Could a marriage policy first pursued by the Catholic Church a millennium and a half ago explain what made the industrialized world so powerful—and so peculiar?
round 597 a.d., Pope Gregory I dispatched an expedition to England to convert the Anglo-Saxon king of Kent and his subjects. The leader of the mission, a monk named Augustine, had orders to shoehorn the new Christians into Church-sanctioned marriages. That meant quashing pagan practices such as polygamy, arranged marriages (Christian matrimony was notionally consensual, hence the formula “I do”), and above all, marriages between relatives, which the Church was redefining as incest. Augustine wasn’t sure who counted as a relative, so he wrote to Rome for clarification. A second cousin? A third cousin? Could a man marry his widowed stepmother?
He could not. Pope Gregory wrote back to rule out stepmothers and other close kin not related by blood—another example was brothers’ widows. He was lax about second and third cousins; only the children of aunts and uncles were off-limits. By the 11th century, however, you couldn’t get engaged until you’d counted back seven generations, lest you marry a sixth cousin. The taboo against consanguineous family had expanded to include “spiritual kin,” who were, mostly, godparents. (It went without saying that you had to marry a Christian.) Pope Gregory and Augustine’s letters document a moment in a prolonged process—begun in the fourth century—in which the Church clamped down, and intermittently loosened up, on who could marry whom. Not until 1983 did Pope John Paul II allow second cousins to wed.
You might assume that this curious story of how the Church narrowed the criteria for marriageability would be relegated to a footnote—a very interesting footnote, to be sure—but Joseph Henrich puts the tale at the center of his ambitious theory-of-everything book, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. Consider this the latest addition to the Big History category, popularized by best sellers such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The outstanding feature of the genre is that it wrangles all of human existence into a volume or two, starting with the first hominids to rise up on their hind legs and concluding with us, cyborg-ish occupants of a networked globe. Big History asks Big Questions and offers quasi-monocausal answers. Why and how did humans conquer the world? Harari asks. Cooperation. What explains differences and inequalities among civilizations? Diamond asks. Environment, which is to say, geography, climate, flora and fauna. Henrich also wants to explain variation among societies, in particular to account for the Western, prosperous kind.
Henrich’s first cause is culture, a word meant to be taken very broadly rather than as referring to, say, opera. Henrich, who directs Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, is a cultural evolutionary theorist, which means that he gives cultural inheritance the same weight that traditional biologists give to genetic inheritance. Parents bequeath their DNA to their offspring, but they—along with other influential role models—also transmit skills, knowledge, values, tools, habits. Our genius as a species is that we learn and accumulate culture over time. Genes alone don’t determine whether a group survives or disappears. So do practices and beliefs. Human beings are not “the genetically evolved hardware of a computational machine,” he writes. They are conduits of the spirit, habits, and psychological patterns of their civilization, “the ghosts of past institutions.”
One culture, however, is different from the others, and that’s modern WEIRD (“Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic”) culture. Dealing in the sweeping statistical generalizations that are the stock-in-trade of cultural evolutionary theorists—these are folks who say “people” but mean “populations”—Henrich draws the contrasts this way: Westerners are hyper-individualistic and hyper-mobile, whereas just about everyone else in the world was and still is enmeshed in family and more likely to stay put. Westerners obsess more about personal accomplishments and success than about meeting family obligations (which is not to say that other cultures don’t prize accomplishment, just that it comes with the package of family obligations). Westerners identify more as members of voluntary social groups—dentists, artists, Republicans, Democrats, supporters of a Green Party—than of extended clans.
In short, Henrich says, they’re weird. They are also, in the last four words of his acronym, “educated, industrialized, rich, democratic.” And that brings us to Henrich’s Big Question, which is really two linked questions. Starting around 1500 or so, the West became unusually dominant, because it advanced unusually quickly. What explains its extraordinary intellectual, technological, and political progress over the past five centuries? And how did its rise engender the peculiarity of the Western character?
Given the nature of the project, it may be a surprise that Henrich aspires to preach humility, not pride. WEIRD people have a bad habit of universalizing from their own particularities. They think everyone thinks the way they do, and some of them (not all, of course) reinforce that assumption by studying themselves. In the run-up to writing the book, Henrich and two colleagues did a literature review of experimental psychology and found that 96 percent of subjects enlisted in the research came from northern Europe, North America, or Australia. About 70 percent of those were American undergraduates. Blinded by this kind of myopia, many Westerners assume that what’s good or bad for them is good or bad for everyone else.
