Podcast podcast
Jun 16 2022

Harvard professor and human evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich discusses the psychological, cultural, and institutional roots of Western development. His latest book, The WEIRDest People In the World, received the Manhattan Institute’s 2022 Hayek book prize.

Audio Transcript

Teddy Kupfer: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This week's special episode features Joseph Henrich, the chairman of Harvard's Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, and the author of The WEIRDest People in the World: How The West Became Psychologically Peculiar And Particularly Prosperous. This year, Dr. Henrich's book received the Manhattan Institute's 2022 Hayek Book Prize. In what follows, City Journal contributing editor John Tierney will introduce Henrich, who will then deliver the Hayek lecture. We hope you enjoy.

John Tierney: On behalf of the Hayek jury, I can assure you that you're in for an intellectual treat tonight. Our winner triumphed over some very stiff competition from the other finalists this year. There were great books by Kenneth White, James Otteson, Adrian Wooldridge, Gerald Gause, and a team of French economists led by Philippe Aghion. I salute all the finalists for exploring Hayekian ideas so well. And also, for doing it with a literary flair that frankly is not always present in Hayek's own prose. But his profound wisdom of course is timelier than ever. This evening we'll hear about one of his most prescient ideas. It was one that was so far ahead of his time that it was pretty much ignored during his life. And it has only become a hot topic recently among researchers around the world.

Now, Hayek was best known during his lifetime as a lonely critic of socialism and central planning. In the 1940s, when his fellow economists were enthusiastically nationalizing industries and expecting the Soviet Union to soon overtake the West economically, he published an unlikely bestseller titled The Road to Serfdom. In that, he predicted that the central planners were doomed to fail because of overconfidence in their own knowledge, in their own expertise. He called this the fatal conceit. It was the title of a later book, too. Now, this idea was not very popular among Western intellectuals, but his ideas were an enduring inspiration to reformers trapped behind the iron curtain, until communism finally collapsed in 1989.

By then, Hayek was 90 years old and he didn't issue any public statements. But his son reported that as the family sat at home watching television, watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV, Hayek could not resist smiling and saying, "I told you so." Now, during those heady years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many of us, and myself included, expected freedom to keep spreading around the world. There was talk of the end of history now that liberal democracy and free markets and enlightenment values had prevailed. For a while, freedom did spread. But lately, as we've seen, it's in retreat. Both abroad, most obviously in China and Russia, but also here at home. Young Americans are suddenly embracing socialism. Academics and journalists are demanding censorship. Both political parties have turned protectionist. Public officials have claimed unprecedented powers to suspend fundamental liberties. And that traditional guarantee of equal justice for all is giving way to something called social justice.

Now, these developments have come as a rude shock to many of us, but if Hayek were alive today, he could say once again, "I told you so." He knew that it would always be a struggle to sustain freedom in a large society. He called it the extended order, our modern society. It would be a struggle because it requires us to override the psychological and moral instincts that evolved in our ancestors living in a world of small clans. Now, "This struggle," he wrote, "Is perhaps the major theme in the history of civilization." And here's how he described it, "We must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts, and our emotions in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders, according to different rules. If we were to apply the rules of the small band or family to our wider civilization, as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet, if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once."

Now, this conflict didn't interest the intellectuals of his day, many of whom expected our great powers of rationality to somehow prevail. They attributed the rise of the west to the principles of the 18th-century Enlightenment. But Hayek saw this as another manifestation of the fatal conceit—their delusion that they knew how to design society. He attributed the west good fortune to the unplanned consequences of cultural evolution that began long before the enlightenment. He speculated that people's traditional tribal instincts and morality were gradually suppressed in places where merchants traded with strangers, and belonged to churches and other institutions that promoted individualism and weakened clan loyalties. The unintended result of these changes was that these societies prospered and grew winning the Darwinian competition against traditional societies. As I say, Hayek's theory about cultural evolution got no traction in his day, because it offended both the left and the right. But his speculations have now been confirmed by a wealth of data. Much of it collected by our winner tonight, Joseph Henrich.

