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Europeans Have Always Been WEIRD: Critical Reflections on Joseph Henrich's The WEIRDest People

  • The University of New Brunswick, Saint John


This essay acknowledges Joseph Henrich's landmark analysis of how medieval Europeans were already psychologically distinct from the kinship-oriented peoples of other civilizations long before the rise of modern science and liberal thought. It then shows that Europeans already exhibited WEIRD psychological traits in ancient Greek times, along with monogamous nuclear families, civic citizenship, and a relatively high level of literacy long before the Protestant emphasis on reading. The early Christians of the Hellenistic period were already advocating a WEIRD sexual morality before the Catholic Church intentionally-not "unintentionally"-abolished the polygamous kinship norms of early medieval Germanic peoples. The creation of nation-states in the modern era was an alternative form of community created by WEIRD Europeans consistent (in principle) with their liberal values. Despite his emphasis on "cultural evolution", Henrich misses the extent to which Europeans were the most creative cultural species in history.
MANKIND QUARTERLY 2022 62.4 712-763
Book Review Article
The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became
Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
Joseph Henrich
New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2020
Europeans Have Always Been WEIRD: Critical Reflections
on Joseph Henrich's The WEIRDest People.
Ricardo Duchesne*
Retired Professor, University of New Brunswick
* Address for correspondence:
This essay acknowledges Joseph Henrich’s landmark analysis of how
medieval Europeans were already psychologically distinct from the
kinship-oriented peoples of other civilizations long before the rise of
modern science and liberal thought. It then shows that Europeans already
exhibited WEIRD psychological traits in ancient Greek times, along with
monogamous nuclear families, civic citizenship, and a relatively high level
of literacy long before the Protestant emphasis on reading. The early
Christians of the Hellenistic period were already advocating a WEIRD
sexual morality before the Catholic Church intentionally not
“unintentionally” abolished the polygamous kinship norms of early
medieval Germanic peoples. The creation of nation-states in the modern
era was an alternative form of community created by WEIRD Europeans
consistent (in principle) with their liberal values. Despite his emphasis on
“cultural evolution”, Henrich misses the extent to which Europeans were
the most creative cultural species in history.
Key Words: WEIRDness, Great Divergence, Western uniqueness,
Catholic Church, Protestant literacy, Kinship institutions, Cultural evolution
Joseph Henrich’s thesis must be taken seriously
The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically
Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (2020) by Harvard academic Joseph
Henrich will surely stand as one of the most important evidence-based books
written about the perennial question why the West became the first modern
industrial civilization.
This book should be essential reading for those who want
to understand why European peoples today are hyper-individualists with weak
ethnocentric ties carelessly indifferent about how immigrant multiculturalism is
undermining their ethno-cultural heritages. The thesis of this book is that the
kinship-based in-group psychology dominating traditional societies was
fundamentally altered in Europe into individualistic habits of thinking and
behaving as the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages “unintentionally” transformed
the psychology of Europeans in a direction that ignited the rise of liberal
institutions and norms by prohibiting cousin and polygynous marriages and
promoting monogamous nuclear families. This released Europeans from their kin-
based obligations and encouraged them to choose their spouses, social friends
and associates, which opened the door to the creation of voluntary associations,
chartered towns, guilds, universities, monasteries, and representative institutions.
This world without kinship ties socialized Europeans to extend their trust to
anonymous strangers, to think in a less contextual way, and to judge objects and
humans in terms of universal principles and rules applicable on the basis of
rationally-based criteria.
This emphasis on the immemorial role of kinship institutions in the shaping
of human psychology and how the psychology of Europeans was “rewired” is
what differentiates Henrich from the standard approaches that have dominated
this debate with their focus on the autonomous role of market relations, modern
scientific and enlightenment ideas, the transition from feudalism to capitalism,
exploitation of the Americas, or geographical “good luck”.
According to Henrich,
Citations from Henrich’s book will be indicated in the text of the article. The WEIRDest
People may have been the most talked about academic book in 2021. It was
extensively reviewed in the mainstream media, with numerous editorial endorsements
by highly prominent academics, with over 700 ratings at, notable
mentions, and already its own Wikipedia entry. This Wiki entry has yet to mention that
Kevin MacDonald (2021) published an extensive review of this book in Mankind
Kevin MacDonald's important book, Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition
(2019) should be emphasized here, not just his review essay of Henrich’s book cited
above. As I discuss at length (Duchesne, 2021-2022), MacDonald traces the
divergence of the West to its monogamous families, individualism, and openness to
kinship norms and the “scaling up” of kinship relationships have played a
foundational role in shaping the mind and behavior of humans and directing the
broad patterns of history. Kinship has determined the survival and social identity
of humans, status and obligations, sense of right and wrong, normative
relationships between family members, when and who one should marry, where
newly weds should find residence, who owns the land, and how property should
be inherited. The world humans have inhabited since their early Homo-sapiens
days has been one of intense kinship relationships characterized by a
corresponding psychology that was clannish, conformist, deferential, and highly
context-sensitive, without the ability to detach objects and persons from particular
settings, and thus without the ability to generate abstract concepts and think
It is hard for Westerners socialized in WEIRD societies, where families have
been nuclearized and a wide network of other institutions has been created
independently of kinship ties, to appreciate the cardinal importance of kinship,
even as they appreciate how significant the family remains today in the
ontogenetic development of humans. Westerners who write about the rise of
modern industrial Europe prefer to talk about the role of ideas, Malthusian
demographic pressures, modes of production, technological innovations,
institutional changes, warfare, and religion.
But Henrich, by combining his ethnographic field studies with
cognitive/cultural psychology, and subsequently mastering the scholarship on the
economic history of Europe, brings out in full how the weakness of kinship
relationships in the West since the Middle Ages fundamentally shaped the
psychology of Europeans in a direction that led to the rise of the modern world.
The Catholic “demolition” of kinship institutions and the Church’s promotion of
monogamy loosened Europeans from their extended families, encouraged them
to marry outside their group and to form new “voluntary” associations, which
spurred "new forms of urbanization and fueled impersonal commerce, from
merchant guilds and charter towns to universities and transregional monastic
orders, that were governed by new and increasingly individualistic norms and
forming contractual relationships with non-kin. For MacDonald, however, it was the
“harsh evolutionary pressures of the Ice Age” in the northern regions of Europe that
selected for these cultural traits, with the Catholic Church acting as a reinforcer of these
pre-established evolutionary trends. Moreover, while MacDonald does not offer a
detailed discussion of the institutional dynamics of kinship and detailed experimental
surveys demonstrating the WEIRD personality traits of Europeans, he does mount a
very effective historically-based argument showing how the weak ethnocentrism of
Europeans is an underlying reason why mass immigration is not seen as a major threat.
laws" (p. 23). While blood ties continued to exert their natural influence, all in all,
a whole new institutional setting gradually emerged in medieval Europe based on
rational principles and centered on the intentions of individuals, with objectively
defined rights, as members of the institutions. Only Europe, Henrich explains,
would see the rise of self-governing cities guided by abstract constitutional
principles that welcomed individuals as individuals from many backgrounds
regardless of tribal origins. Only Europe would witness the spread of impersonal
markets in which one's reputation with strangers as a reliable dealer would come
to depend on one's fairness and impartiality rather than on one's personal kinship
status. These changes would be accompanied and followed by the rise of rational
systems of law, continuous technological innovations, the emergence of Galilean
and Newtonian science, and an industrial revolution that would put Europeans on
top of the world.
After years of intense ethnographic field studies of non-western peoples,
Henrich became sceptical of the prevailing assumption in psychology that the
“patterns and dimensions of personality observed” among Americans and
Europeans “represent the human pattern”. While social scientists generally drew
a distinction between traditional and modern norms, the implicit argument was
that industrialization automatically strengthened dispositions for time thrift, love of
choice, impersonal prosociality, analytical thinking, trust and fairness towards
strangers. These were universal traits found everywhere in the world, innate to
the psychology of humans as humans. According to Henrich, the reason for this
major error in the understanding of human psychology was that “most of what
was known experimentally about human psychology and behavior was based on
studies with undergraduates from Western societies.” Ninety-six percent of
“experimental participants were drawn from northern Europe, North America, or
Australia.” There were studies done with participants from outside the West, but
these relied heavily on highly Westernized “relationally mobile university students
in urban centers”. (p. xii)
The WEIRDest People is packed with experimental surveys, figures, graphs
and tables, based on game theory, measuring the psychological differences
between populations across the world, to counter the “massively biased samples”
from the past that had been derived almost entirely from Western students. The
types of experimental games, conducted by Henrich's research team and many
other independent researchers, include the Dictator Game, Random Allocation
Game, Public Good's Game, Impersonal Honesty Game, Ultimatum Game, and
the Sharing Game. Henrich concluded based on this experimental research that
there were two fundamental psychological profiles in the world, the WEIRD profile
of Westerners and the non-WEIRD profile of kinship-based peoples. Drawing as
well on data from the World Values Survey covering 75 contemporary countries,
he observed that the greater the intensity of kinship, as measured particularly by
degree of cousin marriage, the less trust individuals will have for “people they
have just met, foreigners, and adherents of other religions”.
“The higher the rate of cousin marriage in a country, the more willing
managers were to give false testimony in court” to protect their ingroup members.
“The executives from countries with stronger kin-based institutions hire more
relatives into senior management.” People from countries with intensive kinship
rarely ever donate blood to strangers, don’t like to report crimes within their own
ingroups, and they much prefer to dodge taxes. Henrich’s book also compiled a
substantial amount of evidence showing that Western peoples generally tend to
be less in-group oriented, less tightly bound to traditional norms, more
individualistic, less distrustful of strangers, highly inclined to believe in impartial
notions of fairness, and more honest in their dealings with strangers (pp. 21-30,
Henrich did not reach this conclusion after reading books on the intellectual
history of Europeans. He did so after years of ethnographic field studies and after
conducting numerous experimental cross-cultural surveys. This research strongly
indicated that Western peoples are uniquely WEIRD: They trust foreigners a lot
more than non-Western peoples; they believe that Muslims and nonwhite
immigrants generally are no different from them as long as Westerners treat them
with impartial fairness. One of the experiments mentioned by Henrich, the Public
Goods Game (designed to measure whether individuals are willing to act “in the
interests of their broader communities” by giving time, money, and effort to voting,
donation of blood , joining the army, reporting crimes, following traffic laws and
paying taxes) distinctly showed that WEIRD individuals are far more inclined to
act in the interests of the public good, whereas immigrants from kinship intensive
cultures identify the public good with their own in-group.
Creating successful societies by learning how to scale up kinship networks
Henrich's central argument that the WEIRD psychology of Europeans is a
product of cultural evolution, not genetic evolution, and that the psychology of
humans can be altered through cultural changes, will likely be seen by members
of the dissident Right as another version of “social constructionism”. The Right
prefers to talk about human nature, innate biological drives, and differences in the
average intelligence of populations. Gregory Cochran and Henry C. Harpending
(2009) attempted a gene-based evolutionary account coupled with the effects of
culture on genes as central to history. In his book, Understanding Human History
(2007), Michael Hart argued that differences in average intelligence between
separate groups should be given priority in our efforts to understand the divergent
patterns of civilizations. The origination of a modern technological culture required
a population with a high level of intelligence. But while Hart offered a persuasive
explanation about how in the course of time various physical differences arose
between “human groups widely separated from each other geographically, with
relatively little interbreeding between them”, he could not explain why East Asians
with their higher average intelligence were unable to create the first modern
scientific civilization.
On the other side of the spectrum, the geographical approach of Jared
Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) was very good at explaining why the
cultures of Eurasia got a head start in the development of complex civilizations,
by showing that this area had most of the wild crops and wild animals that could
be domesticated, and by showing that the east-west orientation of this area
favored the diffusion of domesticated crops, animals, and knowledge. But, again,
Diamond failed to explain why the civilization of Europe within Eurasia moved
past the Asian world after 1500.
Henrich can definitely be faulted for focusing almost singularly on “cumulative
cultural learning” without allowing much influence to innate genetic factors other
than saying that humans were genetically selected to be cultural learners. He
defines humans as a cultural species precisely because they “evolved genetically
to learn adaptively in ways that calibrate our minds and behavior to the
environment we encounter” (pp. 61-68). How different environmental settings
may have exerted different selective pressures for different genetic traits upon
different populations in the world is not a question he addresses. From the
position that humans have a common genetic stock he moves on to explain why
the psychology of Westerners has been so different for centuries. His approach
is nevertheless different from standard cultural approaches in that it goes deeper
into the brains and psychology of Europeans to explain their divergent path.
Humans can’t be easily re-wired in a WEIRD direction with the mere introduction
of new classroom lectures or the placement of children in new institutional
settings. Living with or without kinship relations has deep ontogenetic effects in
the neurological (though not genetic) wiring of the brain.
He offers revealing data showing that immigrants from intensive kinship backgrounds
persist in their ingroup behaviors even when their income and education rise in the
West. Immigrants “coming from places with more intensive kinship continue to care
more about in-group loyalty and less about non-relational morality” (p. 210). He
observes that cousin marriage has actually increased “among immigrants to WEIRD
societies such as Britain and Belgium”, including among second generation immigrants,
“compared to the home country” (p. 546). Although Henrich does not address this issue,
it can safely be said that from his perspective the clannishness of immigrants will start
Henrich’s concept of learning has to do primarily with the ways humans have
learned to expand their ties of kinship beyond their immediate genetic relatives
through the creation of broader kinship networks, the spread of “universalizing
religious beliefs”, and the creation by Europeans of WEIRD institutional
associations with different self-reinforcing culturally-learned and interlocking
beliefs, practices, and incentives. The fundamental factor driving history, the
“secret” of successful peoples, has consisted in their ability to create widening
networks of cooperation and solidarity. But why were societies compelled or
incentivized to create wider networks of cooperation beyond the small bands of
hunter-gatherers in Paleolithic times?
