Joseph Henrich’s (2020) The WEIRDest People in the World starts with quite the claim: “Your brain has been altered, neurologically rewired as it acquired a skill that your society greatly values” (3). Altered and rewired? By whom and for what? He, of course, does enumerate the skills gained by this rewiring, but so begins his thorough exposé of the far reaching consequences that medieval, social programming had on (Western European) society at large. To start, he further defines this western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (WEIRD) person—primarily the Western European and North American undergrads who participate en masse in research studies and thus form the foundation for a large swathe of knowledge—and then gets into the good stuff, spread out over three parts.

Henrich’s argument rests on the Catholic Church’s kinship programming through the medieval era and he has plenty of data to back up the before and after. With this data, he deftly constructs causal links to historical record of peoples and places; it’s hard not to be convinced with the onslaught of fact and anecdote that neatly line up. The major changes in society are the end to cousin marriages (158) and the enforcement of monogamy, which wasn’t quite the cultural shift the reader may expect; that lies in Henrich linking it to hormonal changes in men, a brisk six pages that uses some statistics across societies to compare testosterone levels in men (268-274). While the brevity of this discussion leaves something to be desired—interrogating normative sex and gender roles, the fluidity of hormones in the human body, …—it suffices for Henrich’s point: church-backed monogamy helped reduce conflict, if for any reason because families were smaller and conflict caused more problems. Overall, Henrich establishes a historical foundation well supported by empirical data that is given a voice through ethnographic accounts (and many, many graphs).

What is left after the church and the family? The economy. It is not enough in Henrich’s history for just the family to be restructured; that would not cause the purported neurological changes that Henrich claims. However, the restructuring of the family left a sociocultural void well taken up by the increasingly individualistic nature of these prototypically WEIRD people. Marketplaces became centers of found family, in a way, with the development of guilds and organizations that bound people together in meaningful ways—ways, Henrich argues, that are not found through the limited, highly structured family the church had (re)developed. As finance centralized, so too did the cities where the finance occurred and then—naturally for the newly WEIRD person, but quite unnaturally as Henrich would have the reader believe—politics.

Henrich has an engaging writing style that is consistent throughout. As the reader is accustomed to how he is going to present data and stories, the rest of the book is predictable in how he will make his argument: the markets benefited from individualistic, impersonal interactions, which further fueled the kinds of marketplaces that valued individuals produced by the (new) kinship structure fabricated by the Catholic Church. The data gains even more depth as he moves ever closer to the contemporary era in history and the histories and ethnographies become more varied. He does well to counterpoint his work on the WEIRDness of Western Europe, avoiding dichotomization as much as possible without needing to write a companion novel, but I was left wondering about the totality of his argument and returning often to his initial claim.

Altered and neurologically rewired? Henrich discusses many social and cultural factors, but, aside from the brief subsection on testosterone, rarely mentions neurology. The opening is very sensational, which does not carry throughout the book…so I was left asking, “who is this for?” Well, it was written in English by a WEIRD author in a WEIRD country and sold in WEIRD stores, so I am who it is for and others like me. As I’ve said, the data is quite convincing, but the argument is well formulated: I should be convinced. I think any WEIRD reader would be, too. Henrich offers counterpoints and takes care not to alienate the un-WEIRD: it may very well be the new normal, but it is an artificially constructed normal. This normal, too, I’m not convinced is neurological: these are great cultural movements in society precipitated by and within society itself; at what point is something innate, biological, and not simply so reproduced in the totalizing culture of medieval Catholicism, that it becomes organic instead of traditional?

Here the weakness of Henrich’s discussion of testosterone may lead forward with this text: to be neurologically rewired from before birth—merely by being born to WEIRD parents in a WEIRD place—is a particular kind of determinism that only stands if it is infallible. Although Henrich discusses other cultures becoming WEIRD, he leaves no room for the WEIRD becoming…not WEIRD. This is captured in his scope of history, however: he is not forecasting anything, but discussing the totalizing movements of the church and now globalization. Interestingly, even work ethic comes back to the church; the commercialized drive of WEIRD nations must, Henrich claims, be traced back to Catholic monks in their monasteries, toiling away (370). Following Henrich’s logic, it’s no wonder we end up with Protestantism and then a vague worship of time management and capital.

The thrust of Henrich’s argument has quite the momentum. At the end, I can only think that it is comforting for the WEIRD reader to know that, well, this may just have to be how global society ends up. At least we’re already here.


References

  • Henrich, Joseph. The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Pyschologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. New York: Picador, 2020.