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Joseph Henrich Claims Protestant Literacy Augmented the Cognitive Ability of Whites — 2

Martin Luther: “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany that they Establish and Maintain Christian Schools.”

Joseph Henrich’s book, The WEIRDest People in the World, will stand as a must-read book for anyone interested in the major patterns of world history and the uniqueness of Western civilization. This is why I will be analyzing this book in great detail. This book offers a substantial answer to a question white identitarians are continually asking: why whites are allowing themselves to be replaced in their own homelands? Simply put, because whites are weirdly unattached to their own ethnic in-groups but believe instead that humans across the planet are just like them, individualistic, capable of impartiality, and fair play. Whites don’t know what Henrich’s book (implicitly) teaches: non-Weird people are nepotistic and highly biased towards their own ethnic in-groups.

I already wrote about the Preface. This article is about the next section called “Prelude: Your Brain Has Been Modified”. Those unfamiliar with Henrich’s work may conclude upon reading this short Prelude that his theory is all about how the promotion of “high rates of literacy” by Protestants brought about an alteration in the wiring of the brain for analytical thinking, making the industrial revolution possible. This may detract some readers from the cardinal role he assigns the Catholic Church in altering the wiring of the brain in a Weird direction, so let me state Henrich’s basic argument, and thus the context within which his assessment of the role of Protestant literacy should be framed.

There are two key components in Henrich’s thesis.

  1. Kinship family relationships have played a foundational role in shaping the mind and behavior of humans throughout history. The survival and social identity of humans, their status and obligations, have been determined by their position within a kinship group, as well as their sense of right and wrong, who and when they should marry, where they should find residence, who owns the land and how property should be inherited. This world of intense kinship relationships generated a psychology that was clannish, conformist, deferential, and highly context-sensitive, without the ability to detach objects and persons from particular settings, and thus without the ability to generate abstract concepts and think analytically.
  2. The clannish psychology of Western peoples was fundamentally altered into an individualistic state of thinking and behaving as the Catholic Church carry out in the Middle Ages a systematic campaign to break up the kinship ties of Europeans through the prohibition of cousin and polygynous marriages, and the promotion of monogamous marriages and nuclear families. The release of individuals from their kin-based relations, obligations and norms, encouraged them to choose their spouses, social friends and associates, outside their kinship networks, which opened the door to the creation of voluntary associations, chartered towns, guilds, universities, monasteries, and representative institutions. This setting socialized Europeans to extend trust beyond the kinship group, to think in a less contextual way and to judge objects and humans outside a context in terms of universal principles and rules applicable on the basis of objective criteria.


This is the argument I expected Henrich to start articulating after the Preface, but instead he provides a “Prelude” before chapter 1, in which he argues that “high rates of literacy” brought about a fundamental alteration in the brains of humans, and that the Protestant Reformation was responsible for the “origins and spread of literacy”. When he says that “literacy provides our first example of how Westerners became psychologically unusual” one is indeed temped to think that this book is about how the promotion of mass literacy by Protestants made Westerners WEIRD. But having read beyond this “Prelude,” I will tell you now that his argument will be that the demolition of kinship groups by the Catholic Church created a “proto-Weird” psychology among Europeans that made them susceptible to the individualism of Protestantism, and since Protestants promoted the spread of literacy, and literacy has deep effects on the neurological wiring of the brain, Protestantism played a big role in creating the WEIRDest people.

Henrich likely decided to go for a “Prelude” on the role of literacy because there is scientific research on the effects of literacy on the neurology and analytical abilities of the brain, whereas there is no research showing that the demolition of kinship ties and the creation of voluntary associations actually increases the analytical capacities of the brain. However, Henrich does say, as we will see in future commentaries, that family relations do have a deep impact on the psychology of humans, the way they perceive and think about the world. His point seems to be that literacy raised the analytical capacities of Protestants over that of Catholics.

Henrich provides a summary of research showing that in developing reading skills, specialized areas of the brain are re-wired, “thickened,” “altered,” “broadened,” and “improved”. Without altering the “underlying  genetic code,” literacy “changes people’s biology and psychology […] their cognitive abilities in domains related to memory, visual processing, facial recognition, numerical exactness, and problem-solving”. Westerners did not undergo genetic changes as they became WEIRD. But literacy did “physically” rewire the brain.

George Peabody Library, Baltimore

“Literacy thus provides an example of how culture can change people’s biologically independent of any genetic differences”. Academics can thus rest assured that genetic racial differences play no role in Henrich’s theory. In avoiding any notion of genetic alterations, and emphasizing the role of culture, Henrich is not saying that culture is solely responsible for human behavior. His argument is that humans were naturally selected to be a species with an ability for cultural learning and for culturally acquiring new social behaviors that enhance their survival chances or increase their abilities to compete with other societies. Literacy, and culture generally, can generate deep changes in the neurology of the brain because the brain of humans was genetically selected to be culturally creative. It remains to be asked later whether he is nevertheless underestimating the impact of genetic differences between different racial populations in their abilities for cultural novelties.

