The Western mind is different
Henrich is at his usual barrow below but his explanations are dubious. His central claim that the Catholic church disrupted traditional family relationships with its sexual restrictions seems implausible. It is true that the church restricted cousin marriage but restrictions on cousin marriage are ancient and and the church would seem to be about average in the degree of consanguinuity it allowed.
Cousin marriage is certainly endemic among Muslim populations but that is a consequence of the ease of divorce under Sharia law. There is nothing comparable elsewhere
So is there another explanation for the unusual Western mind? There is but it wades into politically dangerous waters these days. But let me go wading.
The plain fact is that the breakout of modern civilization that was produced by Western minds was not exactly Western. It would more accurately be described as a creation of German or Germanic minds. The seminal innovations -- from the printing press to the steam train were the product of minds in two Germanic nations -- Germany and Britain. In about 500AD Roman Britannia was conquered and subdued by Germans mainly from the West Baltic area and their genes are predominant in Britain to this day.
And the influence of both countries on nearby countries was great. To some extent German thinking was transmitted along with German technological innovations.
So why was German thinking different? I have written at some length on that elsewhere
The database that dominates our understanding of human psychology derives primarily – approximately 95% of it in fact – from populations that are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (Weird), and these Weird populations turn out to be distinct in many ways.
Unlike much of the world today – and most people who have ever lived – Weird people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, guilt-ridden and analytical in their thinking style. They focus on themselves – their attributes, accomplishments and aspirations – over relationships and roles. When reasoning, Weird people tend to look for abstract categories with which to organise the world. They simplify complex phenomena by breaking them down into discrete elements and assigning properties – whether by imagining types of particles, pathogens or personalities.
Despite their seeming self-obsession, Weird people tend to stick to impartial rules and can be quite trusting, fair and cooperative toward strangers. Emotionally, Weird people are relatively shameless, less constrained by the eyes of others, but often wracked by guilt as they fail to live up to their own self-imposed standards.
Where did these psychological differences come from and why are European populations, along with their cultural descendants in places like North America, at the extreme end of these global distributions?
A growing body of research traces these psychological differences to the structure of families – what anthropologists call kin-based institutions. This work suggests that our minds calibrate and adapt to the social worlds we encounter while growing up. Until recently, most societies have been undergirded by intensive kin-based institutions built around large extended families, clans, cousin marriage, polygamy and many other kinship norms that regulate and tighten social life. These institutions persist in many parts of the world today, especially in rural areas.
By contrast, many European populations have been dominated by monogamous nuclear families – a pattern labeled the “European Marriage Pattern” by historians – since at least the end of the Middle Ages.
Testing this idea, analyses reveal that people from societies rooted in more intensive kin-based institutions show greater conformity, less individualism, more holistic thinking, fewer guilty experiences and less willingness to trust strangers. These patterns emerge whether we compare countries, regions within countries or second-generation immigrants from different backgrounds living in the same place. As the first and often the most important institution we humans encounter upon entering the world, the structure of our family networks plays a central role in explaining global psychological diversity.
But why do families organise themselves in such different ways across societies, and why were European families already peculiar by the end of the Middle Ages?
While the diversity of kin-based institutions found around the world has been influenced by many factors, the European Marriage Pattern traces primarily to a religious mutation. Beginning in late antiquity, the branch of Christianity that evolved into the Roman Catholic Church began to gradually promulgate a set of prohibitions and prescriptions related to marriage and the family. The Church, for example, banned cousin marriage, arranged marriage and polygamous marriage. Unlike other Christian sects, the Church slowly expanded the circle of “incestuous” relationships out to sixth cousins by the 11th Century.
Despite often facing stout resistance, this enterprise slowly dissolved the complex kin-based institutions of tribal Europe, leaving independent nuclear households as a cultural ideal and common pattern.
To test the idea that the medieval Church has shaped contemporary psychological variation, it is possible to exploit the unevenness of this historical process by tracking the diffusion of bishoprics across Europe from AD 500 to 1500. Analyses show that Europeans from regions that spent more centuries under the influence of the Church are today less inclined to conform, more individualistic and show greater trust and fairness towards strangers.
Globally, national populations with longer historical exposures to the Church not only show weaker kin-based institutions, but are psychologically “Weirder” today.
Most of us might prefer to think of ourselves as independent, rational thinkers. But how we think, feel and reason – including our inclinations toward conformity and preferences for analytical explanations – has been shaped by historical events, cultural heritages and incest taboos that stretch back centuries or even millennia.
Understanding how history has shaped our minds is part of exploring and embracing our diversity.