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Understanding Western Uniqueness: A Comment on Joseph Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World

Kevin MacDonald


Published: 2021/03/01


Despite its many strengths, Joseph Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World has several weaknesses: 1.) It conceptualizes the uniqueness of the West as solely the result of cultural evolution set in motion by the medieval Church, thereby ignoring the strong tendencies toward individualism in the Greco-Roman world of antiquity, the Indo-European groups that conquered the continent in pre-historic times, and the primordial northern European hunter-gatherers. 2.) It conceptualizes analytic thinking and representative government typical of the West as resulting from the cultural shift brought about by the medieval Church, whereas analytic thinking can be found in the ancient world, particularly among the Greeks, and representative government can be found in ancient Greece and Rome, and in pre-Christian Germanic and Scandinavian cultures. 3.) Henrich’s portrayal of Westerners as non-conformists is overdrawn. Although Westerners are more likely to dissent from a group consensus compared to kinship-based cultures, moral communities based on a variety of psychological mechanisms are a powerful force for conformity in individualistic Western societies, with dissenters subject to guilt, ostracism, and altruistic punishment. 4.) Henrich analyzes the accomplishments of the West solely in terms of social learning and culturally constructed personality variation in traits related to conscientiousness, thereby ignoring data on the biological basis and adaptive significance of variation in personality and general intelligence.

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