Book Corner 2021.57

by Joseph Henrich

Along the lines of Jared Diamond’s GUNS, GERMS, & STEEL, this is a big-picture book with a big-picture answer to the basic question: Why did and does Europe rock so much?

In one of the final sections he answers Diamond directly: GG&S is a great theory to explain why Europe was so far ahead circa 1000 AD. But then, why England? Why the Netherlands? TWPITW purports to be The Explanation for why Europe continued to rock so much.

To recap Diamond (and GG&S has always been one of my all-time favorites): it’s agriculture. Eurasia got all the good crops and domesticatable mammals. If you’re stuck eating cassava with nothing to pull a plow, why invent the wheel?

And to summarize TWPITW’s 489 pages of content (there’s a couple hundred more pages of appendix & index)… it’s what the Catholic Church (back then simply the Church) did to the family.

I should probably back up: WEIRD people are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. (Just double-checked myself – yup, 5 out of 5.) And we got this way because our psychology was altered when our vast kinship networks were destroyed by what he calls the Church’s MFP – no, not Maximum Fluoride Protection, but Marriage & Family Program. The Church’s rules said: no more marrying your cousin. No more staying within the husband’s or wife’s parents’ house after marriage. No more arranged marriage. No more polygyny, “or even moderate bigamy” as THE KING AND I song goes. No more marrying your former in-laws.

And this was all a tremendous shock, and a heck of a lot of work to get people to go along with – it took centuries for it all to really gain a foothold. And that’s because being proto-WEIRD is truly weird – we, meaning humans, have always lived within vast kinship networks. Marrying cousins or in-laws kept everything in the clan. Polygyny and arranged marriage cemented patriarchal power. Family/clan/tribe has always meant everything it was to be human. Now, disassociated from that source of meaning, protection, and power, individuals had to look elsewhere – to strangers, voluntary organizations, the Church (how convenient) – and within. This made us more trusting of strangers, and more literally self-centered, than we were when were all Family Guys.

It played a lot of other psychological tricks too. 400 pages worth. Yes, this was a difficult book to read, physically – every night was a weight-lifting exercise. In the end I do like the theory; definitely a fascinating way to look at things. But I guess I have two faults to find.

a) It wasn’t the book I thought I was going to read. It starts out with in-depth looks at non-WEIRD societies, and contrasts with our own – but I thought it was going to be mostly, or more of, that. It’s actually a lot more rah-rah cheering for how great us WEIRD societies are, and less about how, well, weird we are.

b) Why exactly did the Church do all this, fight for centuries to come up with weird new rules for who and how and how many to marry? The reasons were “many and varied.” I kid you not. That’s the extent of the explanation.

So just keep in mind, next time you’re reading a blithe statement about human psychology – it may very well apply only to WEIRD human psychology. Things we think of as rational “givens” aren’t givens. The ideals of democracy, human rights, etc. – these are not self-evident, with apologies to Thomas Jefferson. They are ideas cooked up by WEIRD minds.

Great food for thought – WEIRD thought.

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