It is common to think of Western Civilization as rooted in classical antiquity, the Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity, and the languages, history, and cultural attainments of Western Europe. It is also common to think of Western Civ as particularly favorable, and maybe even essential, to modernization as exemplified by the industrial revolution and the modern market economy. An example of both these ways of thinking is Huntington (1996). But this view is open to challenge, and in this post, I want to examine two such challenges: Scott Alexander’s “universal culture” and Joseph Henrich’s “WEIRD culture.”
In a Slate Star Codex post, How the West Was Won, Scott Alexander argues that what people often call Western culture is really universal culture, the omnivorous culture of “what works.” For example, “Western medicine” is really just whatever has been found to be the most effective at curing disease, maintaining health, etc. It is driven fundamentally by empirical standards, and in that sense is nonideological, and so the contrast with “natural” or “traditional” or “Eastern” medicine is bogus, in at least two ways. First, despite claims of its opponents in these other camps that “Western” medicine is forcing a certain conception of health or science or efficacy onto people, the truth is that it is the opponents who are playing that game, not “Western” medicine, which will adopt indiscriminately whatever can be shown empirically to get the job done. Second, there is nothing geographically Western about “Western” medicine, except insofar as the “what works” approach to medicine first began making spectacular progress in the West in the nineteenth century, and Western Europe and the Anglosphere nations have maintained a lead ever since. But it is not peculiarly “Western.” For one thing, it will take new ideas from anywhere, indiscriminately; the criterion is efficacy, not region of origin. For another, it can be adopted anywhere—and it is. Its essence is a rational standard of acceptance, as opposed to any ties to tradition, culture, region, or ideology. It is an accident of history that “Western” medicine was developed in the West.
Alexander gives some other examples of what he claims is the same phenomenon: Coca-Cola succeeded because it is “refreshment that works,” egalitarian gender norms “work,” sushi “works.” And note that sushi, of course, was not invented in the West. That’s the point.
So, Alexander calls it “universal” culture. This is a culture devoted to finding ways to satisfy people’s wants and needs through experimentation and innovation that does not rely on tradition (and is indeed hostile to reliance on tradition), that is relentless in its drive to find such ways, and that takes reason as its only standard of evaluation in this. Alexander suggests that what set this universal culture going in a big way was the industrial revolution, which set off “a frantic search for better adaptations” that became the new norm. This frantic search for better adaptations is the antithesis of tradition, which is why it looks more or less the same no matter who engages in it and why if it had begun in China or India instead of Western Europe, it would have looked pretty much the same. “The best way to industrialize is the best way to industrialize.”
Alexander wrote his piece in reaction to a blog post by Bryan Caplan claiming that Traditionalists Underestimate Western Civ. In discussions of U.S. immigration policy, one argument for restricting immigration is that Western culture could be overwhelmed by too great an influx of immigrants. Caplan’s reply is that the claim that Western culture is vitally important and has brought us our freedom and prosperity is incompatible with the idea that it is so fragile that it can be demolished by immigration. The truth is, Caplan says, that Western culture is taking over the globe, seducing nearly everyone who comes into contact with it. Which is why governments hostile to it find they must fight it with censorship and social regulation.
Alexander agrees with all this, except for the label “Western Civ.” For Alexander, it’s universal culture that is taking over, not Western culture. Indeed, Western culture is just one more of the victims of universal culture. Going back to the example of medicine, culturally Western medicine was the four humors, not germ theory. Neither are egalitarian gender norms culturally Western, much less sushi—or for that matter Coca-Cola. Alexander likens the birth of universal culture in the West to a summoner (the West) of a demon (universal culture) who then kills the summoner. On this story, Western culture—Greco-Roman antiquity, the Christian Middle Ages, Stonehenge, Shakespeare, and all the rest—really have rather little to do with our vibrant modern society and are certainly not responsible for it. Indeed, they are as incompatible with universal culture as any other traditional culture, and it is wiping out any remaining vestiges of them here—in the rural southern United States, for example—as mercilessly as it is undermining every other traditional culture everywhere else.