Dr. Henrich gives new meaning to the term “multidisciplinary.” After getting undergraduate degrees at Notre Dame in both anthropology and aerospace engineering, he worked near Washington on a top-secret program, that to this day he is permitted to describe as only "Real-time operation of United States on orbit assets." Now, I'm guessing this means he was operating spy satellites, but his lips remain sealed about this work. Then he shifted his focus back to earth. He drove his Mustang cross country to California, got a PhD in anthropology at UCLA. He went on to teach at several universities, and in the process, he was separately awarded tenure in four different disciplines: anthropology, psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology. He's not sure if that's a record, but I think it has to be, really.

Now, he's currently at Harvard—we'll try not to hold that against him either—where he is a chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology. He's published more papers than I can count, and he has won more awards in prizes than I have time to list. He's done long-term field work in Amazonia, in rural Chile, and in the South Pacific. He has helped coordinate psychological and economic experiments in societies around the world, among hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, subsistence farmers in Peru, herders in Mongolia, office workers in Tokyo. He has synthesized his new behavioral science research with rigorous historical, religious, and economic analysis in two dazzling books. The first, published in 2016, was titled The Secret of our Success. The latest, of course, is The WEIRDest People in the World. It's a book that Hayek would've loved—"I told you so"—and we're lucky to have the author here to tell us about it. Dr. Henrich, congratulations on winning the 2021 Hayek Book Prize.

Joseph Henrich: Good evening, it's great to be with you. Thanks, John, for your generous introduction there. Well, it's my great honor to receive this award. I'm especially delighted to have received it, having been selected from such an esteemed group of finalists.

I'm indeed an unlikely recipient of the award. In developing the ideas in The WEIRDest People in the World, I wasn't endeavoring to explore Hayek's proposals or demonstrate his principles. The only work of Hayek that I'd read prior to about two weeks ago was The Fatal Conceit, and I read that back in the 1990s. Given this, the convergence between the ideas developed in The WEIRDest People in the World and many of Hayek's central proposals is indeed striking. I didn't fully appreciate the convergence until I returned to Hayek's work in preparation for this evening.

I embarked on research for the book, WEIRD, in 2010, after the publication of the homonymous paper in the Journal of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. In that paper, which I co-authored with two social psychologists, Steve Heine and Ara Norenzayan, we raised a methodological concern. We pointed out that not only were experimental behavioral scientists, including psychologists and economists, sampling from a rather thin slice of human diversity, that thin slice is actually psychologically peculiar when seen in a global perspective.

So to refer to these populations, we coined the backronym weird as a consciousness raising device. So as was mentioned, WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. So this initial effort led to my project, which was to answer my first question, whether we can explain the global and regional variation in individualism, conformity, shame versus guilt, analytic thinking, moral universalism, and cooperation among strangers that we find around the world. Or said another way, why are WEIRD people so individualistic, nonconforming, overconfident, guilt-ridden, intention-obsessed, non-holistic, and willing to cooperate with strangers.

To explain the psychological variation, my approach, coming from this field that's developed in the last 30 years—cultural evolution, was to consider how and why institutions might co-evolve with particular ways of thinking, feeling and reasoning. But the key question is, what are the institutions and why did they emerge? And then as I dug into the research, new studies in economics began to appear, or continue to appear, and I was convinced that I could maybe address a second puzzle. This is another version of Adam Smith's famous question, "How can we account for the rapid economic growth and the acceleration of innovation after 1750, that emerged in some European populations, and their cultural descendants in North America?"

