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) does 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.
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
- 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
- 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