The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

Joseph Henrich

My review 2021-02-01

A thought-provoking book, claiming that the individualism of the West is an unintended consequence of the family policy of the Catholic church starting in the early middle ages. This policy frowned upon incest, and gradually became more and more restrictive concerning how closely related the prospective spouses were allowed to be. This slowly broke down the clan-oriented social system, which led to the rise of other types of social organization, such as self-governing towns and guilds. And this in turn led to meritocracy and further on to the ideas of the rights of individuals.

The interplay between policy, material conditions, and the evolutionary developments of social systems is one of the most important themes of this book. There is no single factor or driving force behind historical developments. The dichotomy between materials and idealist views of history is implicitly repudiated; it is a matter of true interplay, with feedback between different processes.

This is a dense book, requiring careful reading. (The reason it took so long for me to finish is, however, mostly of a personal context.) It is well-argued, and I think it drives home its main point in a persuasive way. It will be interesting to see the future discussion: It is clear that the roots of Western ideas of individualism, secularism and political freedom has much deeper roots than the Enlightenment of the 18th century.