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WEIRDoes, Decline, And Fall

Icarus (Source)

What have we here? Oh, a senior Labour Party politician going bonkers with a straight face:

Here’s part of the cover of the new issue of The Lancet, the top UK medical magazine:

“Bodies With Vaginas,” or as we called them in the Before Times, “women.”

How did we get so damn weird? Joe Henrich’s great book The WEIRDest People In The World says nothing about transgenderism, but its a work of cultural anthropology that gives background for how we arrived at the place were institutional leaders in the West say insane things like this. To be perfectly clear: this is NOT a culture war book. It’s a popular work of cultural anthropology, one that demonstrates that Western people are very different psychologically from most people in the world, and to explain why.

It’s a big book, so I’ll try to boil it down. Its basic argument is that the medieval Church in the West, separated de facto from the Eastern Church by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, orchestrated a cultural revolution in western Europe by changing marriage laws and customs. It broke up the tight kinship forms of family that were traditional in barbarian cultures that had just converted to Christianity — forms that persisted in most of the rest of the world (even in Byzantine lands; the Orthodox Church, says Henrich, was slower and less forceful about changing these patterns). The Latin church’s breaking up of strong kinship networks shifted psychological patterns in ways that led to the development of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) psychology.

A simplified version of the argument goes like this: the Latin church broke up kinship networks, which had practical social effects resulting over time in a more individualistic way of thinking. Around the year 1000, an alien looking at earth from orbit would have imagined that Chinese or Islamic civilization would dominate the world for the next thousand years. But a big change was taking place in western Europe that would catapult Europeans over everyone else. The kinds of institutions and ways of thinking that an individualist-minded West was generating would spark a culture that eventually produced Protestantism and mass literacy, which went on to make Westerners even more innovative and materially successful, and further apart psychologically from the greater part of humanity.

Henrich makes four basic points that undergird the entire book:

  1. Religious conviction can powerfully shape decision-making, psychology, and society.
  2. Culture (beliefs, practices, technologies, social norms) can shape our brains, biology, and psychology.
  3. Psychological changes induced by culture can shape all manner of subsequent events by influencing what people pay attention to, how they make decisions, which institutions they prefer, and how much they innovate.
  4. Literacy provides our first example of how Westerners became psychologically unusual.

The collapse of the medieval model in the minds of educated Westerners at the end of the High Middle Ages was epochal. The literature scholar Tony Esolen, in writing about Dante, says that there are three principles of Creation that undergird Dante’s moral and metaphysical vision:

1. Things have an end. That is, things have a purpose, are created for something. Man’s ultimate end is to achieve unity with God, the Creator. Anything we do that gets in the way of achieving that end, especially substituting another end for God (e.g., worldly success, sexual fulfillment, getting rich), is sin, and will cause our own spiritual death.

2. Things have meaning. Things of this world, including our actions, point to realities beyond themselves. Nothing is accidental; nothing is in vain. What we do has moral weight, and eternal consequences. All of human experience plays a role in the great cosmic drama. In the Commedia, the punishments of the damned in Hell, and the purification of the penitent in Purgatory, tell us something about the nature of those particular sins.

3. Things are connected. God, the Architect of the universe, wishes for all of us to dwell in harmony with Him, through Him, and within Him. But it must be a bond of Love, and love cannot be commanded, only freely given. Love is the bond that unites all things in heaven and earth; even those in Hell are there because they failed dramatically at love: they loved the wrong things, or they loved the right things in the wrong way (i.e., too much or too little). Plus, ideas have consequences, and so do actions. For example, the murder in 1216 of a Guelph aristocrat on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, to settle a debt of honor, triggered generations of fighting between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines that would ultimately savage Florence, and drive Dante from his city.

The psychological world that emerged within a century of Dante’s death would begin to diminish all three principles of the model. The philosophical position of Nominalism had a lot to do with this. I wrote in The Benedict Option about the victory of Nominalism over Metaphysical Realism in the great medieval debate as a major turning point in Western civilization. Today, we have these four among the key elements in WEIRD psychology, according to Henrich:

  • Self-focus, self-esteem, and self-enhancement
  • Low conformity and deference to tradition/elders
  • Desire for control and love of choice
  • Analytic over holistic thinking [that is, breaking down things into discrete parts to understand them, as opposed to understanding a thing primarily by how it functions in context]

You should be able to look at the three elements Esolen identifies as part of the medieval worldview, and understand how their collapse caused the emergence of these above elements. To be clear, Henrich is not saying that the WEIRD worldview grew up in opposition to Christianity. It’s rather that Christian culture manifested in different ways with kinship networks straitjacketed. For example,

new monastic orders, guilds, towns, and universities increasingly built their law, principles, norms, and rules in ways that focused on the individual, often endowing each member with abstract rights, privileges, obligations, and duties to the organization. To thrive, these voluntary organizations had to attract mobile individuals and then cultivate an adherence to, and preferably an internalization of, their mutually agreed upon principles and rules.

Harvard sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman, in his 1948 classic Family And Civilization, says that this family form — he calls it the “domestic” family — strikes an ideal balance between the “trustee” form (strong clan values) and the “nuclear” form (which isn’t stable). In the domestic form, households are separate, but kinship bonds, though more open and mutable than in the past, remain strong.

Henrich says that we in the West make so many elementary mistakes when dealing with non-Western peoples and cultures because we assume that their psychology is like our own. The individualism of WEIRD nations runs directly counter to powerful and longstanding cultural norms in many of these countries. For example, people from traditional non-Western countries may think it is more just to hire your kinsman rather than hiring the best person for the job, because their idea of justice tells them that a man has an obligation to use his good fortune to help out someone in the family. The more dependent a country is on these old-fashioned kin-based associations, the harder it will be for them to embrace “development,” defined by Henrich as “the adoption of WEIRD institutions”).

One main point of the book: do not assume that Western norms are universal or superior. They are better for generating certain outcomes, but those outcomes may produce unwanted effects. For example, in an age of global capitalism, societies with intact families and rooted communities make it harder for corporations to make a profit. They need a mobile, flexible labor force. But over time, societies without intact families and rooted communities fail to produce the kind of people who have habits and norms that produce stable, healthy societies.

Reading in Henrich about the massive changes caused over time by family structure makes me wonder what on earth we are seeding now, with our radical changes in what it means to be male and female. We can laugh at the insanity of the British Labour Party bigs pretending that men can have vaginas, and the Lancet claiming that women are dehumanized “bodies with vaginas,” but with this insane way of thinking embedding itself among the ruling class of the West, we can be sure that these norms will spread to elites globally. What is this going to do over time to the formation of families? No wonder the Chinese and the Russians are refusing this stuff. They don’t have a death wish.

The problem with the chain reaction started in the West at the close of the High Middle Ages is that there seems to be no way to stop it. Everything rolls downhill towards dissolution. Lots of energy was released by the splitting of strong kinship bonds, but we seem at long last to have depleted it all. We flew as high as Icarus, but now? Is a soft landing even possible?

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the main reason why I was reading that book! I wanted to get a better idea of how Western psychology differs from the rest of the world’s, because I am interested in understanding how we might have talked ourselves into an epistemic valley from which we have lost sight of God, or at least the transcendent realm — a valley that the rest of humanity does not live in. This is for my next book.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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