This is a striking conception, and it got me thinking about Joseph Henrich’s recent proposal that the industrial revolution and the modern form of what we call Western culture has been the result of the more or less accidental development of WEIRD psychology. By WEIRD psychology, Henrich means the mental processes and thought patterns of people who are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. The acronym was introduced by Henrich and two co-authors in an influential 2010 paper (with the same title as his new book), which argued that it is a mistake to draw conclusions about “human psychology” from research based only on the study of “WEIRD” people. They produced examples showing that WEIRD populations differ from the rest of the world not only in moral reasoning, self-concepts, and reasoning styles—areas that might have been expected to show some differences—but in visual perception, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, and the heritability of IQ. Moreover, it’s not just that WEIRD people are not the same as other people. They are outliers, occupying the extreme end of the distributions of the various dependent measures in question. Accordingly, WEIRD people are not representative of the human species, and it is not valid to draw inferences about humanity as a whole from research on, say, Western university undergraduates.
From this starting point, Henrich’s new project attempts to explain “how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous.” Briefly, the argument proceeds in two stages. First, WEIRD psychology is well suited to produce the industrial revolution and to support the institutions of a market economy. WEIRD psychology is individualistic, prizing self-esteem and self-improvement, low conformity and questioning of tradition, love of free choice, self-control, and hard work. WEIRD psychology tends to locate the cause of people’s actions in their personal characteristics (“personality,” dispositions) and consequently emphasizes guilt over shame. WEIRD psychology also promotes what Henrich calls “impersonal prosociality,” meaning cooperative and prosocial behavior extended to anonymous strangers and associates with whom one does not necessarily have particular bonds of community or kinship. Impersonal prosociality includes applying social rules impartially; indiscriminate trust, fairness, honesty, and cooperation; muted concern for revenge but willingness to punish third parties; reduced in-group favoritism; judgment of the moral status of a person’s actions by his intentions, not merely by the actions’ consequences; and moral universalism—the idea that there are universal moral truths in pretty much the same way there are universal mathematical truths. If you are reading this list and thinking, “This is mostly just common sense, isn’t it?”, then you are WEIRD. Most of the world, especially in tradition-bound places, does not think this way. But this kind of individualism and impersonal prosociality is needed to support a market economy. (On the necessity of impersonal prosociality especially, see here.)
Now, how did Western Europe get to be WEIRD? This is the second stage of Henrich’s argument. He claims that WEIRD psychology is the ultimate result of the early Roman Catholic Church’s obsession with sexuality and the family. Beginning in the early fourth century, the Church articulated rules about marriage and the family that had the effect of undermining the intensive kinship institutions of Europe, which until that time were not much different from those that prevailed in most of the world. The new rules: prohibited marriage to blood relatives, beginning with first cousins and eventually extending to sixth cousins; prohibited marriage to in-laws (for example, if your husband died, you could not then marry his brother); prohibited polygyny; prohibited sex slavery and prostitution; required both bride and groom to publicly consent to marriage (“I do”), thereby suppressing arranged marriages and linking marriage to romantic love; encouraged and sometimes even required newly married couples to set up independent households; prohibited marriage to non-Christians; encouraged individual ownership of land property and inheritance by personal testament, meaning that claims of family and tradition did not necessarily govern inheritance. Henrich calls these rules and more like them the Church’s “Marriage and Family Program” (MFP).
From unsystematic and scattered beginnings in the fourth century, the MFP gradually intensified to a climax in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. (The Church gradually relaxed many of these rules after this, but by then the social changes they induced were set in motion.) These rules severely disrupted patriarchal and clan-based power structures, and even tribal-level social controls. But there were broader results, as well. The emphasis on nuclear families living independently meant that people were no longer so closely tied by family obligations and inheritance. People were thus free to move to new places and choose their own associates. Released from clan-based, inherited structures of social organization, people began to develop whole new forms of voluntary association, such as free cities and charter towns, professional guilds, universities, and monasteries. This in turn led to the development of WEIRD psychology, as independence channeled people’s thinking in the directions needed to support it: independent thinking, a focus on the self and one’s qualities, work, time management, habits of trust and norms of fairness and cooperation in dealing with non-kin, and so forth. This in turn led to commerce and the development of impersonal legal codes and other market institutions, as well as institutions of self-governance, and eventually the concepts of individual liberty and individual rights (which, be it noted, are universal moral principles that are regarded as properties of individuals).
