If you’re listening to this podcast, you’re almost certainly WEIRD. I’m not trying to insult my loyal and beloved Gospelbound listeners but simply observing that you’re likely to be Western, educated, industrialized, rich (compared to other places and times), and democratic (as in the system, not the party). Put it together, and you get the acronym WEIRD.
The man behind the acronym is Joseph Henrich, chair of the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and author of many important works. His latest is The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous [read TGC’s review]. Sometimes a book’s true significance sinks in over time—and sure enough, I’ve talked about this book more and more in the months since I read it. You’ll get pretty much everything you want: theology, history, neuroscience, biology, social science, economics, and more. Everything from the rule of law to individual rights to commercial markets to democracy to religious freedom to the growth of cities fits into his narrative.
Henrich weaves it all together to explain what separated the West from world history. But his story is neither inevitable nor triumphalist. He argues that if you looked at the world in the year 1000, you’d never imagine that Europe would eventually surpass China or the Islamic world in power and wealth. And you can see the pros and cons in what makes the WEIRD distinct:
[W]e WEIRD people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist, and analytical. We focus on ourselves—our attributes, accomplishments, and aspirations—over our relationships and social roles.
At the center of the narrative is the church and its prohibitions on cousin marriage (yes, you read that correctly). Henrich explains more in this week’s episode of Gospelbound.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: If you’re listening to this podcast, you’re almost certainly weird. No, I’m not trying to insult my loyal and beloved Gospelbound listeners. I’m simply observing that you’re likely to be Western, educated, industrialized, rich, certainly compared to other places in times, and democratic as in the system, not the party. Put it together and you get the acronym WEIRD. The man behind the acronym is Joseph Henrick, chair of the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and author of many important works. His latest is, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.
Sometimes it takes a while for a book’s true significance to sink in for you. And I haven’t stopped talking about this book in the months since I read it. You’ll get pretty much everything you want. Theology, history, neuroscience, biology, social science, economics, and more. Everything from the rule of law to the individual rights to commercial markets, to democracy, to religious freedom, to the growth of cities fits into Henrich’s narrative.
He weaves everything together to explain what separated the West from world history. But his story is neither inevitable, nor triumphalist. He argues that if you looked at the world in the year 1000, you’d never imagined that Europe would eventually surpass China or the Islamic world in power and wealth. And you can see the pros and cons and what makes the WEIRD distinct. “We weird people are highly individualistic, self obsessed, control-oriented, non-conformist and analytical. We focus on ourselves, our attributes, accomplishments, and aspirations over our relationships and social roles.” At the center of the narrative is the church and its prohibitions on cousin marriage. I’ll let him explain more in this interview. Joe, thank you for joining me on GospelBound.
Joseph Henrich: It’s good to be with you, Collin.
Collin Hansen: Joe, explain how our brains have modified in Western culture.
Joseph Henrich: Well, there’s a whole class of aspects or dimensions of psychology that cultural psychologists have documented. So one cluster of aspects is individualism. So our tendency to focus on ourselves and our attributes, as you mentioned, this often goes along with the tendency towards analytic thinking over more holistic thinking. So when you solve a problem with an analytic thinker, you tend to break things down into its component parts and assign properties or assign elements to categories. So psychologists, for example, try to explain behavior. They give people personalities, when economists try to do it, they give them preferences. When physicists try to classify behavioral particles, they give them categories positive, negative, neutron electronics. So that’s a very analytical way of approaching it.
Holistic would be looking at relationships or how things interconnect. If you’re trying to explain someone’s behavior in a holistic way, you’ll think about the relationships that you try to do in an analytic way they’ll think about, are they trustworthy, lazy, things like that, like the Boy Scout oath. And so there’s a whole bunch more trust in strangers, willingness to cooperate with strangers, patience, use of mental states in moral judgment. So focus on intentions on other kinds of things.
Collin Hansen: Now we’ll get a chance to dive deep into this because again, this book is massive, and its ramifications and all that it brings together, but of particular interest to the listeners of Gospelbound will be those theological elements and those elements that intersect with the church. How did Protestantism in particular contribute to this transformation in the very ways that we think, and even the sort of biological makeup of our very brains?
Joseph Henrich: Yeah. One of the things about the book, so people often ask me about the great German sociologist Max Weber, and Weber puts Protestantism in the center as crucial to the development of capitalism. And part of what the book is trying to do is get the Protestantism. Because it’s already an unusual religion, highly individualistic focused, focused on mental states. But I do give some space in his book to saying, what are the downstream consequences of Protestantism? And I think things like hard work is a virtue.
