Why did the peoples of Western Europe and their descendants around the world become the wealthiest and most powerful in the world? For one researcher at Harvard University, the answer is: Because their heads work in strange ways (at least when compared to those of other races on the planet). And this psychological alienation was largely forged by the medieval Catholic Church.
Phrasing the thesis in this way, without further explanation, the reader might think that the anthropologist Joseph Henrich, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard and responsible for the hypothesis, is really strange. But Henrich has collected a huge amount of empirical data over the past few years to confirm this, and the result is his latest book, The WEIRDest People in the World (Brazilian).
The term “strange” (“strange”) is not capitalized by accident because it is an acronym. It refers to the people who have a formal education, industrialized, rich and democratic (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) in the order of the English letters. Indeed, classifying certain groups as part of the “WEIRD Standard” has become increasingly popular with social psychologists, economists, and other scholars of human behavior.
It happens that in experiments conducted in laboratory and public opinion polls, people of the WEIRD type – basically Western Europeans and their descendants in North America and Oceania – act and speak differently than in other societies around the world.
They tend to be more individualistic, less conformist, more likely to trust strangers, and have more impersonal ideas of right and wrong (when they ask WEIRD people if they would go to court to help a friend or relative who is breaking traffic laws, for example, Normally say they no – exactly the opposite of what the respondents live in “non-WEIRD” countries.
The WEIRD style of reasoning is also more analytical, meaning that in order to understand a complex object or phenomenon, such people tend to “break it down” into smaller pieces and understand how each one contributes to it. When looking at a landscape, non-WEIRDs pay more attention to the background, while WEIRDs see the main elements and attach less weight to the whole.
It appears that these average psychological differences are real and can be measured. The question is where are they from? Henrich relies on cultural development: The special attitudes of the WEIRD people would be the result of centuries of changes in Western culture that would have stimulated the formation of societies in which individualism, analytical thinking and non-conformism were preferred from birth. The plasticity of the human brain would help those born in these societies “think like a WEIRD”.
In the anthropologist’s opinion, for this kind of cultural construction to take place it was necessary to first change the basis of human social behavior: the family. Another crucial difference between WEIRD and non-WEIRD peoples is the fact that social and political ties outside of the West often depended on alliances between very large family groups, which we can call lineages and clans.
In these contexts, it is not uncommon for a subject to feel compelled to avenge a crime against a third cousin. Marriages between related persons are common or even the norm; rich and powerful men have multiple wives (polygyny); When a husband or wife dies, it’s not uncommon for the spouse to marry the deceased’s brother or younger sister (see infographic).
Before the rise of Christianity, these customs were also widespread in Western Europe, particularly among the “barbarian” peoples who lived outside the Roman Empire. But as the Christian faith dominates among the peoples of the continent, the Church begins to apply and intensify what Henrich calls the MFP (Marriage and Family Program).
These new norms of behavior begin to prevent polygyny and union with concubines and sex slaves. They are also imposing increasingly stringent rules against what the Church viewed as incest, and even prohibiting marriages between cousins up to sixth grade, between people who are related by affinity (brother-in-law, etc.) or religious relationship (children of godparents or godmothers for example.). Finally, it was determined that the newlyweds should form a separate core family that should live with in-laws or parents.
All of these changes were imposed because of the religious morality of the church, Henrich says, but most importantly, the unforeseen long-term consequences of such measures. They all worked to weaken the clan and extended family relationships that prevailed on European soil and the rest of the world.
In addition, they would have stimulated social and economic relationships that did not depend on extensive blood relationships. Between 500 and 1500 AD, Europeans in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as part of the consolidation of the MFP, intensified long-distance trade and formed associations between unrelated people such as religious orders (who stimulated spiritual work in their monasteries), guilds, specialized artisans and brought the universities together themselves.
Over time, the process would have turned into a snowball: the groups that clung best to the new model of dynamic, competitive and individualistic economy did better in international competition and encouraged other countries to copy the same model.
At the beginning of the 16th century, another religious movement would have acted as “reinforcing injection” in this process: the Protestant Reformation. By encouraging all believers to read the Bible for themselves and viewing economic prosperity as a sign of divine blessing, Protestants made literacy, scientific innovation, and capitalism hallmarks of the most powerful countries in Europe.
Henrich documents this process in detail with data ranging from marriages between cousins in dozens of countries to the literacy of women in Catholic and Protestant regions of Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries. Emphasis is placed on the processes of cultural evolution.Highly welcomed, given how much the historical factors analyzed in the book are still due to the supposed biological superiority of Europeans.
On the other hand, the anthropologist seems to attribute an almost unchangeable aura to the social and cultural structures of non-WEIRD countries, which would prevent them from attaining the same level of development as the West. Before traditional political reforms, it would be necessary to change the “internal programming” of developing countries without explaining how this could be done. At this point, care must be taken that an exciting hypothesis about human history is not an excuse for the present and the future to continue to reproduce injustices.
The Strangest People in the World: How the West became psychologically weird and particularly successful
Author Joseph Henrich
Editora Farrar, Straus and Giroux
How much R $ 54.90 (eBook); 706 pages