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.
This week on Uncommon Knowledge, longtime American Enterprise Institute fellow Charles Murray discusses his controversial new book, Coming Apart, about what American was, is, and will become. He also reveals his personal score on his now famous “bubble quiz.” Take the quiz here http://www.scribd.com/doc/77349055/Co…
let’s talk about the functioning of a
free society because that’s what I go
back to the founders were unanimous in
saying this Constitution will not work
with just any kind of population the
population must possess certain virtues
and this virtue virtue chef this is not
just one or two founders who said this
they all did and they also focused on
four that were crucial all of them agree
there were others that they had in the
list but these four were central the
- integrity of marriage
- religiosity and up
- plain american
and they said you know without
those you cannot have a self-governing
population the trends that i described
are in effect saying that the virtues
required to be a self-governing
community are slipping toward a tipping
point beyond return and at that point we
will have a permanent lower class that
is different in kind from a lower class
that the united states has had before in
that it is both sizeable and it is no
longer participating in american
institutions so you will have you will
have an upper class that will still be
living a fine life and the middle class
will be doing fairly well but something
very fundamental to the common the
universality of being an American let
the embrace that it that it intended to
have of all people that’ll be gone and
that is going to be a huge loss it’s
also going to
induce the creation of an extensive
welfare state far beyond the one we have
now from coming apart a few statistics
Charles I’ll just run through a few of
those you present voted in the
presidential election down 22 percent
from 1960 to 1996 attended a public
meeting on town or school affairs down
35 percent from 1973 to 1994 served as
an officer of some club or organization
you talk about the Elks and rotary and
so forth local organization 42 percent
from 73 to 94 percentage of parents with
children under age 18 who were members
of the PTA down 61% from 1960 to 1997
and these statistics tell us what well
these come by the way from Bowling Alone
the excellent book written by Robert
Putnam about a decade ago they are
represent across the American population
those reductions the native question
that arises well were these evenly split
across right they were not so that these
reductions are concentrated in Fishtown
in the working-class community and it’s
and what difference does that make
well the social capital because that’s
the social scientists phrase for it is
another word for what has been the glue
of American community which has been the
spirit and the vitality of American
community and that goes away and it’s
all linked up with the other trends that
we’ve discussed in previous segments
religiosity who accounts for these
wonderful kinds of social capital Robert
Putnam says about half of all social
capital comes directly from the
religious population and even more comes
from it because religious people are
more likely to be engaged in secular
forms of social capital than
non-religious people so you’re looking
at a real mess focused on Fishtown not
in belmont coming apart quote the big
question is whether the remaining levels
of social trust in Fishtown are enough
to sustain anything approaching the
traditional expectations of a
American neighborliness and local
problem solving it is hard for me
Why would a woman ever marry a man? “Happy Ever After,” a new book by the behavioral scientist Paul Dolan, argues that women who don’t marry or have children are happier and live longer than those who do. A University of Arizona study from 2017 suggested that divorce improves the health of postmenopausal women. Mountains of academic and anecdotal research indicate that married heterosexual women suffer from an unequal division of labor at home. As the sociologist Lisa Wade has written, “marriage is a moment of subordination”—it is definitionally unequal, and perhaps it follows that it is obsolete. We keep hearing these messages, and we keep getting married anyway, much as the sitcom husband keeps leaving the socks on the floor. And perhaps we stay married in the same resigned spirit as the wife who decides to stop nagging the sitcom husband about the socks and resolves to pick them up herself, without complaint, every day, until one of them is dead.
“Marriageology: The Art and Science of Staying Together,” a warm and companionable volume by Belinda Luscombe, does not really question the notion of marriage as the societal default. As such, the book arrives in the world already feeling like an artifact. “Marriage, that fusty old institution, is worth fighting for,” Luscombe writes. A marriage may “wilt” naturally, like produce, she explains, but a bit of ingenuity may perhaps preserve it, in the way that one refrigerates a vegetable, or pickles it. Preservation is a goal unto itself, and a rebuke to a culture that feels ever more transitory: “Permanence is temporarily out of favor,” the author writes. “Things that have been around for a while are no longer accorded honor simply because they’ve endured.” But Luscombe’s examples of venerated antiques—“beautiful cathedrals, old growth forests, vintage clothes”—do not derive value simply from their age. Some unions resemble an old shed more than the Hagia Sophia.
Luscombe does acknowledge that marriage has been rapidly transformed by economic, technological, and sociological factors: ballooning personal debt, stagnating wages, advances in fertility science, waning stigma against singledom, the rise of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, gender fluidity, the Internet. As material and cultural realities have shifted around marriage, so has its meaning. “People want relationships that will make them more perfect versions of themselves,” Luscombe observes. “They want fulfillment, stimulation, security, devotion, status, liberation, connection, collaboration, personal brand enhancement, transformation.” In a recent essay in the Times, Amanda Hess describes the Internet phenomenon of the “wife guy”—or the man who achieves virality and builds a personal brand by posting about his mate—as a product of an era when “marriage is being pitched less as the fulfillment of a social contract and more as a kind of personal achievement.” “Marriageology” accepts this premise without much in the way of either endorsement or critique; the book’s approach is practical, its imagination conventional. In a couple’s quest toward self-actualization in tandem, Luscombe recommends that they fortify their bond by doing exciting things (skiing, going to concerts) in each other’s company. Such efforts, she writes, create an association between your spouse and your own sense of personal enlargement: a useful confusion of correlation and causation.
