WWhy did Europe play such a huge role in human history? A generation ago, geographer Jared Diamond offered an elegant answer in his book Guns, germs and steel: Europeans weren’t smarter than non-Europeans, but geography and natural resources drove Europe’s development in particular directions. Harvard professor Joseph Henrich is a fan of Diamond, but his new book takes a different approach. Henrich was trained as an anthropologist, but now describes himself as a “cultural evolutionist.” In the same way that Darwin’s theory explains how life follows adaptive paths through natural selection, cultural evolution proposes that human cultures develop and transmit profound values and knowledge through generations. There are many avenues of cultural evolution, Henrich argues, and no single human culture. To better understand the world and Europe’s influence on it, we must recognize that European culture is, in Henrich’s key acronym, “strange”: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic.
Henrich insists that “strange” values are culturally determined and specific rather than universal or natural. Specific does not mean bad. As the book’s subtitle suggests, he attributes many of the fundamental values of the modern world to the “firmware” of “strange” cultural evolution: meritocracy, representative government, trust, innovation, even patience and restraint. These were the products not simply of the distinctive and highly unusual milieu of Europe, but of a narrow force that many of us have forgotten: the prescriptions and complexes of the Christian church.
No historian would deny the central role of Christianity in the development of European society. But Henrich thinks the church’s views on marriage and family life changed. everything. He points out that Christianity was, at least since the Middle Ages, unusually hostile toward cousin marriage. This produced a profound change in social organization with radical effects on European culture. Kinship, a term that has always fascinated anthropologists, plays a key role in the book: it directs communities inward and makes them apathetic or hostile toward those outside of their particular clan.
Henrich argues that the church largely destroyed kinship within Europe between 1000 and 1500 AD, even as clan-based societies persisted on the rest of the planet. Within Europe, where cousin marriage bans forced people to marry beyond their families, the “strange” culture became more receptive to strangers. Monasteries, universities, trade unions, courts, stock exchanges, legislatures, coffee shops, newspapers, along with business, trust and mobility, took root in the soil of the “intergroup prosociality” created by the church edicts on the marriage. The “rare” people shared resources and a strong sense of local community, but the forms of social dynamism and openness that drove Europe’s development were lost.
Historians will find much to discuss here. Scholars of medieval times will point out that the effects of the church’s “marriage and family program” (the “MFP,” as Henrich inevitably calls it) were wildly uneven in time and space. Historians of the early modern era will note that the Protestant church was much less hostile to cousin marriage than its Catholic rival. (The Reformation received a crucial boost from Henry VIII’s determination to marry his ex-wife’s cousin.) Modern historians will argue that cousin marriage increased in many European societies in the 17th and 18th centuries before it was stigmatized again. in the XIX century. They may also recall that despite an extremely “strange” enthusiasm for innovation, both Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein married their first cousins. Historians of the world beyond Europe will find a thousand exceptions to Henrich’s confident stereotype of not “strange” societies as hopelessly retarded by kinship and its dead ends in development.
A casual reader may wonder how a book on the flourishing of European culture could say next to nothing about racism, imperialism, and environmental catastrophe: the hangover of individualism, the market economy, and representative government in Europe. “I’m not highlighting the very real and pervasive horrors of slavery, racism, looting and genocide,” Henrich admits in his last chapter. “There are many books on those subjects.” But the omission is corrosive to his argument: not only because it presents “prosperity” and “innovation” rather than genocide and expropriation as the vicissitudes of a “strange” culture, but because Europeans did not demonstrate “impersonal prosociality.” when they ventured beyond Europe. . If anything, the violence and devastation of the empire suggest that the thought of kinship supposedly purged by Christianity resurfaced in the new theories of the race of Europeans. Whites were happy to discard the talents and futures of hundreds of millions of non-European people in the pursuit of financial gain, and to do so throughout the centuries.
The strangest people he seems grimly acclimated to the darker aspects of our political present. Beyond Henrich’s claim that world cultures developed on separate evolutionary paths, a claim that seems stubbornly neglected to the interpenetration of cultures and ideas throughout human history, he argues that “disparate societies” produce ” a rich range of diverse cultural psychologies “that mark populations. through generations, if not centuries. By implementing a battery of studies based on contemporary evidence (surveys of IBM employees in different countries, for example, or unpaid parking tickets from UN diplomats in New York), Henrich suggests that corruption, impatience and even aggression is more common in non-“alien” cultures than in western society.
We shouldn’t blame non-“weird” people who fetishize revenge or indulge in nepotism, it implies: they are burdened by centuries of kinship logic that sees little value in transparency and trust beyond the clan. Instead, Henrich’s study chides Western politicians who take a unitary view of human nature when promoting democracy or the rule of law in the global south. Unless “strange” politicians and planners can reestablish the “firmware” of non “alien” cultures, he warns, those societies cannot escape their cultural norms any more than we can escape ours.
I confess that reading these pages I could not help but remember that Donald Trump gave his son-in-law the responsibility of peace in the Middle East, and that Boris Johnson has turned his brother into a lord. But cultural evolutionists trade with centuries and populations, so these distracting exceptions can likely be drowned in an ocean of data.
What about non-European people who have settled in “strange” societies? In practically all spheres of human knowledge throughout the centuries, immigrants have brought ideas and practices that have fertilized cross-cultural thinking. This process seems almost invisible to Henrich. By declining the opportunity to discuss the forms of syncretism and assimilation that define the immigrant experience, it offers (tenuous) evidence that non-“strange” thinking endures among immigrants across continents and generations. Citing the high rates of cousin marriage among second-generation Pakistani immigrants in Britain, and the lower levels of political activism among second-generation immigrants of color in Europe, Henrich concludes that even growing up in a “strange” society does not can erase the “darkness”. matter ”of one’s cultural-psychological lineage.
It was “strange” intellectuals who elaborated the pseudoscience of race in the 18th century, and combined it with evolutionary theories to create new arguments for civilization and white supremacy in the 19th century. Henrich might shudder at the suggestion that The strangest people in the world he endorses social Darwinism, but in his emphasis on the supposedly low-key nature of culture and the virtues of “strange” thought and progress, he comes uncomfortably close to doing just that.
• World’s Weirdest People: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous is an Allen Lane post (£ 30). To purchase a copy, go to guardianbookshop.co.uk.
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