Because of its uniqueness, Western individualism presents a daunting question for scholars and in particular for a theory based on evolutionary psychology. There are essentially two ways for an evolutionary perspective to attempt to understand uniqueness. One is to propose a unique evolutionary environment resulting in genetically based uniqueness; the other is to propose universal psychological mechanisms interacting with particular cultural contexts. Jonathan Schulz et al.’s “The Church, Intensive Kinship, and Global Psychological Variation” is an example of the latter. It presents a theory of Western individualism in which the cultural context created by the medieval Catholic Church, particularly the prohibitions on relatedness in marriage, played a central role in the development of the individualistic psychology of the West. More precisely, the paper attempts to explain “a substantial portion” of the variation in psychological traits widely recognized to be characteristic of individualism (“individualistic, independent, analytically minded, and impersonally prosocial [e.g., trusting of strangers] while revealing less conformity, obedience, in-group loyalty, and nepotism”) by exposure to the medieval Western Church. Within this cultural framework, there is no attempt to present the motivations of the Church for creating this cultural context in terms of particular psychological mechanisms.
These issues intersect with much of the discussion in my recently published Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition: Evolutionary Origins, History, and Prospects for the Future. However, my theory is based on the proposal that Western uniqueness derives ultimately from unique ancestral environments in northwestern Europe, with emphasis on a north-south genetic cline in the relative genetic contributions of northern hunter gatherers, Indo-Europeans, and Early Farmers from the Middle East. While Schulz et al. control for a wide range of variables, they do not control for regional genetic differences within Western Europe that have been uncovered by recent population genetic research (reviewed in my Chapter 1), nor do they review research by family historians indicating important regional variation within Western Europe that does not at all map onto exposure to the Western Church (reviewed in my Chapter 4).
However, I do discuss the influence of the Western Church, concluding that the Church’s
influence was directed at altering Western culture away from extended kinship networks and other collectivist institutions, motivated ultimately by the desire to extend its own power [analyzed as an evolved human universal]. However, although the Church promoted individualism and doubtless influenced Western culture in that direction, this influence built on individualistic tendencies that long predated Christianity and were due ultimately to ethnic tendencies toward individualism unique to European peoples (Chapters 1–4). [From Chapter 5, 170]
My approach thus combines pre-historic natural selection for individualist psychology with particular cultural contexts, one of which is the influence of the Catholic Church, the latter interpreted as building on pre-existing tendencies. My Chapter 5 on the medieval Church argues, on the basis of data similar to that cited by Schulz et al., that the Church facilitated individualism—and may well have sped up the establishment of individualism, but did not cause it. Given that Schulz et al. claim to have achieved only a partial explanation, there is thus no fundamental disagreement. However, based on my treatment, here I attempt to show why exposure to the medieval Church is an inadequate explanation of psychological individualism in the West.
There is much that our approaches have in common. In particular, they note that kinship relationships are central in understanding human societies and that the general trend has been a shift away from extensive kinship relationships typical of hunter-gatherers throughout the world (i.e., relatively weak ties to many people of varying genetic distance—discussed in my Chapter 3) to intensive kinship relations (i.e., kinship deeply embedded within closely related groups, e.g., clans and kindreds with a distinct hierarchy based on degree of genetic relatedness) commonly found in agricultural societies. Read more