The Dark Age roots of Western modernity

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.

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13 thoughts on “The Dark Age roots of Western modernity

  1. Razib. Cousin marriage and it’s impact on tribalism has been a favorite of yours for many, many years.
    How the church in Northern Europe managed to restrict cousin marriage possibly leading to more acceptance of societal trust of out groups seems to be part of the answer to the rise of western democracy. Without out-group trust general acceptance of common law, contracts, trading etc is more challenging. The cost of verifying and enforcing out group trading relationships in a tribal setting outweighs their benefit.
    Strikingly Robert Putnam (Of Bowling Alone)first developed his concepts of the importance of civil structures looking at Italy. He never discussed the cousin marriage gradient in relation to the level of trust in civic institutions. Although this is now a major area of consideration. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Figure-D1-displays-the-percentage-of-first-cousin-marriages-in-Italian-provinces-at_fig5_328967889
    Putnam’s 2007 essay E Pluribus Unum really digs into the difficulty associated with group acceptance in the modern era https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-9477.2007.00176.x.
    The wealthy and aristocracy have always played by different rules. Marriages are business transactions to consolidate power. No different than tribal relationships.

  2. Looking forward to more of your thoughts. I’m a openly a big skeptic on this; I’m still pretty much disposed to the idea that if you have the mature Roman Empire and ass paper, printing, optics, the zero and Hindu numerals, the compass – none of which developed within Western Europe – you would probably get economic modernity and a scientific revolution. (And you can probably add a bunch more imported innovations to that.) It’s a bit hard for me to grasp the idea that all these innovations could have come together, along with the complexity of economic activity we see in the Roman world and *still* there would be so kind “Western Church Magic” that is nonetheless needed for true modernity. Yet if that isn’t the case, the Western Church obviously did not matter in a strong sense of allowing Europe to cross an uncrossable threshold. But, if there’s some evidence that specifically resolves these by providing a clear mechanism way (not “Look at my correlations!”)…

  3. How the church in Northern Europe managed to restrict cousin marriage possibly leading to more acceptance of societal trust of out groups seems to be part of the answer to the rise of western democracy.

    not just northern europe. e.g., northern italy is a big example of strong church. henrich really focuses on the outlines of the carolignian empire in particular

  4. @Matt
    “I’m still pretty much disposed to the idea that if you have the mature Roman Empire and ass paper, printing, optics, the zero and Hindu numerals, the compass – none of which developed within Western Europe – you would probably get economic modernity and a scientific revolution”

    I’m the inverse of such an opinion. I’m quite skeptical that the scientific revolution could have ever come out of the Roman Empire. I’d adhere to a more Walter Scheidel like claim: in which the collapse of the Roman Empire was probably actually more important (you only get the independent church/multiple medium sized competing states with that). And ultimately, culturally speaking, one of the key factors of the scientific revolution is the unification of science and technology (which are two very different fields in antiquity).

    Comparing the cultural attitudes of figures like Kepler, Newton and Galileo who not only theorized but dabbled in technical craftsmanship and appreciated the merits of labour versus the aristocratic leisure class of natural philosophers who in general disdained things associated with labor, it would take quite a massive cultural change in a counter-factual Roman Empire to achieve that. In this respect, the natural philosophers had much more in common with Hindu Brahmins than later Renaissance natural philosophers.

    “How We Got Here: From Bows and Arrows to the Space Age” by C. R. Hallpike covers how much of these cultural changes in thinking is required to construct a scientific revolution (medieval monks think about future improvement like Roger Bacon’s suggestion to use glass lens to improve sight in ways that was not really seen in antiquity).

  5. I’ll second Matt on the high Roman Empire (1st-2nd CE). The Greeks (and it was the Greek East which was responsible for virtually all scientific effort under the Roman Empire) just ran out of low hanging fruit for things to discover with their limited toolkit of scientific instruments. They got surprisingly far with just the naked eye and a mathematics dominated by geometry.

    If you magically gave the Greco-Roman world microscopes, telescopes, and Arabic numerals, there would probably have been a burst of new discoveries flowing from these.

    As it was, there was an enormous flowering of science in the 3rd Century BC which easily rivaled any other century in human history for scientific progress. And the 1st-2nd Centuries CE saw a significant amount of science being done by people like Heron, Ptolemy, and Galen, all of whom combined hands on experimentation with theory. Heron with a variety of probably demonstration-purpose inventions (including his famous proto-steam engine), Ptolemy with experimentation in refraction, and Galen in medicine getting perhaps the closest to a working scientific method before the real thing arose more than a thousand years later.

  6. The major “con” I’d assign to Early Roman Empire science is not so much its quality as its quantity, compared to the 3rd Century BC or to the Renaissance. It’s really hard to tell because so much literature has been lost, but reading existing 1st-2nd Century primary sources (I can only read them in English translation), the general elite culture just wasn’t that into science. What science was done seemed tied to Alexandria, and probably the Museum of Alexandria, which quite possibly almost single-handedly kept Greek science going. Heron, Ptolemy and Galen were top-flight by the standards of ancient science, but there wasn’t the density of interest and activity which seemed to exist in the 3rd Century BC.

    An analogy I’d give would be to Christianity actually. The Christianity of Justinian’s time seemed fanatical. But by the 11th century in Byzantium or the 14th Century in Italy, Christians seemed to have calmed down and just not have been into it as much. Greek science was culturally new and fresh and exciting in 300BC or 250BC in a way it wasn’t anymore in 100CE? It became that way again in the Renaissance, and kept feeding on itself with new discoveries and new scientific instruments/methods which allowed for further discoveries.