Henrich’s ambition is tricky: to account for Western distinctiveness while undercutting Western arrogance. He rests his grand theory of cultural difference on an inescapable fact of the human condition: kinship, one of our species’ “oldest and most fundamental institutions.” Though based on primal instincts— pair-bonding, kin altruism—kinship is a social construct, shaped by rules that dictate whom people can marry, how many spouses they can have, whether they define relatedness narrowly or broadly. Throughout most of human history, certain conditions prevailed: Marriage was generally family-adjacent—Henrich’s term is “cousin marriage”—which thickened the bonds among kin. Unilateral lineage (usually through the father) also solidified clans, facilitating the accumulation and intergenerational transfer of property. Higher-order institutions—governments and armies as well as religions—evolved from kin-based institutions. As families scaled up into tribes, chiefdoms, and kingdoms, they didn’t break from the past; they layered new, more complex societies on top of older forms of relatedness, marriage, and lineage. Long story short, in Henrich’s view, the distinctive flavor of each culture can be traced back to its earlier kinship institutions.
The Catholic Church changed all that. As of late antiquity, Europeans still lived in tribes, like most of the rest of the world. But the Church dismantled these kin-based societies with what Henrich calls its “Marriage and Family Program,” or MFP. The MFP was really an anti-marriage and anti-family program. Why did the Church adopt it? From a cultural evolutionary point of view, the why doesn’t matter. In a footnote, Henrich skates lightly over debates about the motivations of Church leaders. But his bottom line is that the “MFP evolved and spread because it ‘worked.’ ” (Henrich’s indifference to individual and institutional intentions is guaranteed to drive historians nuts.)
Forced to find Christian partners, Christians left their communities. Christianity’s insistence on monogamy broke extended households into nuclear families. The Church uprooted horizontal, relational identity, replacing it with a vertical identity oriented toward the institution itself. The Church was stern about its marital policies. Violations were punished by withholding Communion, excommunicating, and denying inheritances to offspring who could now be deemed “illegitimate.” Formerly, property almost always went to family members. The idea now took hold that it could go elsewhere. At the same time, the Church urged the wealthy to ensure their place in heaven by bequeathing their money to the poor—that is, to the Church, benefactor to the needy. In so doing, “the Church’s MFP was both taking out its main rival for people’s loyalty and creating a revenue stream,” Henrich writes. The Church, thus enriched, spread across the globe.
Loosened from their roots, people gathered in cities. There they developed “impersonal prosociality”—that is, they bonded with other city folk. They wrote city charters and formed professional guilds. Sometimes they elected leaders, the first inklings of representative democracy. Merchants had to learn to trade with strangers. Success in this new kind of commerce required a good reputation, which entailed new norms, such as impartiality. You couldn’t cheat a stranger and favor relatives and expect to make a go of it.
By the time Protestantism came along, people had already internalized an individualist worldview. Henrich calls Protestantism “the WEIRDest religion,” and says it gave a “booster shot” to the process set in motion by the Catholic Church. Integral to the Reformation was the idea that faith entailed personal struggle rather than adherence to dogma. Vernacular translations of the Bible allowed people to interpret scripture more idiosyncratically. The mandate to read the Bible democratized literacy and education. After that came the inquiry into God-given natural (individual) rights and constitutional democracies. The effort to uncover the laws of political organization spurred interest in the laws of nature—in other words, science. The scientific method codified epistemic norms that broke the world down into categories and valorized abstract principles. All of these psychosocial changes fueled unprecedented innovation, the Industrial Revolution, and economic growth.
If Henrich’s history of Christianity and the West feels rushed and at times derivative—he acknowledges his debt to Max Weber—that’s because he’s in a hurry to explain Western psychology. The bulk of the book consists of data from many disciplines other than history, including anthropology and cross-cultural psychology, to which he and colleagues have made significant contributions. Their Kinship Intensity Index, for instance, helps them posit a dose-response relationship between the length of time a population was exposed to the Catholic Church’s Marriage and Family Program and the WEIRDness of its character. Henrich gets amusingly granular in his statistics here. “Each century of Western church exposure cuts the rate of cousin marriage by nearly 60 percent,” he writes. A millennium of the MFP also makes a person less likely to lie in court for a friend—30 percentile points less likely. Henrich anticipates a quibble about what he calls “the Italian enigma”: Why, if Italy has been Catholic for so long, did northern Italy become a prosperous banking center, while southern Italy stayed poor and was plagued by mafiosi? The answer, Henrich declares, is that southern Italy was never conquered by the Church-backed Carolingian empire. Sicily remained under Muslim rule and much of the rest of the south was controlled by the Orthodox Church until the papal hierarchy finally assimilated them both in the 11th century. This is why, according to Henrich, cousin marriage in the boot of Italy and Sicily is 10 times higher than in the north, and in most provinces in Sicily, hardly anyone donates blood (a measure of willingness to help strangers), while some northern provinces receive 105 donations of 16-ounce bags per 1,000 people per year.