Here Henrich relies on the concept of “intergroup competition” as a
biologically pregiven condition in the struggle for survival of all living beings and
all human societies. “Violent conflict...among bands, clans, and tribes” has been
“the most striking feature” of kinship-based societies. Assaults, murders, adultery,
and interpersonal bickering are a permanent reality in human relationships, both
within and between kinship groups. Those communities that failed to create wider
networks of cooperation were liquidated or absorbed by those societies that
managed to “scale up” their networks of kinship cultural cooperation. In this
respect, “intergroup competition” has acted as a motivating factor behind the
creation of wider kinship networks (pp. 78-85).
Yet, oddly enough, this concept of “violent intergroup conflict” is left
undeveloped. His focus is always on the nature and dynamics of kinship networks
and wider forms of cooperation created in the course of history, and how "people's
survival depended heavily on the size and solidarity of their social groups". This
is not an innocent absence. The social sciences in the West are dedicated to the
“solution” of human conflict by finding ways to enhance cooperation. Since World
War II, this has meant nurturing cooperation across the world through the
invitation of diverse races and cultures to overcome “xenophobic ethnic
attachments”. However crazy it may seem to those who understand that
intergroup competition is likely to intensify, this is the mandated cultural project of
the West.
Henrich, as we will see below, is committed to this project. This is an
unspoken ideological message in The WEIRDest People that reviewers have
missed. Western academics love the words “cooperation” and “solidarity”, which
explains in part the great success of Henrich’s prior book, The Secret of Our
Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species,
and Making Us Smart (2015). Henrich is indeed convinced that the “underlying
to decline in the third or future generation as WEIRD traits penetrate deeper into their
processes” driving history forward have been the enhancement of cooperative
strategies across groups and societies through the scaling up of kinship networks
from the relatively simple bands of hunter-gatherers in Paleolithic times to the
vast empires of pre-modern times, to the future creation of a global world of
WEIRD multi-racial individuals with great possibilities for “residential mobility”
anywhere they choose.
So, what did humans do to create greater unity within their bands and
between bands as well as wider networks of solidarity? Henrich’s answer to this
question is one of the most original components of this book. Whereas prior
explanations on the dynamics of history have centered around the impact of
external forces, geographical and demographic pressures, or the role of ideas
without any analysis of psychological profiles, Henrich focuses on the way
humans have gone about rearranging, extending, and intensifying the most basic
institution of all: their family ties (albeit under the pressure of intergroup
It all started with the family, who one could marry, how many wives
one could have, where married couples could reside, how descent should be
traced. “Pair bonding” was naturally selected as a mating strategy because it
permitted “males and females to team up to rear offspring”. From this genetic
starting point, marriage became a norm, and these marriage norms were
gradually expanded to include rules aimed at constraining women’s sexuality in
order to increase the confidence of the husband and his family that her children
were really his biological children. These marriage norms increased “paternity
certainty,” which firmed up the links between children and their fathers, as well as
links with the in-laws. In-laws are not genetically related, but through marriage
norms humans have learned to think, for example, of the wife’s brothers as part
of the family, and to believe that we share genetic interests. These ties with in-
laws were reinforced through social norms “involving gifts, rituals, and mutual
While Henrich aims for a comprehensive account of the role of kinship across history,
in the last few years a number of economic historians have been exploring the role of
kinship and monogamous families in the divergent paths of the West and the East.
Avner Greif (2006) observed over a decade ago that “little attention has been given to
the impact of the family structure and its dynamics on institutions. This limits our ability
to understand distinct institutional developments and hence growth in the past and
present.” Henrich draws on Greif’s work, citing among other papers “Family structure,
institutions, and growth: The origins and implications of Western corporations” (2006).
In this paper Greif presents “the reasons for the decline of kinship groups in medieval
Europe and why the resulting nuclear family structure, along with other factors, led
to…intentionally created, voluntary, interest-based, and self-governed permanent
associations” such as guilds, fraternities, universities, communes, and city-states.
obligations”. Hunting and gathering bands have in fact consisted mostly of in-laws
rather than blood relatives.
From the evolved disposition that humans were selected with an aversion to
sex with siblings and parents due to the high chances of unhealthy offspring, they
came to “figure out” ways to extend this aversion beyond close relatives through
incest taboos prohibiting sex with step siblings, and prohibiting marriages with
first, second, and even third cousins. This encouraged norms compelling parents
to arrange marriages for their children with more distant kinfolk, which extended
their social networks and solidarity in times of droughts, floods, and in the face of
threatening enemies. Only those norms that enhanced success in competition
with other groups would tend to survive and spread. “Psychologically-potent
communal rituals” involving synchronic dances and rhythmic music were
commonly used to enhance in-group solidarity, alleviate personal divisions, and
induce members to collaborate in major public works.
Within and between all societies, including egalitarian Paleolithic societies,
there is competition among individuals, families, and clans. With the “emergence
of food production” intergroup competition was intensified, which encouraged new
forms of cooperation, ritual bonds, and interpersonal relations within groups. As
societies grew in size with agriculture, additional non-kin-based institutions were
developed; however, these institutions were “built atop a deep foundation of kin-
based institutions”. Henrich observes, furthermore, that building societies based
on cooperative relationships beyond a handful of family clans is very hard once
the population exceeds a few hundred people. Large villages of over a few
hundred people (though this depends on the environment) tend to fracture into
feuding clans. Anthropologists have been very interested in understanding why
and how some societies managed to integrate large numbers of clans.
Henrich uses the example of a culture in New Guinea, Ilahita, to show how a
small clan managed to “scale up” successfully by augmenting, improving, and
intensifying its kinship forms of cooperation within its own clan and with other
clans. It “culturally constructed” new rituals across clans which had the effect of
inducing strong emotional ties among participants. Included in these rituals were
a sequence of initiation rites at various ages in the maturation of males from
different clans, “rites of terror” which had the effect of bonding these males into a
“band of brothers”. These and other rituals were “infused with a powerful set of
supernatural beliefs”, powerful gods that were said to govern the entire
community and would punish the people, or not bring them harmony and success,
unless they performed the proper rituals. Many deaths that had previously been
attributed to sorcery were thereafter attributed to the anger of the gods instigated
by the failure of the clans to perform the proper rituals (pp. 88-99).
Another means of enlarging cooperation is precisely by outcompeting and
taking over other groups. The more successful groups will “drive out, eliminate,
or assimilate those with less competitive institutions”.
Ties of cooperation were also “scaled up” through the use of social norms
regarding residence after marriage, inheritance and ownership, incest taboos,
arranged marriages, gods, and rituals. Arranged marriages, for example, involved
using daughters for strategic alliances with other clans, which had the effect of
extending blood lines between clans. Patrilocal residence had the effect of
solidifying ties between the new couple's children and the father's children and
other patrilineal relatives. The norm that the perpetrator’s entire clan is culpable
if someone injures or kills someone in your clan fostered interdependence and
loyalty among clan members.
The rise of pre-modern states with “universalizing religions”
By focusing on kinship, Henrich manages to find a very firm ground upon
which to explain the entire movement of history from bands to big man societies
to chiefdoms and pre-modern states. Many theories have been offered to explain
the rise of pre-modern states. Among the most famous explanations are the
“hydraulic hypothesis” proposed by Karl Wittfogel (1957) and the class-based
explanation proposed by Marxists. Bruce Trigger (1993) believed that religious
fear was the main reason an exploited majority was initially prepared to support
a state system based on inequality. But perhaps the most respected argument
nowadays is the circumscription theory proposed by Robert Carneiro (2012). He
argued that environmental constriction in the context of population growth
intensified intergroup competition and warfare, and that this set of causal factors
eventually led to the formation of centralized authorities to meet competitive
pressures for scarce resources.
Henrich’s focus is on how pre-modern states “were built on an underlying
social and psychological foundation formed by intense kin-based institutions” (p.
112). The consolidation of the ownership of rituals by the most powerful clans
“has been one of the main ways in which some clans have set themselves above
others”. By excluding weaker clans from control of key rituals, the leaders of
powerful chiefly clans could accumulate most of the rituals and in this way spread
their legitimacy and sacred authority. They could also attract more marriage offers
from patrilineal clans seeking to link themselves directly through their daughters’
children with the chiefly clan and thus gain greater prestige for themselves. And
because polygyny was a key norm of all pre-modern kinship-based societies, the
chiefly clans could easily take multiple wives and thus accumulate links with many
other clans and reproduce faster. They could also wrap themselves with the most
powerful gods and give themselves a divine and superior status; and they could
take ownership of the land “away from the clans of the commoners”.
As chiefly clans evolved into fully stratified chiefdoms, new bureaucratic
institutions gradually emerged in charge of collecting taxes, adjudicating disputes,
conducting long-distance trade, gathering armies, and organizing the building of
public works. While the relationships between the upper clans and the growing
lower strata of the population were not directly based on kinship ties, the upper
elite continued to rely directly on family connections to manage and control these
bureaucratic institutions, just as the lower clans continued to be thoroughly based
on kinship ties within their own localities. The rise of pre-modern states would
thus remain rooted in intensive kin-based relations and in norms, obligations, and
identities that derived from kinship.
Early state religions, such as the one of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel,
and later the major world religions of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, played a
similar historical role in the way they successfully “scaled up” human cooperation
among believers over and above (though not against) tribal ties. These religions
were not WEIRD in their beliefs, including Christianity, but remained rooted in
kinship institutions, though they did expand cooperation beyond tribal lines. To
the extent that these religions enhanced cooperation among humans, they played
an important role in enhancing collective learning. For all the talk about “learning”,
Henrich describes these universalizing religions with a broad brush, without
making any distinctions in the nature of their beliefs. All religions are alike in their
irrational beliefs about supernatural beings and childish notions about heaven and
hell. This is the way most evolutionary theorists approach religion. Religions have
relevance in the degree to which they can be shown to have played a role in the
enhancement of the survival capacities of societies or as ideological justifications
for the power of elites.
In Henrich’s explanation, universalizing religions spread in the degree to
which they produced beliefs, rituals and ceremonies with a wide popular appeal,
and thus managed to scale up the networks of cooperation among tribal groups,
which made possible greater production of goods, larger societies, and
civilizations with greater capacities for intergroup competition. While rulers were
strongly inclined to employ religious beliefs and practices to benefit their families
and legitimize their authorities, intergroup competition was the main factor
pushing societies, without any moral intentionality, to adopt these universalizing
religions. Those communities that pulled together many clans and tribes under
the umbrella of universalizing beliefs were the ones that managed to construct
and sustain chiefdoms and states, outcompeting those communities that
remained too clannish in their beliefs. The promotion of fellow feelings for
strangers was far less powerful in encouraging cooperation than the threat of
punishment against those who violated the commandments of supernatural
The historical relevance of the rituals practiced by these religions is that they
worked to induce members of the same community to build emotional
attachments with each other. Henrich provides experimental surveys showing
that religious people are far more motivated by fear of punishment than empathy
for strangers to follow the moral codes of their religions. Humans as cultural
learners are inclined to accept and “conform” to those religious beliefs that have
great rituals, including food taboos, sexual prohibitions, fasts, martyrs, daily
prayers, grace before meals, that enhance the credibility of the religion. Humans
also gravitate towards prestigious or successful advocates of beliefs and rituals.
Universalizing religions were able to create “super-tribes” of believers with a
greater inclination to trust members of other clans with the same religious beliefs.
But Henrich carefully notes that the broader cooperation and encompassing
identity the universalizing religions encouraged among believers did not dispense
with the old kinship ties. These universalizing religions, together with the
civilizations they worked to sustain, were in fact built atop the old kinship systems.
Only later in the Middle Ages would Christianity set out to demolish kinship ties
and thus promote a truly WEIRD pan-tribal world of Christian believers for whom
shared beliefs alone functioned as their unifying identity rather than shared tribal
The immense but “unintentional” revolution of the Catholic Church
The foundational core of Henrich’s argument about how Europe
“unintentionally” followed a divergent path that led to the industrial revolution is
that “between about 400-1200 CE the intensive kin-based institutions of many
European tribal populations were slowly degraded, dismantled, and eventually
demolished by the...Roman Catholic Church” (p. 189). Only after this demolition
Europeans “began to form new voluntary associations based on shared interests
or beliefs rather than on kinship or tribal affiliations.” It was only during the High
Middle Ages that Europe began to witness “novel institutions such as charter
towns, professional guilds, and universities.” Pre-Catholic Europe was a normal
culture without WEIRD institutions where the social identities of individuals were
determined by their position and role within their kin-based groups. Disputes were
adjudicated on the basis of the customary norms of the kinship group, not
impersonal legal principles. There was no concept of intentionality and free will.
Wives lived with their husbands’ kinfolk. Kinship groups collectively owned the
land, and even in those places where individual ownership existed, the kinfolk
had inheritance rights. Marriages were arranged and marriages with relatives
were customary. Polygamy was accepted and polygynous marriages were
common for high-status men.