Henrich emphasizes the accidental nature of these developments. The MFP was hardly designed to produce John Locke or the industrial revolution. It merely worked out that way. But what induced the Church to initiate and pursue the MFP? Henrich thinks that was an accident, too:
Why did the Church adopt these incest prohibitions? The answer to this question has multiple layers. The first is simply that the faithful, including Church leaders, came to believe that sex and marriage with relatives was against God’s will. …
… we now need to … remember that there were many religious groups competing in the Mediterranean and Middle East, each with different and often idiosyncratic religious convictions. The Church was just the “lucky one” that bumbled across an effective recombination of supernatural beliefs and practices. The MFP is a mixture that peppers a blend of old Roman customs and Jewish law with Christianity’s own unique obsession with sex (i.e., not having it) and free will.(2020, 176)
Henrich thinks the Church ultimately benefited from the MFP in several ways. Notably, by weakening kinship bonds and the extended family as an organizing structure, it strengthened people’s bonds to itself as an alternative. This is why the Church was “lucky” to stumble upon the MFP. But again, the MFP does not seem to have been designed with this thought in mind.
We can see, then, how Alexander’s and Henrich’s views are similar. Both regard the culture that led to the industrial revolution and the vibrant, modern market economy as something distinct from and even contrary to traditional Western Civ. This is the really striking claim, which I imagine will be unwelcome in some quarters. Plato, Aristotle, Judeo-Christianity, etc. not only are not the roots of the West, they actually have little to do it, and they certainly are not responsible for its success. What we call the West today is really either universal culture (Alexander) or WEIRD culture (Henrich). Its emergence in Western Europe in the last 300–400 years was largely an accident of history. Moreover, being a cultural development not rooted in a particular language or religion or ethnicity or literary tradition, it is portable. Universal/WEIRD culture can be and is being adopted far and wide through globalization. And this would appear to be a good thing, insofar as prosperity is a good thing.
Of course, there’s also a large gap between Alexander and Henrich. Alexander seems to claim for universal culture the status of being objectively right, in that it consists of the best means discoverable, given human nature and our material conditions on planet Earth, for promoting human well-being. So, “if China or the Caliphate had industrialized first, they would have been the ones who developed [universal culture], and it would have been much the same.” But Henrich would say that WEIRD culture is as culturally bound as any other, notwithstanding that it has enabled its practitioners to achieve unprecedented levels of prosperity and power. For instance, I doubt Henrich would say that the standards of reason are universal, or the categorizations we impose upon the world and upon ourselves, or our patterns of moral judgment. He acknowledges that WEIRDness, like Alexander’s universal culture, is spreading throughout the world through urbanization and globalization, and sometimes through deliberate, top-down imitation (for example, in Japan, China, and South Korea). But I suspect that he would say there are limits to this process. For one thing, cultures do not change overnight, even in the most favorable circumstances. The roots of culture run deep and are embedded in traditions of child rearing, business practices, religious customs, and many other things that do not quickly change. And as a general principle, Henrich thinks we are much less in charge of our own culture than we think. Culture shapes us at least as much as we shape it, and this also sets limits to how fast it can change. Furthermore, “the best way to industrialize is the best way to industrialize” assumes that the goal is fixed and that rationality consists merely in finding the most effective means of reaching it. But the goal of industrialization depends on how industry is conceived. It is not certain that even cultural developments moving in the same general direction will necessarily wind up in the same spot. The development of culture is an evolutionary process, not unlike biological evolution. Was it inevitable that mammals become the dominant large land animals?
