The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I believe, but cannot be certain, that this book represents something entirely new in science. It is an investigation of our shared reality which includes the living, thinking, observing subject as a determiner of reality, and not just subject to it.
I may have that backward. We are subject to evolution. What I mean is that our definition of reality now must include humanity as an object. There is no objective reality without us. Language fails me. Dang!
Sure, this author is not a practitioner in the "hard" sciences, but is rather more some new combination of anthropologist, sociologist and metareporter of academic writing. That writing includes history and archeology and psychological experimentation.
At various points in my life, I have invested money, time and angst in talk therapy. I think it has helped. But I can't, for the life of me, remember why I did it. I don't remember being unhappy or desperate. Perhaps I needed help through various transitions. Talk therapy is a very WEIRD thing, I know.
I write perfectly useless reviews. I know a competent review when I read one. I leave those to people competent to write them. I'm more interested to note how it is that reading a book has changed me, and then I sometimes go on to urge my (newly revised, yet still somewhat tortured) thinking on whoever might read my review.
Lately, Elon Musk justifies his absurd wealth (to Bernie Sanders!) by saying that he's amassing resources to spread something like the bright beacon of consciousness beyond earth. As though he knows what's good for all of us. He clearly believes that being the richest man in the world justifies his laying claim to be the most intelligent. He could use some therapy.
Well, after our four years of horror under Trump, maybe some of us among the science-following half of the planet will miss our easy calling out of the opposition as idiots. It was ever so much fun! But the trouble is not that they're all idiots. The trouble is that they're not. Intelligent and well-read people seem actually to believe patent absurdities. So much for the beacon of consciousness, especially if by consciousness we mean to say something like intelligence.
What we mean by intelligence is a very local thing. That's one big message from this book. It's a very timely book, not least because human intelligence now feels so meaningless against the idiot winds which set our course (through what canal?).
Same argument: We didn't get to where we Westerners are in the history of the planet because we're somehow more intelligent and better organized; more advanced. We lucked out. One of the burdens of this book is to disabuse anyone of the notion that our futures were ever designed by us. They evolved, and evolution is a process of accidental change aggregating in ways to move us in some direction for thriving.
We may as well be locusts on the planet! Hey, let's populate the cosmos!
News flash: you may think you're not an idiot and that you're on the right side of history, but you're just as subject to the directions money takes for you as the rest of us are. Click bait (selfish meme competition, I suppose) distorts us all.
Can you even imagine someone claiming the right to outsized influence based not on money, but on love? What an absurdity! And yet that very same legitimate claim would belong to Jesus Christ. Intelligence is as over-rated as wealth is if you ask me. Or if you ask Joseph Henrich.
Let's focus on Christ. Henrichs does in this book, or rather, he focuses on the Church. Still, it would be difficult to find any other individual, real or concocted (the way that Trump was), who has had more influence on human life on the planet than Christ has.
Henrichs is interested in the accident of Christian institutions, and how consequential those have been for Western social evolution.
I read (present tense) this book between Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett's The Upswing, and what I might consider its sequel, a book called Mutualism, by Sara Horowitz. Those are books which implicitly assume a kind of steady state to what it means to be human, and which present a hopeful and even optimistic read of how we might improve our condition. Both are powerful books by brilliant authors.
By contrast, this book ventures into understanding humanity as a species undergoing constant change, by way of cultural evolution. Surprisingly, Henrich maintains that the accidents of cultural evolution have also impacted certain aspects of our physiology. Especially our brains, post-literacy. Our WEIRD experience, our self-conception, and our ways of living and of understanding are simply not the same as they once were, and as they still are almost everywhere else.
This evolutionary process is not subject to amelioration. It just happens. The author, Joseph Henrich, developed his thesis across an adventuresome life, driven, apparently, by intense curiosity about how other peoples live, but also, I lately find, by interest in what? Aerospace Engineering!?!
His book regards what it is that makes us in the Western traditions so unusual. (So special?) He documents a set of accidents through history which changed humanity in ways leading up to the industrial and then the scientific revolutions. These revolutions have occurred only among what would become WEIRD people. "Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic."
I spent much of my formative education at Yale pondering the 'why' of the industrial revolution occurring in Europe and not in China. That was after re-calibrating from engineering through physics to Chinese literature. Mine has not been a settled life.
We called this the Needham question, or at least I did. Still on my bookshelves now, despite seemingly endless moves across geography and career, I have the near complete print-set of Needham's opus, Science and Civilization in China.
I remember how nervous I was transporting the pirated volumes back from Taiwan, as though the customs agents would open my books. I wanted to study with urbane Nathan Sivin, Needham's colleague, who sometimes paid glancing visits to our Ivy-League classical Chinese poetry club.
So yes, this book is especially important to me. It has answered, to my satisfaction, one of the most important questions in my life.
I am definitely weird.
I live now in a world not changed, in many ways, from the one where I grew up. But, by my read, our stuck social schematic is now in the approximate condition of a skyscraper after the shrug of the demolition charges set to take it down, but before gravity destroys its appearance of integrity.
We live in the end-times of the era of The Spectacle. We are spectators of our very own lives. What a hoot! Really, we should demark our times as the era of the screen. Think about it. Literacy is so yesterday! Update your book, man!
I remember with a clarity as though I'd seen the face of Jesus when I learned to write my name. It was that electrically exciting. I was using a red ballpoint pen ("atomic age" puns with ballpoint in Chinese usage) on a brown paper shopping bag.
That was about when Dad was building a fallout shelter in our basement along the shores of seemingly still-alive Lake Erie.
My prosocial optimism had been wrecked by the time I hit college. A minor thesis of Henrich's book is that such optimism is essential. He calls it "positive-sum thinking." Such thinking is essential to inventiveness and the cultivation of our collective "brain," which is a very Western thing.