I suspected the convergence, or at least some of the convergence between WEIRD and Hayek's contribution lies in our similar points of departure. As John mentioned, we begin with a recognition that humans are a kind of ape, subject to nepotistic and tribal instincts, as well as a cultural species capable of acquiring and internalizing a wide range of norms, including those that can lead to profitable and mutually beneficial transactions with strangers and anonymous others. Looking back at Hayek, Hayek was truly an intuitive, cultural evolutionist. We now know, from quite a bit of research, that humans, unlike other species, are born cultural learners. We readily attend to, imitate, and unconsciously acquire a broad range of practices, social norms, motivations, decision heuristics, and attentional biases.

Infants and young children selectively learn from others, with strong inclinations to learn from particularly successful or prestigious peers, as well as those they match on language, dialect, and sex. Interacting over generations, and often outside of conscious awareness, these evolved learning biases give rise to particular ways of thinking and behavioral repertoires and preferences that make their bearers well adapted to their local, social, and ecological environments. Often, though, entire populations don't realize in what ways they're adapted to the environments, or that their particular practices do anything in particular. Yet cultures are replete with rituals and religious beliefs and social norms that implicitly embody a kind of collective wisdom.

One simple example is the use of spices in cooking. Spicing appears now, based on a lot of science, to be a cultural adaptation, particularly strong in hot climates, that reduces the dangers from pathogens in meats. Of course, people don't use spices for their antimicrobial properties. People just like the tastes of certain kinds of spices in certain places, or they follow their culinary customs. In considering the origins of religions, Hayek was among the earliest thinkers to suggest a central role for cultural group selection. In considering the origins of the modern world, Hayek wrote, "We owe it partly to mystical and religious beliefs. And, I believe, particularly to the main monotheistic ones, that beneficial traditions have been preserved and transmitted, at least long enough to enable those groups following them to grow, and to have the opportunity to spread."

Modern research, testing the predictions of this theory, researchers have now amassed a substantial body of experimental, ethnographic, and historical evidence that supports Hayek's speculation. People, for example, who believe more strongly in powerful moralizing gods, make more cooperative economic decisions with anonymous others. It's not a result that makes atheists like me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but it does seem to be empirically well supported, which does make me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Hayek also shares with WEIRD an emphasis on recognizing that some of our most powerful social instincts, particularly those that favor intense cooperation within small groups. In Weird, I argue that cultural evolution harness these instincts to build the first and most primordial of human institutions, what anthropologists call kin-based institutions. After the origins of agriculture, competition among groups favored more intensive kin groups to defend land and property, leading to the formation of clans and kindreds. So through a wide range of social norms, cultural evolution formed densely interwoven kin networks and tribal groups by manipulating who could marry who, where married couples could live, and how inheritance and wealth flowed across the generations.

Many WEIRD people coming from societies with the smallest and weakest families in human history are skeptical of the potential for such kin-based institutions to exist to assist us in explaining civilization-level questions. But kin-based institutions are not only the oldest of human institutions, but they're also the first institutions we encounter when we enter the world. Confronting a dense network of obligations and responsibilities that form the binding webs of intensive kinship in many societies, people come to see the world as governed by relationships that animate individual actions. Most of a person's relationships, and certainly most of their most demanding relationships, are bequeathed to them at birth, by virtue of their place in a kinship network. In this world, trust is based on network embeddedness, while dispositions like honesty have little meaning. "Honesty to whom?" the people I work with ask.

In societies with extensive kinship, shame is experienced when one fails to live up to one's obligations, but this emotion echoes outward through the threads of kinship and affects other members of the group. Entire families can lose face when one member misbehaves. In many societies, sons do indeed inherit the sins of the father, as well as those of grandfathers, brothers, and uncles. The upshot is that loyalty to one's group is paramount, but moral universalism is puzzling.

To just give you one example, which you may be familiar with, consider the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pashtuns form polygamous patrilineal clans embedded in segmentary lineages. Over half of marriages occur between cousins, and grooms often pay a bride price for their wives. Land and identity are inherited corporately based largely on one's father. And the Taliban, who now govern Afghanistan again, are essentially a Pashtun organization.