So if you compare Europeans living in the same countries, and you compare Protestants to Catholics, you do have people work longer hours. They work harder even for the same amount of money. They seem to draw some sense of satisfaction from their work. It’s more like a calling. There do seem to be associations with products that hadn’t been patient. So willingness to defer gratification, more emphasis on mental states. So just like the debates had in Christianity about whether you need to say some good works or just faith, Protestants were coming down on the side of just faith, which is the real emphasis on mental states.
Collin Hansen: One quote I thought was especially good at summarizing from your book. You write this: “By wrapping these values, motivations, and worldviews together, giving them God’s blessing and linking them to a contingent afterlife that is an afterlife with heaven or hell, judgment or glory, some Protestants created powerful cultural recombinations that not only produced even WEIRDer psychologies, but also contributed to economic growth, the effectiveness of democratic institutions, and higher suicide rates.” Again, positives and negatives there together. I think the way you put it as something like Christianity in general in the West in particular produces this kind of effect, but then what was it? What did you say? Something like Protestantism puts it in overdrive, something like that, or [crosstalk 00:05:58].
Joseph Henrich: Catalyze it or accelerate it. I probably use different metaphors in different places. Because part of the idea is like a lot of these aspects of psychology and ways of thinking were active in the free cities and charter towns of Europe. But like you just quoted it it wraps it up. It makes it important. It gives it God’s blessing and that sort of turbocharges things.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Now what differences do you observe in Protestant versus Catholic missions around the world when it comes to this development?
Joseph Henrich: Yeah. Well, one of the things I start the book off on, and it’s a way of, it gives people an avenue into thinking about this is Protestant has this element of sola scriptura, where each individual is supposed to learn to read the Bible for themselves. And that places a premium on everybody, boys and girls learning to read. So one of the earliest findings from the economists as they begin to dig into this was that in lots of places, whether you go to India, Africa, and even China, the closer you are to Christian missions, the higher the rate of literacy.
So you can do this today in Africa in the 20th century, you could do it in China, certainly in the 18th and 19th century, India today as well. But it seems to be Protestantism that drives this. So you get a much stronger effect for Protestantism. Although the Catholic missions do step up when they’re in competition with the Protestants. So it’s almost like each religion has got to deliver, and once the people see that the Protestant missions are going to literary teaching people to read then the Catholic missions have to do that as well.
There’s also an interesting literature developing on the differences amongst types of Catholic missions. So the Jesuits who were born in the Counter-Reformation. Right? So they actually have adopted a lot of Protestant elements. They seem to have Protestant-like effects, which in some ways are Cistercian-like effect because before Protestant and you have these Cistercian monasteries who had adopted the value of hard work and some of the elements that then become part of Protestants.
Collin Hansen: I’m glad you mentioned the Counter-Reformation there because I was going to say, it’s not like the Catholic church emerges and the Protestantism sort of breaks out from that. And then they remain static. Now there’s an ongoing interchange between the two and Catholics in many ways become more Protestant, whether they admit that or not in subsequent years. And the Jesuits would be a perfect example of that.
Here’s a quote that I thought was especially helpful on that point of how you summarize in the book. You say this: “Broad based literacy changed people’s brains and altered their cognitive abilities and domains related to memory, visual processing, facial recognition, numerical exactness, and problem-solving. It probably also indirectly altered family sizes, child health and cognitive development as mothers became increasingly literate and formerly educated. The psychological and social changes may have fostered speedier innovation, new institutions and in the long run, greater economic prosperity.” Again, so many different places that we could go with this including the outcomes women in particular. But let’s talk about the social function of shame and guilt and how those operate differently. Could you explain that?
Joseph Henrich: Yeah. So the distinction between shame and guilt, which a lot of Americans in particular, I think are a little fuzzy on, but anthropologists have been noticing this difference going all the way back to people like Ruth Benedict who wrote this book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, about Japanese psychology. But society is based on shame where shame is one of the most important emotions of social control are places where people are concerned about losing face. So they don’t want to fall in the eyes of others.
Whereas guilt-based societies are based on your own standards that you adopt personally. So you might want to go to the gym or you might want to not eat a lot of sugar or something like that. But that’s not a society-wide thing. Those are standards you have adopted, I mean, not in a vacuum, but and then when you fall below those, you feel bad, and that’s the experience of guilt. You’re not being judged by others, but you’re judging yourself in some ways.