The Church dismantled Europe’s clans and kindreds by using its moral
authority, threatening excommunication, expanding the incest taboos, and
imposing numerous prohibitions during the course of many centuries, until by
about 1200 it managed not only to dissolve Europe’s extended families but to
substitute for them a new pan-tribal Christian identity across much of Europe. It
prohibited: all marriages between both blood relatives and affinal or in-law kinfolk,
sororate and levirate marriages, polygynous marriage, marriage to non-
Christians, arranged marriages while requiring bride and groom to publicly
consent to marriage, and it promoted individual ownership of land and inheritance
by personal testaments against customary inheritance. All these prohibitions
seriously undermined the authority of kinship groups, forcing people to reach out
beyond their clans and localities to find marriage partners, releasing individuals
from age-old kinship obligations and inherited interdependence into new
voluntary associations.
With individual ownership and the promulgation of the idea that wealthy
individuals could bequest by testament their wealth to the poor (to be
administered by the Church), kinship groups lost much of their land to the Church.
The idea that charitable acts could ensure one’s entry into heaven, along with the
power of priests to administer to the dying in preparation for the afterlife,
encouraged many wealthy landowners to give their wealth to the Church as they
were freed from the duties of kinship inheritance. “By 900 CE,” Henrich observes,
“the Church owned about a third of the cultivated land in western Europe.” (p.
Henrich raises a crucial question at this point: “Why did the Church adopt
these incest prohibitions?” More precisely, why did the Church identify polygamy
and cousin marriage, including marriage with distant cousins, as immoral acts?
Why did it advocate for monogamous marriage as the only morally acceptable
relationship in the procreation of families? What reasons did it offer to justify these
supposedly never-seen interferences in the sexual behavior and family
arrangements of humans in history? His preferred answer is that the Catholic
Church “unintentionally” abolished kinship groups and cousin marriage for the
wealth it stood to gain and for its own peculiar “obsession” with controlling
“people’s sex lives”. The “Catholic Church stumbled onto a collection of marriage
and family policies that demolished Europe’s intensive kin-based institutions” in
its greedy pursuit of economic power (p. 471). There were no cognitively-based
moral reasons for the Church’s decision to prohibit pederasty, concubinage, and
polygamy. The most crucial transformation in Western history was driven by plain
economic interests and peculiar sexual obsessions.
This is very odd in a book that seeks to emphasize cultural learning and the
eventual spread of intentionality, individual responsibility, and reason-based
actions. Henrich believes that “in nearly all societies, individuals don’t consciously
design the most important elements of their institutions and certainly don’t
understand how or why they work” (94). He says “nearly” without mentioning a
society that has consciously planned its institutions. It is his view, as we will see
in a later section, that WEIRD individuals are no more conscious than non-WEIRD
people in their creation of societies. How can the Europeans who began to talk
about “free will”, invented logic and deductive reasoning, and articulated ideals
and pragmatic programs about how to build better states, going back to Plato’s
Republic and Aristotle’s Politics, be deprived of any intentionality?
The WEIRD sexual morality of Christianity from its beginnings
The historical record shows, however, that Europeans were already quite
WEIRD in their family laws and practices in ancient Greek and Roman times, and
that Christians had already articulated a “new sexual morality” favoring
monogamous marriage before the Middle Ages. The Western Case for
Monogamy over Polygamy by John Witte, which Henrich ignores, decisively
shows that, from the fourth century BC, Greek philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, and
Roman Stoics, eulogized monogamous marriage as the proper way to create a
family and raise children. Early Christians saw monogamy as the “most beneficial”
form of union between a man and a woman for a society to prosper. For “nearly
two millennia,” Witte writes, Europeans treated “polygamy as a malum in se
offense something bad in itself” because it “deprecates women”, “fractures
fidelity”, “divides loyalty”, “promotes rivalry”, “foments lust”, and “harms children”
(2015: 459). Only Europeans among all the peoples of the world would extoll, in
the words of Plutarch (46-120 AD), “the union for life between a man and a woman
for the delights of love and the getting of children” (p. 107). When Catholics set
out to demolish polygamous kinship groups, they did so in awareness of the
merits of monogamy for the raising of a family and the harmonious functioning of
society. Europeans did not become WEIRD because they accidentally abolished
polygamous kinship groups. They abolished polygamy because they were the
first to emancipate their moral consciousness from norms dictated by their
biological inclinations.
Henrich’s claim that the “package of prohibitions” the Catholic Church
implemented had “only tenuous (at best) roots in Christianity’s sacred writings”
(p. 161) is untenable. It was not rooted in Judaism; as Henrich observes, “Jewish
law...permitted cousin marriage, polygynous marriage, and uncle-niece marriage”
(p. 176). Abundant evidence has been compiled and interpreted by Kyle Harper
in his book, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality
in Late Antiquity, showing a “transition from a late classical to a Christian sexual
morality...a quantum leap to a new foundational logic of sexual ethics” (2013: 8).
Christians consciously preached against sexual activity outside marriage, sex
with minors, divorce, infanticide and abortion, on the grounds that these practices
were harmful to the soul of humans, their families, and the social order.
While the early Roman Republic was a traditionally conservative farmer-
warrior society in which monogamy was emphasized and the family was seen to
consist of father, mother, and children in a state of “affectionate devotion” (Saller,
2010), it can’t be denied that, as Rome became an empire with millions of slaves
supporting the ruling class, the moral character of Romans weakened, divorce
became normal, the birth rate declined, and the pornographic exploitation of
slaves, especially girls, women, and boys, became rampant in elite circles. As
Harper observes, slave minors were “subjected to untrammeled sexual abuse”
(2015: 26). It was quite common for wealthy men to own boy slaves for sexual
usage right inside their households. It was against this late Roman decadence
that Christians objected. They rejected the Roman notion that a man born free
could have sex with slaves, prostitutes, and boys. Paul condemned same-sex
relations and sexual activity outside of marriage as porneia (“fornication”). Harper
does not get into polygamy, but it should be noted that late-antiquity Christians,
Paul, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian, spoke against polygamy, without
getting rich for it (Crossan & Reed, 2004; Witte, 2015)
The WEIRD Hellenistic roots of Christianity
It needs to be emphasized, however, that the Bible was not the original
source for monogamous marriage. The Old Testament permitted polygamy and
the New Testament did not make any substantial calls for monogamy. The
principle of monogamy came to Christianity through the Greek-Roman cultural
ecumene where monogamy had long been a culturally mandated institution.
Christianity was from its very beginnings a WEIRD Hellenistic religion deeply
infused with Greek reason and Roman legalistic modes of thinking: the only
religion that originated and developed within a metaphysical framework
consistent with a rationalistic understanding of the natural world and in an
intellectual setting where freedom was the subject of much discussion.
The way
The rationalizing impulse that transformed early Christianity into a theology was the
subject matter of Edwin Hatch’s The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity.
Christianity was “profoundly modified by the habit of mind of those who accepted it. It
was impossible for the Greeks, educated as they were with an education which
penetrated their whole nature, to receive or retain Christianity in its primitive simplicity.”
Christianity became “no less a philosophy than a religion” (1895: 49).
Greek reason entered into Christianity could be seen in the tendency to draw
inferences from clearly stated definitions, to construct systems from these
inferences, and to ascertain the validity of these inferences in terms of their logical
consistency within those systems. The Greek philosophical language came to
influence Judaism from the middle of the third century BC, long before the New
Testament period.
Christianity too was born inside the womb of Hellenism. The Greek language,
rather than Hebrew, was the language through which the Christian faith spread.
The first Christians were Hellenized Jews. All the books of the New Testament
were written in Greek. The Gospel of St. John reinterpreted Jesus in Platonic
terms, and non-Jews who became Christians were typically educated Greeks.
The majority of Jews in the first Christian century were not living in Judea but in
the politeuma of Alexandria, Antioch, and the Hellenistic oikoumene at large.
Philo of Alexandria (20 BC 50 AD) played a significant role in this adaptation of
Christianity to Hellenism. Convinced that the Scripture could be elucidated
through the use of Greek philosophy and science, Philo started a theological
tradition within Christianity by bringing together in a rich mixture the religious
beliefs of the Septuagint, the Torah and Mosaic Law, and the Platonic and Stoic
idea of a single rational law inherent in nature (Chadwick, 2001). By the early 2nd
century, Christ had come to personify the Logos, the “Word” of the opening of St.
John’s Gospel. The four fathers of the Latin Church, St. Ambrose (340-397), St.
Jerome (340-419), St. Augustine (354-430), and Gregory the Great (540-604),
received a thorough classical education that taught them that God is a purposeful
designer of the world who can be known through the things He has made. The
Latin apologists, Tertullian, Minucius Felix (late 2nd century), and Lactantius (250-
326), came to Christianity from a classical professional background. Minucius
deliberately borrowed the Greek literary style of the dialogue, together with the
Roman use of legal rules of evidence, to persuade pagans that Christianity was
consistent with the classical search for wisdom and goodness. Lactantius, known
as the “Christian Cicero”, told his readers that the Stoic notion of a cosmic rational
The foremost scholar on this topic is Martin Hengel, starting with this two-volume work,
Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in Their Encounter in Palestine During the Early
Hellenistic Period (1974). His basic finding was that Judaism was deeply influenced by
Greek thought much earlier than commonly believed, at least by the third century BC;
Greek words penetrated the Bible itself; the book of Daniel, for example, includes
themes mediated by Hellenistic writings. Hengel’s conclusion, however, was not that
we should underestimate the religious differences between Judaism, Hellenized
Judaism, and Hellenized Christianity.
order was consistent with the Christian idea of a benevolent Creator who rules
the world providentially (Colish, 1998: 10-15).
Clement of Alexandria’s (150-215) effort to write a regular and orderly treatise
of Christian beliefs, a theology, has to be seen in this context as an effort to
elevate the unreflecting faith of simple “Jesus believers” to a higher understanding
by means of classical learning. The goal was not to elevate philosophy above
faith but to employ philosophy as a “preparatory discipline” to the study of
Christianity and thus to the establishment of Christian faith as a WEIRD theology.
Clement, who was very well read in Platonic philosophy, argued that although
faith was sufficient for salvation, it was consistent with Christian faith to educate
and discipline one’s mind to reach a higher, more coherent understanding of God.
Origen, who succeeded Clement as head of the Catechetical School in
Alexandria, took further this effort to construct a systematic body of truth on the
basis of rigorous argumentation. His On the First Principles starts with the
elements of faith of apostolic preaching and then goes on to maintain, in the words
of F.E. Peters, “that in many cases apostolic tradition did no more than announce
that a thing is so, without explaining the how of the why” (Peters, 1970: 625).
Origen is said to have provided the “first Summa Theologica” in presenting all
Christian beliefs in the manner of a dogma, a canon, a system of beliefs (Jaeger,
1961; Miles, 2005).
Henrich inadvertently slips out that “by roughly 200 BCE universalizing
religions included [concepts] of free will...[and] moral universalism” (p. 146). Don’t
we need humans with WEIRD psychologies to have concepts of free will and
moral universalism? He identifies “free will” with the WEIRD “notion that
individuals make their own choices and those choices matter”, and he lists “moral
Additional works on how Judaism and Christianity were “Hellenized” include Miles
(2005) and Jaeger (1961). There are many additional studies explaining how
Christianity was substantially rationalized and transformed into the only “WEIRD”
theological religion of the world before the Middle Ages. A drawback of Henrich’s
“experimental” approach is that it relies on the simple-minded opinions of contemporary
individuals to reach judgments about the nature of Christianity, while ignoring the
scholarly literature on the intellectual development of Christianity. While I can’t claim to
have read this work, the notion that Christianity was one of many other religions, rather
than a highly theological doctrine, is decisively put to rest by the monumental five
volume work of Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the
Development of Doctrine: Volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition 100
600, Volume 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom 6001700, Volume 3: The Growth
of Medieval Theology 6001300, Volume 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma 1300
1700, Volume 5: Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture since 1700 (University of
Chicago Press, 19731990).
universalism” as one of the key WEIRD traits. His point may be that universalizing
religions contained some incipient ideas about free will and moral responsibility
based on religious texts rather than on customary obligations stemming from
kinship ties. But while it can be argued that during the Axial Age (800 to 200 BC)
the high cultures of Israel, India, China, and possibly Persia did articulate quasi-
universal ideals for “humanity” in opposition to the tribalistic conventions of the
day, the subsequent histories of these cultures were characterized by dogmatic
fixation, stagnation, and religious traditionalism, whereas only the ancient Greeks
would engage in what Merlin Donald calls “second-order theory” or “thinking
about thinking,” as is evident in their geometrical proofs, in Plato’s incessant
dialogical questioning of taken-for-granted conventions about what is truthful and
what is rational, followed by Aristotle’s articulation of a system of logic about how
to think properly without contradiction and consistently on the basis of “self-
evident” reason-based premises.
We don’t have any textual evidence that any religion other than Christianity
articulated ideas about free will and universal ideals on the basis of a systematic
assimilation of the Greek philosophical heritage. The first proper articulation of
the idea of free will can be found in the writings of the Hellenistic thinker Epicurus,
who thought that it was possible for human decision or choice to exist outside a
causal chain of determinism, and thus for humans to be responsible for their
actions, and for praise and moral blame to be possible (Long & Sedley, 1987).
Larry Siedentop, in his fascinating book, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of
Western Liberalism (2015) argues that Christianity (in contrast to every other
religion) was responsible for a WEIRD (to use Henrich’s term) moral revolution in
the first centuries AD before the Middle Ages. This revolution called for the moral
equality of humans regardless of ancestry, and insisted that humans are
intentional beings in possession of an inner conscience that should not be
obliviated by mandates imposed without reasons. Hellenized Christians were the
first to elaborate philosophically the concepts of person, conscience, truth, dignity,
and liberty. Kyle Harper (2013: 118) also makes a strong case that it was the early
Christians who developed a “thoroughly libertarian view of free will, defined by
the capacity to act in a certain way”, in the same vein as they articulated a new
family ethic.