Some of the book's thought-streams question the inevitability of science as we practice it, and even the universality of the scientific principles we live by. Was scientific understanding going to come in any case, if the laws revealed are Platonic/cosmic universals? Or is this all some Western aberration? Something to evolve beyond, even?
Whatever the case, the book's author is implicitly asking his reader to step outside our own tradition, to see it as an outsider might. That is in itself the most WEIRD thing to do. It's what science does.
And from the outside it looks very much like WEIRDness is curdling in at least three dimensions.
The first might be our patent laws, which only just barely stopped at allowing the patenting of genes. Those laws, from their origins, enshrine the gold-rush notion of the genius inventor who should be rewarded for specific innovations, largely by being the first to create an embodiment of something that would soon be produced in any case, according to this book's thesis (and according to me). It once did encourage a lust for discovery. What's left is lust for lucre.
Patent and copyright converge in the digital age, and what we now do amounts to slow death to what Henrich calls our collective social "brain." He calls it a brain even as he debases what a brain can do on its own.
Even a social brain requires some context.
The second dimension would probably be our precious individualism, based as it is on the ascription of internal traits as that which constitutes our very specific individual personality. I am happy to read him debunking all the personality type tests, on which I am nothing but a chameleon (matching whatever happens to be my current ever-shifting occupation), and sarcastically wishing us individuals "good luck" in finding our authentic self. You go, man!
Patent law and practice (now in the digital age) no longer serves the people now that patent portfolios - traded on the open (closed?) market - make a perfect proxy for predatory size of firm.
The third would have to be religion, which is credited in this book (the Christian tradition through the Catholic Church and its family definitions, and later and more locally importantly, through the various iterations of Protestantism) as the inventor [sick] of WEIRD.
By now, our religions have returned to primitive form in stark opposition to what is meant by WEIRD in this book. However enlightenment might be defined, it certainly has nothing to do with the belief structure of most evangelical sects, credited though Protestantism might be with the stimulation of mass literacy at their Lutheran origins.
Now I have to ask; what would happen if instead of stepping outside our collective mind, we were to embrace it more tightly? What if we jump right back into the scientific soup and ask such really important questions as 'why has love meant so much cosmically?' Why are religions so full of hate anymore?
Asking those questions would be to separate knowledge of what we still call "supernatural" phenomena from received authority structures, to re-incorporate them into what we call (scientific) "reality." That should, after all, be the final maneuver in the legacy of WEIRD.
No one has the right to tell me that God is a delusion! No one has the right to say that Henrich is not a scientist.
I mean simply that we allow subjectivity back in to science, in a very careful way. It already came in by way of quantum theory, and now by way of the softer sciences. We are just resisting the inevitable. By any meaning, evolution - cultural or genetic - is built on a series of accidents. accidents are both inevitable and random. But random seems to add up to life, weirdly.
Science works along that razor's edge where non-random natural law allows prediction. Genetic replication follows natural laws. Random defines life. which distinguishes itself, from a distance, as different from the dead structures around it.
Those dead structures are the context for our collective, social, "brain."
What if the core of Christian belief is actually, even scientifically, quite true? You know, God is love, and drop the Name already! I'm big on name-dropping! What else do the accidents of evolution - cultural or genetic - add up to? We WEIRD people are all about romantic love, especially as we see ourselves on-screen, though we may be known by our science and our industry. Could love be a cosmic force?
Hell, many of us who consider ourselves sane call all the religious people loonies, even while we - some of us - express certainty that we will someday encounter life elsewhere in the cosmos. Which is to deny that we already have, and that it has nothing to do with UFOs.
If I were religious, I would consider the store of energy contained in fossil fuels to be a gift from God. In those same terms, I would consider humanity as a whole to have sinned by our squandering of that gifted oil to no apparent end beyond, well, the end as caused by our despoiling of the only home we can ever have. Short of breaking light-speed barriers, as though that might be done within the life-span of ours or any other culture.
Who are the loonies in this equation?
And so, what has technology done for us or to us? Has it made economics back into a zero-sum game again? As in, why do many of us feel that Google and Facebook are stealing our wealth along with any stability to a shared reality - rather than to expand the realm for innovation as they promised? Theirs would seem to be a sharing infrastructure which isn't sharing when it comes to their monopoly access and now control of what it is that we might share. They steal our emotional and our cognitive meaning both.
And anyhow it isn't at all clear that whatever we do on our smartphones is on a continuum with the reading habits which once changed the world. We seem only to amplify what we already think that we know. And we are quite literally drowning in words that have almost an urgency about grabbing and keeping our attention. This is no longer the shared "brain" that Henrich says that we in the West lucked into. This is reversion to a kind of beehive mind, where the wealthy are the queens.
I suspect that most readers will prefer the executive summary of this book, which can be had by way of numerous reviews and introductions in the MSM. The arguments presented in the book quickly become tedious for those not steeped already in the torture chambers of statistical reasoning applied to sociology and psychology (and to politics, of course). Games devised to mimic actual human behavior, and then broad (broad!) conclusions drawn.
In the big picture, we no longer seem to believe in human progress. Our "positive-sum thinking" has reversed itself. It would be hard to know if this is because of the wreckage caused by our technologies as we deploy them, or simply that they feel so disruptive of religious comfort words.
Where is the love?
Structures that once kept us looking forward, now have us holding on to what we feel that we've lost.
I sweated more when I brought banned books with me into China than I did returning with pirated books, but still . . .
We must take control of accident! Listen to me. Otherwise, we are doomed!
Drink up please, it's time.
Yours, in Irony. Irony too is a WEIRD invention. Has to do with God.
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