And so it’s in this individualistic world of optional relationships where you have to find your own mates and your own friends, that guilt is so important because you need to adhere to those standards and distinguish yourself among others to be able to compete in this world of mobile relationships. Whereas in the shame world, most of your relationships are acquired at birth. And so it’s really about conforming to those relationships and going along because there’s not a lot of breadth for distinguishing yourself and finding new relationships, you’re going to find your new relationships through your existing ones by kind of working through your networks.
Collin Hansen: That’s a good transition into what seems to be the kind of I guess maybe underlying thesis of the book related to the influence of the Western marriage and family program on the development of the West. This was one of those revolutionary explanations for me that came through the book. So why don’t you just give us the basic explanation of what was the Western churches policy toward marrying within the family?
Joseph Henrich: It’s key to understand that this is not a bunch of church leaders got down and hammered this out. This was something that slowly evolved and accumulates over several centuries, many centuries. It begins in late antiquity and actually some of the first prohibitions are against marrying your spouse’s siblings. So it’s very common. In fact, you can find it in the Old Testament. Well, something called levirate marriage, where if your husband dies and you marry his brother and the church bans, it bans either combination when your husband dies or your wife dies.
And these are classic forms of marriage and polygynist societies, those could be second or third wives. And even in monogamous societies, if your spouse died, then there’d be this replacement. And that maintains the relationship between the family. So anthropologists have talked about the function of this a lot, and it seems to maintain family bonds. So the church pushes against that. And then by 500, there’s a couple of false starts before that, but by 500 CE it’s pushing back against cousin marriage, it begins with first cousin marriage, but then between 500 and 1000, it extends that all the way up to six cousins and it just keeps increasing it. So you have to look further and further going to more strangers people from different ethnic groups to find marriage partners.
Collin Hansen: Explain the motivation behind this, because I think for your present-day WEIRD listeners, they think about this and they think, well, that must have been a genetic decision because they must’ve understood the effects of incest. But that was not, I assume, common knowledge at the time.
Joseph Henrich: Well, it’s a little bit complicated. You will find ancient speculating on the possibility that there might be this. And they knew this partially from animal breeding. But as a policy, it didn’t make any sense, because of course your sixth cousins are totally fine. Lots of societies have first, second cousin marriage. And it also extended athenial and spiritual kin.
So you never would have extended to athenial and spiritual kin if you were worried about narrowing blood relatives. It does seem to tap into it. So people in my field, evolutionary biology, have long argued that we have a kind of instinctive discuss reaction to sex with siblings and parents. So we seem to have this evolved system that keeps us from having this kind of dangerous sex with very close relatives. And then lots of societies will extend that to some of your first cousins.
So for example, I work in Fiji, and there you have a certain set of cousins who are first cousins who are preferred marriage partners, but then a different set of first cousins who are completely taboo. And you use terms for brother and sister for them. So they’re thought of as brother and sister, meaning no sex or marriage. Whereas the other two are preferred marriage partners. Super common and by church tradition, Jesus’s parents were first cousins meeting Joseph and Mary, and it was common among the Israelites.
Collin Hansen: OK. That’s part of what confuses me about this, because we also know all the way through the 20th century, the Royal families of Europe are intermarrying cousins, which is why when you get queen Victoria and the outset of World War 1, essentially all of the rulers are related to each other. So the rules just don’t apply then, or just didn’t apply to the royals. Is that the deal?
Joseph Henrich: There’s some kind of non non-linear effects. So beginning in the Carolingian empire the royals are getting the church’s exerting its force on the royals and you have cases. So William the Conqueror, William of Normandy, actually gets threatened with excommunication because he’s a cousin from Aquitaine and they have to build some abbeys, kind of apologized to the pope and whatnot. So the pope does have some power. He’s willing to use it to get to bring current rulers into line, but then this isn’t part of Protestantism, so it doesn’t become doctrinized in Protestantism. So later on, when a lot of the rulers are Protestants, they’re doing heavy intermarrying. You can also by the latter middle ages, purchase a dispensation. So if you have enough money, you could pay the church and marry your cousins.
Collin Hansen: OK. I think another confusion again, this is why the book is so fascinating among many other reasons is that I wouldn’t have thought that many people growing up, especially in the smaller cities, smaller towns or rural areas of Europe would have known a lot of people who they weren’t related to that sixth cousin element. I mean, you would have figured there was a lot of that by that point.
Joseph Henrich: And that’s one of the tricky things is of course almost no one could have actually tracked out the sixth cousins. So as a practical matter, everybody around you has to agree that we don’t know any way that you’re related to this person. And one of the things many people will be familiar with marriage ceremonies. And one of the elements of the marriage ceremony is the minister priest says, “Does anybody here know why this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony? Speak now or forever hold your peace.” That was part of the incest inquest. It would occur just before the marriage. And it was in order to figure out Are these cousins now? This is everybody who could possibly know the answer to that question here at the same time. And you could get in trouble if you held that back. Right. So there were sanctions for people who didn’t tell the truth if they knew something.