In the Roman world, people were in awe of the powers of fate and fascinated
by astrology, but Christians came to emphasize the power of human freedom to
transcend sexual appetites, the possibility of redemption for all including sinners.
For an assessment of the Axial Age contributions of ancient civilizations, in comparison
to the Greek contributions, see my article “The European Idea of Progress Supersedes
the Axial Age” (Duchesne, 2019).
Christianity framed the Greco-Roman views on monogamy within a powerful new
sexual morality backed by the sanctified authority of one God in charge of ultimate
moral judgement. These early Christian ideas were gradually adopted and
transmitted in the second and third centuries to Roman populations. Saint
Ambrose (340397) and Saint Jerome (347-420) insisted on the right of women
who chose celibacy not to be forced into unwanted marriages, and on the need
to judge women not by sex but by soul (Colish, 1998: 16-24). Christians were thus
“unique” in sincerely believing that unrestrained sexuality and suppression of the
free will were damaging to human relationships.
Culturally-mandated monogamy of ancient Greece
Kevin MacDonald (2021), in an excellent review-essay of The WEIRDest
People, counters Henrich’s argument that monogamy was not real in Greece
because high status men “could also purchase sex slaves, take foreigners as
concubines, and use numerous inexpensive brothels” (p. 273). The essence of
MacDonald’s critique is that Solon introduced laws on marriage aimed at curbing
“the power of the aristocracy by limiting the benefits to be gained by extra-marital
sexual relationships.” Solon’s law made monogamy the only form of union
between a man and woman that could engender legitimate children “with the
possibility of inheritance”. Solon’s laws provided for “state-subsidized brothels
staffed with cheap and therefore readily available female prostitutes” in order to
alleviate the polygynous inclination of men. This fact does not negate the
monogamous character of ancient Greece since children born outside a
monogamous marriage were not recognized as biological members of the
household and were excluded from any inheritance. Prostitution and concubinage
was “a substitute for polygyny by the wealthy”.
Henrich is also off in his claim that Rome lacked monogamy. While Henrich
acknowledges that “Roman law only recognized monogamous marriages” and
that “early Roman law...prohibited close cousin marriage”, he thinks the presence
of “secondary wives and sex slaves” seriously limited this institution (p. 163). He
fails to mention that in Roman law monogamy was the only valid form of marriage
that could produce legitimate children with inheritance rights. Henrich references
articles by W. Scheidel, including “A peculiar institution? Greco-Roman
monogamy in global context” (2009) in support of his claims. Perhaps he thought
that Scheidel’s observation that Greco-Roman monogamy “accommodated a
variety of men’s polygynous relationships outside the nuclear family” disqualified
calling these cultures monogamous. But the conclusion Scheidel actually reaches
is that Greeks and Romans regarded polygamy as a “barbarian custom or a mark
of tyranny” (Scheidel, 2009). The thesis of another paper by Scheidel (2008, also
referenced by Henrich) reads: “Greek and Roman men were not allowed to be
married to more than one wife at a time and not meant to cohabit with concubines
during marriage, and not even rulers were exempt from these norms.”
But why would the Greeks and Romans institute monogamy when polygyny
is a naturally selected institution consistent with the evolved psychologies of
humans? Henrich offers an insightful analysis of the evolutionary selection of
polygyny we can rely upon to start answering this question (pp. 255-283).
Monogamous pair bonding does not exist among any species living in large
groups like Homo sapiens. Our closest primate relatives are highly promiscuous
and don’t form pair bonds. While humans did evolve a psychological disposition
for emotional pair bonding and for men to invest in the children of their sexual
partner, both males and females were naturally selected to favor polygynous
This may seem odd because males and females evolved different mating
strategies, with females limited in their reproduction to the number of children they
could raise due to ovulation, gestation, and lactation. Males, however, can
produce sperm over their lifetime and potentially have thousands of offspring.
Males are very strongly inclined to favor multiple mates because this means
greater reproduction and greater biological “fitness”. Females can only have one
pregnancy at a time. Having multiple sexual mates does not augment their
reproductive success but harms it by creating confusion and conflict among males
over paternity and minimizing their willingness for parental investment.
Nevertheless, females do have their own particular type of “polygyny bias”.
Females want to form a pair-bond with those males who can best guarantee
support for her during pregnancy and during the maturation of the child. They
want security and comfort. Therefore, they are psychologically inclined to
gravitate toward high-status men with resources. This means that in a world
where high-status men are always seeking and acquiring multiple wives, and
many low-status men are deprived of sexual mates, young females will have a
larger pool of males to choose husbands from than would be available in a society
where monogamy was the law. While she would prefer to be the singular wife of
a high-status man, rather than marrying a low-status man who can’t provide
security, a woman would be better off being the wife of a married wealthy man in
a polygynous household with lots of resources and much to learn from older co-
All the societies witnessed in history, except the WEIRD societies created by
Europeans, practiced polygamy as a naturally selected mating strategy that
allowed for the transmission of the genes of the most biologically fit men. Most
Henrich forgets that a major downside of polygyny for women is the fractious hostility
which often occurs between co-wives.
human societies throughout history have accepted polygynous marriage. Almost
all hunter-gatherer societies around the world, about 90 percent, “had some
degree of polygynous marriage” (p. 260). The hunter and gatherer societies that
were “monogamous” were so because resources were too scarce for some men
to accumulate extra resources to invest in additional wives, such as the hunter-
gather culture of northwestern Europe. In the primitive societies that were
polygynous, Henrich informs us, only about 14 percent of men and 22 percent of
women were polygynously married because only men with the ability to acquire
extra resources had the means to support more than one wife. This does not
mean that most men were in monogamous relationships; many simply had a hard
time finding partners.
Monogamy can only be said to exist, I would argue, when it is a consciously
culturally mandated norm in opposition to high status men who are biologically
inclined for polygamous marriage. Once societies began to practice agriculture
and increasing inequalities between classes emerged, with some men
appropriating large tracts of land worked by low status peasants, the acquisition
of multiple wives by a few men intensified. Only 15 percent of agricultural societies
in the Ethnographic Atlas are identified as “monogamous”. With the rise of
complex chiefdoms and civilizations, it became customary for high-ranking men
to have multiple wives, with some kings having a few elite wives and several
thousand secondary wives. This is the way nature works.
So, again, we need to ask: Why would the ruling elite in ancient Greece
promote monogamy?
Here we can continue to draw from Henrich some keen
insights on the benefits of monogamy and the dysfunctional aspects of polygamy,
so long as we keep in mind that he is talking about current modern societies, and
that he does not attribute these insights to the Greeks and Romans, or to the
Catholic Church. The main problem with polygynous marriages is that they
“generate a large pool of low-status unmarried men with few prospects for
marriage or even sex” (p. 256). Large percentages of unmarried men are
associated with high crime rates and general anti-social behavior. Polygynous
men invest less in their offspring because they tend to have more children and
because they dedicate more resources pursuing additional wives.
Henrich pays little attention to the scholarly literature portraying ancient Greece as a
monogamous culture; see Lacy (1968) and Patterson (2001). Patterson makes a strong
case that Greek society since archaic times was already rooted in monogamous
households rather than clans, that in law courts the violation of marital relationships
was categorized as a public danger and the adulterer as a sexual thief, and that
monogamous family households were seen as integral to the sustenance of the city’s
civic identity and norms.
It has been shown, moreover, that “getting married and becoming a father
lowers men’s testosterone”. The level of testosterone (T) influences men’s
psychology; men with lower T are less aggressive and more able to self-discipline
their emotions and allow the prefrontal cortices of their brains a greater say over
decision-making. Monogamy means that a higher proportion of men will have the
opportunity of finding a spouse. Marriage suppresses T levels, which lowers the
likelihood of property crimes, drug abuse, and violent aggression. Levels of T also
“affect a person’s assessment of the trustworthiness of strangers”. Monogamous
men are more inclined to trust strangers and to behave according to impartial
principles. In polygynous societies, men’s T levels decline slower with age
because they remain on the marriage market. Studies have shown that marriage
cuts the overall crime rate by about 35 percent.
For all these reasons, Henrich concludes “that monogamous marriage
norms...create a range of social and psychological effects that give the societies
that possess them a big edge in competition against other groups” (p. 263). But
Henrich employs this argument solely to explain why non-western societies
eventually came to implement laws favoring monogamy. They did so under the
competitive pressure of the incredibly successful Western world in the twentieth
century. “Intergroup competition” the competition of nation states for
geopolitical power and survival as independent nations motivated the non-
Western world to copy Western secular institutions, not just monogamy, but rule
of law, constitutions, elections, and scientific methodologies.
While non-Western states did not get rid of all the kinship characteristics that
underlay their age-old bureaucratic institutions, they did come to the realization
(though Henrich does not quite say this) that favoring monogamy was a great way
of limiting the deleterious effects of powerful polygynous clans continually
contesting for power and obstructing the creation of a centralized modern nation
state. But when it comes to the origins of monogamy in the West, Henrich takes
away any intentionality and rational decision making from Europeans.
Interestingly enough, Henrich wrote a 60+ page affidavit for the Supreme
Court of British Columbia under the title “Polygyny in Cross Cultural Perspective:
Theory and Implications” (2010). He not only made a powerful case against the
legalization of polygyny today, but suggested that monogamy was intentionally
invented by the ancient Greeks. “Greek city states first legally instituted
monogamy as part of many different reforms, including elements of democratic
governance, which were meant to build egalitarian social solidarity among their
It should be noted that polygyny is still common in sub-Saharan Africa, and that African-
American men, more than any other racial group, often sire many children by different
citizenries.” He also stated in this affidavit that the Romans consciously mandated
monogamy as a way of strengthening social solidarity and functionality. During
the reign of the first Roman emperor, Augustus (27 BC AD 14), a series of
reforms were implemented to discourage serial monogamy and concubinage, to
make divorce a legal process, and to restrict extra-marital relationships to women
who were registered prostitutes.
In making these claims, Henrich relied primarily on two articles by Kevin
MacDonald (1990, 1995), referencing him a total of 7 times. Why did Henrich
abandon this earlier view to argue that monogamy was created “inadvertently” by
a Church obsessed with the natural sexual drives of humans? Perhaps this is a
reflection of the existence of more primary documentation showing that the
Catholic Church did indeed promote monogamy, and of the fact that there are
actual Christians living today for Henrich to conduct experimental surveys to
determine their views about family morals whereas the primary evidence about
Greek and Roman family views is scantier and less reliable. There are no Greeks
and Romans today with a psychology that resembles the mindset of the ancients
to conduct surveys. I would also say that Henrich likely wanted a view in which
the Church acted “inadvertently” in order to take away from Europeans (in our
age of multicultural equality) any normative responsibility for creating a far
superior, trustworthy, honest, and rational culture.
Henrich was correct to rely on MacDonald’s work, though unlike
MacDonald’s observation that the presence of monogamy among northern
European hunter-gatherers was the original example of monogamous marriage,
as a result of the scarcity of the ancestral environment to which they were
adapted, I believe the Greeks were the first to consciously mandate monogamy
as an institution that enhanced the solidarity of city-state members, not in
response to environmental pressures or scarce resources.
In all polygynous
societies, most men have only one wife. The issue is: Why was Greece the first
culture to prohibit polygyny among high-status men economically able to give
satisfaction to their evolved disposition for polygamy? The ancient Greeks
originated monogamy out of their understanding that the polygamous practices
of aristocratic clan leaders were detrimental to internal solidarity within the new
WEIRD city-states they had created. They consciously opposed polygamy
because it created a situation in which high-status men monopolized the bride
market, expanded their clannish networks, deprived many men of marriage, and
thus weakened the civic ties within the new city-states. What Henrich and
MacDonald do not stress is that the city-state was a totally new institutional
arrangement, a new way of grouping humans on the basis of the reason-based
Below I return to MacDonald’s argument.
concept of “citizen” in opposition to the traditional norm that membership
depended on lineage and tribal origin.
Before the creation of city-states and the rise of family farms after 700 BC,
aristocratic men with their military retinues, clannish relationships, and large
landholdings were the main competitors for the allegiance of the local population.
It was Solon (640560 BC) who took the first legalistic steps to create a new civic
identity centered around membership in the city state of Athens, rather than the
older clannish alliances that we read about in Homer’s Iliad. Solon opposed the
endless squabbles of aristocrats with their private retinues in the name of a new
ideal of good order and harmony between men. He was against the kin-based
ingroup norms of the aristocrats. Solon wanted a legal code applied equally to all
male citizens. And he recognized the indispensable contribution to the harmony
of the city state of non-aristocratic yet independent family farmers who worked
incredibly hard to sustain the economic viability of the city-state. These free
farmers were included as citizens (Hanson, 1999).
After Solon, Cleisthenes (b. late 570s BC) is said to have “dealt the fatal blow
to Athenian tribalism by dissolving the traditional connections of clans entirely and
creating in their place a remarkable system of 10 groupings that were artificial
tribes” (Rensberger & Farquhar, 1995). These new groupings were called demes,
and the members of these demes were identified as citizens regardless of kinship
lineage. They were free, native-born males with the right to participate in the
general assembly of the Athenian city-state and in local assemblies of each
deme. The laws that these assemblies passed were not customary but based on
open discussion by Athenians as members of a political order relatively freed from
tribal groupings.
By culturally mandating monogamy, and forcing high-status men to focus on
their families as members of city-states rather than polygamous kin groups, the
ancient Greeks created highly competitive societies.