And yet, aren’t there limits to this kind of relativism? Math is math, isn’t it? There is no culture that does it differently. Likewise, any culture that investigated long enough would have discovered that the earth revolves around the sun. For that matter, any culture’s fundamental physical theories would have to be in the same ballpark as general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Standard Model of particle physics, wouldn’t they? For, the reality that the different cultures’ theories would be converging toward is the same for all. Similarly, human nature and human needs are fundamentally the same everywhere, as is (arguably) the best way of satisfying them—namely, through the division of labor, trade, and innovation. And if the large-scale practice of these depends in turn on individualism and impersonal prosociality, might not some variation on WEIRDness be the necessary outcome of any cultural evolutionary process that is successful enough to result in some form of industrialization?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But if they are yes, then Alexander’s and Henrich’s views can be seen to converge. In libertarian terms, Alexander’s view resembles the universalism of Rand and Rothbard and Nozick, whereas Henrich’s view resembles Hayek’s evolutionary approach. (Hayek’s social evolutionary theory is eerily similar to that developed later [mainly] in anthropology, of which Henrich is only the most visible current exponent. See here for an exploration of this.) On universalist libertarianism, rights are real moral attributes of individuals; economic science implies one best way (within limits) to structure society—namely, with as little government as possible; and rationality implies one best way (within limits) of organizing society (namely, through voluntary agreements that result in division of labor, trade, and innovation). On evolutionary libertarianism, cultures evolve through a process akin to natural selection in which the cultures that thrive best tend to prevail and grow at the expense of those that do not thrive. Rights are a useful cultural invention that promote the development of the cultures that seem to thrive best—namely, those governed by the rule of law in such a way as to protect the liberty of their citizens, and which consequently come to be organized through voluntary agreements resulting in the division of labor, trade, and innovation. Although conceptually—one might even say ontologically—different, universalist and evolutionary libertarianism would nevertheless be very similar in their conception of a good society.
On both Alexander’s and Henrich’s views, Western culture turns out to have little to do with Western Civ in the Great Books sense of the term. Is this true? Again, I don’t know the answer to this. There is a long tradition, to which I am sympathetic, that holds that fundamental ideas drive the development of historical events, at least at the large scale. Our self-conception has implications for our capabilities and aspirations. Likewise our conception of the purpose and meaning of life. Our conception of the world around us has implications for our activities with regard to it. As a simple example, Rodney Stark argues that it is no accident that the scientific revolution took place in Western Europe. For, the scientific revolution was ultimately stimulated by the conception, unique to Christianity, of the universe as the creation of a perfectly rational God, whose handiwork must consequently function in accord with immutable principles that are discoverable by reason (2003, 147–157). It was because of the concept of a universe governed by laws capable of being discovered (and because it would glorify God to discover them) that people undertook to search for them. In this way, fundamental ideas have long-term consequences. Unfortunately, I don’t know that there is really much support for this view in general. Arguments such as Stark’s seem altogether post hoc. It seems doubtful that if we could somehow run multiple trials of cultural development, we could seriously predict that cultures with the concept of a perfectly rational God would have a high probability of inventing modern science. And wouldn’t the Enlightenment philosophers have other ideas about the intellectual roots of the scientific revolution, having to do with, say, the liberation of reason from the fetters of tradition? I do not see a reliable way of discovering which if any such account is true. Of course, this doesn’t mean that no such account is true. But it does seem to mean that the notion that ideas drive the world is more hopeful than demonstrated. If so, then Henrich’s account is as plausible as the alternative, and maybe more so.
This may seem to be a depressing outcome. I mean, why did I put in all that time learning Ancient Greek? But after all, the answer to that is easy: to know philosophy. And philosophy, Western or otherwise, is an important branch of knowledge, even if it doesn’t drive the world.
- Alexander, Scott. 2016. “How the West Was Won.” Slate Star Codex, July 25, 2016.
- Bryan Caplan. 2014. “A Hardy Weed: How Traditionalists Underestimate Western Civ.” EconLib, June 22, 2014.
- Henrich, Joseph. 2020. The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
- Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. 2010. “The Weirdest People in the World?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33 (2–3): 61–83.
- Huntington, Samuel P. 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Touchstone.
- Potts, David. 2016. “Morals and the Free Society: 3. Morals that Create the Free Market.” Policy of Truth, March 24, 2016.
- Stark, Rodney. 2003. For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery. Princeton University Press.
- Stone, Brad Lowell. 2010. “The Current Evidence for Hayek’s Cultural Group Selection Theory.” Libertarian Papers, 2 (Art. No. 45): 1–21.