A Book Review of: "The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous," by Joseph Henrich
Your Brain has been Modified
Reading, brought into being through the evolutionary rewiring of a part of the brain called the "Letterbox Circuitry," is a culturally constructed cognitive ability. It began first in the West, during the High Middle Ages shortly after the invention of the Gutenberg press.
The cause of wide-spread reading was the Protestation Reformation, which, as a reaction to the corrupting practices of "Catholic indulgences," led to individuals reading the Bible for themselves rather than having it read to them by Catholic Priests. Protestantism came into being with the belief that God required no earthly interlocutors.
The unintended consequence of wide-spread Bible reading was European-wide literacy, and the eventual institutionalization of public education. Wide-spread literacy and public education brought about by Bible reading, while putting individuals at the center of the universe, made the West unique among cultures of the world.
The Evolution of Societies and Psychologies
Until the High Middle Ages, in most of the world, people and streets did not yet have assigned names. Throughout the world, people were treated as if they were replaceable cogs in a feudal wheel. There was not much respect for the individual until the West raised the issue. And, as was the case with reading, this too helped set the West apart from the rest of the world.
Personal identity and individualism co-evolved with, Protestantism, the end of feudalism, wide-spread literacy, and institutionalized education. These four inventions proved to be the primary source of the West's advantage over the rest of the world. They drove the spread of a package of social norms that fostered a new psychology that spurred industrialization and urbanization.
A Western psychology based on individual identity and individualism, sometimes referred to as rugged individualism, promoted analytical thinking, produced self-reflection, self-imposed standards and aspirations, and, the will to succeed as individuals.
While the turn towards individualism was going on in the West, the psychology of duty, and kin-based norms continued in the East and in the rest of the world.
Compared to a psychology of rugged individualism, the psychology of kin-based identity was constrained by context, and created interdependent emotional bonds that incentivized conformity and obedience to authority, rather than promoting the pursuit of enlightened self-interests.
A psychology of rugged individualism encouraged independence, while one based on kinship ties, encouraged interdependence.
Across societies, these two very different social psychologies fostered different interpretations, different expectations and different normative standards, all of which called for distinct behavioral and psychological responses.
How do we Make a Cultural Species?
To make a species we need an ape who has evolved to use his instincts as a way of reacting to environmental stimuli, and then allow him to evolve into an animal that uses those same instincts to help him learn and adapt to cultural practices he and other apes have invented.
Place this ape in a world structured by social norms, on which his survival depends, and he will create a rudimentary culture that cumulatively will become more refined. And that ape will eventually emerge as the most powerful animal on earth.
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