Henrich’s argument about
the indispensable role of the Church’s family program would have carried a lot
more weight if he had acknowledged the prior existence of monogamy in the
Greco-Roman world while arguing that polygynous marriages were common
among the wealthy leaders of the Germanic tribes that took Europe in the early
Middle Ages, and that it was these kinship networks that the Church set out to
abolish. Of course, this would have required an entirely new research project as
to why the ancients were already monogamous.
I need hardly say that explaining the origins of Greek city-states, and republican
institutions in Rome, as conscious efforts to overcome clannish politics, backed by
monogamous families and weaker kinship groups, requires far more elaboration than
is offered here.
The Protestant role, or mass African literacy versus highly literate European
In Henrich’s historical model, Protestantism plays a rather important role in
heightening the emerging WEIRD traits of Europeans by encouraging the spread
of literacy, which had deep effects on the neurological wiring of the brain.
Henrich allows for other factors to play a role in the cultivation of WEIRD tendencies.
He provides surveys which point to some psychological differences “within China and
India” based on differences in the intensity of kinship resulting from ecological
differences in types of farming. These variations are “relatively small compared to the
impact” of the Church in Europe, which “nearly annihilated Europe's clans, kindreds,
cousin marriage, polygamy, and inheritance norms”. He wonders whether the “regions
of northern Europe” “may have faced somewhat less resistance” against the Church’s
family program, and indeed whether “the rain-fed, wheat growing regions of northern
Europe” engendered weaker kin-based ties. A fruitful line of research may have
resulted from an examination of the extent to which the ecology of Greece selected for
unique family-owned, privately held, small-to-medium homestead farms freed from
wider kinship networks. Homestead family farms were exceptional to ancient Greece.
In the ancient civilizations of the Near East, and the later civilizations of India, China
and the Americas, the ruler and his court of blood relatives, administrators and
provincial elites owned most of the land, huge estates, from which they extracted taxes
and rents from slaves, serfs, indentured servants, or faceless peasants with tiny plots
owned by clans. Victor Davis Hanson (1999) argues that Greece, roughly between 700
and 300 BC, saw the emergence of “an autonomous group of independent farmers” for
the first time in human history. These independent farmers “were most definitely not
peasants” since they “had a title to their small farms, enjoyed political rights as full
citizens, took on the defense of their communities”, and were responsible for the
general Greek cultural characteristics of pragmatism, confidence in the middling
classes, individualism, and self-reliance” (xiv). While one third to one half of the adult
male population in most city states never became independent farmers, V.D. Hanson
insists that the independent farmers were the ones who brought (at the beginning of
the polis period) “a transformation in the mind, a radical change of attitude, as farmers
learned to invest their efforts in the land in an entirely novel way.” It was the yeomen
farmers who brought an “alteration in the Greek mentality [which] involved a new
ideology of work derived from land idea that manual labor, time spent
on the soil, was both intrinsically ennobling [in contrast] to the well-known aristocratic
dislike of manual labor and widespread presence of chattel slavery” (p. 91). Having
ownership and control over one's land encouraged individualism and free will in the
sense that farmers were responsible for making their own decisions and initiating
through trial-and-error new methods of farming. This legacy of free family farms was
revived by the Romans, with similar effects on Roman culture, sustaining the rise of a
republican form of government and a citizen army. Homestead family farms were also
a key component of European medieval agriculture, and of modern Europe and of the
calls Protestantism “the WEIRDest religion” and estimates that it acted “like a
booster shot for many of the WEIRD psychological patterns we have been
examining throughout this book” (p. 418). He compiles experimental surveys
showing that countries today “with Protestant majorities show even higher
individualism, greater impersonal trust, and a stronger emphasis on creativity
compared to majority Catholic countries” (p. 418). Protestants are likewise “less
tied to their families”, less tolerant of those who do not consistently follow the
impartial rules, and more inclined to trust and interact with strangers.
Evidence also shows that Protestantism induces people to work longer hours
than is the case with Catholicism. Of course, Protestantism did not spring
suddenly onto the historical scene but was anticipated by prior heterodox religious
currents in the Middle Ages. Luther’s message spread fast because it “resonated
deeply with important swaths” of a population that was already proto-WEIRD. The
importance of Protestant literacy is high enough in Henrich’s explanation that he
dedicates a “Prelude,” before Chapter 1, arguing that the Protestant spread of
“high rates of literacy” brought about a fundamental alteration in the brains of
Europeans (pp. 3-7). He cites research showing that the neurological wiring of
the brain can be altered in a WEIRD analytical direction through the spread of
literacy. In the development of reading skills, specialized areas of the brain are
re-wired, “thickened”, “altered”, “broadened”, and “improved”. Without altering the
“underlying genetic code,” literacy “changes people’s biology and psychology […]
their cognitive abilities in domains related to memory, visual processing, facial
recognition, numerical exactness, and problem-solving”. “Literacy thus provides
an example of how culture can change people’s biology independent of any
genetic differences” (p. 17).
It is interesting that when Henrich writes about literacy it is always about “high
literacy rates” or “mass literate societies”. He wants masses of people who can
at least “read” a bit in order to talk about alterations in the brain and WEIRD
profiles. He is not satisfied with a small elite of highly educated individuals who
can also write excellent books. An industrial society requires mass literacy, but
Europe did not need mass literacy to bring about the Renaissance in the 15th
settler states of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Only in Western history
do we find the famous yeomen farmers who owned their own piece of land and fought
in citizen armies. The image of yeomen farmers as honest, hardworking, virtuous and
independent played a significant role in Western republican thought. The founding
fathers of the United States, Thomas Jefferson and others, were of the view that the
“yeoman farmers” were “the most valuable citizens”, the one segment of the population
that could be trusted to be committed to republican values, as contrasted to financiers,
bankers and industrialists with their “cesspools of corruption” in the cities.
century and modern science in the 16th and 17th centuries. Literacy only began to
spread in the 16th century, as Henrich observes. Before this century, “never more
than 10 percent of any society’s population could read, and usually the rates were
much lower” (p. 7). Throughout the modern era, the most literate societies in the
world were Protestant: the Netherlands, Britain, Sweden, and Germany. He
supplies numbers showing that “literacy rates grew the fastest in countries where
Protestantism was most deeply established” (10).
He zooms in on Prussia to show this was not a mere correlation: “counties
with more Protestants had higher rates of literacy and more schools.” This
“pattern prevails…when the effects of urbanization and demographics are held
constant.” Why did Protestantism promote literacy? Henrich’s answer, again,
reveals the belief that Christians (even the ones increasingly becoming WEIRD)
could not possibly have acted intentionally and rationally in the promotion of
literacy for its beneficial effects on the development of a Christian culture with
individuals who legislate for themselves their own religious beliefs. He appears to
be acknowledging this when he says that “embedded deep in Protestantism is
the notion that individuals should develop a personal relationship with God and
Jesus [and to] accomplish this both men and women need to read and interpret
the sacred scriptures for themselves, and not rely primarily on the authority of
supposed experts, priests, or institutional authorities like the Church” (p. 9).
In the end, however, the impression he wants to convey is that the irrational
search for eternal salvation had the unintended consequence of promoting
literacy, altering the neurology of the brain in a more analytical direction, raising
the intelligence of the general population, and thus fueling the industrial
revolution. But if the “European populations at the close of the Middle Ages were
so susceptible to the unusually individualistic character of Protestant beliefs”
because they had already become “proto-Weird”, why not argue that Protestants
emphasized individual conscience as proto-intentional beings? Protestants were
consciously for the liberation of the inwardness of individual believers from the
unquestioned authority of priests and for the use of one’s own literacy to read the
Bible against externally imposed interpretations. This emphasis on the right of
private judgement reflected an independent and critical spirit. Henrich views all
religious peoples as if they were on the same level of cognition in their common
irrational belief in “ghosts”, “demons”, “spirits”, “angels”. This is why he has a hard
time acknowledging WEIRD attributes of the very same religion he calls “the
There are additional flaws in his assessment of Protestantism. While Henrich
is correct that we need “high rates of literacy” to operate an industrial economy,
we don’t need it for major intellectual-cultural revolutions. He himself notes in
passing that “only about 1 percent of the German-speaking population
was...literate” when Luther began the epoch-making Reformation (p. 9). Henrich’s
criterion for what constitutes “literacy” is very low, merely the ability to read. Why
would a population of semi-literate Africans be more important than a highly
literate elite capable of reading and writing extensively, as was the case in ancient
Greece, Renaissance Italy, and Shakespeare’s Britain?
As it is, Henrich is not accurate when he says that before the 16th century the
literacy rate was “never more than 10 percent of any society’s population”. One
of the most thorough studies of literacy in ancient Greece concludes that “the
great majority of Athenian citizens” in the 5th and 4th centuries BC could read and
write (Harvey, 1966). These were male citizens, to be sure. Oswyn Murray says
that in the period 750-650 BC “writing became widespread in Greece” (Murray,
1980). More conservative estimates tell us that in the ancient Greek-Roman world
at large it was “very improbable” that the level of literacy “was above 10%, or
25%, or 50%”. This same source says that in the major cities of the Hellenistic
world the literacy rate was around 20 to 30 percent of the population (Harris,
1989). This is relatively high considering that in Protestant England in the period
1580-1700, as noted in this conservative study, “far fewer than 20 percent of
adults could read and write”. Why not talk about alterations in the brain in
reference to the highly literate male adult population of ancient Greece?
Lack of attention to the high intellectual achievements of Europeans is a
trademark of Henrich’s book. He never ponders over the question why Aristotle,
an ancient thinker from a supposedly kin-based culture, remained the most
influential thinker through the entire medieval period, unsurpassed in his logical
writings until the nineteenth century. Aristotle argued that truth can only arise if
the mind frees itself from particular contexts and learns to provide reasons or
philosophical explanations based on abstract-analytical categories (substance,
quantity, quality, relationship, place, time, state) for why something is so. Aristotle
Havelock (1963) proposes that the “invention of alphabetic writing” in ancient Greece
encouraged a form of consciousness in which pronouns are used, “both personal and new syntactic objects of verbs of cognition, or placed in
antithesis to the ‘body’ which the ‘ego’ was thought as residing” (p. 198). With
alphabetic writing, the ‘I’ as the authorial agent of his own ideas became the norm,
together with prose writing without any metrical (or rhyming) structure, but aiming at
analytical precision and open argumentation. Havelock also suggested that, in contrast
to oral cultures, which are preoccupied with “formulaic directives” and the transmission
of immemorial norms through incantation and repetition, the written word encouraged
a reading wherein the text (existing independently of the reader) could be studied,
underlined and analyzed, not merely memorized and recited as sacred oral tales, but
as accounts which could be subjected to endless questioning. The Greeks, let it be
noted, invented prose writing (Goldhill, 2002).
called a “good syllogism” a statement that had nothing to do with a context but
depended for its truth only on how the terms were formally related to each other.
The translations of Aristotle’s Categories and On Interpretation had already
been accomplished by Boethius in 51012 before the alleged creation of WEIRD
Europeans by the Catholic Church. Boethius transmitted to Europe, before the
full recovery of Aristotle’s work in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the
analytical art of “classifying the objects external to the mind” (Southern, 1953:
175-180). He taught how to think analytically with “the terms genus and species,
differentia, property and accident, and to apply these conceptions in argument
and discussion”. Amazingly, Henrich mentions Aristotle only in passing to say that
“the impact of a WEIRDer psychology” in science in the sixteenth century was
evident in the realization that “the great ancient sages, like Aristotle, could be
This is very misleading. While Aristotle’s ideas about motion were
superseded, the geometry of Euclid, which systematically organized together
everything that was known in the ancient Greek world, famously known for its
axioms, definitions and theorems, exercised an indispensable influence on the
rationalistic methods of modern science. The geometry of Isaac Newton’s
Principia Mathematica was Euclidean. Newton called his famous laws of motion
‘axioms’ and deduced his law of gravitation in the form of two mathematical
theorems. Nor can we ignore the WEIRD contributions of the scientists of the
Hellenistic era, not just Euclid’s geometry (300 BC), but scientists such as
Eratosthenes (276-195 BC), who measured the distance between the Sun and
the Earth, and the size of the Earth quite accurately; and Archimedes (287-212
BC), who laid the foundations of hydrostatics and statics, and explained the
principle of the lever; and Ptolemy, who introduced the WEIRD principles of Euclid
to mapmaking, depicting with geometric consistency a curved surface (of the
globe) on a flat surface (a map) using a gridwork of latitudes and longitudes, and
thus laying the foundations for the science of cartography (Russo, 2004).
Henrich’s observation that universities trained lawyers to think in a WEIRD manner “in
the wake of the rediscovery of the Justinian Code of Roman civil law in the 11th century”
can’t explain why a Justinian Code written in sixth century Byzantium became so useful
for the WEIRD development of voluntary associations in Europe. Since the Justinian
Code was based on Roman law, the question is: How did Romans (with their
supposedly non-WEIRD psychology) develop a legal system characterized by a high
degree of logical consistency in the classification of different types of law, the definition
of terms, the formulation of specific rules, and in the way questions and answers from
jurists were systematically collected?