At the other end of the spectrum, societies with the least intensive forms of kinship are based on monogamous nuclear families, where newly married couples, who are rarely related, set up independent residences. From a global and historical perspective, societies with this form of kinship are extremely rare. Confined during the second half of the second millennium largely to parts of Europe. The evidence is now clear, people from populations with less intensive kinship show greater individualism, analytic thinking, and impersonal trust, but less conformity to peers, respect for tradition, and deference to authority. My colleagues and I have not only shown this across countries, but we are also able to show it when we compare people from different regions within the same European countries, or when we compare immigrants in the same European countries whose parents hail from different places, but they grew up in the country.

But then the question is, how did European families, how did European populations come to have these small monogamous nuclear families? Well, during late antiquity, one particular branch of Christianity, the one leading to the Roman Catholic church, began to adopt a peculiar set of prohibitions and prescriptions regarding marriage and the family that transformed the intensive kin-based institutions of the pre-Christian European tribes into monogamous nuclear families, over a period of centuries.

For example, beginning in the fourth century, the church began adopting incest taboos that gradually prohibited marriage to cousins in an increasing circle, eventually out to six cousins. This included affines. So including people you weren't related to. The church also prohibited polygeny and promoted both individual ownership and inheritance by testament. You're no doubt familiar with some of the cultural relics from this century's long endeavor. For example, our English word for affines, in-law, as in sister-in-law, captures some of this. Have you ever wondered where the in-law part comes from? What's the law? It's in Canon law. It's a reminder of the church that you should treat your wife's sister like your sister. So no sex or marriage with her. Which would be common in other societies. You might take her as a second wife. Or you might have to marry her if your wife dies.

Strikingly, the longer a region of Europe was under a Catholic bishopric, the lower the rate of cousin marriage in the 20th century. And the greater degree of individualism and trust in strangers, but the lower the level of conformity and obedience to tradition. In more recent work since the book, we're able to connect this directly to patents, using a large new patent date. So more time under Catholic bishopric, more patents per capita. The argument is that the church's dissolution of intensive kinship represents the proverbial pebble that created a chain reaction of new institutions and increasing migration into urban areas.

After 1000 CE, people began joining what historians call voluntary associations, leading to a proliferation of guilds, charter towns, monasteries, and universities around Europe during the high Middle Ages. Many of these organizations filled important gaps previously filled by intensive kinship, such as those related to social insurance, personal security, and old-age care. With the disappearance of intensive kinship, the voluntary associations competed for members, and thus, had to organize themselves in ways that made them attractive. Charter towns and cities, for example, began to offer successful merchants and skilled artisans citizens’ rights, which included things like freedom from impressment by the local duke, or relief from certain taxes. The charters of successful towns were copied and spread across Europe. Such competition leads to the creation of formal institutions that favor cooperation among strangers and greater individualism, including the cultivation of attributes like time thrift and punctuality.

At the same time, impersonal markets began spreading across Europe, during the high Middle Ages, with the establishment of new charter towns. A growing number of people were becoming engaged and partially dependent on markets. Market integration means that individuals have mutually beneficial and routine interactions with strangers, and come to rely on such interactions for their subsistence. To the surprise of many, and this is the work that I began in the 1990s, the comparative study of contemporary societies reveals that more market-integrated societies are more fair and more cooperative with strangers than others, not less. They are less cooperative with their close in-groups, however. Similarly, greater competition among voluntary organizations, so more inter-group competition, more group selection, favors increasing trust. So increasing competition among firms, we know now empirically increases trust in strangers.

The central argument in WEIRD is that changing institutions, starting with the church's transformation of the family, shifted not only social life, but altered people's psychology in ways that influenced the development of larger-scale institutions, new laws, economic organizations, and the emergence of science.

