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Joseph Henrich Claims Extension of Kinship Networks = Cultural Learning = Superior Intergroup Competition — 4

Do you believe humans are essentially a “cultural species” and that the fundamental factor driving history is “cumulative cultural learning” and that the “secret” of successful societies lies in learning how to create widening networks of solidarity? This will likely be the message readers will take from Chapter 2, “Making a Cultural Species,” of Henrich’s book. Academics will latch onto passages about how nurturing relationships, enhancing cooperation, and elevating “interpersonal trust by bringing people together to work collaboratively on a joint goal,” have been the crucial forms of learning behind the most successful societies in history (p. 77).

A Cultural Species or A Genetic Species?

This is not a bad message to take were it not suffused with cultural Marxist baggage. Without this baggage, what we can take from this chapter is that the Right is wrong when it downplays cultural constructivism in favor of biological determinism. We are a cultural species, not a genetically fixed species, precisely because we “evolved genetically to learn adaptively in ways that calibrate our minds and behavior to the environment we encounter”. The Left has been very successful in its manipulation of our naturally selected capacity to “learn the ideas…and practices we’ll need to survive and thrive in whatever ecological or social environments we end up in” (63). The Dissident Right should learn how to think about the importance of culture instead of thinking it will defeat the Left with reductionist arguments about how our cultures are expressions of genetically fixed dispositions within our human nature.

This is all the more important when we are talking about Europeans since Europeans are the greatest cultural species on earth, the progenitors of the most powerful cultural institutions and ideologies in history. However, the Left is in control of these institutions after an extremely successful march. The Right needs to re-construct Western culture, and doing this requires a keen appreciation of our genetic constitution but without underplaying the reality that humans are genetically a cultural species capable of engendering many different ideas, religious beliefs and institutions. We should not hand over the term “cultural species” to academics like Henrich however much we may learn from his studies.

I also agree with Henrich that relationships within and between families have played a foundational role in shaping the psychology and behavioral dispositions of humans throughout most of history. He is correct as well that those societies that have managed to “scale up” their networks of kinship-cultural cooperation have been the most successful in history. What I reject is the implicit idea running through this chapter, and the book at large, that cumulative cultural learning and successful adaptation in a competitive environment entails the creation of broader networks of cooperation across kinship ties and beyond the already WEIRD nation-states of Europe.

Henrich does not make this argument explicitly, certainly not in this chapter, but I have no doubt that Western readers will walk away from this chapter with the word “cooperation” humming in their heads. Westerners today are seeking multicultural and multiracial forms of cooperation within their own societies through mass immigration beyond the most extended kinship networks seen in ancient empires, beyond the nation-based networks that lasted until the 1970s, and beyond the universalizing networks of believers created by the major religions of the world. Although we should not assume that WEIRD people are inherently bound to seek the most “inclusive” forms of society — we will see in future commentaries that in the modern era WEIRD Europeans actually invented nationalism — this is the prevailing ideological dogma in our times.


Some may counter that the message of this book is the opposite: Westerners have a deeply ingrained set of psychological dispositions that cannot be easily taught to immigrants from intensive kin-based cultures. Yet in our current political climate, which Henrich embraces, it is my view that his argument that “humans are a cultural species” will be easily interpreted to mean that both Westerners and immigrants can be gradually socialized to become psychologically adapted to co-exist with each other. In this political climate, which does not allow dissent, Henrich’s observation that “cultural learning neurologically shapes our preferences” will be interpreted to mean that we can indeed alter the “perceptions, preferences, behaviors, and judgements” of whites and immigrants so they “learn” how to “calibrate” their minds to navigate in a Western world that includes multiple races and cultures.

Kinship: Foundational Cultural Institution

This is not to detract from the high intellectual value of most of what Henrich says in this chapter. The argument that “our most fundamental institutions are rooted in kinship” (71) solidifies and advances in great detail Kevin MacDonald’s argument that the unique individualism of whites is rooted in their historically weaker and smaller kinship networks and their monogamous and nuclear families. Henrich does acknowledge the role of genes and how human psychology has been shaped by a “culture-gene coevolutionary process”. He does not deny that, “like other primates, humans possess innate altruistic inclinations toward our close genetic relatives—kin altruism”. However, his main message is that, unlike other primates, humans have been genetically selected for cultural learning. “Natural selection favored expanding brains that were increasingly capable of acquiring, storing, organizing, and retransmitting valuable cultural information” (67).

His emphasis on “cultural learning” is not a blank slate argument. The psychology of humans, perceptions, reasoning, motivation, and moral judgments, are deeply affected by the nature of the families-societies they grow within. These psychological inclinations cannot be changed overnight through the reading of some books. They are deeply ingrained even though they are not genetically fixed.

Henrich sets up a non-WEIRD/kinship based psychology versus a WEIRD/non-kinship based psychology with very fruitful results. It has long been known among anthropologists that kinship is one of the most important organizing components of society. Kinship is all about descent and lineage, the biological relationships between people in the society, the norms guiding the relationships between father and daughter, brother and sister, husband and wife, and the criteria for membership within societies, who is in the group and who is not. The cultural learning he has in mind is the everyday learning that starts in childhood, which he believes has deep psychological effects in the “brains, hormones and behavior” of humans.

