When studying and trying to understand the past, we always do so in order to cope with the present and be better equipped for the future – that’s a truism. But our endeavors become difficult when the past provides us with contradictory signals so that the future turns into mystery. Then it can happen that our certainties waver and we look for completely new orientations and even concepts. Continue reading Future – God’s eighth Day of Creation?
There are fundamental questions that every human being and probably every people and epoch ask themselves. Who or what am I? Why and how am I different from others? What is it that makes me singular? Max Weber, Jared Diamond, and Joseph Henrich have each asked this question in their own yet very similar ways. Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel (1997), and Henrich in The WEIRDest People in the World(2019).
Max Weber wanted to explore why capitalism, that economic system so astonishingly successful in his time, had arisen in Europe, and especially in its Protestant parts. Jared Diamond asks his readers why Cortez and Pizarro, with a mere handful of soldiers, so easily defeated the two most powerful empires of the New world, namely Aztecs and Incas at the beginning of the 16th century. Why did these two peoples of the New World not invade and subjugate Europe? Joseph Henrich formulates the question in a similar vein. How did Europe come to follow a path different from all previous history, namely a weird one (“WEIRD = Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic”)? The three questions resemble each other, but the answers of the three scholars differ in significant ways.
Max Weber is rooted in the German tradition
of a conception of history and sociology deeply influenced by Romanticism that makes him locate the peculiarities of human development primarily in cultural causes. For Weber, it was the Protestant ethic that had created the spirit of capitalism – albeit in a tortuous, indirect way. And conversely, it was its opposite, the religiously conditioned magical variety of traditional constraints, which had prevented its emergence in pre-capitalist times. Culturally conditioned human attitudes can thus become the causes of profound social transformations – a view with which Weber distinguished himself from Karl Marx.
In contrast, Jared Diamond rather follows a tradition,
one of whose most outstanding 18th-century representatives was Montesquieu, who held that the decisive factor for the divergent developmental paths of different peoples was not their subjective attitudes, but rather externally given conditions such as climate. This theory is now passé, but Diamond, in a work of immense erudition, has convincingly demonstrated that “Eurasia got the wild ancestors of wheat, barley, millet, oats, and rice, along with cows, horses, pigs, goats, sheep, water buffaloes, and camels. Meanwhile, the Americas ended up with few wild plants or animals that were both easy to domesticate and productive. Corn, the major staple in the New World, required numerous genetic changes from its wild version to yield a productive crop – so it was a long road. For domesticated animals, the Americas ended up with llamas, guinea pigs, and turkeys – which gave them no general-purpose work animals like oxen, horses, water buffaloes, or donkeys to pull plows, carry heavy burdens, and crank mills. In Australia, the candidate crops and domesticated animals were even fewer than in the Americas. Accentuating these inequalities in fauna and flora, Eurasia’s complex societies also developed more rapidly due to an east-west geographic orientation. This fostered the rapid development and diffusion of new crops, agricultural knowledge, domesticated animals, and technological know-how” (this is how Henrich summarizes Diamond’s theses). To which a further insight of Diamond should be added. The inhabitants of Eurasia had acquired immunity against a broad range of diseases due to their close coexistence with domestic animals – in contrast to the inhabitants of Australia and the New World, who died en masse from the germs introduced by Europeans.
Jared Diamond thus harkens back to the initial scientific tradition of deriving cultural attitudes and behaviors from externally imposed conditions. Since this approach is far more in line with the strict standards established by the natural sciences since the 17th century, modern historical science and sociology have in recent decades followed Diamond far more than Max Weber. It is surely no exaggeration to state that this orientation has brought about nothing less than an explosion of research activity. All the methods and findings of the natural sciences are now being used to retrace man’s past over the millennia in unimagined material detail.
It is all the more surprising, then,
that Harvard professor Joseph Henrich, a man who began his studies in aerospace engineering, i.e. in the natural sciences, is directing his own research back to cultural causes. After what has just been said, this may well be considered a scientific sensation. He answers the question of the causes of Europe’s special path, which led to a capitalist economy, democratic constitutions and a historically unique development of individualism, in an astonishing way. “The much-heralded ideals of Western civilization, like human rights, liberty, representative democracy, and science, aren’t monuments to pure reason or logic, as so many assume. People didn’t suddenly become rational during the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, and then invent the modern world. Instead, these institutions represent cumulative cultural products – born from a particular cultural psychology – that trace their origins back over centuries, through a cascade of causal chains involving wars, markets, and monks, to a peculiar package of incest taboos, marriage prohibitions, and family prescriptions (the MFP) that developed in a radical religious sect – Western Christianity.”
