world, and institutions and projects that mark the turn toward modernity. He offers interesting explanations of research methods employed, showing their intended use, and then folding the results—of his work and that of many others—into his developing narrative.
Henrich is committed to an evolutionary view of human psychological and cultural development, and sometimes the progress he claims for his story assumes too much, as when, having invested a good many pages in explaining how primitive religions work to reinforce kinship-and-tribal societies, he then opens the next section talking about Christianity, presumably as just the next stage of religious development. Or when he writes, concerning religious moral codes, “the moral codes of some of these [primitive] religions evolved into divine laws that adherents believed were universally applicable to all peoples” (146). His evolutionary methodology is consistent, which explains why gaps such as these are writ large throughout his work.
Henrich considers that the shift from kinship culture to MFP culture is, in the end, a good thing. Troubling though is his choice of verbs to explain what happened to bring about this change. He argues that “the medieval Church shaped contemporary psychology through its demolition of Europe’s kin-based institutions” (244). He writes further that the Church “annihilated” and was responsible for the “dismantling” of kin-based cultures, and that it caused the “dissolution” and “evaporation” of kinship relations (251, 307, 350, 398). These are terms of aggression, oppression, and even violence. There is almost no sense in Henrich’s account that persuasion or glad conversion to Christian faith might have made such a transition agreeable, even welcomed. But, given his evolutionary convictions, we would not expect such possible explanations.
Henrich’s argument hinges on the view that:
The Christian leaders who repeatedly beefed up, implemented, and enforced the MFP at ecumenical councils over centuries revealed no long-term instrumental vision for how they’d create a new kind of world, though they no doubt had some nonreligious motives in addition to a genuine desire to serve a powerful supernatural being who – they believed – was deeply concerned about people’s sex lives. Nev-ertheless, the unintended success of the MFP in restructuring medieval European populations directed societal evolution down a new pathway (485).
Church councils historically involve a good deal of discussion, debate, searching the Scriptures, prayer, and drafting and redrafting of documents. Joseph Henrich seems to think that such activity has the ability to direct the evolutionary process in particular directions, a suggestion with which many Christians would agree, replacing “evolutionary” with “social and cultural.” Henrich cherry-picks these councils to support his thesis. A more careful and thorough reading of the documents of these councils—and the entire record of Christian history—would discover many other ways that Christianity has helped to shape the world through the years, as Rodney Stark, Tom Holland, and others have demonstrated.2
Henrich claims to unlock the vast differences between the West and the rest of the world by a single two-edged key: MFP leading to literacy. There is no doubt these were factors in the process of Western social and cultural development. But Henrich may be guilty of the kind of research that Kristina Killgrove cautions against when she writes,
Research over the last several decades has shown that identifying one “prime mover” is impossible; rather, past activity is diverse, and circumstances are unique to a specific culture or society. Archaeologists caution that Diamond, Harari, and others over-essentialize the processes that lead to the rise and fall of past and present societies in order to write a tidy – but inaccurate – story of the past.3
Joseph Henrich claims to be carrying the work of Jared Diamond to its next logical stage.
Of course, because Henrich is an evolutionist, there is no room in his narrative for revelation or willing conversion. The implication of struggle is clear in all the social and cultural changes he traces. But if natural selection—comprised of time, chance, and random mutations, especially in the brain—is the driving force in this, then we cannot help but raise a brow at the way Henrich personalizes this process consistently throughout his work. He says of natural selection that it “builds,” “shapes,” “favors,” “devises,” “figures out,” “seeks out,” “creates,” “harnesses,” “tilts,” and “tames” the objects of its focus—all words which seem more intentional and teleological than an evolutionary methodology would allow.
The WEIRDest People in the World is a fascinating book. Despite its shortcomings, it provides welcome, albeit unintended, insight to the transforming power of Christian faith and the personal, social, cultural, and institutional benefits that can accrue to a people as they come under the influence of the God of Scripture.
Cite this article
- Joseph Henrich, “Martin Luther Rewired Your Brain,” Nautilus, February 17, 2021. https://nautil.us/issue/96/rewired/martin-luther-rewired-your-brain?mc_cid=12a60281c6&mc_eid=49d83bf8ea.
- Rodney Stark, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2015); Tom Holland, Dominion (New York: Basic Books, 2019).
Kristina Killgrove, “A Century of Civilization, Intelligence, and (White) Nationalism,” in A Most Interesting Problem: What Darwin’s Descent of Man Got Right and Wrong about Human Evolution, ed. Jeremy DeSilva (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2021), 121.