Collin Hansen: You’ve laid the groundwork there. So let’s talk about then the significant transformations that begin to result. And I assume these are unintended consequences. It’s not like these church figures were saying, We need to clamp down on this because these things will result. I assume that wasn’t part of the thought.
Joseph Henrich: So I mean, there’s a mixture of scholarly opinion on that, but nobody has argued that they were seeing the future that actually emerged. People saw it as a public health… Well not really public health, not quite right, but there was definitely writings in which when a plague would hit, and some theologian would say it’s because God is angry about the incest that’s going on. And by incest, he didn’t mean brothers and sisters. He meant some kind of cousin marriage going on. So a leader saw themselves as cracking down on those, both secular and religious, because we’ve got to stop angering God, because he doesn’t want this incest to go on. So I kind of analogize that to a public health campaign. If you think that it’s causing plagues, we should stop there.
Collin Hansen: I see. That makes sense. So let’s go ahead and make that transition. Explain how the shift from intensive kinship, which is what we’re talking about, that predates European and really global societies before the rise of the marriage and family program, as he described it within the Western church, explain the shift from kinship to then what you described as norms and beliefs and what that means in terms of consequences for the rise of Western institutions that we clearly take for granted at this point.
Joseph Henrich: So a key idea in the book is that as human societies evolve to get more cooperative and more complex, one of the key tools that used was your kin relations and kind of effecting your social networks through incest, taboos, marriages and extending relatedness. So calling people, brothers or sisters, that weren’t your brothers and sisters, of course, lots of religions to that. And that’s a way of kind of creating kin like bonds among people. And so you build this big extended family, and what the church’s program does is it takes that standard approach, which has done in a diversity of ways across human societies and break everyone down into monogamous nuclear families, which are incredibly rare around the world and back into time.
And then the argument I make in the book is that building from those nuclear families, Europeans had to figure out a new way to organize themselves, to take care of old people and to take care of orphans and to secure yourself, if you get injured or can’t work. Who’s going to take care of you? And so they began forming voluntary associations. So these included monasteries and parish churches, universities, charter towns, would be groups of people who had found a town, and those proliferated all over Europe, and guilds started as these self-help societies where people would swear an oath to God to be part of this mutual aid society. Eventually those become occupational guilds. People are familiar with that.
So a whole proliferation of different kinds of voluntary associations, and they begin competing with each other for members. So you’re essentially trying to offer potential members the best deal possible. And this is a kind of social dynamic that you can have with kin groups because you’re assigned to your clan or whatever by birth, but you can pick which monastery. And of course there were new monasteries branching off all the time. So those guys, the Cistercians seemed to be doing it better than Cluny Abbey. You could go join the Cistercians and later the Dominicans along those lines.
Same thing with the towns. So the towns wanted the best merchants and the best blacksmith. So they would try to recruit them to the town. So what do I get for this? Well you got to get out of impressment, and you do have to participate in communal defense, but we’re gonna low taxes on certain revenues or something like that.
Collin Hansen: Sort of a proto-capitalism is part of what you’re describing.
Joseph Henrich: This is something called the commercial revolution, and it begins to take off.
Collin Hansen: I think one of the biggest challenges within Western culture is that Westerners have somehow convinced themselves in many cases that we don’t have a culture. That it’s somehow just a default. And you described this essentially in the rise of psychological analysis where people think this is how people think. No, it’s how Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic people think. It’s not a human thing. It’s actually a cultural manifestation and this particular time and place.
So Westerners I don’t find to be particularly reflective. And I’m not sure this is unique to the West just saying don’t pick really reflective about what makes our culture distinct. Can you give a couple examples of what we take for granted? But one of them is that stood out to me is the fear of calling the police if you knew an extended family would retaliate against and defend their honor. What would be some other examples of things would just completely take for granted, but that are actually historically, perhaps even geographically distinct in the West?
Joseph Henrich: Well, one of the things I mentioned already was the importance of mental states and making moral judgments. So if you give people scenarios where someone stuff was taken, a theft or someone gets hit and you manipulate whether they act or get it on purpose or by accident, there’s usually a big effect that someone who did something on purpose should be punished a lot more than someone who did something by accident. But lots of societies regulate all kinds of including murder, arson, all kinds of things independent of intention.