And Henrich goes significantly further. From the very beginning, the Catholic Church had pursued a marriage and family policy in Europe that as early as 1000 AD had almost completely dissolved the close kinship relationships that prevailed everywhere else (except among hunter-gatherers). This policy was particularly evident in the strict prohibition of marriage between cousins and other close relatives, which had formed the basic pattern of biologically defined units. Thus, the individual was torn away from all kinship-defined ties of clans and tribes. The place previously occupied by obligations and constraints to the extended family and clans was now taken by common interests and motives that extended to and united biological strangers. In other words, it was the work of the Church that the individual defined himself less and less by his origin and more and more by his very personal aspirations and skills. The free association of biological strangers in markets, guilds, etc. – so characteristic of Western development – was triggered by the cultural policy of the Church.*1*
Max Weber always asked (though not with the exclusivity of Karl Marx) about the material interests behind political actions. So does Henrich, if only in one place of his book. “The Church had potent incentives to promote individual ownership and testamentary inheritance. Working with secular rulers, the Church pushed for laws supporting individual ownership, default inheritance rules favoring strictly lineal inheritance (cutting out brothers, uncles, and cousins), and greater autonomy in making bequests by testament. This drive for individual ownership and personal testaments would have weakened kin-based organizations, because these corporate groups would have continually lost their land and wealth to the Church. Lying on their deathbeds, Christians gave what they could to the Church to improve their prospects for the afterlife… By 900 CE, the Church owned about a third of the cultivated land in western Europe, including in Germany (35 percent) and France (44 percent). By the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the Church owned half of Germany, and between one-quarter and one-third of England.”
On the one hand, Henrich continues Max Weber’s arguments,
on the other hand, he goes much beyond it. Protestantism, he argues, only furthered a trend that the Church had already set in motion for one and a half thousand years with its marriage and family policies. Protestantism can therefore only be seen as the culminating conclusion of a development that had begun with the very takeover of power by the Church. This is a definite step beyond the thesis of Max Weber.
The widening of arguments and evidence also applies to the analysis of the causes which so greatly hindered the emergence of free markets, representative rule and individualism in other parts of the world. In the predominance of castes in India and clans in China, Weber had seen an insurmountable obstacle to the emergence of capitalism. Likewise, he explained the resistance of traditional societies to the emergence of capitalist forms of economy by the opposition of internal and external morality (which in turn is based on the distinction between biological kin and biological strangers). And Weber had intuitively summarized this resistance in the concept of magic – magic as a cultural force inimical to all forms of innovation. Henrich, however, provides much more concrete evidence. He tries to demonstrate that an elementary fact of social organization, namely the close biological ties of people in traditional kinship relationships – primarily marriage between cousins – was the most effective obstacle to that special development which Europe was only able to embark on because the Church had systematically removed this obstacle through its marriage and family policy.
Here Henrich therefore also differs from Jared Diamond
The latter makes us understand why the conquest of the New World and Australia took place from Eurasia and not in the opposite direction. Diamond enumerates the many external advantages that this continent had over the other two. One might ask, however, why within the Eurasian continent it happened to be tiny Europe and not mighty China – still far more prosperous until the 17th century – that subjugated large parts of the world since the beginning of the 16th century – and this despite the fact that at the very beginning of the 15th century China had managed to send the then most powerful fleet as far as the borders of Africa? And why was this enterprise not planned as an instrument of conquest in the first place? Jared Diamond’s insights do not explain this curious fact and probably cannot explain it, because the external causes listed by him would rather suggest that rich China and not Europe would have conquered the world. Diamond notes: “competition between different political entities spurred innovation in geographically fragmented Europe, and.. the lack of such competition held innovation back in unified China.” But this takes us back to the question why competition played such a significant role in Europe and not in China?
Henrich himself does not pose the question of why Europe and not China conquered the new world, but it seems to me that his theory may very well provide an answer. On the one hand, classical China, dominated throughout by clans, never knew competition between equals. Moreover, it always closed itself to the barbarians of the outside world, that is, against biological foreigners and their constant invasions (the Great Wall representing up to the present day mankind’s most monumental testimony to this aversion). The Roman Church, on the other hand, not only challenged biological otherness with its policies, but largely abolished it. All people were equal before God and could therefore be equal under one religion and political rule. For this reason, it was considered a legitimate goal to subjugate the rest of the world. In this way, Europe – not China – had prepared itself psychologically for a globalized world and subsequently initiated those very conquests that eventually brought about globalization.
Psychology – it too plays a prominent role in Joseph Henrich’s work
The politics of the Church not only intervened in the social organization of people preparing them for democratic constitutions, where the personal value of each individual would count infinitely more than his biological origin. These politics also had profound psychological effects because they fostered characteristics that would have been difficult to develop under traditional conditions, namely individualism, analytical thinking, rejection of authority, intellectual independence, willingness to innovate.
