Thursday, May 13, 2021

Why Christendom has been so successful

The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, by Joseph Henrich, was published last year. At the time, I thought that it was neither new nor surprising that White American college students would perform differently on psychology experiments that tribes of New Guinea. Some textbooks would describe some human behavior as universal, whereas it actually varies widely. He had already made this point in a 2010 paper. See also this 2019 science paper for supporting research.

This book is so much more than that. It offers a comprehensive explanation for how Western Civilation happened.

The closest other book in this genre is Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. He is a geography professor, and he says it was all a geographical fluke. But his explanations don't tell us anything about the last millennium, where most of the interesting things happened. And his earlier stuff depends on dubious analysis that has not been backed up by other work.

This book was widely acclaimed, and turned Diamond into one of our leading public intellectuals. I think people wanted to believe his stories, whether true or not.

Henrich's book is much more important. He answers the question: What made Christendom superior to the rest of the world?

Humans have been building cities and civilizations for millennia, and it is surprising that so little has been written on what makes it all work.

What makes humans different from animals? The usual answers are intelligence, agility in tool use, spiritual values, art, consciousness, etc. That's all true, but the most important feature may be that man is able to make deals to cooperate with strangers. No other animal can do that, and it is absolutely essential for civilization.

Sure, a pack of wolves might join in a kill, and a colony of ants or bees might divide the labor of procuring food. But they don't do the sort of transactions that men do every day.

It doesn't work well in all countries either. In most of the world, societies are divided into clans that do not cooperate with each other. Christendom figured out how to make it work well. Henrich explains this well.

This book has changed my view of what social policy can and should do. Henrich gives the impression that medieval Church policies were so brilliantly far-sighted and favorable that the leaders could not have been so smart as to realize what they were doing. Even the fighting of European wars was done in a beneficial way.

I suspect that they did know what they were doing. What is our excuse? We do not seem to have anyone that smart making social policy today. Our leaders were wiser a millennium ago.

No comments: