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Joseph Henrich

Joseph Henrich

How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

This is an ambitious book. Joseph Henrich, now Chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, has had past lives as a field anthropologist and a laboratory psychologist, and he uses all that background to lay out a comprehensive macro-historical theory of the evolution of the modern world. He notes that the West, in contrast to other human populations, has become WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. He proposes to tell us how that happened.

The book is first of all a frontal assault on the basic assumption of Psychology as an academic discipline, that the human brain works pretty much the same for all humans, no matter where they are. Henrich makes the case that psychologists must take culture into account, rather than leaving it to the anthropologists. This means, basically, that all the psych lab experiments that use American or European students as subjects will have to stop universalizing their findings.

Henrich makes the case that psychologists must take culture into account, rather than leaving it to the anthropologists.

To back up that argument, Henrich presents an elaborate historical narrative that starts with the decision of the early medieval Roman Catholic Church to move the western European population from a society based on dense, extended kinship networks to one based on the nuclear family. While Rome’s intention was simply to enforce its interpretation of divine law, Henrich argues that the unintended result was to open the way for the Europeans to develop what we now know as modern, Western civilization, while the rest of the world lagged behind.

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Many readers know the classic treatise, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, by the German sociologist Max Weber. Henrich confirms the role of Protestantism (particularly Calvinism) in the rise of the modern Western economy, but he argues that the Protestants built on changes that the medieval Catholic Church already had initiated.

The book is as long as it is (489 pages exclusive of notes and appendices) because Henrich supports his argument with both extensive historical analysis and reports on psychological experiments conducted with diverse populations all over the world, showing that responses do indeed vary by culture.

He acknowledges that he doesn’t emphasize the seamy sides of the rise of the West: religious wars, absolutism, slavery, imperialism, destruction of conquered societies. He says plenty of other books do that. His largely positive take on the rise of WEIRDness (including an idealistic vision of markets that could have been written by Milton Friedman largely ignores persistent features of Western societies that are more problematic, like poverty, racism and sexism. He is at pains to point out that rich and poor, white and black, male and female all display the same range of personalities: there is no genetic difference to explain why some people are more successful than others. But he offers no explanation of what does explain the persistence, in WEIRD societies, of these attitudes that conflict with the basic character of the WEIRD model. He cannot explain Donald Trump.

But the biggest challenge to Henrich’s argument appears nowhere in the book: climate change. We humans are facing the imminent destruction of civilized life as we have known it (not to mention an unprecedented ecological catastrophe), precisely because of WEIRDness. If modern, Western, industrial societies had never emerged, our greenhouse gas emissions would never have gotten out of control. 

impeachment unavoidable

The question now is, can WEIRDness find a way out of this mess, or will we have to abandon it and rejoin the rest of the world?

John Peeler