So when you add the intentions elements, the punishment that you elicit gets the same amount of punishment you can do it lots of different ways. And that’s interesting because that psychological tendency, which we can get and experiments we see in law. So if you look at the legal anthropology, you see the same kinds of things coming up, they just didn’t do the experiments also. So there’s a real story there. And then the development of Western law, you can see intention getting more and more important as time goes by. You look at the early law codes that were first written when different group tribes in Europe were getting missionized. That was kind of the missionary protocol was to write down the local laws, and they often didn’t have intention, which played much less of a role.
Collin Hansen: Which has its origins at least in terms of Western tradition within the Hebrew Bible. Sins of the high hand, different sins were treated differently in terms of punishment, depending on intent. Now one thing that was a little bit confused on the difference between norms and beliefs versus intensive kinship, especially within the purview of the Western church, is the situation, and especially Southern and western Italy specifically, I’m thinking about the mafia.
So how does the mafia remains so powerful alongside the Catholic Church in Italy and in Italian-settled areas of the United States? Because I think probably for people today, if they’re thinking about intensive kinship, probably the mafia is the closest example that they could relate to, I would think.
Joseph Henrich: The mafia has a lot of characteristics. There’s a sense of loyalty. There’s a lot of family metaphors. And one of the fun things about this project was the way it illuminated this puzzle of Italy. So social scientists have kind of scratched their head for a long time over Italy because in Northern Italy, it’s the home of the Renaissance and beginning of the banking industry, and places like Sicily and Southern Italy are mostly famous for the mafia for exporting the mafia to places like New York.
And so when you actually look at the history of Italy, there’s quite a different path you see. Northern Italy is brought under the marriage and family program early and particularly it’s part of the Carolingian empire. So it’s conquered by Charlemagne, who is extremely active and working with the pope and the church to implement the marriage and family program. Meanwhile, Southern Italy and Sicily is a patchwork of political control, including the Greek Orthodox or the Byzantine Empire controls part of southern Italy, and Sicily is under Islamic powers for a long time. So it’s not until the high middle ages and the Norman conquest that the rest of Italy begins to get integrated into the marriage and family program. So northern Italy has a 400-year headstart or something on southern Italy.
Collin Hansen: And that’s one of the main arguments of your book is that the amount of time you’ve had to be able to expose to this program makes a big difference. And then the element of Protestantism on top of that. One question related to this we mentioned the effects. I quoted you earlier to the effects on women, but how did men in particular change in the West as a result of the church’s teaching about monogamous marriage?
Joseph Henrich: Right. So that’s something that a lot of viewers might not realize is that if you look at the anthropological record, most human societies allowed men to take additional wives. It’s actually pretty rare that women were allowed to take additional husbands. There’s less than 1 percent of… It’s a little bit more complicated than that, but that general pattern holds. And so, especially in a society with substantial wealth, Europe became unusual as Christianity spreads, the tribes, the pre-Christian tribes of Europe had various forms of polygyny.
So sometimes you can only have one wife of your own social class, but you could have a number of secondary wives. And this was not sneaking around or anything. This was a legitimate relationship. There’s a name for it. There were norms and stuff associated or inheritance rules. The children of your secondary wives wouldn’t get the same amount as the children of your primary wife, but they were in for something usually. So that was just a system and Christianity, of course doesn’t like that and begins to stamp it out and move towards monogamy, a key part of this story. And this is relatively late in the story, but Henry VIII’s problems with all of his wives would have been solved in most places in most times, because if his first wife couldn’t have a child, he could just go add a second wife and keep the first wife. And that would have cut down on the beheading.
Collin Hansen: He did have illegitimate children, but they were not legally recognized and thus not being able to be successors.
Joseph Henrich: So that’s a really interesting point because that’s one of the tools that church pulled out of its arsenal. So when it first tried to convince the elites—the men, basically—basically to not take these additional wives, they just weren’t listening. So the church employed this notion of legitimacy. And once you say the children who are from a woman who we didn’t marry you to those aren’t legitimate, which means they can’t get inheritance and men can’t get any of the benefits of being your child that changed the incentives, especially for the women. So that was that legitimization tool was important for the church’s implementation. But so the key thing here that happens is in a society with a polygynous marriage, you end up with a large pool of unmarried men, and those men have to take risks in order to climb up the status hierarchy, because you have to be even richer to be able to get a wife or get into the marriage and mating market in a polygynist society.
