Culture Magazine

Why the West is WEIRD – The Nuclear Family and the Medieval Catholoic Church

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
WEIRD = W.E.I.R.D = Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic – which, as you may know, has been a term of art in the human sciences since 2010. Drew Pendergrass in Harvard Magazine:
During the past 10 years, social scientists have wrestled with a powerful criticism of their research: their favorite subjects, American college students, are often outliers compared to the global population. Economists and psychologists run studies on their students, and then sometimes use those results to make broad claims about human tolerance for risk, moral reasoning, or even the way people perceive lines on a page. But they often are just describing a W.E.I.R.D. subgroup of humanity—Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—as an influential study calls them. That subgroup represents only 12 percent of the world’s population, but a whopping 96 percent of subjects in psychological studies.
Joseph Henrich, professor of human evolutionary biology (HEB), was lead author on a 2010 paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences that proposed the WEIRD problem in social science. It has since received more than 5,000 citations, rocking the academic world. Henrich and his colleagues, all then at the University of British Columbia, describe in painstaking detail how WEIRD subjects differ from the global population, arguing for example that risk-averse behavior concerning money might be a recent development local to industrialized areas, rather than intrinsic to human nature. But he avoided any speculation as to why the West had such an unusual psychological makeup.
A paper published today in Science, coauthored by Henrich with Jonathan Schulz and Jonathan Beauchamp, both economists at George Mason University, and Duman Bahrami-Rad, a postdoctoral fellow in HEB’s culture, cognition, and coevolution lab, attempts to explain how Europeans came to be so atypical. In an argument fusing methods from anthropology, psychology, and history, the authors claim that the unusual levels of individualism seen in the West come in part from the emergence of the nuclear family—which is vanishingly rare outside of Europe.
Henrich had long been thinking about how families change the ways that people think. “I was influenced by my ongoing anthropological fieldwork at one of the outer islands of Fiji, where social life is still governed by strong norms of kinship, which endow everyone with a set of responsibilities, obligations, and privileges,” said Henrich in a news conference. “It seemed plausible that kinship systems, or what we call kin-based institutions, might have a big effect on people’s psychology.”
The authors’ argument goes like this. The emergence of agriculture 12,000 years ago favored societies that could work together on big projects, like growing crops. This kind of collaboration required people to be members of tightly bound social networks, strengthened by individuals who showed solidarity with one another. Families in farming societies fostered intense connection among people, because their survival depended on it: extended relatives lived under one roof, polygamy was often allowed, and people married within their own communities and families. Practices like ancestor worship and shared ownership further strengthened these bonds, both in Europe and in many farming societies around the agricultural world.
When the Catholic Church emerged, everything changed. The medieval church in western Europe promulgated unusually strict rules about families: newlyweds were often required to move to a new house, polygamy was weeded out, arranged marriages were discouraged, remarriage was banned, and legal adoption was stopped. Above all, the church harshly condemned incest. People were forbidden to marry their sixth cousins or anyone closer, as well as in-laws and “spiritual relatives” like godparents. Priests and elders would do background checks before the ceremony to uncover any hidden overlap in family trees. The motivations for these new rules are somewhat unclear, but church fathers like Ambrose and Augustine condemned incest in their writings, and various early councils saw it as an affront to God.
And so forth and so on.
Here's the research article, which appears to be open access: Jonathan F. Schulz1, Duman Bahrami-Rad, Jonathan P. Beauchamp, Joseph Henrich, The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation, Science 08 Nov 2019: Vol. 366, Issue 6466, eaau5141 DOI: 10.1126/science.aau5141
Abstract: Recent research not only confirms the existence of substantial psychological variation around the globe but also highlights the peculiarity of many Western populations. We propose that part of this variation can be traced back to the action and diffusion of the Western Church, the branch of Christianity that evolved into the Roman Catholic Church. Specifically, we propose that the Western Church’s transformation of European kinship, by promoting small, nuclear households, weak family ties, and residential mobility, fostered greater individualism, less conformity, and more impersonal prosociality. By combining data on 24 psychological outcomes with historical measures of both Church exposure and kinship, we find support for these ideas in a comprehensive array of analyses across countries, among European regions, and among individuals from different cultural backgrounds.
H/t Tyler Cowen.
There's another aspect to this story which I addressed briefly in Beethoven's Anvil, 247-247, where I argue that plainsong (aka Gregorian chant) created a mental space. This is from an excerpt I've uploaded to New Savanna:
The various tribes, cities, and states of Medieval Europe were all, in some measure, under the sway of the Roman Catholic church, and thus of its plainsong-based ritual. Europe was dotted with communities of chanting religious, and congregations would hear chanting at church services. Plainsong thus has geopolitical implications. While Europe’s various cultures each had their own local musics, they all had plainsong as a common musical practice.
European tribes first began to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world as Christians. As such they deemed themselves superior to all infidels—such as the Arabs, who showed their inferiority by studying mathematics and drinking coffee rather than alcohol. It wasn’t until the 17th century, after the Western Church had been split by the Reformation, that the secular concept of Europe replaced the sacred concept of Christendom as a touchstone of identity.
Just as humankind originated through music-making somewhere in Africa, so Europe begins to unify through the sacred music-making of the chanting religious. As that body of music begins to differentiate and develop, it moves into secular contexts and mingles with vernacular musics.

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