The WIERDest People In The World by Joseph Henrich

(2022-09-05 17:22:06) 下一個


Ever since I began studying English, I have been wondering what goes through

foreigners' minds. Would making friends mean the same in London as it did in

Beijing? What kind of power does a father has over his kids? Classic Chinese

concepts such as Ren(仁) and Yi(義) do not seem to exist in their consciousness.

The ideal of four-generations-under-one-roof seems irrelevant to their lives.

I remembered debating with my high-school classmates that Americans could not be

as patriotic as we Chinese. Western people's collective thinking was the final frontier.


Living in the West for two dozens of years has answered some of the questions

but not all. For example, every westerner I met, regardless of social status,

seemed to hold two conflicting ideas comfortably in mind: that everyone is

created equal (like commodities or some product off an assembly line) on the one

hand and that one is a unique individual destined to greatness. My PhD mentors

and jiu-jitsu instructors alike seemed more pleased being called by their first

names than 'professor.' More intrigued I have become as I tried to understand

what I saw.


This book traced the origins of modern western cultures (dubbed WEIRD for

Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) to the evolution of

Christianity. Through its Marriage and Family Program (MFP), the Western

Church's systematic and relentless battles against polygamy and cousin marriage

had broken the strong kin-based institutions, traditional families and clans.

By 1500 CE, the dawn of the modern era, some parts of Europe had gone through

1000 years of MFP, which had molded the mass psychology toward individualism.

(In contrast, Japan and China adopted western marriage laws in the 1880s and

1950s, respectively.) After that, the world saw Protestantism, the discovery of

America, the Industrial Revolution, and the former advanced civilizations

including Muslim countries and China surpassed by what was called the northern



This reminds me of "Tian Dao Wu Qin" (天道無親, or the way of heaven has no regard

for kins) in the Tao Te Ching. While the ancient Chinese pointed out the way, the

West have actually and incidentally practiced it.


Of course, the big claims all have to be scientific. The author cited historic

facts and modern studies after studies to support myriads of points around the

book's central theme. Among those that impressed me,


- The Protestant Reform (starting 1517)'s central idea, sola scriptura, exhorted

  people to read the Bible for themselves and as a side effect, led to highly

  literate societies.


- UN diplomats from more corrupt countries, i.e., those with higher

  international corruption indices, got more parking tickets in New York City.


- Loyalty to friends in China is seen as cronyism by WEIRD people. They are bad

  friends. In a Passenger's Dilemma, they are less likely to lie to bail out

  their friends.


- More belief in supernatural punishment leads to less bias against strangers.


- From blood donation to mafia activity, many things can be explained by the

  influence of the Western Church's MFP on a region's Kinship Intensity Index.


- Even the behaviors of the adult children of immigrants are heavily influenced

  by the culture of their countries of origin.


- For WEIRD people, economic prosperity did not lead to the Malthusian Trap

  mainly because more independent women led to low fertility.


I wish I had read the book in college although it only came out in 2020. It

would have prepared me better for my journey to the west. That is not to say

that reading it late isn't rewarding. I would recommend it to anyone. First

generation immigrants hate feeling alienated and helpless in American culture

and desire to go 'mainstream.' It is liberating to understand the tributaries of

that stream.

[ 打印 ]
閱讀 ()評論 (2)
7grizzly 回複 悄悄話 回複 '暖冬cool夏' 的評論 : Thank you, 暖冬, for reading and point me to the NYT review, although I was told "You’ve reached your limit of free articles. Already a subscriber? Log in." I hope to read it someday.

Much research is cited and the book can feel dense at places. Some, however, such as the one on parking tickets for UN officials, are very interesting. After skipping the boring parts, I still think it tells a good story.

Most ideas are instantly applicable. Now I can tell myself that the cultural gap took at least more than one millennium to form and don't fret in a life time not being able to cross it.
暖冬cool夏 回複 悄悄話 So as I just googled it that Henrich is an anthropologist at Harvard.
Here is another book review: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/12/books/review/the-weirdest-people-in-the-world-joseph-henrich.html
The topic is interesting but too scholarly:) Thanks for introducing the book.

"Many of the WEIRD ways of thinking, Henrich shows, are the result of cultural differences, not genetic differences."
--For sure we are ingrained in the culture that raised us.