To go further afield: While Europe was first compiling its legal codes, China was punishing crimes committed against relatives more harshly than those against nonrelatives; especially severe penalties were reserved for crimes against one’s elders. As recently as the early 20th century, Chinese fathers could murder sons and get off with a warning; punishments for patricide, by contrast, were strict. Asymmetries like these, Henrich writes, “can be justified on Confucian principles and by appealing to a deep respect for elders,” even if the WEIRD mind finds them disturbing.
Henrich’s most consequential—and startling—claim is that WEIRD and non-WEIRD people possess opposing cognitive styles. They think differently. Standing apart from the community, primed to break wholes into parts and classify them, Westerners are more analytical. People from kinship-intensive cultures, by comparison, tend to think more holistically. They focus on relationships rather than categories. Henrich defends this sweeping thesis with several studies, including a test known as the Triad Task. Subjects are shown three images—say, a rabbit, a carrot, and a cat. The goal is to match a “target object”—the rabbit—with a second object. A person who matches the rabbit with the cat classifies: The rabbit and the cat are animals. A person who matches the rabbit with the carrot looks for relationships between the objects: The rabbit eats the carrot.
You have to wonder whether the Triad Task really reflects fundamentally different cognitive bents or differences in subjects’ personal experience. Henrich cites a Mapuche, an indigenous Chilean, who matched a dog with a pig, an “analytic” choice, except the man then explained that he’d done so for a “holistic” reason: because the dog guards the pig. “This makes perfect sense,” Henrich muses. “Most farmers rely on dogs to protect their homes and livestock from rustlers.” Exactly! A Western undergraduate, probably not having grown up with dogs protecting her pigs, sees dogs and pigs as just animals.
Henrich is more persuasive when applying his theory of cumulative culture to the evolution of ideas. Democracy, the rule of law, and human rights “didn’t start with fancy intellectuals, philosophers, or theologians,” Henrich writes. “Instead, the ideas formed slowly, piece by piece, as regular Joes with more individualistic psychologies—be they monks, merchants, or artisans—began to form competing voluntary associations” and learned how to govern them. Toppling the accomplishments of Western civilization off their great-man platforms, he erases their claim to be monuments to rationality: Everything we think of as a cause of culture is really an effect of culture, including us.
Henrich’s macro-cultural relativism has its virtues. It widens our field of vision as we assess Western values—such as objectivity, free speech, democracy, and the scientific method—that have come under sharp attack. The big-picture approach soars above the reigning paradigms in the study of European history, which have a way of collapsing into narratives of villains and victims. (Henrich forestalls the obvious objections with this jarringly offhand remark: “I’m not highlighting the very real and pervasive horrors of slavery, racism, plunder, and genocide. There are plenty of books on those subjects.”) He refutes genetic theories of European superiority and makes a good case against economic determinism. His quarry are the “enlightened” Westerners—would-be democratizers, globalizers, well-intended purveyors of humanitarian aid—who impose impersonal institutions and abstract political principles on societies rooted in familial networks, and don’t seem to notice the trouble that follows.
It should be said, though, that Henrich can make a person feel pretty helpless, with his talk of populations being swept along by cultural riptides that move “outside conscious awareness.” Cultural evolutionary determinism may turn out to be as disempowering as all the other determinisms; a WEIRD reader may feel trapped inside her own prejudices. But perhaps some comfort lies in Henrich’s dazzling if not consistently plausible supply of unintended consequences. Who would have imagined that the Catholic Church would have spawned so many self-involved nonconformists? What else might our curious history yield? Henrich’s social-scientist stance of neutrality may also relieve Westerners of some (one hopes not all) of their burden of guilt. “By highlighting the peculiarities of WEIRD people, I’m not denigrating these populations or any others,” he writes. WEIRDos aren’t all bad; they’re provincial. Henrich offers a capacious new perspective that could facilitate the necessary work of sorting out what’s irredeemable and what’s invaluable in the singular, impressive, and wildly problematic legacy of Western domination.
