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Has Kinship Been The Foundational Institution Shaping Human Psychology Throughout History? — 5

Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), an American descended from Welsh pioneers, can be rightfully remembered as the founder of the discipline of anthropology, principally for his 600 page work on kinship, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871). This book “created at a stroke what without exaggeration might be called the seminal concern of contemporary anthropology, the study of kinship.” Its basic argument was that the ties humans develop along kinship lines based on the principles of consanguinity (kinship by blood) and affinity (kinship by marriage) determine the way primitive societies are organized. In our universities were are taught that Morgan’s ideas were “properly framed” by his contemporaries Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels within their “scientific theory of historical materialism” with its emphasis on the way the material conditions of life and the relations between classes shaped the way humans think.

Role of Kinship in Anthropology and Sociology

Friedrich Engels’s famous book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), fed on Morgan’s work, including Morgan’s later book, Ancient Society; or, Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery, Through Barbarism to Civilization (1877). Marx wrote extensive notes about Ancient Society, which Engels used for The Origin of the Family. As he acknowledged in the preface, he and Marx “had reserved…the privilege of displaying the results of Morgan’s investigations in connection with [their] own materialist conception of history.” Origin of the Family became a foundational text of Marxist anthropology, the study of early human societies, and feminist theory.

The feminist Evelyn Reed credited Morgan, in an introduction she wrote to Origin of the Family in 1972, with the realization that the “key institutions of civilized society—the family, private property, and the state—were nonexistent in prehistoric life.” She credited him with establishing that “procuring the necessities of life” has been the most important human activity throughout history, and how “advances made in the productive forces” explain “the successive stages of social development” from hunting and gathering to civilization. The importance of Engels’s contribution, according to Reed, was in showing how societies become class divided and founded on private ownership of property with the rise of civilizations “with a wealthy possessing class exploiting the working mass,” and how “a state apparatus enforces this rule of the rich.”

Most importantly, for feminist theory, was Engels’s argument that civilized societies are also characterized by sexual inequalities, and that “male supremacy and female inferiority are integral features of this patriarchal class system.” The first institution in history under “primitive communism” was the matrilineal clan where women shared their children within their communal households and sexual constraints did not exist, paternity was not an issue, and men and women engaged in “fairly free” sexual activity. The Victorian monogamous family was a recent construct of capitalist society intended solely to ensure the transfer of property along the male line. Overcoming this sexual inequality required the abolition of the nuclear family and the restoration of communal sexual living.

Morgan’s idea of kinship was thus appropriated by feminists as a weapon against the monogamous nuclear family. Kinship came to be seen as an institution peculiar to early human societies, replaced by the modern nuclear family and a whole host of other capitalist institutions, legal systems, bureaucratic orders and corporations. Kinship would become a key concept in the anthropological study of early societies only. When the discipline of sociology emerged in the early 1800s its goal was to understand the origins of modernity in the West and the nature of modern institutions. Sociologists did not find kin-based institutions in the Western societies they were studying, so they did not think much about them. The nuclear family was studied as a modern institution belonging within a wider society that was no longer structured by kinship blood ties, clans and tribal relationships. Although Max Weber wrote about kin groups, all the key concepts in his studies were aimed principally at explaining the unique rationality of Western culture: rational-legal authority, bureaucracy, means-end rationality, capitalism, the Protestant Ethic, disenchantment of the world, iron cage. 

Henrich’s Novelty

Joseph Henrich deservers a lot of credit for making kinship the key concept in his explanation of the unique developmental path of the West. This seems odd since his argument is that kinship systems were dismantled in the West far earlier than in modern times. But his argument is precisely that we need to understand the nature of kinship because the absence of this institution since the Middle Ages in European history is the key to understanding the origins of Western modernity itself. Henrich is the first anthropologist I know who argues that throughout most of history, not in primitive societies only, our human identity, our sense of self, and our way of thinking about the world, have been directly tied to our membership in a kin group. And he is the first anthropologist to realize that the very “demolition of kinship based institutions” in the West since the Middle Ages, and the rise of voluntary associations, accounts for its modern individualistic inclinations. The WEIRDest People is essentially an attempt to explain the ways in which kinship relationships have structured the psychologies of humans and thereby the historical trajectories of human societies, and the ways in which the breakdown of kin groups transformed the psychology of Europeans leading them in a totally divergent historical path.

It may be that The WEIRDest People will be seen eventually as the most important interpretation of the “rise of the West”. Many may conclude that it surpasses all previous “materialistic” explanations about the “fundamental” significance of modes of production, geographical conditions, racial differences, institutional factors, as well as explanations that focus on ideas and religious beliefs. Henrich makes a thoroughly empirically based argument showing that a people’s psychology is heavily structured by their kin-based institutions and norms; and that the WEIRD characteristics of Europeans can be directly connected to their monogamous families, weak kinship ties, and development of institutions based on impartial and impersonal (as opposed to interpersonal) norms.

However, as we will see in future commentaries: while Henrich makes a superb case about how the Catholic Church was responsible for undermining kinship groups in Europe in the High Middle Ages, his otherwise comprehensive and detailed analysis skips over the question how it was possible for the ancient Greeks to exhibit so many WEIRD cognitive abilities, including why Christians in Late Antiquity, before the Middle Ages, developed arguments about free will and in favor of monogamy. Here MacDonald’s argument that the ancient Greeks were already proto-WEIRD in their family arrangements becomes very important, as well as my argument that the prehistorical Indo-Europeans had already created proto-voluntary associations of aristocratic military bands, “brotherhood of warriors,” that were relatively independent of kinship ties or based on “heroic” values pertaining to men as men. 

Kin-Based History

This post analyzes chapter 3 of Henrich’s book The WEIRDest People. According to Henrich, the “underlying processes” in the scaling up of societies from the relatively simple bands of hunter-gatherers in Paleolithic times to the vast empires of pre-modern times have been “essentially the same”: building up new forms of cooperation through the development of more complex and intensive kin-based institutions in order to cope successfully with the intensification of intergroup competition.

“All Paleolithic societies were built on institutions rooted in family ties, ritual bonds, and interpersonal relationships”. Within and between all societies, including egalitarian Paleolithic societies, there is competition among individuals, families, and clans. Intergroup competition was intensified with “emergence of food production”. To meet this intensification of competition, new forms of kinship cooperation and family ties, ritual bonds and interpersonal relations, had to be built, extended, or reinforced. As societies grew up in size with agriculture, additional non-kin-based institutions were developed; however, these institutions were “built atop a deep foundation of kin-based institutions”.

I would say the three key variables in Henrich’s analysis of the development of societies from simple bands to complex civilizations, as I understand him, are kin-based institutions, expansion of production through farming, and intergroup competition. Of these three variables, kin-based relationships are the basis upon which new forms of cooperation are built. He takes intergroup competition as something that is given in the nature of living things without stopping to analyze whether this competition is driven by motivations for power and riches, beyond mere survival, and by what the ancient Greeks identified as the psychological need of some men to be recognized as superior to others, megalothymia. This is not a minor point once we realize that those behind intergroup warfare and superior recognition belonged to military groups that were created for men as men rather than solely for men as members of kin groups.

It is interesting that Max Weber’s writings on kin groups were heavily about men organized on the basis of what he called “fictitious kinship” consisting of fighting men who were related by blood in a certain way but organized in a separate men’s house by a charismatic leader as a sort of club where men lived, made weapons, and organized their military and hunting expeditions. This military group existed loosely and intermittently as a group of men who would call upon one another for blood revenge, a group that is not fixed entirely by family ties but can be broken up and rebuilt when a new charismatic leader brings together a new coalition of followers, with its members tracing themselves back to a “heroic” ancestor rather than a family ancestor. These “brotherhoods of warriors” would surround themselves with fear-inspiring artifacts such as masks and hideous emblems, and maintain secrecy against outsiders, especially women, who were forbidden to enter under violent penalties.

What Henrich calls “self-focus” and “self-enhancement” did not originate in one shot after the Church broke kin groups. The primordial seeds of selfhood were planted by men needing to demonstrate to other men their manhood, their capacity to overcome fear, hunger, and pain, and break away from the power of the Great Mother. Through acts of heroism and endurance men demonstrate the power of their spirit over their bodily needs and fears. This struggle for manhood was intensified as a struggle for pure prestige as men escaped the power of the fertility goddesses and created patriarchal sky gods and became equally free in their aristocratic status and opportunities to compete for heroic status and individual renown.

But back to Henrich: he observes, furthermore, that building societies based on cooperative relationships beyond a handful of family clans is very hard once the population exceeds a few hundred people. The historical record shows that large villages of over a few hundred people (though this depends on the environment) tend to fracture into feuding clans. Anthropologists have thus been very interested in understanding why and how some societies managed to integrate large number of clans. Henrich uses the example of a culture in New Guinea, Ilahita, to show how a small clan managed to “scale up” successfully by augmenting, improving, and intensifying its kinship forms of cooperation within its own clan and with other clans. It “culturally constructed” new rituals across clans which had the effect of inducing strong emotional ties among participants. Included in these rituals were a sequence of initiation rites at various ages in the maturation of males from different clans, “rites of terror,” which had the effect of bonding these males into a “band of brothers”. This ritual system along with other rituals were “infused with a powerful set of supernatural beliefs,” powerful gods that were said to govern the entire community and would punish the people, or not bring them harmony and success, unless they performed the proper rituals. Many deaths that had previously been attributed to sorcery were thereafter attributed to the anger of the gods instigated by the failure of the clans to perform the proper rituals. 

Donald Tuzin with Arapesh people of Ilahita Village during his first fieldwork in Papua New Guinea in the early 1970s.

Another means of enlarging cooperation is precisely by outcompeting and taking over other groups through the cultural construction of larger and more successful means of cooperation. The more successful groups will “drive out, eliminate, or assimilate those with less competitive institutions”. This assimilation, Henrich says, has included the integration of outsiders, “refugees” from unsuccessful clans. He actually uses the words “immigrants” and refugees” two times each in pages 96 and 97. Although Henrich’s analysis is very good, referring to individuals from failed or threatened clans who gravitated towards successful clans as refugees and immigrants strike me as anachronistic. He says that “immigrants were woven into the [Ilahita] community through…their ritual system”, and that those communities that experienced the greater influx of immigrants with children “who adopt[ed] the local customs” grew “more successful at the expense of less successful ones”. 

Using the word “immigrant” in this discussion makes no sense since a clan is generally a smaller component of a larger tribal culture consisting of many clans with very similar languages, customs, and physiological characteristics. There is in the West an obsession with this word, with portraying immigrants in the best possible light, because the West is controlled by a hostile globalist elite in charge of implementing a full scale “cooperative” racial mixing program. Could it be that one of the tacit (or perhaps I should say unintended) aims of Henrich’s book is to provide historical insights that may assist Westerners today in “culturally constructing” new forms of cooperation aimed at integrating millions of immigrants from non-WEIRD cultures into WEIRD Western cultures? I anticipate that Henrich will soon be hired in some capacity to offer “expert advice” on how to “recalibrate” the psychology of both WEIRD whites and non-WEIRD immigrants in such a way that they learn to cooperate with each other.

Henrich goes into other ways in which societies “scaled up” their ties of cooperation through the use of social norms regarding residence after marriage, inheritance and ownership, incest taboos, arranged marriages, gods and rituals. Arranged marriages, for example, involved using daughters for strategic alliances with other clans, which had the effect of extending blood lines between clans. Patrilocal residence had the effect of solidifying ties between the new couple’s children and the father’s children and other patrilineal relatives. The norm that the perpetrator’s entire clan is culpable if someone injures or kills someone in your clan fostered interdependence and loyalty among clan members. 

