9 thoughts on “Forbes post, “When WEIRD People Have Weird Retirements: Some Comments On The ‘WEIRD’ Explanation Of Western Distinctiveness”

  1. I have written an extensive two star review of this book on Amazon.com. First there is no evidence, and if you read the book carefully, Henrich does not provide any, that the Church actually reached into rural communities ( the overwhelming majority) before 1750 to actually change marriage, cohabitation ,etc. To the fury of the Church the laity simply got on with sex, having children,etc. Scholars of family history show the continuing prevalence of local marriage customs,certainly until 1300. One did not even need a priest present to conduct a valid marriage in 1215.
    Henrich claims a steady decline in cousin marriages but as he never proves that they were prevalent in pre-Christian Europe, I cannot see how he can chart decline of such marriages when the vast majority of marriages, or sexual arrangements between couples, were unrecorded.
    He claims that so strict and effective were Church restrictions on marriage that people, presumably men, were ‘forced’, his word, to see mates in other ethnic and tribal groups. Some luck as they might not even speak the same language! In rural East Anglia (my stumping ground) in c.1900 the boys of one village would stone newcomers who came in search of brides. It was only the invention of the bicycle which allowed marriage outside one’s own community. Before that you had to walk on those days when you were released from work on the land. Many boys from the villages around me left their villages for the very first time in their lives when they were called up in the 1914-18 war.Yet Henrich has all this happening in medieval times!
    Kinship groups. No evidence that they were ‘demolished’, again his word, by the Church. If Henrich’s argument is correct then there would be no kinship relationships in cities as they were peopled by those ‘freed’ from traditional society. Yet in the most advanced city of all, Florence, we find intensive kinship groups in the fifteenth century and even marriage alliances being formed between different kinship groups to strengthen security when communities were so volatile.
    There has been an immense amount of work done on medieval urbanisation- Henrich seems to think that released individuals drifted into cities. He provides no understanding of agricultural and population surplus and the growth of crafts and trade in medieval Europe which appears to underpin urbanisation. (And why were the Arab cities, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad so much bigger than anything in Europe- did they also ban cousin marriages? What about Roman cities and towns?)
    Individualism. As E.P.Thompson showed in his seminal The Making of the English Working Class (1963), industrialisation led to the loss of freedoms in daily life for those brought into the mills and mines. If the European population was as individualistic as Henrish claims, then there must have been an immense amount of frustration at having to spend one’s entire life doing backbreaking work on the land or underground hewing coal. Individualism in Europe was always the preserve of a small minority, not universal as Henrich seems to claim.
    Deciphering WEIRD.
    Education: Only available to all in the late nineteenth century. Virtually no mention ( 4 references in the index) in The Weirdest People.
    Industry. Unless you count crafts,etc, it begins in Britain c. 1750 then gradually spreads and becomes prominent in Europe and the US in the late 1800s.
    Rich- not true of societies as a whole. Mass poverty in Europe ( Depression in 30s US), until post 1945.
    Democracy. Very difficult to understand what exactly he means by it, Just a few references. Most European societies were authoritarian until the nineteenth century and then gradually votes for all introduced- not for women until the twentieth century. There are two mentions of ‘representative government’ in the index. One is a chart (p.315) apparently detailing the rise of representative government in urban areas from 800 to 1500. Most cities, e.g. in northern Italy, were politically unstable and veered from one political system to another, often with a ruling family, Medici, Este of Ferrara, Visconti of Milan,etc. etc. in charge. In Venice, the richest city of all, government was confined to those of noble birth. So how can he possible map any GROWTH in representative government? Wasn’t the revolt of the American colines the result of the lack of representative government?
    Once one goes through the arguments (there is something called the ‘collective European brain’ which may appear as early as 1200 at the same time as individualism and nonconformism) this book quickly unravels.
    I hope Forbes readers who have specialist knowledge can take up these issues before the book becomes confirmed as groundbreaking. The history does not make any sense. The components of WEIRDNESS are essentially twentieth century developments and do not need an explanation that takes them back to the early Middle Ages.

  2. I want to add something for psychologists who read Forbes.
    We all know that brains can be rewired. I once had a personal trainer who got me balancing on squidgy balls to rewire my brain so that I balanced better. However, Henrich argues for a transformation in personality, from pre-WEIRD to WEIRD. How is this possible? If it was, this would make a breakthrough for therapists! Yet he appears to go further- to suggest that once one has a WEIRD personality then one passes it on genetically and, despite WEIRDness being equated with individualism and nonconformity, somehow a ‘collective European brain’ emerges. As I read this book, I became more and more confused and longed for some analytical (not adulatory) reviews of these issues. I just hope that others, with more specialist knowledge than I have, can sort through the arguments and the evidence he provides for them. From the history point of view , his argument (power of Catholic Church, forcing of marriages outside tribal and ethnic groups, the demolition of kinship groups, individuals drifting into towns) was not only completely unsupported but actually contradicted by the sources we have. I hope some WEIRD minds ( the reviewers in their unanimity are clearly not WEIRD) can take this up.
    Charles Freeman. Historian and formerly a Senior Examiner in critical thinking skills for the International Baccalaureate

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