With all this compromise and worldliness in American Churches, we have to ask the question: is there a point in time that we can look to and say “that was the point where it all went wrong”? I believe I have found it! John D. Rockefeller is involved…
James Burke, Great Britain’s foremost commentator on science and technology, maintains that history is the result of “nudges”–Small events which trigger monumental chain reactions that in turn determine the course of mankind. Beginning with the stone ax “nudge” Burke examines the scientific and technological developments of other nudges and the way society changed as a result. Discusses the propagation of the artistic vs. scientific mind-set and the pros and cons of what he believes to be the next hand-ax phenomenon–the combining of data processing systems and telecommunications. Presented as a keynote address during Ball State’s UniverCity 1992.
This is what real “decolonization” should look like.
“Decolonize this place!” “Decolonize the university!” “Decolonize the museum!”
In the past few years, decolonization has gained new political currency — inside the borders of the old colonial powers. Indigenous movements have reclaimed the mantle of “decolonization” in protests like those at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access pipeline. Students from South Africa to Britain have marched under its banner to challenge Eurocentric curriculums. Museums such as the Natural History Museum in New York and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels have been compelled to confront their representation of colonized African and Indigenous peoples.
But what is “decolonization?” What the word means and what it requires have been contested for a century.
After World War I, European colonial administrators viewed decolonization as the process in which they would allow their imperial charges to graduate to independence by modeling themselves on European states. But in the mid-20th century, anticolonial activists and intellectuals demanded immediate independence and refused to model their societies on the terms set by imperialists. Between 1945 and 1975, as struggles for independence were won in Africa and Asia, United Nations membership grew from 51 to 144 countries. In that period, decolonization was primarily political and economic.
As more colonies gained independence, however, cultural decolonization became more significant. European political and economic domination coincided with a Eurocentrism that valorized European civilization as the apex of human achievement. Indigenous cultural traditions and systems of knowledge were denigrated as backward and uncivilized. The colonized were treated as people without history. The struggle against this has been especially central in settler colonies in which the displacement of Indigenous institutions was most violent.
South Africa, where a reckoning with the persistence of the settler regime has gripped national politics, reignited the latest calls for decolonization in 2015 with the #RhodesMustFall movement. Students at the University of Cape Town targeted the statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, but saw its removal as only the opening act in a wider struggle to bring white supremacy to an end. Under the banners of “more than a statue” and “decolonize the university,” students called for social and economic transformation to undo the racial hierarchies that persist in post-apartheid South Africa, free university tuition and an Africa-centered curriculum.
Now, partly riding the global surge of Black Lives Matter mobilizations, calls for decolonization have swept Europe’s former imperial metropoles. In Bristol, England, last month, protesters tore down the statue of Edward Colston, the director of the Royal African Company, which dominated the African slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. Across Belgium, protesters have focused on statues of King Leopold II, who ruled the Congo Free State (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) as his personal property from 1885 to 1908. King Phillipe II of Belgium recently expressed “regret” for his ancestor’s brutal regime, which caused the death of 10 million people.
Colonialism, the protesters insist, did not just shape the global south. It made Europe and the modern world. Profits from the slave trade fueled the rise of port cities like Bristol, Liverpool and London while the Atlantic economy that slavery created helped to fuel the Industrial Revolution. King Leopold amassed a fortune of well over $1.1 billion in today’s dollars from Congo. His vision of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, which opened in 1910 soon after his death, reproduced a narrative of African backwardness while obscuring the violent exploitation of the Congolese.
By tearing down or defacing these statues, protesters burst open the national narrative and force a confrontation with the history of empire. This is a decolonization of the sensory world, the illusion that empire was somewhere else.
Laying a flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo on the statue of King Leopold or hauling the Colston statue into the sea, where thousands of enslaved women and men lost their lives, tears apart the blinders and boundaries between past and present, metropole and colony. Insisting on the presence of the past, the protests reveal Europe’s romance with itself, unmasking its political and economic achievements as the product of enslavement and colonial exploitation.
This historical reckoning is only the first step. Acknowledging that colonial history shapes the current inequalities and hierarchies that structure the world sets the stage for the next one: reparations and restitution.
Reparations is not a single act. The Caribbean Community has already demanded reparations for slavery and Indigenous genocide from Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands. Although there is little movement at the level of states, the University of Glasgow agreed last year to pay 20 million pounds (about $25 million) for development research with the University of the West Indies in recognition of how the university benefited from the profits of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The Herero of Namibia, who suffered the 20th century’s first genocide at the hands of Germany, have also called for redress. Their efforts follow the successful bid for reparations by the Mau Mau of Kenya, many of whom were tortured during Britain’s brutal suppression of their independence movement in the mid-20th century. In other contexts, activists have focused on the return of the looted artifacts that fill Europe’s great museums. France, for instance, has committed to returning 26 stolen artworks to Benin.
