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Joseph Henrich Claims Whites Are “Neurologically and Psychologically” Superior — 1

Joseph Henrich studying the psychology of Fiji people in 2007.

Would you conclude that white people are “better” if you were convinced that they exhibited a far greater “neurological and psychological” set of capacities for:

  • trust, fairness, honesty, and cooperation with anonymous others
  • patience and self control
  • time drift and hard work
  • reduced in-group nepotism
  • free will and the capacity to make its own decisions
  • analytical over holistic thinking
  • impartial principles and objectivity
  • original and nonconformist thinking?

Joseph Henrich says that whites are historically unique in their possession of these capacities. Henrich is Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. He claims that in the course of history the brains of whites were “neurologically rewired” for these mental and behavioral dispositions — though he carefully avoids the words “whites” and “superior” in favor of the word WEIRD, by which he means the brains of people who come from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies. He does not want to make value judgments about WEIRD vs. non-WEIRD people. His aim is to explain “why the Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe but not elsewhere”. “We should celebrate psychological diversity,” he adds in alliance to politically correct expectations.

Henrich makes this argument in a newly released 600+ page book, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (2020). I will be writing a series of commentaries about this book as I read it before I write a formal review. From what I have read by Henrich before, what others have said about his previous books, and the 180 pages I have read so far of The WEIRDest People, I am persuaded that he provides the most powerful argument explaining why the West became the first modern culture. The rigorousness of his book, both conceptually and empirically, is very high, based on the integration of experimental techniques from cognitive psychology and economics combined with in-depth, long-term field ethnography.

Here is the gist of his thesis: the uniqueness of the West, its attachment to the rule of law, its representative institutions, its scientific predilection for drawing distinct categories and assigning objects with properties to account for their behavior, its intense attachment to the rights of individuals, are products of the unique ways in which the brains of whites came to be wired in the High Middle Ages. It was not that whites were accultured to think in a WEIRD way after they created modern liberal institutions; it was, rather, that they first began to think weirdly when the Catholic Church destroyed their kin-based organizations, their extended families, clans and lineages, and prohibited cousin marriages and polygynous marriages, in favor of nuclear monogamous families.

These new family structures “initiated a set of psychological changes” and new ways of thinking that were more individualistic, analytic and impersonal, spurring “new forms of urbanization and fueled impersonal commerce, from merchant guilds and charter towns to universities and transregional monastic orders, that were governed by new and increasingly individualistic norms and laws”. The rules and laws whites created to govern these new institutions were based on universal and rational principles applicable to everyone and centered on the intentions of individuals, with objectively defined rights and obligations, as members of the institutions, irrespective of kinship ties.

In contrast, non-Western societies retained their long standing kin-based institutions right until they were compelled in recent decades by Western success to initiate some changes. For this reason their inhabitants have remained more conformist and obedient, less individualistic, less trusting, and less inclined to threat strangers in a fair manner. They have also continued to think in terms of the interests of their kin group, according to tradition, in terms of their relationships and obligations to kin members, rather than in terms of abstract principles based on rational criteria.

The Preface

There is a lot more to Henrich’s argument, but this should suffice as a guide to my slowly developing set of commentaries on his book. Wikipedia identifies Henrich as “a Canadian”. He was a professor at UBC until 2015 when he was hired by Harvard. I will start with the “Preface”. Henrich describes how he came to consider (soon after 2006) the possibility that Western peoples may be peculiar psychologically while in conversation with two UBC social psychologists and after compiling with them “all the cross-cultural studies” they could “locate on important aspects of human psychology”. This led them to the “striking” realization that most of what psychologists had claimed “about human psychology and behavior was based on studies” of Western individuals. Paying attention to the cross-cultural data that was available about the psychology of people outside the West (regarding such behavioral dispositions as spatial reasoning, memory, patience, risk-taking, fairness, and pattern recognition) revealed very important psychological differences between Western and non-Western peoples.

This led them to publish in 2010 “The weirdest people in the world?”, a paper I discussed in my extended review of Kevin MacDonald’s Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition. You may recall that MacDonald also argues that Western peoples are very different psychologically and that underlying this contrast were the uniquely monogamous nuclear families of whites, and their creation of voluntary “moral communities” based on shared interests and beliefs. Core elements of Henrich’s argument are already present in MacDonald. One difference is that MacDonald believes that, as important as the Catholic Church was in decimating kinship families, the origins of Western monogamous families should be traced back to the environmental pressures Europeans experienced in northern Europe in their hunting and gathering days.

According to MacDonald, Europeans were genetically selected for individualistic tendencies very early on in their history. I shall return to this argument later. For now I will add that another crucial difference is that MacDonald also seeks to explain why so many whites and establishment elites are eagerly pushing immigration replacement. His answer is precisely that the destruction of their kin-based families and institutions made whites far less ethnocentric and more inclined to treat outsiders as individuals just like them rather than as members of competing ethnic out-groups.