The Rise of Pre-Modern States

By focusing on kin-based relationships, Henrich manages to find a very firm ground upon which to explain the entire movement of history from bands to big man societies to chiefdoms and to pre-modern states. Many theories have been offered to explain the rise of pre-modern states. A variety of factors have been prioritized, i.e., technological changes, demographic and ecological pressures, warfare, and religious ideas. Some have argued that a different set of factors were at work for different states, whereas others have argued for a unitary theory of state origins. Among the most famous explanations there is the ‘hydraulic hypothesis’ proposed by Karl Wittfogel and the class-based explanation proposed by Marxists. Bruce Trigger believed that religious fear was the main reason an exploited majority was initially prepared to support a state system based on inequality. But perhaps the most famous theory in recent decades has been the circumscription theory proposed by Robert Carneiro. He argued that environmental constriction in the context of population growth intensified intergroup competition and warfare, and that this set of causal factors eventually let to the formation of centralized authorities to meet this competitive pressures for scarce resources.

Henrich’s focus is on explaining how pre-modern states “were built on an underlying social and psychological foundation formed by intense kin-based institutions” (112). The consolidation of the ownership of rituals in the hands of the most powerful clans “has been one of the main ways in which some clans have set themselves above others”. By excluding weaker clans from control of key rituals, the leaders of powerful chiefly clans could accumulate most of the rituals and in this way spread their legitimacy and sacred authority. They could also attract more marriage offers from patrilineal clans seeking to link themselves directly through their daughter’s children with the chiefly clan and thus gain greater prestige for themselves. And since polygyny was a key norm of all pre-modern kinship based societies, the chiefly clans could easily take multiple wives and thus accumulate links with many other clans and reproduce faster. They could also wrap themselves with the most powerful gods and give themselves a divine and superior status; and they could take ownership of the land “away from the clans of the commoners”.

As chiefly clans evolved into fully stratified chiefdoms, new bureaucratic institutions would gradually emerge in charge of collecting taxes, adjudicating disputes, conducting long-distance trace, gathering armies, and organizing the building of public works. While the relationships between the upper clans and the growing lower strata of the population were not directly based on kinship ties, the upper elite continued to relied directly on family connections to manage and control these bureaucratic institutions, just as the lower clans continued to be thoroughly based on kinship ties within their own localities. The rise of pre-modern states would thus remain rooted in intensive kin-based relations and in norms, obligations, and identities that derived from kinship. Impersonal bureaucracies and voluntary associations like guilds, universities, chartered towns and political parties, would only emerge in the West as kinship groups were disaggregated into nuclear monogamous families in the Middle Ages.


The image one gets from prior explanations of the origins of states is of billiard balls hitting each other in a mechanical manner bringing about changes. What we see in Carneiro, for example, is environmental constriction and population growth interacting with each other, intensifying warfare, and leading eventually to the formation of states. Human beings are mere biological beings competing for resources due to environmental pressures and scarcities. Henrich acknowledges the role of intergroup competition as a given in the struggle for survival while adding that humans develop different psychological profiles which motivate them to act in certain ways, relying on their kinship networks and norms to build new forms of cooperation to meet the pressures of competition. The flaw in Henrich is that he does not fully appreciate the ways in which the rise of analytical thinking, “self-focus,” and the making of individual choices, bespeak of humans who are increasingly conscious of the way they make history, and thus of the importance of ideas in history. Europeans invented the writing of history for a reason, and decided to come up with programs for the cultural reconstruction of their societies precisely because they had become self-aware of themselves as agents of history. Henrich remains a structuralist who recognizes the role of different cognitive styles of thinking but in such a way that the non-WEIRD “contextual” and WEIRD “analytical” styles of thinking he writes about are unconsciously structured by the presence or absence of kinship institutions which are ultimately seen as underlying the things that humans think, perceive, and feel. This is why he says that humans “don’t consciously design the most important elements of their institutions”. Yet his book could not have been written if Europeans had not become fully cognizant of the ways kinship institutions and voluntary institutions have shaped their psychology, and how it is possible for humans to make their institutions consciously.

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