“Concretely, think of the UN diplomats, corporate managers, or high-level executives… All are materially comfortable, yet their propensity for (1) impersonal honesty (parking illegally… ), (2) universal morality (lying in court to protect their reckless buddies… ), and (3) nepotism (hiring relatives into executive positions) varies immensely and can be explained by our measures of kinship intensity and Church exposure… /But/ national populations that collectively experienced longer durations under the Western Church tend to be (A) less tightly bound by norms, (B) less conformist, (C) less enamored with tradition, (D) more individualistic, (E) less distrustful of strangers, (F) stronger on universalistic morality, (G) more cooperative in new groups with strangers, (H) more responsive to third-party punishment… , (I) more inclined to voluntarily donate blood, (J) more impersonally honest (toward faceless institutions), (K) less inclined to accumulate parking tickets under diplomatic immunity, and (L) more analytically minded.”
Thus, the Church’s policies continue to have a massive impact right into the present time. “Our analyses show that if a region was inside the Carolingian Empire during the Early Middle Ages, its rate of first cousin marriage in the 20th century was minuscule, and probably zero. If the region was outside the Carolingian Empire, as were southern Italy, southern Spain, and Brittany (France’s northwestern peninsula), the rate was higher. In Sicily, there were so many requests for dispensations to marry cousins in the 20th century that the pope delegated special power to the bishop of Sicily to allow marriages between second cousins without the Vatican’s permission.”
And those numbers reveal an even more amazing correlation: “The greater the rate of cousin marriage in a province, the higher the rates of corruption and Mafia activity.”
Individualism, rejection of authority, intellectual independence, willingness to innovate
are, in our time, qualities with positive connotations that almost no one seriously questions. This gives rise to another contrast between Henrich and his two great predecessors, Max Weber and Jared Diamond. Insignificant reservations aside, Joseph Henrich sees a great progress in the social and psychological evolution that has made possible this weird and unique Western path (remember weird = Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic”). His book reads like a paean to this extraordinary historic achievement in which, by the way, the US occupies the top position with regard to most criteria.
In contrast, Max Weber had spoken of the “steel casing of capitalism,” of the impersonality and “loneliness of man” in modern society, and he did not try to conceal the negative aspects of an overwhelming bureaucracy to which it has to submit. To be sure, Henrich mentions the higher suicide rates in Protestant as opposed to Catholic regions, a fact that already attracted Emile Durkheim’s attention, but in his book these limitations only figure as minor blemishes in what on the whole represents a magnificent development of humankind.
As for Jared Diamond, he is far too much of a historian with a deep love of everything concrete that catches his eye to embark on such generalizations. The question is, are they justified? With this question I would like to turn to Henrich’s method.
Henrich treats culture
with the instruments of the natural sciences. He does this in so systematical a way that, in my estimation, more than half of his book of no less than 680 pages is – directly or indirectly – devoted to methodological considerations. Readability suffers from such preoccupation – these considerations together with the accompanying statistics would probably be better off in an appendix – but as a rigorous researcher, Henrich seems to fear nothing so much as to be convicted of lack of seriousness in dealing with causal explanations and statistical evidence. This caution has brought him success. Renowned peers like Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, Daron Acemoglu have praised the book: it has definitely earned its place in the wake of Weber and Diamond.
Nevertheless, some reservations intrude on my mind with regard to method. The impression that must arise in the unbiased reader is just too deceptively optimistic. With the methods of rigorous analysis originating from the natural sciences, the proof now seems conclusive that mankind, having overcome disruptive obstacles (such as the marriage of cousins and the traditional clan mentality that accompanies it), had to follow a path of infinite ascent – all numbers collected by Henrich (and they are many) seem to confirm this conclusion. We get the impression that cultural developments are just as predictable as those of inanimate nature (where, for example, we can predict for coming millennia the positions of the celestial bodies surrounding us).
At this point I would like to express some reservations
Henrich has overlooked an important historical fact. Presumably, the Church succeeded in destroying close kinship ties to a certain extent, but it did not remove them in order to create new human beings freed from all ties but in order to create believing Christians ready to offer donations. It has simply put wider ideological ties in the place of more restrictive biological ones. As we know, one’s brethren were now fellow Christians while one’s enemies were the heretics at home and the unconverted pagans (Muslims, etc.) abroad. For a long time, these followers of the devil could be murdered with tacit consent and or even open approval by the Church. The latter certainly substantially extended existing ties when defining these ideologically, but it has by no means abolished them.
We know that this opposition between us and them continues unabated in today’s secularized society. Those who oppose political correctness at home are muzzled in Western countries, while they may be persecuted or even murdered in states like Russia or China. Nations that cling to their own ideology (nowadays, Western, Russian or Chinese capitalism) point thousands of nuclear warheads on their respective enemies. Seen in this light, nothing essential has changed.