The fact that Henrich never makes any overt political statements and tries to be as rigorously objectivity as he can (in tune with his WEIRD psychology) should not detract readers from the politically onerous atmosphere within which this book was written. It was written within what MacDonald would call a “moral community” that prohibits whites from affirming their ethnic interests and requires them to celebrate diversity. Henrich seems to have a preference for the globalist implications of WEIRD citizens. He seems to believe that the psychology of non-Westerners can be rewired, if not integrated within a more “inclusive” Western world. We will examine the details of Henrich’s argument later on.

Suffice it to say now that for Henrich Westerners did not become WEIRD because of “any genetic differences”. Humans have a genetic substrate produced by evolutionary pressures, but this underlying genetic structure includes a capacity for cultural learning that is unique to the human species. The most important cultural institutions created by humans are rooted in kinship. Humans possess a genetic disposition for kin altruism toward their close genetic relatives. But through cultural learning they can extend their ties of kinship beyond their genetic relatives, and they can create new associations independently of kinship ties. The psychology of humans can be “re-wired” without altering their genes through the creation of new family ties and new institutional associations with a different set of self-reinforcing culturally-learned and interlocking beliefs, practices, and incentives.

There are signs in the Preface that Henrich is a typical academic who enjoys inhabiting a globalist and diverse Western world. He makes a point of telling his readers that Ara Norenzayan, one of the social psychologists he initiated his research on WEIRD Westerners at UBC, is “an Armenian who had emigrated from war-torn Lebanon”. He mentions the “Japanese wife” of the other psychologist he worked with at UBC, Steve Heine. He writes about work he did with with two other psychologists “over Chinese take out”. Was he enjoying the transformation of Vancouver into Hongcouver? He also refers to an “Iranian-born economist” he worked with.

I don’t want to make too much of these statements. Henrich mentions many other academic names, and I am very impressed with the academic networking he has marshaled over the years in the construction of The WEIRDest People. His CV shows him to be an outstanding researcher. Still, it is not unreasonable to think that Henrich wants to signal right away that he likes “diversity” — a word he uses approvingly.  He is aware that his theory may lead to accusations of Western cultural supremacism.

The Ideological Communities of the Post-WW II WEIRD West

This brings up a crucial ideological question.  Why can’t he say openly that he prefers the WEIRD psychology originated by Westerners if his own book is a product of this WEIRD psychology, based from beginning to end on the analytical and experimental methodologies created by WEIRD academics, and if a key component of this psychology, as he says, is the right of individuals to think for themselves and “make their own choices” rather than “stay in line” as is the case in intense kin-based cultures? My answer is that the “voluntary associations” whites created (freed from kinship obligations) have undergone dramatic changes since WWII in their embracement of diversity and their obsession with destroying any form of white identity.

Henrich is correct that as Europeans destroyed their kin-based institutions they went on to create new voluntary institutions based on self-chosen values and impartial rules rather than traditional customs and ingroup favoritism. But he seems to think that these civic institutions were straightforwardly created by “highly individualistic and self-obsessed” people on the basis of their analytic capacities and economic self-interests alone. He seems unaware of the fact that the abolition of traditional institutions opened up a new political world in which not just individuals but classes, religious groups, and ethnic groups, would now have the opportunity to push forth their ideas on how Western institutions should be organized, on the basis of what values and intentions. Thinking in a WEIRD way does not mean that the institutions Europeans went on to create in the modern era would be solely about finding the most effectual method for maximizing utilitarian returns. The destruction of kinship ties, the end of the traditional order in Europe, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution of 1789, opened up an intense ideological struggle over the values that should underlie Western institutions. This is why many historians have identified this period as “The Age of Ideology” —  in reflection of the keen ideological struggle that ensued after the Enlightenment between liberalism, conservatism, socialism, Marxism, Fascism and other isms.

Is Ana Navarro-Cárdenas a WEIRD cultural Marxist?

The Western world today is dominated by cultural Marxism. The university environment Henrich inhabits still cares about impartiality, hiring based on merit, objectivity and analytical clarity, particularly in the natural sciences. But there is no doubt that the political discourse throughout the West, and with utmost intensity in the universities, is now dominated by the “great project of emancipation,” the idea that the West must become diverse and that Europeans who care about their national identities are “supremacists”. Henrich is caught up uncritically inside this great project. Check his twitter. He even retweeted (Nov 1) the hysterical Ana Navarro-Cárdenas, who regularly accuses Trump supporters of “white supremacy”. He recently declared in PBS that “Every time you turn up immigration you turn up innovation”. Does he think the Masters of the Universe, Twitter, YouTube, PayPal, the corporations enriching themselves during the lockdown, the Democratic Party, and the creepy Biden, are behaving in a rational and analytical way, whereas Trump supporters are remnants of traditional, ingroup mentalities?

We will keep these crucial questions in mind as we continue our review of Henrich’s book. Just a small note to close off this opening commentary: the hardcopy I bought looks very cheap and dull. The cover without the paper jacket is blank except for the printing in small font of the title and the author’s name, and it seems to be made of cheap, easily breakable recycled cardboard. Hard to understand why Henrich would accept such a cover for what is otherwise a very good book.

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