Monday, December 07, 2020

Historians criticize work on American traits

I mentioned the Joseph Henrich theory that Americans are psychologically superior to the rest of the world in March and September. He is a liberal Harvard professor, so I am sure that he would deny that he is a White supremacist, or even that he is defending a theory of genetic group differences.

So he doesn't say Whites are superior but that they

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?

For the sake of intellectual fairness, I am citing a historian essay critical of this work:
Deploying an influential social-scientific concept known as WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic), the article asserts that a distinctive Western psychology—one valuing agency, autonomy, and kindness toward strangers—explains the differential development trajectory of the West and the Rest. “The Church, Intensive Kinship, and Global Psychological Variation” tells a linear story of how Westerners became WEIRD. Beginning in the sixth century CE, when the medieval Church became “obsessed” with incest, the article adopts a claim made by the eminent social anthropologist Jack Goody: that European kinship was transformed in the post-Roman West when Church officials broadened incest prohibitions, discouraged remarriage and adoption, and thereby redirected the flow of property away from families into the Church, weakening kinship. Church authorities codified a prohibition on marriage extending to third and, later, to sixth cousins. Combined with the abolition of polygamy, this resulted in a decline of extended kin networks and the emergence of the monogamous nuclear family. The transformation of the incest prohibition by the Church, the authors conclude, created the foundation for individualism, civil society, and democracy. 

The Science team took Goody’s idea and performed a battery of statistical regressions to show that the intensity of WEIRD traits corresponds to the duration of a population’s exposure to western Christianity, as measured by the date of the foundation of Latin bishoprics: the longer the exposure, the stronger the WEIRD traits. This conclusion is reinforced with modern demographic and ethnographic data about rates of cousin marriage, followed by laboratory interviews with living subjects to gauge their WEIRD psychologies.

They don't really refute any of these findings, but argues that if some of their fellow leftist/woke historians had been on the team, they would have added context on colonialism, slavery, and Christian hegemony. They claim that the Catholic Church did not really have the power to ban all cousin marriages. In particular, some royal cousins still got married. So did some plantation owners in the Old South.

Yes, no doubt about that. The weakness of this criticism only convinces me of the robustness of Henrich's thesis. No one disputes that the WEIRD traits make American Whites different from most of the world, and that these are deep structural differences that will not go away easily.

Nobody wants to talk about whether they are genetic differences. I presume that Henrich refuses to say.

I don't see how it can be anything but genetic. If these were merely the behavioral changes induced by the Catholic Church a millennium ago, how could they possibly persist today? Most Americans today are not Catholic, and those who are do not adhere to Medieval customs.

If genetic, maybe they should be called WIRED traits, for western, industrialized, rich, educated, and democratic. The traits appear to be hard-wired into the genes of White Americans.

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