A second criticism concerns the great ruptures of history
These just cannot be grasped by means of the methods used in Henrich’s book. This observation applies to the great revolutions which we call Neolithic, Industrial and Digital. As is well known today, the sedentary way of life initially only brought disadvantages to people: a shorter, less healthy life deprived of many freedoms. Only later did it become apparent that agriculture and animal husbandry could feed many times more people; this superiority then led to hunter-gatherers being more and more displaced by sedentary societies. But of course, no one could have foreseen this at the time when this transition was just beginning.
In the same way, no one at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution could have had the slightest idea that the exploitation of fossil deposits, on which the new economic model relied from its very beginning, would less than two hundred years later exhaust fossil resources and poison nature through its toxic residues (CO2) – an unforeseen turn of events that could very well herald the end of the industrial age with its soon to be ten billion people. Henrich rightly sees the Industrial Revolution as a logical continuation of the increasing liberation of markets and individuals from all the fetters that had hitherto constrained them, but he all but ignores that this development may result in the total exploitation and poisoning of nature. Since many and quite serious thinkers meanwhile warn of these dangers, any analysis of cultural evolution must be deemed one-sided, that overlooks these obvious facts.
Max Weber was thoroughly aware of future dangers (not of course of the environmental crisis). This is also true of Jared Diamond, who in his book Collapse explicitly evokes the possibility of the total collapse of societies. In this context, our reservations become are even more relevant when we consider the importance that Henrich justly ascribes to competition.
The competition of individuals and populations
has become an accepted idea since Charles Darwin at the latest. Starting from biology, it conquered the social sciences. In its coarse form, it turned into Social Darwinism, which infamously wreaked immense havoc during the twentieth century. But in the refined form, as accepted by research and by Henrich, competition between clans, tribes and nations means that the most successful models of different human lifestyles are imitated and adopted by other clans, tribes and nations. Of course, this often includes the very opposite of competition, namely cooperation. The big companies in Silicon Valley developed their amazing ideas in constant competition with each other, but within each company cooperation must be the rule – the great companies owe their global success to this coincidentia oppositorum. Like Max Weber before him, Henrich explains the spread of democracy, open markets and innovation throughout today’s world with the fascination of a model that convinces through its greater performance.
However, Henrich is blind to a crucial flaw
of his development model. We already noted that the marriage and family policy of the Church was not at all aimed at freeing man from all ties. The Church wanted to produce Christians. Until the beginning of modern secularized Europe, Christian were instructed to see in pagans and heretics their enemies that had to be fought relentlessly. Instead of ties to a specific clan, ties to a specific religion became the hallmark of one’s identity.
At the beginning of our modern era (roughly from the 17the century onwards), secularization broke the power of the Church and with it the image of its ideological enemies that is pagans and heretics, but this process did not liberate man from ideological foes. Instead, it merely replaced the old enemies with new ones. Anyone who follows the talk shows in China or Russia and the broadcasts of CNN or Fox News in the United States or the sanctions policy of the EU is well aware of the deep socio-political front lines separating mankind today. Inside the major ideological blocs, heresy has been replaced by political incorrectness while between nations pagan beliefs have been replaced by rival ideologies.
This state of affairs confronts us with the paramount problem
of our time. So successful have the great nations become by the process described by Henrich that each of them, with its economy grown to incredible strength by the industrial civilization, consumes for itself several globes, in this way not only destroying their own sustainable livelihood but at the same time that of the rest of mankind. And the three largest of them – the U.S., Russia and China – can each make the entire globe uninhabitable for millennia to come through nuclear destruction. This is the catastrophic effect of that social, psychological, and scientific-innovative increase in efficiency that Henrich so convincingly describes.
Silicon Valley became the symbol of a recipe for success that spread to the entire world: competition towards the outside, cooperation within – therein lies the magic formula of this recipe. But while the miniature happening in the state of California signals a high point in economic development, its expansion to the entire globe is leading us down the fastest path to disaster. The ceaseless increase in economic and military efficiency of competing nations both cannibalizes the globe and brings humanity ever closer to nuclear self-destruction.
The dilemma, insurmountable at first sight, is that each nation, in the race with all others, weakens itself as soon as it refrains from increasing its own economic or military power for the sake of mankind. That is why we look in vain for even one single rich state pursuing a policy of negative growth and a single poor state voluntarily foregoing positive growth. The situation becomes even more dramatic when we turn to military competition. More and more small states of the kind of North Korea consider it their right (a basic human right?) to acquire the ultimate bomb.