    As an aside, what strikes me about classical literature, ranging from Aristophanes to Thucydides to Lucretius to Juvenal to Lucian, is how shockingly modern it seems. Like a lot of it could have been written in the 18th Century or something, if you ignore the different cultural references.

  7. @traject, agree the “many states = innovation” ideas are interesting. And quite different from the cousin-marriage/Western Church ideas (you obviously don’t need WC to “get to” a competing multi-state system?). I find the version put forth by Koyama interesting where he stresses less the role of greater innovation in multi-state systems but their robusticity against collapsing due to a large civil war/invasion, so tend to be able to accumulate more growth over time.

    I guess the core for me here is how testable any of these ideas are any either direction.

    @bulbul, I have that impression too re relative lack of interest (without any deep reading on the topic). My guess though is really that post-medieval Christians also largely weren’t very interested in science either – mostly interested in war, religion, violent sports (tournaments), and other such things – but sheer volume of cheap paper and printing made it possible to reach small fractions of their population who could be and to allow them to share ideas more effectively. But that’s just my conjecture really, I wouldn’t know how to really prove its the case. (The counterargument here would be the argument that more printing and paper didn’t automatically trigger a rise of science in China?).

  8. @matt: well I wouldn’t say printing was necessary to create a cultural efflorescence. The one in 5th century BC Athens and the 3rd century BC Hellenistic world were both of a similar magnitude and importance to the Renaissance I think. And a lot of the Italian Renaissance had already happened before printing was widespread.

    I agree about multi-state competition being conducive to innovation. The Hellenistic monarchs essentially competed with each other to fund the arts and sciences. There was a bit of the same kind of competition among courts in Muslim Spain. And the European powers competed with each other for hundreds of years. Maybe the lack of state competition in the Roman period or Song China did slow things down.

    I think an issue unique to the Roman Empire was its polycentric nature. Usually the king would fund stuff in his court in the capital city. But Rome the city was not very dynamic culturally except in literature, and even that faded away. Instead the emperors would on-and-off fund individual projects and institutions here and there in the Greek cities and Rome. The Museum of Alexandria seemed to keep getting funding as a sort of grandfathered-in institution, so to speak. Rich private individuals would also fund quite large projects in cities like Athens and Ephesus. But there wasn’t the sort of continuous support and concentration of talent in a single capital city that you’d find in more normal states. The result was that things were diffuse. You had a literary revival called the 2nd Sophistic concentrated in Asia Minor and Athens, you had Alexandria more or less cut off from that and doing its own thing with the Museum and even a different literary dialect of Greek, which didn’t filter out completely to the rest of the Roman Empire. It wasn’t a competition between Asia Minor/Athens and Alexandria and Rome. More like a specialization in different things and relative isolation from / indifference to each other.

  9. @jackjohnson: Lucio Russo is great for a background in Hellenistic science, but I think the scholarly consensus about him is he kind of goes off the deep end with a lot of his conclusions. Yes the Hellenstic world did make a lot of scientific progress and because the almost all the primary sources from that time have been lost, it’s kind of a forgotten period. But no they didn’t create moving pictures or telescopes or an accurate heliocentric model of the solar system.

    5th century BC Athens and the 3rd Century BC Hellenistic world were explosions of brilliance, a lot like the Renaissance. The Hellenistic period has largely been forgotten, unlike the Athenian golden age.

    The early Roman Empire can charitably be called a slow burn. There was still significant progress being made, and science in 150CE was more advanced than in 200BC, but the rate of progress had slowed a lot. Also the Roman period saw a lot more technical progress or at least diffusion that the Hellenistic period. “Science” was largely unimportant to technological progress for most of human history, including surprisingly late into the European take-off.

  10. “The obliteration of the Western European extended kinship system by the Church between 600 and 1000 A.D. seems to have been so total”

    Color me real skeptical on this one. During the early middle ages, both the population of Europe and the Church were very thin on the ground. T think European family structure owes much more tho the habits of the Romans and the Germanic tribes, than it does to the Church.

  11. @bulbul, I definitely wouldn’t underrate the Hellenistic world or the Renaissance(s), though I think the latter dud benefit from paper, if not printing. It just mainly seems to me that the scientific revolution was much faster, more comprehensive, more inevitable and harder to stop than other movements, and I’d bet a good bit of that on the technological “information revolution” that was from printing.

    In general, I guess the thrust of my argument here is that I’m betting on contingent changes in innovations coming together, many from outside Europe, to allow more systematic innovation, more than on a new social structure and psychology which was more open and allowed more effective collaboration. I guess recent events have made me think more that Western societies have perhaps simply traded a better and somewhat healthier “groupishness” that is perhaps more compatible with a stable government (the extended family and more broadly ancestry) for a generally worse groupishness based on cult and religious ideology, economic class, region of current residence – and other theoretically open/aspirational groupings – and all the revolutionary millenarian tendencies movements around such identities tend to be linked to.

  12. I have also much doubt about the theory Catholic Church > banning of cousin marriage > nuclear family > individual autonomy; because, if anything, today is the catholic world that is associated with extended family and the protestant world with nuclear family; even today, it is in the Catholic country that you are supposed to leave the parents home only when you marry, and in the protestant countries that you are supposed to leave the parents’ home when you have some financial autonomy, or even before that (the whole trope “living in his mother’s basement” only makes sense in a protestant culture, where you are supposed to have your own home)

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