What monogamous marriage doesn’t make sense and people don’t like this kind of economic way of thinking, but it redistributes women. And it gives men who were lower on the social economic status, a chance to compete and have children. And we have enough studies now of the effects on testosterone when a man gets married, his testosterone drops, and when he has a child that drops again. So it’s in some sense, domesticating males to marry them. But if this doesn’t work in polygynous societies, when a man marries in a position in society, he’s just competing for the next wife at that point. So he’s not out of the market in some sense.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. These are the factors that I just think are so endlessly fascinating. I don’t know if it’s game theory or what that you apply, but you actually graph out the effect of a society and sort of a dot chart of what it looks like of how it creates excess men. I was just reading today about the decline of birth rates in China and essentially the one-child policy has been absolutely disastrous and entirely predictable.
First it led to a dramatic excess of men, which has been a societal problem for much of history for the reasons that you talk about right there. But now it’s just sort of merging within the weird matrix as China continues to be exposed to the West. And now all of a sudden female economic powers are rising. That’s the influence also of communism, but that comes out of the West. And now all of a sudden the birth rates have just collapsed in a way that’s akin to what had already happened in other East Asian cultures, Japan and Korea in particular.
Joseph Henrich: One of the amazing things about the one child cases that, I mean, from the purpose of figuring this out, the way that the way it happened in China was really important because the one child policy was implemented at different times in different provinces. And that meant 18 years later, you’re going to have more men than women. So you’re going to have this excess pool, and then you can link that to crime rates. So men become adults, they start committing crimes if they don’t have a stake in the future. And so you can just see that kind of happening in the data.
Collin Hansen: Now let’s go back to commercial markets and how they fit into this story. You mentioned a little bit about the effect of Protestantism and a little bit about competition. Is there anything else we could add there in terms of how this contributes to the rise? I mean, how sort of like the shift away from the intensive kinship ends up leading to these commercial markets?
Joseph Henrich: So the case that I make is that in lots of places in times, you’ve had lots of exchange, and exchange has been important in many human societies, but the way people try to exchange is by taking advantage of trusted relationships, they all already have. And by the demolition of the kinship systems in Europe, a lot of those links are broken. So people begin to develop market relationships or market norms for how you’re supposed to deal with a stranger. And we can do experiments where we give people a sum of money and we have them allocated between themselves and another stranger. And we find that the more market integrated populations are the more fair minded they are, the strangers.
Think of it as just like a habit. If I have lots of mutually beneficial transactions and I’m applying these market norms, I’m just going to keep applying them. And so we think that kind of comes into these experiments as a heuristic. Whereas in most places you’re trying to exchange, and you’re wanting to kind of be fair minded with it. Known members of your network basically could be family. You could also have certain other people you exchange with. And that means just the random stranger. That’s the time for self-interest.
Collin Hansen: I think just for people who haven’t had the chance to read the book and really internalize it, the way to describe it is that most people, for much of history and even many people today, different parts of the world, don’t primarily think about whether an idea is correct. They think about its effect on their group, their tribe, their family, they don’t really think about evaluating it the way a Westerner would. Is that a good way to summarize that?
Joseph Henrich: Yeah, I mean it’s based on norms and a priority given to your in-group and whatnot, and it’s not evaluated at the kind of moral universalism level. Is this a good principle, a general applies to all humans or something like that?
Collin Hansen: Yeah, I thought you also apply this to churches. So you applied that competition among churches will raise people’s trust, fairness and cooperation between strangers. I would imagine that that’s counterintuitive to many people today. So how does competition create trust? You’d figure it’d be the opposite.
Joseph Henrich: So we have good evidence, not from churches, unfortunately, but we do have good evidence from firms, which might even be less intuitive for people. So the idea is that you have to cooperate with members of your firm in order to succeed. And if there’s a lot of competition then groups that can’t get it together, maybe they have a bad management structure, maybe they’re too unequal, there could be all kinds of reasons that kind of inhibits their cooperation and the norms from developing.
And so the competition among the firms creates this treadmill that kicks out the firms with the bad cultures. And that means that people are increasingly spending their day in relatively cooperative environments, where they can trust most members of their groups. There’s probably a lot of mobility in those firms, so they just have to have general rules. They can’t be like, “Oh, I’m only going to trust Bob because Bob’s going to move up the chain or go to another company or something like that.” So it’s more of these impersonal norms that I talk about in the book. And then those just get taken out into the larger society. Most of your interactions, your important ones, might be at work. So the idea is that there’s this easy lead off effect. And just as a matter of the evidence, that’s what we see in the data.