Henrich convincingly demonstrates how the elimination of archaic clan ties has decisively broadened people’s horizons. Nor is it perhaps mere coincidence that he completely overlooks the emergence of new ideologically determined friend-foe stereotypes that replace the old biological ones. If I suggest that this oversight may correspond to an unacknowledged intention on his part, it is because the future of mankind in the 21st century depends on our ability to abolish ideological separation as well. The race of nations for greater economic and military power can only be ended if they mutually recognize each other as representing equal human beings with equal rights, where ideological as well as earlier biological barriers must lose all importance. Only when mankind finally submits to a common authority that replaces the nuclear missiles constantly directed at all of us by a world police, and only when the exploitation and destruction of the earth’s habitat gives way to a sustainable management of the common spaceship earth, can there can be an escape from this race towards the abyss. I know, this idea still seems like utopia to most people today, because, fortunately, the globe is not yet completely poisoned and exploited and because, by mere chance, the ever more complex, ever more destructive arsenals of annihilation constantly enlarged by the great powers have turned our globe into a nuclear waste.In Prof. Henrich’s paean to human development, this rather gloomy perspective is not mentioned. But it arises as an immediate, I would almost say logical consequence. For the sake of intellectual honesty, therefore, it should not be omitted.
*1* It may, of course, be objected that ninety percent of the population, namely the peasantry, were still tied to the land until the 18th century and had to marry locally. The nobility largely resisted the church’s regulations anyway. By and large, only the inhabitants of the cities will have followed them. The British ancient historian Charles Freeman is correspondingly skeptical of Henrich’s thesis. But the historical criticism does not invalidate the astonishing findings that result from Henrich’s statistical material.
Commentary by Prof. Michael Mitterauer,
Dear Mr. Jenner,
with great interest I follow your mailings, which I have been receiving for quite some time. I was particularly interested in your latest contribution “Max Weber – Jared Diamond – Joseph Henrich”. You treat the three authors with regard to how they explain the fact “that Europe followed a path different from all previous history”. This question has also occupied me for many years. In 2003, I published in the Munich Beck-Verlag “Why Europe? Medieval Foundations of a Special Path”. The book received the German Historian’s Prize in 2004 and is now available in Spanish and English translation. As a social historian I started from Max Weber, as an agricultural historian I worked intensively with my classmate Jared Diamond, from whom I received very important suggestions for my Sonderweg research. Since this research is now available in English in several translations, Joseph Henrich and his colleague Jonathan Schulz have repeatedly contacted me. You will find my publications often in their literature citations, unfortunately not my critical remarks. On this background of experience, I would like to allow myself some comments on your article.
Max Weber has put his specific approach to the explanation of the European Sonderweg in the preface to his “Collected Essays on the Sociology of Religion” under the keyword “concatenation of circumstances”. And at such circumstances “concatenated with each other” he cites a long series of factors. If he is quoted again and again only with his “Protestant ethics”, this is an abridgement of his argumentation. One need only look at his work on Italian trading societies or on urbanism in Upper Italy in the High Middle Ages to realize the breadth of his approach. He by no means explains in a one-line, monocausal fashion. Personally, I have tried to take up his approach of the “concatenation of circumstances” and carry it further. And I am convinced, it needs such multifactorial explanations to understand the European special path. I would be happy to send you summary texts on this, if you are interested.
Jared Diamond has chosen the rapid victories of the Spanish in the Americas as vivid examples of how their military superiority was caused by deep-seated cultural differences. But his approach is also much broader and anything but unilinear or monocausal. Inspired by Jared Diamond, I have placed the first chapter on the European Sonderweg in my book under the title “Rye and Oats.” This was done deliberately as a provocation to cultural and intellectual historians who unilaterally seek the origins of the European Sonderweg in the lofty heights of idealistic developments.
Max Weber and Jared Diamond are undoubtedly researchers whose reading should not be specifically recommended to those interested in the conditions of the European Sonderweg. With Joseph Henrich the situation is quite different. His “WEIRD people” are in the truest sense of the word “peculiar people”, whose designation at first arouses interest. However, the explanatory model behind it is very simple and above all scientifically totally outdated. With decades of delay, it once again takes up the thesis of anthropologist Jack Goody, namely that the popes’ early medieval prohibitions on marrying close relatives were the decisive cause for the development of marriage and family in Europe. As recently as 2009, a leading German family historian today, Bernhard Jussen, full professor of medieval studies in Frankfurt a. M., wrote a summary article entitled “Perspectives on Kinship Research Twenty-Five Years after Jack Goody’s ‘Development of Marriage and Family in Europe'” (The Family in Medieval Society, Lectures and Research 71, pp.275-324). After the extensive discussions in medieval studies during this period, Goody’s thesis about the impact of early medieval ecclesiastical endogamy prohibitions on the development of marriage and the family simply cannot be sustained. And now Joseph Henrich and his team try to derive not only the European family development, but the whole European special development, from it with great propaganda effort! The new labeling with “WEIRDpeople” or WEIRDest people” should help this attempt terminologically. In your text you clearly refer to what cannot be explained with the world formula of Henrich&Co. We must indeed speak of Henrich & Co, since Henrich has a large number of collaborators in his scientific production. In your paragraph “At this point I would like to express reservations”, you speak of new bonds which “the church” has brought about that cannot be explaned by the endogamy prohibition. And you are absolutely right when saying “A second criticism concerns the great breaking points of history. Definitely, these cannot be grasped with the methods used in Henrich’s book”.
As an example, you mention the Industrial Revolution. One could add many such “great breaking points of history”. This is also due to the methodology used. The correlations established by Henrich and his team with such mighty effort can ultimately only help to formulate hypotheses. They do not prove anything. For example, they quote: “The higher the marriage rate of cousins in a province, the higher the corruption rate and mafia activity. Henrich &Co fail to provide proof of this supposed regularity. The fact that Francis Fukuyama and other “authorities” recommend the book in no way guarantees methodological reliability. It only shows that powerful citation and praise cartels are behind it. One could also point to prominent critics. Their number among American anthropologists is currently increasing.
I am firmly convinced that it is worthwhile to analyze historical conditions of the European Sonderweg – especially if one wants to draw conclusions for political action in the present. Reading Max Weber and Jared Diamond with such intentions can still be recommended with a clear conscience. Joseph Henrich does not fit into this line.
Please understand the severity of my criticism. It is not primarily directed at you, but at the busybody Harvard professor.
Yours sincerelyMichael Mitterauer
This comment is so interesting that I will answer it in my following essay.
In 1958, a young British author achieved overnight fame with his satirical writing “The Rise of the Meritocracy”. He had correctly identified a trend of the times. Basically, this trend was not particularly new; it had begun in the 18th century, when using their knowledge and skills commoners conquered more and more of those prestigious places that had until then fallen to the nobility due to the privileges of birth. But after 1945, at the end of the fratricidal Thirty Years’ War, the world lay in ruins and knowledge and skill were in particularly high demand. Overnight, as it were, outstanding talent was able to achieve the greatest impact and wealth – most visibly in the United States, where world-dominating companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, etc. were launched by individual pioneers and quickly attained the status of global corporations. Elon Musk, a technical all-round genius who has been just as imaginative and successful in the field of communications technology as he has been in car manufacturing, the space industry and brain research, became a symbol of such superior personal ability. People like him are universally admired, because no one can deny that they owe their fame, rank and wealth primarily to their own above-average skills.
Why did Michael Young write his book “The Rise of the Meritocracy”
as a satire rather than a paean to the most capable men of his time? Will anyone seriously take offense at the fact that the privileges of birth have finally been replaced by individual ability?
Perhaps they will, the argument referring to justice being indeed much more complex. For, are we not, after all, again dealing with a privilege of birth when a Mozart, Beethoven or Bach is born with extraordinary talent for music or an Elon Musk with a special talent for technology? Admittedly, this privilege was not bestowed upon them by society, as is the case with princely or royal titles. In this case, it is nature itself that is responsible – depending on one’s inclination, one may imagine nature to be represented by evolution or God.
Is it acceptable from a point of justice – we may well ask ourselves – that people are born with different talents? Even those who do not want to ask this question are still confronted with the problem whether to give society the right to grant additional awards and rewards to those who are already at an advantage over their fellow human beings due to innate talent? Society thereby only exacerbates existing natural differences.
Obviously, such questions are difficult to answer,
especially since social differences additionally contribute to offering natural talents very different development opportunities. As Pisa studies have shown, even in Germany children from the middle class have a much better chance of finding well-paid jobs than those from lower social strata. The financial situation of ones parents – once again the fortuitous result of birth – thus plays a decisive role in the prospects and happiness of a person’s life. Michael Young had his reasons for being skeptical about the rise of the most capable.
In a departure from Young, I would, however, like to examine meritocracy
from a different perspective. I assume that an overwhelming majority of contemporaries think it is perfectly good and right that people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk have global influence and power because they made a name for themselves through spectacular inventions. In contrast, they have for about three centuries fundamentally rejected being ruled by princes, barons, rajahs, sultans, kings and dictators whose only merit is their descent from high-born parents. If we take this acceptance of meritocracy for granted, we are, nevertheless, left with an extremely interesting and, as we shall see, very troubling question: what will be the future social order emerging on such a basis?
A look at the billions all over the world,
who devote a substantial share of their life time to the cell phones in their hands, makes it easier to get to grips with our problem. Ninety-nine percent know how to use the device. Less than one percent know why and how it works, and an infinitesimally small fraction of the latter would be able to redevelop the device if it suddenly disappeared due to some catastrophe.
This contrast between an overwhelming majority of ignorant users and a vanishing minority of experts deepens with each passing day – and it does so in an inescapable way, because technological progress means nothing else but growing complexity – knowledge and skill being increasingly and infinitely widened and deepened. The consequences for society will be radical and can easily be foreseen.