(Let me state parenthetically here that the argument that culture can have deep effects on the way humans behave is a key assumption of social scientists who are committed to the “improvement” of the “human condition”. Social scientists and psychologists today are trained to think of their research in terms of how it can be used to change humans “for the better” by changing their psychological inclinations. Henrich never says this overtly, but, as we will see later, he implicitly envisions his ideas as proposals for the creation of a Western world that is founded on “residential mobility” and the peaceful transformation of immigrants into WEIRD personalities and the elimination of any remnants of kinship identities among whites in small towns and red states).

What’s the Historical Meaning of “High Literacy Rates”?

It is interesting that when Henrich writes about literacy it is always about “high literacy rates” or “highly literate societies”. He wants a mass of people who can “read” in order to talk about alterations in the brain and the making of the WEIRDest people. He is not satisfied with a small elite of highly educated individuals who can read and write books. I understand that you need mass literacy to have an industrial society, but Europe did not need mass literacy to bring about modern science in the 16th and 17th centuries.

He observes that it was only in the 16th century that literacy began spreading beyond small circles of the population. Before this century, “never more than 10 percent of any society’s population could read, and usually the rates were much lower”. The most literate societies in the world throughout the modern era were Protestant nations, the Netherlands, Britain, Sweden, and Germany. He supplies numbers showing that “literacy rates grew the fastest in countries where Protestantism was most deeply established”.

He zooms in on Prussia to show that this was not a mere correlation, and explains “that counties with more Protestants had higher rates of literacy and more schools,” and that this “pattern prevails…when the effects of urbanization and demographics are held constant.” After providing additional data, he concludes that “Protestantism did indeed cause greater literacy”. Why did Protestantism promote literacy? Because “embedded deep in Protestantism is the notion that individuals should develop a personal relationship with God and Jesus [and to] accomplish this both men and women need to read and interpret the sacred scriptures for themselves, and not rely primarily on the authority of supposed experts, priests, or institutional authorities like the Church”.

Luther’s 1534 Bible

Why reading the Bible was so important to Protestants? “Sola scriptura was primarily justified because it paved the road to eternal salvation”. The impression Henrich leaves with these answers is that the irrational search for eternal salvation had the unintended consequence of promoting literacy, altering the neurology of the brain in a more analytical direction, raising the intelligence of the general population, and thus fueling the industrial revolution. However, keep in mind that he will go on to explain that the reason “why European populations at the close of the Middle Ages were so susceptible to the unusually individualistic character of Protestant beliefs” was that they had already become “proto-Weird” with the Catholic demolition of their kinship groups. Without this prior transformation, he says, “Protestantism…would have gone nowhere in most places and during most epochs”.

But why not argue that Protestants emphasized individual conscience precisely because they were already proto-WEIRD in psychology and therefore inclined to value the independent religious judgements of individuals? We will see later that Henrich views all religions as if they were on the same level of cognitive depth in their irrational believe in “gods,” “ghosts,” “demons,” “spirits”.  He does not consider the possibility that Protestants may have offered “reasons” (as WEIRD personalities indeed) for their beliefs, notwithstanding the central role of faith. He has a similar attitude to the Catholic Church and its beliefs. His answer to why this Church (and only this Church in human history) was so obsessed with the demolition of kinship groups is that it was driven purely by economic self-interest, the economic gains it stood to gain from breaking kinship groups. He does not consider whether there were any cognitively-based moral reasons for the Church’s decision to impose monogamous marriages and prohibit pederasty, concubinage, and polygamy. We are made to believe that the most crucial transformation in Western history was driven by the same economic interests which have driven humans in all cultures since immemorial time. This is very odd in a book that seeks to emphasize the higher psychological intentionality, moral responsibility, and rationality of WEIRD Europeans. Were Protestants and Catholics not Weird enough to think that “individuals can make their own choices” and that there are moral universal truths that should transcend in-group interests however much they may have been concerned with everyday economic interests?

Four Flaws

First, while Henrich is correct that we need high rates of literacy to operate an industrial economy, basic reading and math skills, we don’t need high rates for the occurrence of major intellectual-cultural revolutions. He himself notes in passing that “only about 1 percent of the German-speaking population was…literate” when Luther began the epoch-making Reformation. Henrich’s criteria for what constitutes “literacy” is very low, merely the ability to read. Why would a population of semi-literates be more important than a highly literate elite capable of reading and writing extensively as was the case in ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, or Shakespearean Britain?

As it is, Henrich is not accurate when he says that before the 16th century the literacy rate was “never more than 10 percent” of any society’s population”. One of the most thorough studies of literacy in ancient Greece concludes that “the great majority of Athenian citizens”  in the 5th and 4th centuries BC could read and write. These were male citizens, to be sure.  Another study says that in the period 750-650 “writing became widespread in Greece“. More conservative estimates tell us that in the ancient Greek-Roman world at large it was “very improbable” that the level of literacy “was above 10%, or 25%, or 50%”. This same source says that in the major cities of the Hellenistic world the literacy rate was around 20 to 30 percent of the population. This is relatively high considering that in Protestant England in the period 1580-1700, as noted in this conservative study, “far fewer than 20 percent of adults could read and write”.

Library of Celsus, 120AD

Another second flaw is the assumption on Henrich’s part that one can talk about alterations in the brain only in reference to the spread of a bit of reading, or semi-literacy, in the general population. Why not in reference to the highly literate male adult population of ancient Greece? It is quite revealing, actually, that Henrich’s book has nothing to say about ancient Greece, the birthplace of analytical reason, deductive geometry, and logic. We will deal with this absence later, including the nature of kinship relationships in ancient Greece and the rise of voluntary institutions, such as city-states, as well as republican institutions in ancient Rome. I will state for now that some decades ago the classicist Eric Havelock argued that in fifth century Athens a “literate revolution” transformed its traditional ways of
thought by nurturing a new way of thinking for atomistic, abstract analysis and sequential reasoning.

A third flaw is that Henrich chooses Prussia as the “epicenter of the Reformation,” the origins of the printing press, and the spread of literacy, to make his case about the role Protestantism played in nurturing the WEIRDest people. The state of Prussia, granted, grew in military splendour during the 17th and 18th centuries, and Germany eventually, as Henrich notes, “furnished an educated and ready workforce that…helped fuel the second Industrial Revolution” after 1850. But Prussia in this period was not the place in Europe where the Catholic Church had managed to implement its marriage and family program the most, which strains Henrich’s argument that those areas in Europe where kinship groups were demolished the most where the most susceptible to the “individualistic character of Protestant beliefs”. Literacy rates, he argues persuasively, “grew the fastest in countries where Protestantism was most deeply established”, but it seems that Protestantism originated and spread the fastest in areas where the populations were not the WEIRDest.

The same can be said about Scotland, another place where he says the Reformation and literacy spread in the 16th and 17th centuries. Was Scotland one of the places where the Catholic Church had advanced the most in the abolition of kinship groups and the production of proto-WEIRD individuals? We can rely for an answer on Henrich’s own observation in another chapter (p. 111) that even the Scots of the 18th century “still tend to respond aggressively when their honor, family, or property is threatened”, basically making the argument that Scotland at the time was still heavily infused with kin-based attitudes. Yet this same Scotland, we are informed in the Prelude, carried one of the earliest “experiments in universal education [which] soon produced a stunning array of intellectual luminaries, from David Hume to Adam Smith, and probably midwifed the Scottish Enlightenment.”

This brings me to a fourth problem in Henrich’s overall theory. The Germany where the second Industrial Revolution occurred under Prussia’s leadership was very much into uniting its seemingly WEIRD people into a nationalist in-group for Germans. It was a deferential culture and yet highly educated and original, with a very strong inner life, and it believed that freedom could be disciplined within a nationalist order. It should be noted, in this vein, that the Protestant Reformation has been interpreted as an awakening of German nationalism. Luther wanted a Germany freed from Papal foreign influence and strove for a Germany ruled by German Christians. He decried how the sale of indulgences by the Papacy took advantage of German Christians; he wanted Germany to be cleansed of Roman corruption and control over Germany’s bishoprics. This attitude came along with the emergence of WEIRD personality traits among German Protestants, in defense of the inner conscience and selfhood of Germans against the imposition of beliefs by an external Papal hierarchy. My point is not that Germany remained a kinship oriented culture. It is, to the contrary, that the cultural creation of weirdly inclined individuals does not preclude a national-ingroup identity. As we shall see in future commentaries, a national identity is indeed possible only with the breakdown of particularistic kinship groups and norms and the freeing of individuals from local kinship attachments.

Henrich errs in thinking that the abolition of kinship ties and the creation of institutions based on values articulated by WEIRD individuals is bound to result in the globalist world Westerners inhabit today. He does not grasp that the abolition of kinship values and relationships would unleash an ideological contest over the values that should determine the modes of organizing society. This was the situation in Europe after the Enlightenment and the French Revolution brought about the complete breakdown of the old monarchial and feudal order. The world of ideological battles we have been accustomed to today, between liberalism, conservatism, socialism, Marxism, nationalism, feminism, globalism, was unleashed after the French Revolution. The open border world we inhabit today should not be viewed as an automatic outcome of the creation of WEIRD individuals in the modern era. The creation of a WEIRD culture in the modern era opened the gates for major ideological struggles about how to organize the West. The WEIRD West Henrich admires is under the dominance of the highly illiberal ideology of cultural Marxism. There is nothing inherent in highly rational and open-minded WEIRD people that precludes the creation of nationalist nations across the West where academics are not obligated to conform to diversity mandates.

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