Collin Hansen: Well, I thought just that’s very instructive and I thought, especially as I’m working primarily with church leaders you describe how these interdependent networks provide mutual aid through churches, how they provide shared commitments to sacred norms and their rituals and supernatural beliefs help manage existential anxiety and uncertainty. And so you can see the ways that the church contributes in a lot of these beneficial social ways within the culture. Let me shift gears here for the last couple of questions here with Joe Henrich talking about his new book, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. I’m guessing if American political leaders had read your book in 2002, they would not have tried to build Western democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Is that a fair inference?
Joseph Henrich: Well, yeah, what you can do is just import institutions into those places that’ve built in one place and take into another place. I mean, the Americans in Iraq did this. There’s one funny example that’s brought up in one of the critiques of the Iraq War is that some American soldier was put in charge of the traffic in Baghdad. So he’s like, well, I need some traffic laws. And so he took the Maryland’s code, the Maryland traffic code. Turns out Baghdadis don’t drive like folks in Maryland. So it caused a lot of traffic problems and until they managed to readapt it.
So, I mean the only way to do some kind of developmental process in a place like that is you need to be able to get it to generate from the people themselves. And you can’t bring institutions down because there’s gotta be a fit between how people think about the world, organize their social relationships and the higher level institutions.
Collin Hansen: Well, it seems like to summarize what you’re saying there, democracy is something that evolves out of this broader Western project, which is unique to Christianity in these distinct ways. And therefore you can’t simply jump over 2,000 years of history, drop it in there and say, “Hey let’s just go for it now.” The democracy itself is not what created the process, the process created democracy. Would that be a good idea?
Joseph Henrich: You can see it from these examples where if you’re only ever going to vote for someone from your village or someone who shares your ethnicity. So say everybody just votes for whoever is of their ethnic group. That just means the largest ethnicity always wins. And so you need some groups that are mobile. One of the things that concerns me about American politics is the parties need to be mobile. So people have to be born Democrats and decide to become Republicans, and sometimes grow up Republican and decide to become Democrats. There has to be flow. If they ever ossify that starts to look like tribes and then it’s just about numbers. Right?
Collin Hansen: You anticipated my next question. So I’m glad we’re on the same wavelength. What happens if the West abandoned the Christianity that gave rise to these developments? Now it’s going to look different from different people. I believe that Christianity is true that Jesus Christ is resurrected from the dead. So I have an interest in this. But of course social scientists can look in on it more of kind of an outside perspective or sort of… They’re just looking at its usefulness or its utility within a society.
But I thought it was interesting that you found that when a society only believes in heaven, but not in hell that the murder rate increases. That’s just one example that you gave of this sort of a contingent afterlife and its effects on moral behavior in a society. And this is where you just anticipated my next question. Could the current decline of Christianity and universalizing religion explain some of the rising tribalism and identity politics that we’re seeing now?
Joseph Henrich: So we’ve been trying to analyze the political polarization in the U.S., and I’m not sure if we’re seeing a religious angle, but one of the things that’s happened in the U.S. is that in the book I talk about how shocks seem to affect people, and the climate change is causing a lot more shocks. If you look at the Watt wildfires and storms and stuff like that. So that’s one factor.
The other thing that is a deeper problem is residential mobility. So a key idea in the book is that people need to move around. So there’s all this movement in Europe between towns and stuff like that. There’s the journeymen stage for craftsmen. They had to go to a different place. So all these elements that move people around. The U.S. has had a decline in residential mobility for a few decades now. So people are building enduring relationships with people in their local counties and the local counties that have very little social or residential mobility tend to vote right. And people in places that have lots of social mobility tend to vote left.
And so the more you have diversity where some people in some counties never moved and other places are these whirling pots of change and immigration and whatnot, and you can see that in Jon Haidt’s data. My lab is using it now, but we took Jon Haidt’s data, as you can see, increasing differences in moral psychology, that seems to fall along these trends.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Jon Haidt, a friend of the show, if I can say we’ve done two interviews with Jon. So his work has been very influential here. I think the way that I would put it, Joe, with the effect of Christianity is that when Christianity becomes a merely tribal marker and manifestation, as opposed to the societal norm, what you see is an emerging tribalism between those low-mobility tribes that tend to be geographically or rural oriented versus sort of urban, increasingly secularized tribe.
And so religion is a marker, but what’s happened is that it’s become merely tribal for one group, and it’s been cast off by the other. And now as they’ve gone through what’s of course called the big sort, it turns into more of a kind of European style, tribal war. So that’s kinda what I was getting at there.