In the future, a decreasing number of people
will still be capable of understanding complex technologies. This is unavoidable as the demands on the technical intelligence of researchers and engineers are increasing as knowledge deepens. It is true that subjects are becoming more and more divided, but each subject is getting a broader base and at the same time the knowledge pyramid is reaching higher. This process of increasing complexity of knowledge is in the nature of things and therefore inevitable. Accordingly, the demands on human intelligence become higher and higher, while the Gaussian normal distribution of intelligence within the population is a constant, changing at most slightly in the course of centuries.
The inevitable consequence is worldwide headhunting,
where those countries are at an advantage that either have the greatest potential of a well-trained population (e.g. Japan, South Korea, China) or the greatest financial means to lure talent from all over the world with high salaries (e.g. USA and other Western countries). At the present day, there is a general competition for the funds of investors and for the technologically trained intelligentsia all over the world. The pool of talent that can be drawn from is now expanding to include all of Asia and soon Africa as well.
But globalization only temporarily alleviates the pressure to tap ever greater intelligence potential. The Gaussian normal distribution of intelligence and the demands due to rising technological complexity contradict each other. And this will have a consequence that will change the structure of future society in a profound way. What we already observe at present will deepen dramatically in the future: the gap between a majority that passively enjoys the fruits of technological complexity on the one hand, and on the other, technical geniuses like Elon Musk and his ilk, who invent, plan and understand what they are dealing with. Headhunting for above-average intelligence will inevitably be accompanied by growing inequality of social recognition and reward.
The loss of a common language
The masters and geniuses of technology and science have less and less in common with their fellow human beings. An astrophysicist, a neurological expert or a drosophila researcher each live in their own bubbles of highly specialized knowledge. The astrophysicist can really communicate only with other astrophysicists, be it in China or in the USA, it is merely the coincidence of birth that still connects him with his compatriots. The natural sciences have created a type of human being for whom national and cultural affiliation plays no more than a subordinate role, because the laws of nature, to whose knowledge he devotes his life, exist independently of national and cultural borders.
This is tantamount to a loss of meaning
The modern natural sciences that emerged in the 17th century created, for the first time in history, a social class that is allowed to act in a socially meaningless way. Until then, this freedom had nowhere existed in any human society. Among hunter-gatherers, the meaning of daily actions was as directly prescribed to the few members of the horde as is the role of each animal in a pack of lions while they are hunting. In later agrarian societies after the Neolithic Revolution, the actions of each social class were visibly related to the good of the whole. The farmer had to feed everyone, the nobility had to provide defense, the clergy had to explain the world, and the artisans were responsible for keeping the material framework of society in repair.
Today there are countless professions,
whose designation alone is exotic so that their purpose has to be circumstantially explained to the average citizen in order for him to grasp their meaning, e.g. drosophila researcher, ocularist, industrial climber, to name but a few from a steadily growing plethora of examples. But the most exotic professions come about as a result of the broader and broader research foci within the natural sciences. Only in the case of medical research, is their meaning immediately comprehensible to the layman. A doctor may be a specialist in researching a particular drug for the cure of an equally particular organ of the human body, but the meaning of what he does remains evident: he cures people.
On the other hand, the meaning of our knowledge
about the structure of atoms or galaxies is not obvious at all. Until recently, mankind knew nothing about black holes, red giants, protons and electrons, and yet it has existed on this planet for more than a million years. Whether we can count on a further period of this length, indeed, whether we can count on even the next hundred years, is by no means settled. The reason for this uncertainty lies exactly in the fact that we have abandoned the question of meaning. For quite some time meaning did not seem to matter at all, because the industrial revolution and ist main agent, technological meritocracy, produced an unbelievable upswing in living conditions and for many people they still do so today. That is why the research that made this process possible in the first place was generally credited as being “good” and highly “meaningful”.
The industrial revolution, recently also called Anthropocene,
has undoubtedly brought about the most profound of all upheavals in human history. As recently as the last century, a question about its meaning seemed simply superfluous. A growing number of people worldwide gained access to greater material well-being. In the states of the West, this goal was realized to such a high degree in the second half of the twentieth century that some could afford the luxury of rejecting the goal itself as “materialistic” and asking for higher goals. But wherever people still live in terrible poverty, that is, in large parts of Asia, in Africa or South America there is no room for such doubts. There, people follow the example of China. First, they want to achieve the Western standard of living, and later they may afford themselves the luxury of striving for something higher – for the time being, the striving for material prosperity exhausts the range of meaning.
But what, if meaning turns into nonsense?
