A rather long critical review of Joseph Henrich’s recent The WEIRDest People in the World, based on my book Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition.
Understanding Western Uniqueness: A Comment on Joseph Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
Mankind Quarterly 61, no. 3 (2021): 723–766.
Despite its many strengths, Joseph Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2020) has several weaknesses: 1.) It conceptualizes the uniqueness of the West as solely the result of cultural evolution set in motion by the medieval Church, thereby ignoring the strong tendencies toward individualism in the Greco-Roman world of antiquity, the Indo-European groups that conquered the continent in pre-historic times, and the primordial northern European hunter-gatherers. 2.) It conceptualizes analytic thinking and representative government typical of the West as resulting from the cultural shift brought about by the medieval Church, whereas analytic thinking can be found in the ancient world, particularly among the Greeks, and representative government can be found in ancient Greece and Rome, and in pre-Christian Germanic and Scandinavian cultures. 3.) Henrich’s portrayal of Westerners as non-conformists is overdrawn. Although Westerners are more likely to dissent from a group consensus compared to kinship-based cultures, moral communities based on a variety of psychological mechanisms are a powerful force for conformity in individualistic Western societies, with dissenters subject to guilt, ostracism, and altruistic punishment. 4.) Henrich analyzes the accomplishments of the West solely in terms of social learning and culturally constructed personality variation in traits related to conscientiousness, thereby ignoring data on the biological basis and adaptive significance of variation in personality and general intelligence.
I agree with Henrich that there has been a strong role for culture in human adaptation. However, the psychological origins of individualism and the psychological systems related to individualism, as well as intelligence and personality, lie far more in the biological realm than Henrich is willing to grant. The unique individualism of the West can be traced to the hunter-gatherer cultures of northwestern Europe as well as to the Indo-European cultures of ancient Greece and Rome and the Germanic peoples that dominated Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church adopted policies similar to some aspects of Greek and Roman culture (non-kinship-based identities, monogamy, and exogamy), thus reinforcing individualism in Western Europe. Despite important differences between different culture areas of Western Europe noted here, the traditional view that the uniqueness of the West originated in the ancient world remains true. Western culture is “of a piece.”
Although the West came to dominate the collectivist cultures of the rest of the world, Western cultures are proving highly vulnerable to collectivist groups that have been welcomed into Western societies. Ultimately these groups are welcomed because Westerners are relatively trusting of strangers and more prone to seeing others as individuals rather than as members of competing groups — phenomena that are now occurring within a cultural context in which the West is widely despised for its history of conquest and slavery and thus the appropriate target of altruistic punishment by Westerners themselves. As Henrich notes, people whose roots lie in collectivist cultures remain untrusting of strangers and are less individualistic-independent and more conformist-obedient even long after immigrating to the West. Such people are prone to acting in their collective self-interest, and they are slated to become majorities throughout the West in coming decades. If that happens, it is likely that the institutions of Western individualism based on the long tradition of individual freedom, representative government, and reproductive egalitarianism will not survive and that Westerners who are genetically and culturally inclined toward individualism will become a diminishing, powerless minority in a world of competing identity groups. Indeed, science, perhaps the crowning achievement of the West, is increasingly deferring to group interests in the publication process (Nature Communications, 2020).
Western individualism is a fragile flower in a world where kinship and tribal loyalties remain strong and are likely to remain so into the foreseeable future.