Henrich’s new insights on the industrial divergence of Europe
Nevertheless, we can’t overestimate the power of Henrich’s focus on kinship
institutions and norms and his emphasis on the emergence of a new persona in
the rise of the West. The concept of WEIRD individuals driving Europe’s
economic changes from the Middle Ages right into the industrial revolution is very
enlightening. He seriously challenges the currently popular multiculturalist
argument that as late as 1750 China/Asia was more advanced economically than
Europe with its highly productive agriculture and its extensive international
networks of trade and larger urban centers. What matters is not the size of urban
centers and international trade networks per se, but whether these markets were
based on principles of fairness and trust, impersonal forms of credit, insurance,
and long-term agreements, rather than on “interpersonal relationships and kin-
based institutions”. Market networks in Asia and the Islamic world remained
rooted in a “different cultural psychology and family organization”. The Asian
markets were ultimately controlled by large extended families, clan ties, and
interpersonal agreements.
With the imposition of the Church’s family program, Europeans were
increasingly able to break away from kin-based relations and norms, choose their
own business partners, move freely into newly created chartered towns with their
professional guilds, and expand market networks with anonymous strangers
across the world. Much has been made of Marco Polo’s excitement over the
larger urban centers in China, but Henrich effectively shows that the rate of
urbanization in Europe was accelerating from 1000 to 1800 where the number of
people living in cities of over 10,000 increased 20 times, whereas China’s
urbanization rate “remained relatively constant” (p. 309). The freeing of
individuals from kinship ties resulted in a sustained rise in residential and
relational mobility across Europe. While the cities of Asia remained structured by
kin-based relationships, the chartered towns of Europe were a new phenomenon
in history, based on representative institutions and open to people from all walks
of life.
Henrich provides data showing that those urban centers that were exposed
to the Church’s family program (due to the presence of nearby bishoprics) grew
and developed representative forms of government faster. The inhabitants of
these chartered towns, the merchants, artisans, and shopkeepers, were not
“enmeshed in patrilineal, polygynous clans”. Therefore, their success did not
depend on kin-based connections, but on “their reputation for impartial honesty
and fairness, and on their industriousness, patience, precision, and punctuality”
(p. 317). In kin-based cultures, the occupational choices of individuals are
strongly set by families, clans, or ethnic groups. In the emerging WEIRD cultures
of medieval Europe, where one finds an increasing number of individuals seeking
to join voluntary associations, guilds, cities, apprenticeships, business
partnerships, individuals had to “sell themselves” by emphasizing their personal
abilities and attributes. Personal family connections, as they do today, remained
important, but personal success was heavily dependent on one’s reputation in a
world of strangers. Having a reputation as a hard and reliable worker with the
proper specialized talents, personality, and aptitudes to do the job became
The field of economic history has produced many excellent scholarly
contributions on the factors that led Europe to become the first industrial
civilization. But these studies have faced numerous quandaries and impasses on
a wide variety of pertinent subjects. For example, why did Europeans become
obsessed with punctuality in the Middle Ages, inventing mechanical clocks long
before industrial capitalist businesses would impose their disciplinary pace of
work and assembly line? (Cipolla, 1967; Landes, 1983). Why were so many
Cistercian monasteries founded before 1300, long before the rise of the
Protestant work ethic, emphasizing hard work and self-discipline?
Why did
Western Europe see a steady decline in interest rates, below 5 percent in England
and Holland before the Industrial Revolution, compared to the otherwise
advanced economies of Asia where rates tended to average between 25 and 50
The flaw in all prior answers, Henrich explains, lay in the assumption among
economic historians that the psychology of economic actors throughout the world
was fixed and generic. Rather than focusing on how low interest rates reflect a
people’s willingness to delay gratification, economic historians looked to a whole
range of factors affecting the risk of lending, or at the ways new credit banks
eased the lending of money. Similarly, when trying to explain the rapid spread of
mechanical clocks they looked at the demands of capitalism for punctuality, rather
than at the underlying psychological importance WEIRD people attach to
spending time productively and cultivating a reputation for punctuality and
reliability. It was the emerging WEIRD psychology of Europeans that prompted
them to create a new type of capitalism based on this new psychology. China had
developed mechanical water clocks, but these remained mere “showpieces and
curiosities” even though this civilization had widespread markets. When true
mechanical clocks from Europe arrived in the Islamic world, there was little
interest in this culture where occupations were set by family ties, reputations were
dependent on one’s adherence to kinship norms, and prayer times were based
on the sun’s position.
On the Cistercian “entrepreneurial organization of capital”, “rational cost accounting”,
and “inner-worldly asceticism” during the Middle Ages, see Randall Collins (1990).
One of the other consequences of the spread of WEIRD traits is that
Europeans began to work longer and harder. Contrary to popular notions and
images, Third World peoples have always worked far less than WEIRD
Westerners. For some time now, a number of studies have shown that there was
an “industrious revolution” (before the industrial revolution), led by a middling
class with the workweek lengthened by 40 percent in London from the 1650s to
the 1750s (De Vries, 1994). After 1800, people were working about 1,000 hours
more per year, or about an extra 19 hours per week. The common explanation is
that demographic pressures were forcing people to work longer. Population was
increasing steadily through the eighteenth century, but studies now show that
when one compares diverse societies, the men who are involved in the
commercial sector tended to increase their weekly work time on average by about
5 hours. Henrich thus recognizes the role that the spread of markets had on
psychology; however, what was going on in Europe was deeper than having the
opportunity to buy newly available commercial goods: tea, sugar, coffee, pepper,
nutmeg, and rum. People were also working more intensively because they had
a different personality, a greater inclination to postpone gratification, a more
clock-time mind set, and a wish to cultivate a reputation for self-discipline and
In a chapter entitled “Escape Velocity”, Henrich brings up the incredible
“innovation-driven economic and military expansion…of Europe after 1500” (p.
433). Those who prioritize genes and IQ believe that rising intelligence in England
during the modern era was the driving factor behind the innovations leading to
the industrial revolution. Possibly the best book proposing this argument is
Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms (2007). It argues that in the years 1250-1800
“economic success translated powerfully into reproductive success, with the
richest individuals having more than twice the number of surviving children at
death as the poorest” (Clark, 2007: 113). The result in the long run was that the
more literate and intelligent members of British society “left twice as many
children as the poorest.” While in the past the ruling aristocratic class was “barely
reproducing itself” because the death rates from its professional pursuit of warfare
were too high, the rise of an urbane, mercantile, and professionally minded elite,
with many surviving children, brought a new situation in which the kind of people
who survived and succeeded the most were those with the “smarter” genes and
the middle-class values of hard work, patience, literacy and thrift.
This argument makes sense as far as it goes. But so does Henrich’s
argument that we should not assume that inventions by lone geniuses
automatically translate into the “successful diffusion and implementation” of
technologies and widespread innovations in the economy. We should also not
assume that lone geniuses were behind the major inventions and behind the
application of these inventions to industry and subsequent improvements
(innovations) on these inventions. Henrich emphasizes instead the “growth of
Europe’s collective brain” nourished by the spread of voluntary associations,
charter cities and universities, knowledge societies and widespread publications,
monasteries and apprenticeships. He provides very solid evidence showing that
“the larger the population of engaged minds, the faster the rate of cumulative
cultural evolution” (p. 436). The “larger the network of people learning or doing
something, the more opportunities” there were for inventions and
innovations/improvements in technology.
While this argument does not necessarily preclude Clark’s emphasis on
rising average intelligence in modern Britain, it does challenge more directly
Edward Dutton’s and Bruce Charlton’s thesis in The Genius Famine that geniuses
were behind the industrial revolution in Europe (Dutton & Charlton, 2020). Henrich
goes over a number of key innovations the printing press, steam engine,
spinning mule, vulcanized rubber, and incandescent light bulb to show that
multiple people interconnected with each other were developing the ideas
associated with these innovations. He does not identify them as “inventions”
because these innovations were “just novel recombinations of existing ideas,
techniques...a tool taken from one domain and applied in another”. The collective
brain of Europeans was expanded at an accelerating rate as individuals from all
walks of life came together in voluntary associations “unconstrained by the bonds
of kinship” with opportunities to become part of “sprawling networks of experts” in
a wide variety of subjects and apprenticeships. Some of the salient points he
makes are: The promotion of neolocal residence meant that newly married
couples became head of their households at a young age, when people are “less
risk-averse and less tied to tradition”. Monasteries, which diffused throughout
Christendom independently of kinship groups, “carried with them the latest crops,
agricultural techniques, production methods, and industries”. “The Cistercian
Order, in particular, built a sprawling network of monastery factories that deployed
the latest techniques for grinding wheat, casting iron, tanning hides, fulling cloth,
and cultivating grapes” (442-446).
The "growing urban centers of the Middle Ages” were open to “residential-
mobile artisans and craftsmen”. Cities expanded the collective brain of Europeans
by bringing people with “different skills and areas of expertise to work on ideas
and technologies together.” Data show that “four out of five apprentices were not
sons of their master” in medieval guilds from the Netherlands. In 17th-century
London, “the percentage of artisans trained by nonrelatives ranged from 72 to 93
percent”, whereas in India and China “almost all skilled artisans” were trained by
a close family member. “More than three-quarters of the 4,000 masters” in Vienna
in 1742 “had been born elsewhere” (p. 447). The number of people living in cities
of over 10,000 increased 20 times in Europe from 800 to 1800 whereas the urban
population in China remained the same.
Evidence shows that “for each 10-fold increase in population size (from
10,000 to 100,000) there’s 13 times more innovation”, and it also shows that the
collective brain of European nations expanded substantially from 1200 to 1900
as measured by the size of the urban areas and the interconnectedness of people
(p. 451). The number of knowledge societies grew substantially after 1600, with
analytically minded individuals networking through much of Europe via letters,
books, pamphlets, technical manuals, and eventually scholarly journals and
public libraries. The evidence shows a strong relationship between the number of
knowledge societies in a region and the number of innovations. When talent was
suppressed in one nation competing with another, say, the energetic and
educated Protestant Huguenots in France, another nation open to Protestantism
would welcome them to join their voluntary associations.
End of kinship norms = rise of ideological struggles and rise of WEIRD
Henrich presumes throughout that the end of kinship-imposed norms brought
about an end to collectively-imposed norms resulting in a world of non-conformist
individuals freely seeking the best means to achieve the highest returns according
to impartial criteria. It is beyond his cognitive radar how the abolition of traditional
institutions opened up a new ideological world where individuals, classes,
religious groups, including ethnic-linguistic groups, would have the opportunity to
push forth programs (including national-ism) on how their institutions and
communities should be organized. The WEIRD modernization of Europe entailed
the use of rational-impartial criteria wherein the validity of programs for reform
came to be judged not only in terms of the economic interests and personal biases
of the respective populations but also in terms of the reason-based arguments
and evidential content given in support of these programs. The serious weakening
of the monarchical order in Europe with the Enlightenment and the French
Revolution of 1789 opened up an intense ideological struggle by a wide variety
of WEIRD groups over what moral values, future orientation, and interests should
underlie Western institutions. Many historians have identified the post-French
Revolution period as “The Age of Ideology” in reflection of the keen ideological
struggles that ensued in the 1800s between Liberalism, Conservatism,
Nationalism, Socialism, Marxism, Fascism and other isms (Schwarzmantel,
According to Kenneth Minogue, with the end of the traditional order in post revolutionary
France, an aggressive ideological style of practicing politics took over “always in terms
This should be a main take-away insight of Henrich’s book: Ideological
struggles are originally Western because they can only occur in societies where
individuals can give reasons to a mass audience freed from tribal norms in
support of their claims about how to construct a new social order. Because
individuals come from many different backgrounds, with varying personalities and
class interests, ethnic attachments and historical memories, including moral
visions about the future, which are heavily influenced by contextual factors, there
will always be different ideological claims with their own built-in reasons and forms
of argumentation. No ideology can claim to embody strictly impartial and universal
principles for humanity.
Henrich tends to assume that increasing WEIRDness is about “building
broader social networks” across the world beyond xenophobic and irrational
nation-states, leading to a globalized world where individuals act strictly on the
basis of scientific criteria in a cooperative and harmonious way, with intergroup
competition becoming a contest between market agents seeking the most rational
means to maximize returns that translate (via the support of a managerial elite)
into increased welfare of all. With the spread of affluent WEIRD states and
harmonious “interfirm competition,” he implies, the world will see an end to the
still irrational ideological struggles of the post-French revolutionary era, with social
scientists offering strictly impartial accounts based on coevolutionary gene-
cultural principles. He can’t see that advocating for cultural nationalism (for civic
liberal principles and for a collective attachment to a nation’s heritage, folkways,
and historical memories) can be done in a WEIRD way (along with the interests
and biases that come along with all ideological programs) by giving reasons for
its beneficial effects, and by offering scientific evidence about how diversity
destroys social trust and social capital.
He can’t see that it is possible to
of oppression, followed by struggle and leading to emancipation”. These are the words
of Martyn P. Thompson in the Foreword of Minogue’s book, Alien Powers: The Pure
Theory of Ideology (ISI Books, 2008), who further says that “Marx was arguably the
most thoughtful of all the innovators” in this ideological style, though there were many
other advocates of different isms driven by the goal to emancipate humanity from the
“shackles of false ideas by establishing and applying for the first time, a genuine
‘science of ideas’” (x-xiii). Michael Oakeshott blamed this ideological style on modern
rationalism’s privileging of technical knowledge at the expense of traditional knowledge,
authority, and prejudice. I tend to be a Hegelian in thinking we can judge the importance
of hierarchy and white identity politics by the giving of reasons in their support through
the social practice of open inquiry and critical argumentation.
The evidence that diversity reduces trust and participation in one’s community while
creating various social pathologies is now overwhelming. Despite the bias of academia
for diversity, and the strong bias of research funding agencies, it keeps growing, though
rationally justify the soundness of traditional family values, hierarchy and limited
democratic rights, on the grounds that these values are healthy for the
progression of societies and the raising of children.
