Why did Europe play such an outsized role in human history? A generation ago, the geographer Jared Diamond offered an elegant answer in his book Guns, Germs and Steel: Europeans weren’t smarter than non-Europeans, but geography and natural resources propelled Europe’s development in particular directions. Harvard professor Joseph Henrich is a fan of Diamond but his new book takes a different approach. Henrich was trained as an anthropologist but now describes himself as a “cultural evolutionist”. In the same way that Darwin’s theory explains how life follows pathways of adaptation via natural selection, cultural evolution proposes that human cultures develop and transmit deep understandings and values across generations. There are many pathways of cultural evolution, Henrich contends, and no single human culture. To better understand the world and Europe’s influence on it, we need to recognise that European culture is, in Henrich’s key acronym, “weird”: western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic.
Henrich insists that “weird” values are culturally determined and specific rather than universal or natural. Specific doesn’t mean bad. As the book’s subtitle suggests, he credits the “firmware” of “weird” cultural evolution for many of the modern world’s core values: meritocracy, representative government, trust, innovation, even patience and restraint. These were the products not simply of Europe’s distinctive and highly unusual milieu, but of a narrow force many of us have forgotten: the prescriptions and hangups of the Christian church.
No historian would deny Christianity’s central role in the development of European society. But Henrich thinks that the church’s views on marriage and family life changed everything. He notes that Christianity was, from the middle ages at least, unusually hostile towards marriage between cousins. This produced a profound change in social organisation with sweeping effects on European culture. Kinship, a term that has always fascinated anthropologists, plays a key role in the book: it directs communities inwards, and makes them either apathetic or hostile towards those outside their particular clan.
Henrich argues that the church largely destroyed kinship within Europe between AD1000 and 1500, even as clan-based societies persisted across the rest of the planet. Within Europe, where prohibitions on cousin marriage forced people to marry beyond their families, “weird” culture became more receptive to strangers. Monasteries, universities, trading guilds, courts, stock markets, legislatures, coffee houses, newspapers – along with enterprise, trust and mobility – took root in the soil of “intergroup prosociality” created by the church’s edicts on marriage.Beyond Europe, non-“weird” people shared resources and a strong sense of local community but missed out on the forms of social dynamism and openness that supercharged Europe’s development.
Historians will find plenty to dispute here. Scholars of the medieval era will point out that the effects of the church’s “marriage and family programme” (the “MFP”, as Henrich inevitably terms it) were wildly uneven across time and space. Historians of the early modern era will note that the Protestant church was far less hostile to cousin marriage than its Catholic rival. (The Reformation received a crucial boost from Henry VIII’s determination to marry his former wife’s cousin.) Modern historians will argue that cousin marriage increased across many European societies in the 17th and 18th centuries before it was stigmatised again in the 19th century. They might also recall that, despite a consummately “weird” enthusiasm for innovation, both Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein married their first cousins. Historians of the world beyond Europe will find a thousand exceptions to Henrich’s confident stereotyping of non-“weird” societies as hopelessly retarded by kinship and its developmental dead-ends.
A casual reader may wonder how a book about the efflorescence of European culture could say next to nothing about racism, imperialism and environmental catastrophe – the undertow of individualism, market economics and representative government in Europe. “I’m not highlighting the very real and pervasive horrors of slavery, racism, plunder and genocide,” Henrich concedes in his final chapter. “There are plenty of books on those subjects.” But the omission is corrosive to his argument: not only because he presents “prosperity” and “innovation” rather than genocide and expropriation as the avatars of “weird” culture, but because Europeans failed to demonstrate “impersonal prosociality” when they ventured beyond Europe. If anything, empire’s violence and devastation suggests that the kinship thinking supposedly purged by Christianity re-emerged in Europeans’ new theories of race. White people were happy to dismiss the talent and futures of hundreds of millions of non-European people in the pursuit of financial gain, and to do so across centuries.
The Weirdest People seems grimly acclimatised to the darker aspects of our political present. Beyond Henrich’s claim that the world’s cultures developed on separate evolutionary pathways, an assertion that seems doggedly inattentive to the interpenetration of cultures and ideas across human history, he argues that “disparate societies” produce “a rich array of diverse cultural psychologies” marking out populations across generations, if not centuries. Deploying a battery of studies based on contemporary evidence – surveys of IBM employees in different countries, say, or the unpaid New York parking tickets of UN diplomats – Henrich suggests that corruption, impatience and even aggression are more common in non-“weird” cultures than in western society.
We shouldn’t blame non-“weird” individuals who fetishise revenge or indulge in nepotism, he implies: they’re burdened by centuries of kinship logic that sees little value in transparency and trust beyond one’s clan. Instead Henrich’s study chides western policymakers who take a unitary view of human nature when they promote democracy or the rule of law in the global south. Unless “weird” politicians and planners can reset the “firmware” of non-“weird” cultures, he warns, those societies can no more escape their cultural norms than we can ours.
I confess that when reading these pages I couldn’t help remembering that Donald Trump gave his son-in-law responsibility for Middle East peace, and that Boris Johnson has made his brother a lord. But cultural evolutionists trade in centuries and populations, so these distracting exceptions can presumably be drowned in an ocean of data.
What about non-European people who have settled in “weird” societies? Across virtually every sphere of human knowledge over the centuries, immigrants have carried ideas and practices that have fertilised cross-cultural thinking. This process seems mostly invisible to Henrich. Declining the opportunity to discuss the forms of syncretism and assimilation that define immigrant experience, he offers (tenuous) evidence that non-“weird” thinking endures among migrants across continents and generations. Citing high rates of cousin marriage among second-generation Pakistani immigrants to Britain, and lower levels of political activism among second-generation immigrants of colour across Europe, Henrich concludes that even growing up in a “weird” society can’t expunge the “dark matter” of one’s cultural-psychological lineage.
It was “weird” intellectuals who crafted the pseudo-science of race in the 18th century, and who spliced it with evolutionary theories to create new arguments about civilisation and white supremacy in the 19th. Henrich might wince at the suggestion that The Weirdest People in the World endorses social Darwinism, but in its emphasis on the supposedly discrete nature of culture and on the virtues of “weird” thinking and progress it comes uncomfortably close to doing just that.
• The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous is published by Allen Lane (£30). To buy a copy go to guardianbookshop.co.uk.