The essence of liberalism is individualism, and the primordial evolutionary fact of individualism is the “the cutting off from the wider kinship group”, and the origins of this cutting off can be traced back to northern hunter gatherers in Europe during the last glacial age in the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods. This argument becomes transparent in chapter three of Kevin MacDonald’s Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition, which is the subject of Part 3 of my analysis of this book. Here are Parts 1 and 2.
The furthest back historians have gone to explain the origins of Western liberal civilization is Ancient Greece. I traced the uniqueness of this civilization back to the prehistorical Indo-Europeans during the period between 4500 BC to 2500 BC. It makes sense for MacDonald, an evolutionary psychologist, to go back in time as early as possible to determine when Europeans may have been selected for those traits he considers to be crucial for the evolution of Western uniqueness. He argues that “egalitarian individualism” has been a crucial characteristic of the West along with the aristocratic individualism of Indo-Europeans, which “dovetailed significantly” with the egalitarianism of the H-Gs they “encountered in northwest Europe” from about 2500 BC.
MacDonald observes that, as members of the same Homo sapiens species, all humans have common biological adaptations, but they do “differ in degree in adaptations” depending on environments, and these differences can generate “major differences” between cultures. Under the “harsh evolutionary pressures of the Ice Age,” there would have been more pressures to live in small groups and in relative social isolation, rather than to form “extended kinship networks and collectivist groups” competing in close proximity for resources. There were selective pressures for males to provision simple households or nuclear families characterized by monogamy, exogamy, and bilateral kinship, because the ecology and availability of resources could not have selected for large polygynous families. This was in contrast to Near Eastern regions with their long fertile rivers supporting “large tribal groups based on extended kinship relations”. The strategy pursuit by northern Europeans was quite successful, enabling them to develop complex hunting gathering cultures during the Mesolithic era for a long time, 15,000 to 5,000, delaying the advance of farming which was slowly spreading into central and north Europe after Anatolian farmers settled in various parts of southern Europe starting 8000ybp.
Mesolithic cultures in Europe did consist of larger bands of hunter-gatherers due to their more efficient exploitation of resources and improved stone age tools, but lacking any “stable resource” that could be controlled by an extended lineage group, their residences remained seasonally occupied by relatively small families living in a state of egalitarian monogamy and without one extended family superimposing itself over the others by controlling fertile and stable land areas. In northern Europe, families “were periodically forced to split up into smaller, more family-based groups”. These smaller groups were forced to interact both with related families and with “non-kin and strangers” also moving around from season to season. These interactions were not regulated by kinship norms but instead led to emphasis on “trust and maintaining a good reputation within the larger non-kinship based group”.
These evolutionary selected behaviors characterized by small families, exogamous and monogamous marriages, and relations based on trust with outsiders, were the primordial ground out of which Western individualism emerged.
In the Near East complex hunting gathering societies soon evolved into agrarian villages controlled by lineage groups in charge of stable resources. I would add, as Jared Diamond observed, that most of the animals and plants susceptible to domestication were found in the Near East, which encouraged or made it easier to develop farming villages with plentiful resources controlled by the stronger kinship groups. Whereas monogamy and exogamy persisted in the West, in the East the tendency was for marrying relatives, even first cousins.
The European practice of marrying outside the extended family meant that marriage was more likely “based on personal attraction”, which meant that there was selection for physical attractiveness, strength, health and personality, in contrast to the East where marriage was arranged within the extended family. Love and intimacy between wife and husband, including greater affection and nurturance of children, MacDonald observes, were a salient trait of Europeans. Whites invented romance, in contrast, for example, to Semitic marriages where marriages were intended to solidify kinship ties, arranged by elders, with love and romance having a far lesser role.
Joseph Henrich on WEIRD Europeans
In the last pages of this chapter, MacDonald shows in quick succession how his evolutionary perspective can effectively explain the origins of the WEIRD traits Joseph Henrich and his colleagues detected among Western individuals. I should explain a bit Henrich’s argument since MacDonald assumes prior knowledge. For Henrich, humans do not have the same cognitive apparatus, the Western mind is more analytic, it separates things from each other, it focuses on what makes objects different rather than seeing objects only in relation to what’s around it. We can’t talk about “the human mind” as such, “human nature” and “human psychology,” because the Western mind is structured differently and perceives reality differently, thinks differently about fairness, cooperation, and judges what is right and wrong differently.