So one last question, and this is specific really to Christian leaders, and we did a review of your book and we put it alongside Phillip Jenkins’s book on at Baylor, out of the effects of fertility that often rising fertility has gone along with the success of religion. And so he was arguing that if the West is not going to have children, it’s not going to have religion. And it’s a fascinating dynamic with your book, because your book is describing in many ways, decreasing fertility as a result of religion, specifically of Western religion and Christianity. Though, it is a complicated picture because there are plenty of places that are not Christian at all, like Japan or minority Christian, like Korea, and decrease in Christian that are having the same issues or Israel as an example
But I’m wondering if you were looking at these issues and developments as a Christian leader, might you conclude that Christianity had, in some ways sow the seeds of its own demise in how we’re seeing this play out?
Joseph Henrich: Yeah, so you’re right. It is a complex picture. So in the book I make the case that it’s this marriage and family program, this transformation of a family. I mean, anytime you have things that cause women to get married later, or to go to school is going to reduce your total fertility, anything that shortens the period of birth. So that pushed-down fertility and probably fed into the demographic transition, which is what you’re describing, where any place that industrializes seems to have this decline in fertility, but at the same time, it still does seem to be the case that more religious people tend to have more babies. And that’s true across lots of places.
So, I mean secularism is spreading the last time I looked at the numbers, the higher-fertility of religious people was pretty much equal, and they were a bit of a standoff of two different processes going in different directions. Yeah. Does that get to your question?
Collin Hansen: So, one of the things that Jenkins talks about is that religious volunteerism has often been driven by women. And as a result, the more women are educated, the more women are delaying marriage, and more in the workplace that means that there is much less contribution. And I think anybody who would think about, say a classic 1950s Irish community, or Italian-American community could piece together what that would look like, whether that’d be in Boston where you are or Chicago or anything like that. So that’s one of those factors, but I think essentially Christianity helps to create the West, but then the West decides and what the philosopher Charles Taylor describes as a subtraction story that we’re just going to drop the Christian parts i.e. the contingent afterlife parts that you describe. And we’re going to simply keep the parts that we like. And then we sort of turn against Christianity as the enemy that inhibits the full flourishing of this Western culture.
I’m not really sure how that’s supposed to play out well, does that culture continue to assume that these are the right values? Or does that culture go the way of nature and say, forget it, ditch the whole thing. Let’s go back to our pagan roots or let’s explore something else, but let’s expunge Christianity. So that’s part of what I’ve been trying to think about is does the West take a track where they realize to keep what they love. They actually have to keep the Christianity, or do they say no, no, no we can have our cake and eat it too. Or do they say, wait a minute, now that we don’t have to deal with this marriage and family program anymore, we should really explore much larger transformations in our societal makeup.
Joseph Henrich: That’s a very interesting question, and a couple of ideas—so one thing that does seem to have happened is some of the moral universalism that comes out of Christianity that’s embodied in some of our institutions now. So notions of universal human rights have been stripped of its kind of religious origins and most people believe it although if you push someone on why they believe it, it’s just kind of something you have to adopt unless you can reference a divine being. And then we have debates.
So in Canada, if this attorney general wants to prosecute someone, but he’s not sure if it’s a constitutional act, you can ask a question to the supreme court. So I was an expert witness when the attorney general wanted to prosecute some polygamous, some Mormon polygamists in southern British Columbia. And so they did a whole long several-weeks investigation of whether the laws prohibiting criminalizing, polygyny were constitutional. And they look back at precedent and precedent basically use Christianity as a defense. They’re like, well, we can’t do that.
And I mean the case that I make in the book was the case that carried the day. And so that’s why it’s still criminal to be polygynous in British Columbia, and that’s probably going to be the case in Canada, but that’s going to be a court decision and it’s not hard to see another court deciding to go a different direction, and then polygyny would be legal, and then we would get to test my theory.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. You get kind of a patchwork legal social climate where some elements that were unique to Christianity, such as the prohibitions on sexual acts with children, which were common in the Roman world before Christianity, maybe those are still prohibitive at a kind of intuitional level and historical precedents, but maybe something like polygyny becomes when you remove the supposed harm principle, perhaps it becomes seen as simply people being able to express what their desires are. There would be an unjust inhibition of their freedoms to be able to ban that.
Joseph Henrich: Yeah. I mean, I’ve had to make the case on this because when I was this expert witness, people were saying, well, this is just some Christian idea. And my kind of professional role is we should always interrogate these customs that come to us and have been passed down for a long time. They might be just silly relics of the past. That’s possible. And lots of things are, but they also might embody a kind of wisdom about how to run a society.
Collin Hansen: My guest this week on Gospelbound has been Joe Henrich, chair of the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and author of many important works. His latest: The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. Joe, thanks for joining me on Gospelbound.
Joseph Henrich: Good to be with you, Collin. Thanks a lot.