“Marriageology” is organized into six topic areas, which are framed as challenges to long-term monogamy: familiarity (“when a relationship is more commute than adventure”), fighting, finances, family, fooling around, and finding help. Luscombe’s hacks for each are fairly intuitive. One should practice gratitude, generosity, and forgiveness. One should steer clear of the “conflict behaviors” most predictive of divorce: contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness. The guide brushes an unnecessary but fun veneer of brain science over its prescriptions. It’s best to apologize quickly, so that bad feelings aren’t consolidated and stored in your partner’s long-term memory. Never fight in the car, because images in one’s peripheral vision scan as threatening, and may activate a flight-or-flight response.
Luscombe, a staff writer at Time, has a wry touch, a gift for scene-setting, and an endearingly even temper. But “Marriageology” sweats with a strenuous tolerance for marriage, with the author as the straight-A student dutifully plowing through her least favorite class. On the oft-dispensed marital advice to develop mutual hobbies, Luscombe writes, “research has found that a lot of the so-called ‘shared’ passions end up being the husband’s.” At one point, she describes a recurring fight she has with her spouse. The fight stems from Luscombe’s failure to put the butter dish on the table when she serves dinner; she doesn’t eat butter, so she often forgets. Here, I wanted more from “Marriageology.” Is it the institution of marriage itself that renders a man incapable of fetching his own butter? Is the butter a metaphor for empathy, and has Luscombe neglected to imaginatively connect to her husband’s exact mealtime needs? What is her version of his butter—the thing that she wants? Is it the freedom to envision alternative modes of transporting the butter to the table? Could they both more fully enjoy their symbolic butter if the actual butter found a different path to the table? Would it solve Luscombe’s problem to bring down the actual butter dish on top of her husband’s actual head?
What drew me to John was his ego. It was like a rock; mine was like quicksand. He has the best sense of humor and boundless curiosity. I knew I would never be bored, and I never have. He supports my dreams.
We’ve learned to create a dialogue about our differences and to accept them. Humor kept us alive when we had conflict. We realized we had to stay calm and focused enough to describe ourselves rather than describe each other.
I learned not to run away, to take a break and breathe. To say what I needed or what had hurt me. He’s learned to let me do that. My pauses were me thinking; he took them as I was done, so we had to learn rhythm. We’ve learned deeper understanding, which softens the edges around compromises.
He’s helped me be more patient and tolerant. I’ve become 1,000 times more self-confident. His love has been unconditional. He has seen talent in me I never saw and that took me years to own. He’s become more compassionate, humble, and less defensive.
When I met him, I looked in his eyes and saw his soul, sparkle and intellect. I knew the love we could have would be bedrock. And it has been.
Dr. Gottman I arrived in Seattle in May and dated 60 women in 10 weeks. I found most of them in the personals. Julie was No. 61. She was witty, funny and smart. She was perceptive and insightful, loving and forgiving. She still is. I call her the tiger. She’s very fierce. She’s a good protector of our family.
Why Married Women Are Using Two Last Names on Facebook
Scheuble refers to women like Weissman, who change how they introduce themselves depending on context, as “situational last-name users.” Even some famous double-surname users who ostensibly kept their maiden names to maintain professional recognizability after marriage, have been known to go by different names in different situations. Sandra Day O’Connor has been known to go by “O’Connor”, her husband’s last name in colloquial settings, while Hillary Rodham Clinton has generally gone just by “Clinton” in her campaigns for political office.
.. “Two last names without a hyphen is very much a trend right now,” Tate says, and adds that starting around 2012, women replacing their middle names with their maiden names has been “a big, big name-change trend,” particularly in the South. Both formats, she says, are particularly popular among highly educated women with established careers at the time of marriage. She ascribes that popularity to the fact that this format offers more flexibility than hyphenating. Hyphenated names are “like Krazy Glue,” she says, in that the names have to remain stuck together virtually everywhere: Women who hyphenate have to sign all legal documents with their hyphenated last name, and often feel more obligated to introduce themselves with both last names colloquially—and that, Tate says, can be “a mouthful.”
.. third-grade teacher Alyssa Postman Putzel (née Postman) has adopted what’s sometimes known as a “double-barreled” last name since getting married last summer. Both women appreciate the recognizability it affords them online and in professional contexts
.. While tech has contributed to the popularity of the unhyphenated double surname in the United States, tech is also in some ways standing in the way of it becoming a commonly accepted naming format. Scheuble says she’s come across legal and administrative forms designed to enter last names into databases that can only register a single or hyphenated surname. “You can put a hyphen, but you cannot put a space,” she says. Scheuble recently tried to help her niece who has an inherited double-barrel last name apply for grad school. “God knows where she ended up” within some schools’ administrative systems, Scheuble says. “It’s ridiculous that computer systems make decisions about people’s lives. But that’s what happens.”