But reparations should not focus only on the former colonies and their relations with European states. Colonialism lives on inside Europe’s borders, and Europe itself must be decolonized. Black Europeans experience discrimination in employment and education, are racially profiled and are subject to racist violence at the hands of the police and fellow citizens.
The European Union recently avowed that “Black lives matter,” but its policies deprive Black people of equal rights, imprison them in camps and drown them in the Mediterranean. Overseas imperialism was once believed to be a political necessity for European states; today, anti-immigrant politics plays the same role. In either case, European policymakers disavow responsibility for the misery they bring about.
Repair and redress is owed as much to Black Europeans as it is to former colonial states. It would mean treating Black Europeans, and all migrants from the colonized world, as equal participants in European society. And this form of reparation cannot be perceived as one-off transactions. Instead, it must be the basis of building an inclusive and egalitarian Europe.
This is no easy task and will not happen overnight. But we should remember that just 80 years ago, colonial rule appeared to be a stable and almost permanent feature of international politics. In just three decades, anticolonial nationalists had transformed the world’s map.
The struggle for racial equality in Europe is a fight for a truly postcolonial condition, and its creation is implied by each dethroned statue. If colonialism made the modern world, decolonization cannot be complete until the world — including Europe — is remade.
Journalist Zaid Jilani weighs in on the controversy over the Pulitzer Prize winning 1619 Project that caused a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American history between scholars and the authors of The New York Times Magazine’s issue on slavery.
Rising is a weekday morning show with bipartisan hosts that breaks the mold of morning TV by taking viewers inside the halls of Washington power like never before. The show leans into the day’s political cycle with cutting edge analysis from DC insiders who can predict what is going to happen. It also sets the day’s political agenda by breaking exclusive news with a team of scoop-driven reporters and demanding answers during interviews with the country’s most important political newsmakers.
Thomas Jefferson is remembered as a progressive man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and called slavery an abomination, yet he was also a slaveholder himself who fathered several children by a woman he owned. Martha Teichner reports.
The Lost Cause of the Confederacy, or simply the Lost Cause, is an ideological movement that describes the Confederate cause as a heroic one against great odds despite its defeat. Read a book excerpt: https://amzn.to/2RzkM8M
The ideology endorses the supposed virtues of the antebellum South, viewing the American Civil War as an honorable struggle for the Southern way of life while minimizing or denying the central role of slavery.
The Lost Cause ideology synthesized numerous ideas. Lost Cause supporters argued that slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War, and claimed that few scholars saw it as such before the 1950s. In order to reach this conclusion, they ignored the declarations of secession by the seceding states, the declarations of congressmen who left Congress to join the Confederacy, and the treatment of slavery in the Confederate constitution. They also denied or minimized the wartime writings and speeches of Confederate leaders in favor of postwar views. (See Cornerstone Speech.) Supporters often stressed the idea of secession as a defense against a Northern threat to their way of life and said that the threat violated the states’ rights guaranteed by the Constitution. They believed any state had the right to secede, a point strongly denied by the North. The Lost Cause portrayed the South as more adherent to Christian values than the allegedly greedy North. It portrayed slavery as more benevolent than cruel, alleging that it taught Christianity and “civilization”. Stories of “happy slaves” were often used as propaganda in an effort to defend slavery. These stories would be used to explain slavery to Northerners. Many times they also portrayed slave owners being kind to their slaves. In explaining Confederate defeat, the Lost Cause said that the main factor was not qualitative inferiority in leadership or fighting ability but the massive quantitative superiority of the Yankee industrial machine. At the peak of troop strength in 1863, Union soldiers outnumbered Confederate soldiers by over two to one, and financially the Union had three times the bank deposits of the Confederacy.
Critics of the ideology have stated that white supremacy is a key characteristic of the Lost Cause narrative. Supporters typically portray the Confederacy’s cause as noble and its leadership as exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry and honor, defeated by the Union armies through numerical and industrial force that overwhelmed the South’s superior military skill and courage. Proponents of the Lost Cause movement also condemned the Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, claiming that it had been a deliberate attempt by Northern politicians and speculators to destroy the traditional Southern way of life. In recent decades Lost Cause themes have been widely promoted by the Neo-Confederate movement in books and op-eds, and especially in one of the movement’s magazines, the Southern Partisan. The Lost Cause theme has been a major element in defining gender roles in the white South, in terms of honor, tradition, and family roles. The Lost Cause has inspired many prominent Southern memorials and even religious attitudes.