Henrich does not express himself in these blunt terms, but for the sake of immediate clarity, his basic argument about WEIRD people is that they see themselves as individuals rather than as members of collective ingroups. Their individualism is the difference that underlies all the other differences. It is the difference that explains why WEIRD people are less attached to extended families, tribal units, religious groups and even nation states. Because WEIRD people judge others as individuals, they are willing to extend their trust to outsiders, to people from other ethnic backgrounds and nationalities. They are more inclined to be fair to outsiders, judging them on the basis of impersonal standards rather than standards that only serve the interests of their ingroup. WEIRD people are less conformist, more reliant on their own individual judgments and capacities, willing to reason about issues without following the prescribed norms and answers mandated from collective authorities. In the non-Western world, trust is circumscribed within one’s ingroup rather than extended to individuals from outgroups.
The key to the individualism of WEIRD people is their lack of kinship ties. The most important norms and institutions humans have developed to regulate their social behavior revolve around kin groups, which are networks of individuals connected by blood ties, extended families and clans. Humans are born into these kin groups; their survival, identity, status and obligations within society, as well as their sense of right and wrong, who and when they should marry, where they should live, who owns the land and how property should be inherited, are determined by the norms of the kin group.
Given the importance of kinship networks in determining whether people are “normal” or WEIRD, Henrich set out to find what factors may have led to the breakdown of kinship networks in the West. His conclusion was that the Catholic Church was responsible for the “demolition” of kinship networks and the rise of WEIRD people.
The Catholic Church, he says, promoted individualism through the prohibition of cousin marriages, polygyny by powerful males (which weakened kinship households consisting of closely related families) coupled with the Church’s promotion of monogamy and nuclear families. This encouraged the rise of many voluntary associations outside kinship ties: guilds, universities, monasteries, chartered towns. This created competition for members between voluntary associations combined with rising impersonal markets in which individuals interacted with strangers and learned how to trust each other in the conduct of business ventures.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the traits Henrich identifies as WEIRD have been highlighted by past sociologists and historians. Emile Durkheim, Herbert Spencer, Ferdinand Tönnies, along with “modernization theorists” in the 1950s and 1960s, all drew clear contrasts, in varying ways, between i) traditional communities (including Europe before the modern era) with their kinship, rigid sanctions, ascription, collectivism, low mobility, obedience, loyalty, and ii) modern (Western) societies with their voluntary contracts, autonomy of private organizations, achievement orientation, inventiveness, free markets. Nevertheless, Henrich should be appreciated for his excellent research, which “synthesizes experimental and analytical tools drawn from behavioral economics and psychology with in-depth quantitative ethnography”.
Although some may argue that MacDonald does not have direct genetic evidence demonstrating that crucial elements of these WEIRD traits were selected in hunting and gathering times, we will see in our examination of Chapter 4 that he does bring up solid findings on the family structure of Europe showing a gradation in family relations, very early on in its history, from an “extreme individualism” in the northwest Europe, where the family was cut off from extended kinship networks, to a “moderate individualism” in central Europe, to a “moderate collectivism” in south and eastern Europe. It stands to reason that an evolutionary psychologist would want to dig far back in time to identify possible environmental conditions that may have selected for individualism, in light of the fact that these traits tend to be exhibited so early in Europe’s history, rather than assume, as Henrich seems to do, that the psychology of human across the planet was identical before individualistic traits made their entry into history with the “demolition” of kinship networks in the medieval era by the Catholic Church.
Henrich likes to insist that his arguments emphasize the “co-evolution” of biological and sociological factors — both natural and cultural selection of genes, not just how people learn and transmit culture but, in his words, “how culture shaped our species genetic evolution, including our physiology, anatomy and psychology”. But if he really is interested in “co-evolution,” why does he avoid thinking about the possibility of deeper psychological-genetic changes among Europeans, rather arguing that the Catholic Church imposed new norms on a psychological profile that was identical across the world? How can the “fundamental aspects” of the “psychology, motivation, and behavior” of Europeans were transformed suddenly in the Middle Ages without any prior genetic dispositions?
A fair criticism, which I am sure MacDonald would welcome, is that much research is still required in support of the thesis that northwestern European h-g cultures were characterized by a bilateral kinship system, nuclear families, exogamous and monogamous marriages, individual choice in marriage and a relatively high position of women. Our side barely has any scholars willing to study European uniqueness, and zero interest if such research is initiated by white identitarians. I think it is a very promising line of research. I wish there was research as well about how the peculiarities of the European environment — its incredible ecological diversity, numerous rivers of all sizes, mountains, variations in temperatures, the longest coastlines in the world, the most seas, the most beautiful landscapes — may have selected for higher analytical abilities and aesthetic sensibilities.