Unfortunately, open argumentation in Western universities about the merits
and demerits of immigrant diversity, or traditional family norms, is very difficult to
conduct in a liberal open manner. The officially declared mission of almost every
university in the West, including Harvard where Henrich works, is to promote
“diversity, inclusiveness and equity as if the merits of these values were
already proven beyond further thinking. It was likely within this ideological
atmosphere that Henrich decided (for the first time in his career) to publish an
article (2021) extolling the benefits of mass immigration a few months after the
publication of The WEIRDest People.
This atmosphere may also explain why
he sidesteps how WEIRD Europeans were able to conceptualize themselves as
members of nation-states in terms of broader identities such as language,
religion, common history, and ethnic ancestry in the degree to which they were
freed from kinship tribalism. The identification of the peoples of the world within
clearly demarcated nation states, in combination with liberal legal codes that
recognize the equal rights of everyone including minorities, was indeed one of the
greatest accomplishments of WEIRD Europeans, comparable to the creation of
the polis in ancient Greece. Without this identification, humans would have been
forever bickering with each other along kinship and tribal lines. According to
Steven Pinker’s research (2011), the rates of violence experienced by tribal and
nonstate societies were much higher than they were after 1600 when nation
barely anyone talks about it, including Henrich, who prefers to repeat what he hears
from the globohomo establishment. While many are familiar with Robert D. Putnam’s
extensive research on the downside of diversity, they are unaware of recent studies
showing that increasing cultural and racial diversity beyond a certain proportion of the
population eventually brings more harm than benefits to the host population. Keep in
mind that many of the following studies are 10 to 20 years old, when immigrant diversity
was just accelerating in Europe, and its downside was not as palpable: Costa & Kahn
(2003); Delhey & Newton (2005); Dinesen & Sønderskov (2016); Dinesen, Schaeffer &
Sønderskov (2020); Fieldhouse & Cutts (2010); Hooghe et al. (2009); Lancee &
Dronkers (2011); Öberg, Oskarsson & Svensson (2011); Rice & Steele (2001); Ziller,
He declared in a PBS interview last year that “Every time you turn up immigration you
turn up innovation” ( I
suspect this was a calculated move to counter potential criticisms that he was a
“Western cultural supremacist” in arguing that Europeans became affluent due to their
personality traits for honesty, punctuality, lack of nepotism, and fairness, rather than
the colonial exploitation of nonwhites, which is the standard explanation in academia.
states were consolidated in Europe. Despite mass atrocities inflicted by nation-
states in the 20th century, the rates of violent death during this century, particularly
after the 1950s, were clearly lower than at any previous time in history.
Prior to the centralization of power by monarchs in the late medieval and
early modern era, the authority to wage war, to tax the population, to administer
and enforce the law, were personally owned, hereditary rights of a feudal class
with patrimonial/tribal authority. Patrimonialism is a form of authority that retains
aspects of the old patriarchal kin-based rule centered on extended family
lineages, with the difference that it projects the rule of the patriarch onto a broader
segment of the population atop kin-based relations. With the rise of absolutism in
the 17th century, the ruler came to justify his right to complete sovereignty over a
territory on the basis of divine and natural law, with kin-based norms playing a
minimal role. It was argued that a sovereign ruler had a right to monopolize all
power and justice away from private feudal families because that is the rational
way by which God ordained all creation to be ordered, for the purpose of
achieving the common good and the peaceful coexistence of people within a
During the late 18th and 19th centuries, the idea came to prevail that the right
of the government to rule comes from the people who inhabit the territorial state,
and that a legitimate national state presupposes a territory that is made up of
people who actually have a common ethnic lineage as well as a culturally
constructed civic identity. While the formation of absolutist states and modern
nation states had eliminated intra-group feudal warfare, it certainly did not
eliminate inter-state competition and power struggles. But with the spread of the
idea that the territories of a nation are justifiable only on the basis of common
ethno-cultural identities and the representative consent of the governed, equality
under the law and equal rights for all citizens, the notion of national self-
determination spread, with the result that empires were dissolved, many new
European nation states were created by formerly suppressed ethnic minorities,
and the League of Nations was born to ensure the self-determination and
peaceful coexistence of all peoples.
The reality of WWII, however, brought this humanitarian ideal to an end. It
showed that nationalism is an ideology like any other ideology driven by ethnic
interests, personal biases, and aggrandizing peoples, rather than driven solely by
reason-based arguments about the “right of national self-determination” and the
importance to ethnic groups of a homeland where they can protect their heritage
and interests. The persistence of disputes over the legitimate ethnic borders of
European peoples, the determination of the highly powerful Germanic peoples to
unify themselves within one nation state, and particularly the attempts by the
National Socialists to conquer lands with non-Germanic peoples, resulted in the
complete discrediting of ethnic nationalism, leading to the prevalence of the idea
that Western nations should only have a civic identity.
For some time, up until the 1960s, when White-only immigration policies
prevailed in the West, it was commonly believed among the liberal-minded
nations of the West that they could have both a civic-liberal and a broadly
Christian and ethnic identity. But with the rise of hostile globalist elites and the
ascendancy of cultural Marxism, the notion of a strong cultural identity among
Europeans (in Canada, Australia, and the United States) came to be equated with
“racial supremacy” even when these nations came to recognize the equal rights
of minorities in a state of peaceful interstate economic competition. Today, the
idea of civic nationalism based on Western liberal values alone without much
emphasis on cultural heritage has also been discredited. Multiculturalism took
over, the borders of European nation states were set wide open, and the ideology
of liberalism came to be identified with the elimination of European identities and
the promotion of immigrant-based race mixing.
Henrich wants us to believe that WEIRD Europeans never created ethnic
nation states with strong civic-liberal identities. We are supposed to believe that
WEIRDness inevitably leads to the dissolution of national identities, a process of
“residential mobility” across national borders, and a scaling up involving global
companies manned by WEIRD creatures from all over the world. We already
examined Henrich’s argument about how intergroup competition has been “the
driving force in societal evolution”. In the course of history, those groups that
managed to scale up their cooperation beyond bands, clans, and tribes have
been the most successful and the ones driving up societal complexity and
Henrich ignores the role of culturally constructed ethnic-liberal identities in
the formation of nation-states. The terms “ethnic group” or “ethnicity” remain
unexamined. He writes a lot about clans and tribes without addressing the ways
in which ancestry, a common ethno-linguistic heritage, similar cultural and
religious symbols, played a role in the scaling up process and the formation of
larger national groups. This absence weakens his analysis of the types of groups
Europeans created after their kinship networks were dissolved. We are supposed
to think that, as individuals were freed from kinship ties, they went on to create
voluntary associations based on impersonal norms without any sense of their
broader ethno-cultural identities other than the new identities they forged with
“strangers” as members of these associations. It is true that universities,
monasteries, guilds, and cities were not based on kinship ties and obligations, but
included individuals from a variety of backgrounds. It is also true, nevertheless,
that the abolition of kinship groups opened the door to the construction of broader
national identities. Henrich does say in passing that warfare had the effect of
scaling up cooperation among WEIRD Europeans at the level of national
institutions” and promoting “national identities” and that the Hundred Years’ War
“made the English more ‘English’ and the French more ‘French’” (p. 339).
While in the non-Western world warfare promoted a scaling up process that
remained anchored in kin-based groups and interpersonal networks, in the proto-
WEIRD world of medieval Europe warfare had the effect of promoting “national
identities”. But rather than focusing on these national identities, Henrich’s
statistical focus is entirely on the proliferation of voluntary associations. “Nation-
states” and “nationalism” do not appear in the index. He links the growth of these
voluntary associations to the psychological effects of war without really linking the
formation of ethno-linguistic nation states to warfare. His aim is to demonstrate
that intergroup competition in the West was increasingly “domesticated” away
from warfare into peaceful competition among voluntary groups consisting of
individuals unattached to any ethnic or national-level group. Rather than focusing
on the rise of centralized nation states in the modern era, he provides evidence
showing that the percentage of Western people who think that “most people can
be trusted” has been increasing in recent years with the deregulation of banks
“spurred by the arrival of ATMs, banking, and new credit-scoring systems”.
The extensive research of Anthony Smith, the most prolific scholar on the
origins of nation states and nationalism, has confirmed that the modern states of
Europe were more than the “imagined communities” or “invented traditions” that
Hans Kohn, Eric Hobsbawm, and Benedict Anderson wrote about (Duchesne,
2015). Nation-level infrastructures, official languages, centralized systems of
taxation, national currencies and unified laws were culturally constructed by elites
seeking powerful territorial states with mass appeal on the basis of actual
ancestral ties and territorial roots. As Smith argued in his book, The Ethnic Origins
of Nations, modern nations were not created ex nihilo on the basis of modern
techniques and civic values alone, but also on the basis of “myths, memories,
symbols, embodied in customs and traditions” by “fairly homogeneous ethnies”
(Smith, 1991). The minorities that did not identify with the core ethnic group did
so in reflection of their own distinctive sense of ancestry, language, and overall
cultural identity. Immigrant multiculturalism, not Western nationalism, is
encouraging non-white tribal identities in the West and creating post-nations
characterized by declining punctuality,
declining professionalism, declining
impartiality, declining trust, combined with rising in-group non-white favoritism
and nepotism.
A new attack on Western culture is that the standards of professionalism…are heavily
defined by white supremacy culture” (Gray, 2019).
Europeans are the true cultural species
The last chapter of Henrich’s book is entitled “The Dark Matter of History”, a
metaphor from the world of physics. Physicists believe that dark matter accounts
for approximately 85% of the matter in the universe, although they can’t see this
matter directly. They can only describe its nature on the basis of shadows
attributed to it without observing its source. In using this term, he is implying that
the WEIRD psychology of Westerners is the “dark matter” that lies beneath their
unique historical trajectory. This psychology was undetected, or never uniquely
attributed to Westerners as such, because social scientists were trained to
believe that the psychological dispositions of the world’s peoples were the same.
But Henrich has now revealed for us the WEIRDness of Westerners, and has
proposed how they came to acquire this psychology, which should raise the
question: if he has brought so much light upon the perennial subject of Western
uniqueness, and if this psychology entails free will, intentionality and reason-
based institutional arrangements, why identify this psychology as the “dark matter
that flows behind the scenes throughout history”? His implied answer is that
Westerners have been unaware of their culturally evolved WEIRD history until his
book came out. In the same way that scientists have explained for us the
underlying laws of motion of the physical world, Henrich is suggesting he has
revealed the hidden factor shaping the course of modern Western history.
There is a fundamental difference in awareness about the origins and nature
of one’s society between non-WEIRD peoples who create institutions by following
norms closely tied to the evolutionary imperatives of kinship, and WEIRD people
who create voluntary institutions freely adjudicated by them on the basis of
relatively impartial principles over and above the evolutionary mandates of
kinship. Don’t get distracted by Henrich’s use of the words “culturally-mandated”
when he writes about kin-based norms and practices, cousin marriage, patrilocal
residence, and ancestor worship. These practices, to be sure, were culturally
mandated and transmitted through learning from generation to generation, for
humans don’t act according to instincts alone. We should not underestimate,
however, the contrast between kinship-based norms and the culturally-mandated
norms of Western societies conceptualized in a state of relative mental
independence from age-old customs and biologically determined sexual
impulses. The Western norm of monogamy, which stood in opposition to the
genetic-biological predisposition of high-status males for polygynous marriages,
was unnatural and strictly cultural. Henrich can thus be confusing when he writes
about the “cultural learning” of the “human species” as such, in abeyance of his
own thesis about the cultural WEIRDness of Whites. The influence of free
deliberation and the role of reason in history increases in the degree to which
humans have the opportunity to choose their own normative paths in life rather
than following customs set in stone without reflexivity.
Europeans were the only people to become aware of the downside of kinship
ties, proposing new norms based on impartial criteria, consciously creating
nuclear families as superior over polygamous-cousin marriages to the well-being
of children; and constructing broader identities based on liberal citizenship and
ethnic ancestry above clannish/tribal natural bonds. We can therefore say that
they abolished the blind control of biologically based customs over their social
relationships. Henrich knows that Europeans were unique in creating institutions
based on rational grounds and individual choice. And yet he believes that
European free rational deliberation did not play an autonomous role in the making
of the very WEIRD West that is identified with free choice and rationality. The
WEIRD rationality employed by Henrich to understand history is that of the third-
person point of view, which is typical of the omniscient scientist, the neutral
observer who understands the historical subjects he is explaining while the
historical subjects don’t know what they are doing but behave pretty much like
inanimate objects or sentient but unconscious beings without self-chosen
As John Stuart Mill observed (1956: 71) “The human faculties of perception, judgement,
discriminate feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference are exercised only in
making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice…If
the grounds of an opinion are not conclusive to the person’s own reason, his reason
cannot be strengthened, but is likely to be weakened…He who lets the world, or his
own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him has no need of any other faculty than
the ape-like one of imitation. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment
to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when
he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision.”
Evolutionary psychologists are very good at explaining “cultural universals”, answering
why certain cultural practices, patterns, traits, or institutions are common to all cultures.