I'll give you one example. Western law is particularly peculiar, and it began to develop in the High Middle Ages. The first thing that makes it unusual is that it's centered on the individual, and it assigns individuals rights, these invisible properties that we seem to have. It doesn't concern itself with the relationships between perpetrators and victims, but it's exquisitely concerned about mental states. These invisible things that we can never know. They seem to hinge on those. Such laws appear design for an individualistic, analytic thinker who cares about mental states, and desires universal moral rules. By contrast, few non-Western legal traditions, including both Roman law and pre-Christian European tribal codes, isolate the individual from their kin folk. Most other legal systems are deeply concerned about the nature of the ties between perpetrators and victims. Demanding to know if they're from different families, tribes, or clans.

Recognizing how institutions in psychology co-evolved can help us understand why efforts to transplant constitutions, charters, and laws, developed in one place, to very different places, often have quite distinct and often disastrous consequences. Notions of human rights seem intuitive to analytically-oriented individualists, inclined to moral universalism, but they're rather non-intuitive to folks from societies with intensive kinship, limited market integration, and few competing voluntary associations. But how does this help us understand the second question, the explosion of innovation that propelled the industrial revolution?

Well, in The Secret of our Success, my prior book, which was mentioned, I argue that human cumulative cultural evolution depends on the collective brain. Here are the ideas that fresh insights and innovations emerge from re-combinations of existing ideas, which usually involves the interaction of diverse minds. Lots of evidence shows that larger, more diverse, and more interconnected populations generate more rapid innovations. The social and psychological changes I've described for Europe threaded together a large network within Europe that actually stretched around the globe, expanding the collective brain and energizing innovation.

On the social side, rising urbanization, the open apprenticeship system, knowledge societies, universities, mobile artisans, literacy, the printing press, and trade all increase the flow of ideas among diverse minds. Psychologically, rising levels of individualism, nonconformity, tolerance, and trust all would've fostered faster innovation. Impersonal trust is particularly important since it means that strangers are more likely to share ideas and collaborate. Not surprisingly, both trust and individualism lead to faster innovation and greater economic prosperity in the modern world. Tolerance promotes immigration and diversity, both of which have powerfully catalyzed innovation since the earliest days of the British Industrial Revolution, and over the entire history of the United States. My lab's been analyzing the patent database.

In the final chapter of WEIRD, I converged with Hayek once again. I pointed out that globalization is disorienting to so many people around the world because it asks them to navigate two different worlds, as John quoted. One with quite different psychological demands. There's the world of intensive kinship, which focuses on a network enduring responsibilities, respect for elders, adherence to tradition, and local solidarity. And then there's the world of impersonal institutions and impartial laws. Here, individualism is rewarded. People are judged by their dispositional attributes, and nepotism is not considered a moral virtue. Hayek made the identical point in The Fatal Conceit.

There was one other interesting convergence with Hayek. In part of this discussion, he makes reference to Sigmund Freud's essay, "Civilization and Its Discontents." I didn't discuss Freud at all because I didn't think it was right for the audience I was speaking to. But I do tip my hat to Freud with my final subtitle, Globalization and Its Discontents. To summarize, to give you three Hayekian take home points, my first one is humility. Culture is smarter than you are. Learn from history, understand human nature, and study the diversity of human institutions and ways of living. Don't trust your intuitions. They're weird. Fragility—modern, weird institutions are fragile. They arose along a particular cultural evolutionary trajectory that opened up because one religious community adopted a peculiar set of incest taboos and family prescriptions. Impersonal institutions often conflict with our powerful nepotistic and tribal instincts.

And finally, number three, liberty and diversity. Over the last two centuries, the capacity of modern societies to generate the torrent of relentless innovation, necessary to sustain economic growth, has hinged on their ability to bring together independent-minded people with different ideas, approaches, languages, customs, recipes, ways of thinking to freely engage and cooperate. This mass action depends on certain key aspects of psychology, including trust in strangers, tolerance of differences, and motivations to protect the free exchange of ideas. Even ideas you don't like.

Thanks again to the awards committee who recognized the convergence of my work with Hayek, and thank you all for listening.

Photo: reklamlar/iStock

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