Henrich can be faulted for focusing almost singularly on the “cumulative cultural learning” of humans without allowing much influence to innate genetic factors other than saying that humans were genetically selected to be cultural learners. He has nothing to say about how different environmental settings may have exerted different selective pressures for different genetic traits upon different populations in the world. The word “race” has no place in his argument. On the other hand, he relies a lot on the concept of “intergroup competition” as if it were a biologically given precondition in the struggle for survival of all living beings and all human societies. He opens this chapter observing that “violent conflict…among bands, clans, and tribes” has been “the most striking feature” of kinship-based societies. “Intergroup competition” has been the driving factor behind the creation of wider kinship networks. But this claim is left undeveloped — is there a genetic basis for this competition? His focus is always on how “violent intergroup conflict” drove people to form wider networks of cooperation, and how “people’s survival depended heavily on the size and solidarity of their social groups”.

In other words, his main focus is on the importance of cultural learning  and how over the course of history humans have learned to use their kinship institutions in ways that allowed them to create wider networks of cooperation in order to improve their competitive chances. Assaults, murders, adultery, and interpersonal bickering are a permanent reality in the history of humanity and in human relationships, both within and between kinship groups. Those groups that best manage their conflicts and create wider forms of cooperation to meet intergroup competition tend to be the most successful or the ones that go on to develop beyond small bands and clans into chiefdoms and civilizations.

So what did humans do to create greater unity within their bands and between bands as well as wider networks of solidarity? It all started with the family, who one could marry, how many wives one could have, where married couples could inhabit, how should descent be traced. “Pair bonding” was naturally selected as a mating strategy because it permitted “males and females to team up to rear offspring”. From this genetic starting point, marriage became a norm, and these marriage norms were gradually expanded to include rules aimed at constraining women’s sexuality in order to increase the confidence of the husband and his family that her children were really his biological children. These marriage norms increased “paternity certainty” which firmed up the links between children and their fathers, as well as links with the in-laws. In-laws are not genetically related, but through marriage norms humans have learned to think, for example, of the wife’s brothers or the mother’s sisters as part of the family, and to believe that we share genetic interests. These ties with in-laws were reinforced through social norms “involving gifts, rituals, and mutual obligations”. Hunting and gathering bands have in fact consisted mostly of in-laws rather than blood relatives.

Humans were selected with an aversion to sex with siblings and parents because of the chances that the offspring will be unhealthy. From this evolved disposition, humans came to “figure out” ways to extend this aversion beyond close relatives through incest taboos prohibiting sex with step siblings, and prohibiting marriages with first, second, and even third cousins. This encouraged norms compelling parents to arrange marriages for their children with more distant kinfolk, which extended their social networks and solidarity in times of droughts, floods, and in the face of threatening enemies. This does not mean that any norm would do. Only those norms that enhanced success in competition with other groups would tend to survive and spread. “Psychologically-potent communal rituals” involving synchronic dances and rhythmic music were commonly used to enhance in-group solidarity, alleviate personal divisions, and induce members to collaborate in major public works.

Henrich will leave it for the next chapter to explain how humans “managed to scale up” their solidarity from small egalitarian bands all the way to the formation of centralized and hierarchical states. I will conclude this commentary with a  brief summation of key aspects of Henrich’s thesis followed by a simple set of questions.

With the dissolution of their kinship institutions by the Catholic Church, Western peoples would start becoming individualistic, analytic, and less attached to traditions. As their kinship based institutions weakened and Europeans could not longer rely on their family lineages and customary inheritances, this new breed of cultural beings would go on to create voluntary institutions, i.e., universities, churches, charter towns, monasteries, as well as businesses conducted on impersonal market principles away from kinship-controlled markets. Only Europe, as Henrich will explain in a later chapter, would see the rise of self-governing cities guided by abstract constitutional principles that welcomed members from many backgrounds regardless of their tribal origins. Only Europe would witness the spread of impersonal markets in which one’s reputation with strangers as a reliable dealer would come to depend on one’s fairness and impartiality rather than on one’s personal kinship status. These changes would be accompanied and followed by the rise of rational systems of law, continuous technological innovations, and the emergence of Galilean and Newtonian science, and then an industrial revolution that would put Europeans on top of the world.

Although I am reading this book very slowly on purpose, and have yet to complete it, Henrich is likely to say something in later chapters about how non-Western societies were eventually compelled, under the pressure of intergroup competition, to copy key WEIRD institutions from the West, including monogamous marriages, scientific methodologies and more impartial administrative and legal procedures. We know that, through the twentieth century and early decades of the twenty-first century, the West would go on to create wider networks of cooperation, not just institutions such as the United Nations and the W.H.O, but institutional arrangements to enhance its cooperation with millions of immigrants while committing itself to the elimination of  every remaining (non-WEIRD) differences in religion, race, and gender within their own nations to the point of seeking to become “post-nations” with multicultural values.

So, we have to ask ourselves, though I don’t expect Henrich to ask this question, what will happen if China, Japan, India and the Muslim world refuse to follow these increasingly WEIRDer paths, but decide instead to retain some aspects of their kinship past, strong national identities, and more traditional norms? Will the current West really maintain its success, or will the Chinese find a more successful model based on the retention of relatively strong extended family ties, a strong national identity, a higher average IQ population, and a modern scientific economy?

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