But they have a hard time explaining why humans, once the necessities of survival are
met, spend so much time and resources on cultural activities with no overt Darwinian
purpose: philosophy, music, and dance. Darwinian explanations, it seems to me,
become weaker when we examine the highest expressions of these cultural universals,
not their common, basic levels. Why did the Greeks invent true competitive sports
the Olympic games rather than the Egyptians or Mesopotamians (Miller, 1991)? Why
are Europeans responsible for the invention of almost all forms of athletic competition
(Bellis, 2019)? Evolutionists can speculate about the “adaptive” functions of dance and
sports, but they don’t have much to say about the evolutionary dimensions of each
specific form of dance, or about the unparalleled history of Western choreographic
notation (Guest, 1998). Predation and mating needs cannot account, on their own, for
the incredible variety of classical musical compositions, and the fact that Europeans
His claim that Enlightenment intellectuals “positing grand theories [...] about
constitutional governments, liberty, natural rights, progress, rationality, and
science” (p. 398) were not responsible for the making of the modern West makes
a lot of sense. The essential kernel of the ideas attributed to the Enlightenment
were elaborated in the Middle Ages as these ideas became thinkable to a
population that was becoming increasingly individualistic and WEIRD after the
Church’s demolition of the strong kin-based institutions of the Germanic tribes
that had taken over Europe. The ideals of liberalism were formulated gradually,
long before the Enlightenment era. “By 1200”, as Henrich observes, there were
incipient notions of natural rights “already in circulation”, articulated by Catholic
scholars and lawyers during the so-called “Papal Revolution” of the twelfth
century. Urban centers with charters offering citizens “legal protections, tax
exemptions, property rights, mutual insurance, and freedom from conscription”
proliferated during the medieval era. Lawyers trained in universities enjoying
corporate autonomy formulated principles for individuals in a world with growing
occupational specializations, and “increasingly focused on [individual] attributes,
intentions, and dispositions” (p. 399).
It is hard to envision how anyone living in a kinship group, where everyone
is a member of a collective group with a prescribed set of obligations, no matter
how intelligent, would ever come up with the notion that individuals have “natural
rights” as individuals. The notion that individuals have rights to life, liberty, and
property would be unthinkable in societies where political power and privileges
flow directly out of lineage ties, family descent, or the divine commands of
religions rooted in kinship. It is likewise hard to envision how kin-based people
would learn how to think analytically about properties like mass, electric charge,
gravity, and geometrical points. Kinship-oriented people are deeply socialized to
think in contextual terms about how objects fit within their overall world of
interpersonal relations and in terms of the mythical/religious views sustaining
these relationships. Liberal ideas with actual institutional consequences could
spread only in an emerging world of individuals increasingly relying upon their
are responsible for all the greatest classical music. Only by reducing art forms to their
lowest common denominator, in order thereby to delineate their supposed adaptive
functions, as Steven Pinker does, can Darwinians handle high cultural
accomplishments, without knowing why Europeans invented almost all the schools of
painting in history, almost all the philosophical outlooks, and almost all the disciplinary
fields taught in our universities, including the theory of genetics, which itself testifies to
a high level of awareness about genetic determination and our ability to manipulate
genes according to our own criteria (Pinker, 2010: 126).
own choices, interacting regularly with strangers in impersonal markets, and
forming voluntary associations.
The question that needs answering is whether the Greek imposition of
monogamy set them on their WEIRD rationalist history or whether this cultural
imposition was instead a product of a psychology that was already latently
WEIRD. And if the Greeks were already latently WEIRD, why? MacDonald
believes that the origins of the monogamous family system of Europeans should
be traced back to the “harsh evolutionary pressures of the Ice Age”. This
environment selected for smaller family groups in relative social isolation, as
contrasted to the “extended kinship networks and collectivist groups” that were
typical in the non-Western world. In the north-western climes of Europe there
were strong selective pressures for males to provision simple households or
nuclear families characterized by monogamy, exogamy and bilateral kinship,
because the ecology and availability of resources could not have selected for
large polygynous families.
But MacDonald does not quite explain why monogamy was adopted in the
southern environment of ancient Greece. We should also draw a distinction
between the adoption of monogamy to cope with scarcity of resources, and
evolutionary pressures from the reason-based prohibition of polygamy in ancient
Greece among high-status men. The latter is an act of a true “cultural species”. It
is not clear whether monogamy was invented prior to the ancient Greeks as a
culturally mandated norm.
As I see it, the prehistorical Indo-Europeans were
already latently WEIRD in their uniquely aristocratic warbands relatively
The evolutionary psychologist Peter Frost (2020) cites and reinforces MacDonald's
argument about the way the environment in northern Europe selected for weaker
kinship ties, nuclearized monogamous families, late marriage, and a relatively high
proportion of unmarried people. But Frost acknowledges that “as we go farther back in
time, we have less data to work with” for the period before the Church openly
imposed its family program. The case for weaker kinship ties in northern Europe is,
nevertheless, reasonably based on the principles of evolutionary theory. But it also
stands to reason that, as chiefdoms emerged in northern/central Europe, among the
Germanic tribes that brought Rome down and created the first medieval kingdoms, the
tendency for polygamy kicked among men with plentiful resources. There’s historical
evidence for widespread polygamy in this era along with customary laws based on
kinship. It is all relative, of course. The evidence also shows that prehistorical Indo-
Europeans and Germanic peoples were more willing to extend interpersonal trust
beyond close kin in the formation of contractual feudal relations.
independent of kinship ties and in their latently individualistic heroic ethos.
this is an incredibly complex subject beyond the scope of this extended review.
Let me conclude with some thoughts on the relationship between kinship and
reason in ancient Greece.
The claims of kinship versus the claims of reason in ancient Greece
It would be a mistake to think that reason became self-authorizing, self-
legislating, and self-grounding, as it was claimed to be in the Germanic world of
Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, the moment kinship relationships were weakened and
monogamy was introduced in ancient Greece. The claims of kinship were still
strong in ancient Greece. While different clans and tribes coalesced around city
states after the eighth century BC, tribal groups with their own names and
ancestral ties were still common, at the time of the first Presocratic philosophers.
Notwithstanding the imposition of monogamy during the time of Solon (630
560 BC), before the rise of Socratic philosophy (470399 BC) there were no
philosophers making rational claims about moral standards over and above the
traditional norms prescribed by particular city-states, even though we find
attempts in the Presocratics to formulate universal concepts about nature, that
nous governs the world, that there is reason in the universe. Social practices and
norms were accepted unreflectively as the way things were. Only after the
consolidation of city-states, during the age of Socrates, do we see philosophical
arguments about the universal meaning of friendship, courage, self-restraint,
wisdom, justice. We witness philosophers conceptualizing reason-based
standards by which to question the values of one’s community. Socrates and
Plato spoke about human life as it ought to be. However, these new ideals could
not achieve much influence yet. Socrates was put to death. The sophist’s
argument that a view from nowhere was impossible, that all value judgments were
relative to a particular community, and that there is no justice as such, was
dominant among elite members. It is a very complicated cultural history. The
contextual thinking of the Sophists was itself a product of a culture transcending
its particular context with a capacity to reflect upon, and thus distance itself from,
its own contextual thinking.
Cotesta (2015) reinforces the argument I made in Uniqueness of Western Civilization
(2011) that prostration was a custom widely practiced in non-Western cultures but not
in the West for it was incompatible with the aristocratic libertarian spirit of Europeans.
See Wikipedia for a list of ancient Greek tribes:
In the tragic drama of Aeschylus (525455 BC) and Sophocles (497406
BC), there were two incomparable conceptions of the good: the moral imperatives
of kinship loyalty versus the moral imperatives of the city-state; and beyond the
particularities of each city-state, the moral imperatives ascertained by reason as
such. However, before the modern era, throughout the medieval era, reason still
sought these imperatives in some cosmic order existing beyond time and outside
subjective consciousness. Something outside man was in charge of dictating the
moral precepts by which he should organize society. Only with the onset of the
modern era, though with anticipations in the Christian principle of inner
conscience, do we find an emphasis on the ultimate authority of thinking for
oneself about what is to be decided as truthful, rather than appealing to some
external cosmic order. Only in modern times do we find the principle, which begins
with Descartes, that truth can only be ascertained by a subject who thinks freely
and draws its truthfulness from within his own cognitive activity.
The ancient world and the medieval world were still far from this modern view.
The ancient world remained caught between the moral imperative of kinship
norms and the notion that reason could discover what was absolutely true through
a process of intense education until one’s mind learned to apprehend the nature
of the cosmic moral order. In Aeschylus’ Oresteia we have a conflict between the
rules of kinship vendetta and the orderly procedures and laws of the city-state,
between the barbaric furies and vengeance of clans and the civilized self-restraint
and balanced judgment of the city-state. In Sophocles’ Antigone we have a
conflict between the stubborn determination of Antigone to follow the immemorial
claims of kinship, which required her to perform proper burial rites for her dead
brother, in defiance of the edicts of the city-state that she should not perform
burial rites because he had been accused of committing treason against the laws
of the city-state.
Yet, for all this, and in time, the claims of reason would grow considerably in
ancient times. Starting with the consolidation of city states and Solon’s rule, and
culminating in Plato and Aristotle, the Greeks would promote a whole new ideal
of education, paideia, in which the emphasis was on what is best for the education
of man as a man, what it means to be a good citizen, rather than what it means
to perform one’s kindred obligations, and what are the eternal standards of
excellence rather than what constitutes excellence for a particular people (Jaeger,
Once the mind was discovered (Snell, 1953), and the highest intellects of the
age began to rely on their reason, increasingly freed from the envelopment of
nature and kin-based prescriptions, reason became an agent in its own right.
Learning can be cumulative so long as humans realize that the logos of the world
can be revealed to those who know their minds are the agents through which the
rationality of the world can be grasped, which is possible only as humans become
conscious of their consciousness. This started in ancient Greece long before the
Catholic Church imposed its family program. Yehuda Elkana (1986) believes that
the Axial Age breakthrough of classical Greece was all about the “emergence of
second-order thinking”.
People in all cultures think. This is “first order thinking”. Thinking in a logical
way, building things, going about one’s survival in a rational way is also first order
thinking. The novelty of classical Greece was to introduce second order thinking,
which is “thinking about thinking”. Elkana sees geometrical proofs as a “second-
order idea par excellence” because this way of thinking seeks systematic
justification for its claims, “a way to [rationally] convince the student rather than
to supply the truth”. Although the pre-Socratics used logical reasoning and spoke
about “increasingly transcendental entities” such as a higher mind, nous, as an
intelligence ordering the universe, they did so, according to Elkana, in a dogmatic
fashion, as rigid statements about the ultimate nature of reality without thinking
reflexively about alternatives to their claims.
Second order thinking presupposes more than the negation of mythical
authority and the proposal of cosmologies about the intelligibility of things. It
presupposes acceptance of alternative ways of thinking about the world. The
creation of the polis, Elkana says, was “one of the greatest cultural inventions of
the Greeks” in putting speech and “free debate” as a “political power” replacing
“brute force”. In the polis, political ideas were subjected to debate and public
criticism; politics was no longer a matter of ritualistic words or formulaic
statements. The polis, in other words, encouraged second order thinking. The
Sophists introduced second-order thinking with their argumentative skills and
their rhetorical ability to engage “opposing arguments”. Herodotus’ awareness
that each culture possesses its own norms and modes of behavior was an
example of second order thinking in anthropology.
Clearly, Elkana offers a mixed bag of impressions, from the rigorous proofs
of geometry to the anthropological view that each culture has its own normative
standards. I prefer the Hegelian idea that the discovery of the mind (which can be
equated with the emergence of thinking about thinking) was the key to the Greek
Academics enthralled with primitivism and tribal cultures, including the pagan world of
Europe, against modernity, don’t realize how undeveloped the mind was before
humans discovered the faculty of reasoning in separation from the surrounding world,
their bodies, and mysterious forces (Duchesne, 2020).
Axial breakthrough.
Discovering the mind as a faculty in its own right, as the
seat of reasoning, as the only entity in the universe that can examine itself and
establish its claims through itself, freed from external determinations, is
quintessentially what consciousness of consciousness means.
The pre-Socratics started this train of thinking about thinking. They started
relying on reason to determine what was true rather than on external spirits,
demons, myths, and accepted traditions. Relying on reason means standing
above the ways of thinking of a particular culture. When the historian Herodotus
recognized that each culture has its own norms and behaviors conforming to its
own habitat, he was standing above the accepted claims of his own culture, and
thus taking a universal stand, even though he suggested there were no universal
It was for Socrates and then Plato to search for absolute standards.
Plato sought these standards in the mind’s apprehension of an eternal cosmic
order. Although the Greeks discovered the mind, they saw this mind as a
particular, imperfect expression of a cosmic mind, for they had not achieved full
self-consciousness and could not realize that only the thinking self in a state of
dialogue with others could be the highest authority in charge of conceptualizing
the nature of things. This was the accomplishment of the modern age, and we
can thank Henrich for emphasizing the indispensable role of the Catholic Church
in demolishing (consciously, as I argue) the re-strengthened kinship ties brought
onto the center of Western civilization by the Germanic tribes that conquered the
Roman world.
For a discussion of the Axial Age achievements of ancient Greece in comparison to the
Axial civilizations of China, India, Israel and Persia, see Duchesne (2019).
Herodotus was one of the first ethnographers in history (Skinner, 2012). In fact, the
stark contrast Henrich draws between the analytical mind of Europeans and the
contextual or holistic mind of non-WEIRD people is misleading. Westerners were the
first to consciously argue for the validity of contextual thinking, to develop self-
conscious philosophies and methodologies for the investigation of how thinking
is mediated by historical time and social context. Pragmatism, hermeneutics, symbolic
interactionism, structuralism, postmodernism, phenomenology are some of the
alternatives they articulated. The non-WEIRD “contextual” world did not develop a
single methodology or self-conscious philosophy explaining what their contextual
thinking was about. They were unconsciously contextual because they were enmeshed
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