The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (2020) is the title of a highly interesting book by Joseph Henrich. It tries to account for why the West has gained its technological and cultural achievements, which are often far ahead of other parts of the world. The acronym WEIRD here stands for “Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic”. Heinrich compared different kinds of cultures and highlights the traits of WEIRD cultures that made it so successful.

One of these traits is that WEIRD cultures rely less on kinship ties and nepotism than traditional farmer and herder cultures, in which nepotism is usually considered something good as you get a reliable employee, for example. The stronger those kinship ties in a culture are the higher are the levels of violence against outgroup members. As Heirich states, cultures with tribalistic tendencies are high in the dominance hierarchy and at the same time faith in authority. Culture with lower kinship ties on the other hand tend to hold (universal) fairness and care as high values, but value obedience and adherence towards kin and clan less. The weird thing about WEIRD cultures is that they are much more like ancient hunter-gatherer societies than more recent farmer-herder societies, that outcompeted (high reproductive rates) and assimilated more ancient hunter-gatherer societies.

Here I continue to connect Heinrich’s ideas to my own. I have been arguing a lot that our modern society with its 9–5 jobs, status-orientation and focus on materialism is very much a “farmer” society. However, it’s exactly in the areas that Heinrich highlights that WEIRD societies are really more like ancient hunter-gatherer societies. These include:

  • Looser kinship ties
  • Less conformism required (loose hunter-gatherer vs tight farmer societies)
  • Emphasis on individual growth and competence rather than group adherence
  • More monogamous (in farmer and herder society the alpha males often monopolize dozens of females)

Of course, also people in WEIRD societies often conform. Only about 25% of people are never influenced by their peers. I have argued before that these people have “hunter-gatherer” genes that managed to survive living inside farmer-herder societies. These people are often liberals, who value universal human rights, democracy, meritocracy (as opposed to nepotism) and education as a means of personal growth (vs education as a means of conformism). On the flip side, these people value kinship ties, traditions and authority less.

These hunter-gatherer types have been trying to make farmer societies more like hunter-gatherer societies by introducing democracy, more egalitarian religions and enlightenment. Moreover, it has been hunter types who have been responsible for most of the scientific and technical innovations (Newton, Edison, etc.) thus made industrialization possible. Only the “rich” part of WEI R D has been mainly due to status competition among mostly farmer and herder types. Even so, almost all economists and a lot of entrepreneurs (Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.) are “hunter types”

WEIRD societies have thus arisen due to farmer productivity and hunter-gatherer type influence. The last can be clearly seen in the American Declaration of Independence or the Enlightenment, for example.

Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on December 16, 2020.

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