Since Joe Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous isn’t out until September, I will wait to pitch a full review (probably to National Review) until then (well, actually, I’ll pitch later this month and have it ready to go with the book is out). But it’s a rich work which is stimulating food for thought, so I’ll post on it until then on this weblog. The author writes in a relatively academic and objective manner, so it doesn’t have an outrageous title such as “How the Roman Catholic Church invented the modern world in the Dark Ages.” But a lot of it does feel like that.
The key aspect, and most persuasive element, to me, is that the collapse of the Roman system presented an opportunity for the institutional Western Christian Church. Decisions in the early medieval period set in train a set of cultural changes and effects which resulted in the deep structural reasons why the modern world was likely to come out of the West. The author admits that he believes the power of cultural selection and evolution is such that it can overwhelm other factors (he is, after all, a cultural evolutionist!).
Two examples, of different levels of importance and strength. First, the fact that before 1900 cities were incredible demographic sinks implies that there was selection against the type of personality which would wish to live in cities (W.E.I.R.D.). There is a lot of evidence that premodern cities were black holes. They ate up the demographic base of the countryside and always needed more. With the development of independent free cities in the medieval period and their growth in the early modern stage, there was a strong genetic selection effect on the type of personality which might be attracted to cities. Nevertheless, society kept getting more W.E.I.R.D. Not less. A good analogy here I think is Roman Catholicism and France. In the early 19th century demographics (migration from Poland, for example) already worried secular French intellectuals that Roman Catholicism would make a massive come back. France was demographically undergoing transition, and Catholics kept having children.
Ultimately that didn’t happen, because the cultural force was just too strong to swing upstream against.
The second example is looking at selection against EDU (years of educational attainment) in terms of SNPs recently discovered. Henrich presents this result without critique but argues that the cultural context of intellectual work is such that we’re far more productive than we were one hundred years ago. This can be disputed some, but I think a lot of that argument has to do with “low hanging fruit.” Telsa and SpaceX are still doing things.
But there’s another example that came to mind as I was reading The WEIRDest People in the World. Like Jared Rubin in Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not Henrich is positive toward the idea that Protestantism and modernity go hand in hand. Think of it as a bit of neo-Weberianism. I don’t personally accept the psychological explanation without further evidence, though it seems that descriptively the correlation is robust. Rather, I want to highlight a countervailing trend of the Reformation: the increase in rates of cousin marriage and patriarchal authority within the family. One of Henrich’s major arguments, prefigured by other thinkers, is that the institutional power and incentives of the early Roman Catholic Church were arrayed against the coalescence of powerful aristocratic kindreds and descent-groups after the fall of Rome. Additionally, the Church served as an institutional escape valve for many women who wished to delay or avoid marriage, becoming part of religious orders and such. The collapse of the institutional Church in Protestant Europe initially resulted in the rise of cousin marriage among elite lineages, as well as greater control of fathers over the choices of their offspring in terms of partners. Readers of this weblog may know of the Darwin-Wedgewood family.
This is not a pattern exclusive to Protestant Europe. L. L. Cavalli-Sforza reported data from Italy where modern transportation resulted in decreased rates of consanguineous marriage…followed by anti-clerical sentiment produce a resurgence in some areas (as the Church no longer could enforce bans on distant cousins marrying).
Nevertheless, something like the Chinese clan system never reemerged in Europe, despite the structural forces. History is not a long unimpeded march, but the sum total outcome of periodic tensions, tremors, and disruptions. The obliteration of the Western European extended kinship system by the Church between 600 and 1000 A.D. seems to have been so total that it was not possible for shocks like the Reformation to reverse the pattern, despite local patterns.