The Industrial Revolution has made the Anthropocene possible, in other words, the unrestricted domination of the planet by human beings. The exploitation of all available resources, especially fossil energy, has so increased the food supply that Homo sapiens has increased its numbers more than sevenfold in a mere blink of history. The consequences are mega-metropolises that turn entire landscapes into deserts of concrete, with more and more space beyond those cities needed for the production of food so that it too must be used as a kind of agrarian desert where other species are reduced to a minimum. The best-known example is the Amazon rainforests transformed into fields for growing soy. However, the same process started much earlier in a prosperous country like Germany. Here, natural forests have predominantly given way to spruce plantations, where trees are planted in military order lined up like tin soldiers.
Obviously, acquiring wealth becomes meaningless when a manifold increase in population thwarts the increase in global per capita wealth and when, at the same time, the resources needed for local wealth increase are largely consumed by the generation currently living, so that future generations will have to be content with a devastated and exhausted globe.
Unfortunately, a word like “devastated” is anything but an exaggeration. We are poisoning the air with the climate poison CO2, we are poisoning the oceans with plastic and thousands of other industrial products, we are reducing the yield and usable area of the soil with garbage and the addition of artificial nutrients that destroy the humus. Recently, we are even littering the ionosphere as ubiquitous space debris becomes a threat to future space travel.
Technical knowledge and research are not “value-neutral”,
as often claimed, they are forces which, on the contrary, exert a direct influence on our values. It is our immensely increased knowledge, it is technological meritocracy that, in the past three hundred years, have transformed the world so comprehensively that the question of meaning has become the most urgent of all.
Meaning not only threatens to turn into nonsense but into madness,
once our knowledge not only deepens the social divide between technical laymen and experts, but its misuse finally becomes a threat to all mankind. Regardless of whether a researcher develops a drug that helps millions to survive, or whether he explores the physical prerequisites for a new, even more efficient bomb, or the chemical basis for an even more effective nerve poison – in all cases he is sure to win the Nobel Prize if his research represents a breakthrough in his respective field. Knowing nature and its laws better and better has generally been judged and appreciated as meaningful for three centuries, although it is precisely this knowledge that enables mankind to extinguish itself for the first time.
The question of meaning was put aside,
as if knowledge and research were always and essentially good, even if they equip us with more and more effective instruments of self-destruction. Man has, so to speak, divided himself into two halves: to the knowing and researching spirit he ascribes innocence, the acting man alone is supposed to bear responsibility. Thus, it comes that all larger states employ thousands of researchers with the production of weapons of mass destruction, the researchers themselves, however, decline all responsibility. What others do with their knowledge is none of their business.
Not everyone thought that way. In a few cases, it is a great researcher himself who sees through the fatal irresponsibility.
Albert Einstein contributed substantially to the development of the final bomb. At the end of his life, however, he wondered about the meaning of what he had been doing. He saw no other way out to cope with the new threat than putting a definite end to the global race for greater economic and military power. But this would require the final step toward a united world. Only a world government would have the possibility to really prevent this race towards the abyss. It may be added that only such a world-uniting power would be able to put a stop to the progressive desolation and destruction of the planet.
Any not well-disposed reader is likely to protest
at this point at the latest. Why, Mr. Jenner, do you end a not entirely uninteresting essay with such unrealistic proposals? Your readers have to fight against Corona and unemployment, the economy as a whole against decline and enormous debts, but you talk about the necessity of a world government, which is of no interest to any of us if only because nobody has the possibility to bring it about by his own actions!
That’s right! All I can say is that this is precisely the tragedy and danger of our current situation. A meritocracy of the technologically most powerful has been wreaking havoc on nature for three hundred years – and with increasing speed and efficiency. It works on behalf of superpowers whose end-time weapons it increases in scale and lethal perfection with every passing year. Actually, it should be obvious to everyone that the dangers involved are infinitely greater than Corona, unemployment and swelling debt. Nevertheless, the abyss towards which we are heading by the destruction of nature and the perfection of end-time weapons hardly seems to be of general interest – as if it were no more than the invention of malicious imagination. Should we really leave our fate to a meritocracy that to this day does not ask itself the question about the meaning, nonsense and madness of its actions?
We are used to measuring this form of government above all by the degree of freedom that a government grants its citizens. Viewed from this perspective, the picture is as bright as it is gloomy. No one prevents me from expressing even the most absurd opinions. I may even call publicly for the overthrow of the government, provided that this is done without insulting specific individuals and without denouncing the democratic constitution as such. Continue reading Is Democracy still alive?
Francis Fukuyama, arguably America’s most profound political scientist, enriched our understanding of man and history by an important notion of Greek origin – “thymos”. This term, used extensively by Plato in “The State”, is well suited to illuminate our present situation. The Greek philosopher speaks of thymos to describe a decisive dimension of human action. In his opinion, man does not obey reason alone; in truth, something else is added, namely will, desire, passion, anger, self-assertion – in short, “thymos”. Whoever ignores this driving force hardly understands human behavior. Continue reading Thymos and Logic – Why we know, yet do not act