Silly question: Are humans free?

No, the question is only stupid because it is thought to be so. Not long ago leading German neurologists like Roth and Singer considered their fellow men expressis verbis naive, if not downright stupid, if they did not want to recognize that from a scientific point of view – man does not possess freedom of will.*1* Their conviction is nothing new. The Babylonians thought that human destiny was completely determined by the stars. Church fathers like Augustin, Luther and Calvin justified their rejection of human freedom with the omniscience of God. To God, the entire future including the thoughts and intentions of men are known since the beginning of creation. Ergo, freedom cannot exist. Philosophers like Democritus, Spinoza, Voltaire, Schopenhauer up to Bertrand Russell also belong to the vocal deniers of freedom. They are opposed by thinkers such as Gottlieb Fichte and Martin Heidegger, who conversely pathetically proclaim freedom. In the middle between these two oppsing camps usually stands the unbiased layman, who has always known to be at the same time free and exposed to multiple constraints. Among the great philosophers who convincingly argued this point of view we find William James, Karl Jaspers, and Karl Popper.*2*

The opposition between these two positions

not only manifests itself in the history of religion and philosophy, it is inherent, as it were, in each of us. When observing other people, we intuitively ask about the motives of their behavior, i.e., about the limits of their freedom and arbitrariness, in order to respond to them in an appropriate way. This is the case with feared adversaries anyway, but even with people we love. The better we know their respective likes and dislikes, the more likely we are to anticipate their reactions, and the less danger there is that there will be friction in dealing with them. In the same way, this object perspective is assumed by a writer of novels who tries to make us understand why his protagonists act just the way they do (he describes the conscious or unconscious compulsions to which their actions obey).

In contrast, we adopt the subject perspective with equal naturalness as soon as we analyze our own personal actions. When spontaneously deciding to make a trip to the Kulm, a nearby mountain, on a beautiful autumn morning – and not, say, two weeks from now – I naturally evaluate this decision as free. It is not forced on me by anyone – not even by my own cherished habits, because I am aware that I can revoke them at any time. Yes, this awareness of one’s own freedom of thought and action goes so far that some people deliberately do the opposite of what others expect of them or even what they expect of themselves. 

This twofold perspective

has its reason in two opposing needs, which are fundamental for every single human being as well as for every society. We only gain security in dealing with nature and with other people if we explore their rules and laws ever deeper and further. With regard to nature, we have succeeded so well that we are now able to retrodict the history of the cosmos back to the Big Bang and to predict it until the sun will have burned its hydrogen fuel. But security has never been the only human need. For the child and every human being who has retained his natural curiosity into old age, the unexpected, the surprise, the mystery of existence constitute a constant challenge giving life its charm and its color in the first place. Complete security, i.e. predictability, would enclose us within a straitjacket that suffocates all spontaneity. As long as we live, we constantly look for the attraction of the not yet known, the emergence of things new.*3* A world, in which we would know everything, would be a mere machine, devoid of freedom. It would be dead and frozen.

I venture to say that the need for security on the one hand and for mystery on the other, i.e. for the challenge by the unknown and the new, dominated man from the very beginning of history. They are no more and no less than the two constituent features of the human condition.

The paradox of man’s condition is,

that we alternately strive – with a kind of inner necessity – for security (resulting from the discovery of order) and for freedom. So, these two elementary needs are closely connected with either the two alternatives of the object or the subject perspective. This contrast attains its extreme expression as soon as man appears as a researcher, i.e. when he questions nature and himself not only intuitively like any layman but systematically. Psychology as a science would be of no avail if all our emotional or intellectual reactions were the result of mere chance, so that the researcher would only come across chaos instead of recognizable regularities. The same observation applies to sociology. And, of course, it is only worthwhile for neurological science to investigate the biological foundations of human nature because an abundance of such regularities (partly of a law-like nature) do actually exist.

Just at this point the paradox

reveals itself with particular evidence. The same neurologist who regards man as an object revealing to him an abundance of regularities or even laws, holds the second role of a subject at the same time as he is their active observer and discoverer. In this role, however, he not only feels free – he even has to be so, because otherwise his approach would be subject to an insurmountable contradiction. If the human beings he studies as objects would be determined for him by laws throughout, if, in other words, they would be completely predictable – in popular diction bereft of free will -, then the same must, of course, be true for the observing researcher himself. In other words, he himself would condemn himself to be no more than an automaton controlled by impersonal laws. His own results and scientific statements, even the false ones, would be equally conditioned by impersonal laws. In this case, the distinction of scientifically true in contrast to false statements would, of course, make no sense.

As long as science assumes

that basically all human thinking and acting can be interpreted in a law-like way (provided we would only carry on our research for a long enough period), this paradox is unsolvable, because we are faced with an insurmountable logical contradiction. In our time it is fashionable to deny any credit to purely logical considerations. Scientists prefer to carry out physiological experiments according to Benjamin Libet or turn to quantum physics to clarify the problem in a very elaborate and costly way.  But the elementary rules of logic and scientific truth are at the base of all research, so the logical paradox remains crucial, even if its recognition costs us no more than a little more than average thinking ability

We therefore come to a clear conclusion: However numerous the rules or even laws we may still discover in the thinking and acting of human beings, it is nevertheless evident that these rules or laws will never determine them completely. Besides being to a certain degree governed by rules or laws, we act and think out of freedom – that is in an unpredictable way. If most laymen were not intuitively aware of this basic fact, they could derive it from the opposition between subject and object perspectives, both of which are inherent in each of us.

Significant, however, are the contrasts of temperament

and inclination that arise between researchers, especially when it comes to the interpretation of human behavior in history (historiography), politics (political science), society (sociology), and interpersonal relationships (psychology). Since the 19th century up to our days an opposition unfolds here, which manifests itself above all in the readiness (or else the reluctance) to transfer the methods of the exact natural sciences to the sphere of man. Even if the freedom of man or contrary view that he is subject to regularites and laws just like the rest of nature, is not explicitly mentioned, this opposition always remains perceptible in the background. It even leads to heated arguments about what should be considered serious science. I consider these argument as misleading as most of the cockfights between the representatives of freedom versus necessity.

Let us turn to a concrete example:

namely, the controversy about Joseph Henrich, a Harvard professor with much influence among present-day anthropologists. Like no other before him, Henrich tried to explain man and his history in terms of a few characteristics, especially in terms of the density of biological relationships. According to him, Europe owes its unique historical evolution above all to the fact that biological clans, which dominated social life everywhere else in the world, had been suppressed since the fourth century by the marriage and family policy of the catholic church.*4*

The reaction to the theses of the Harvard anthropologist consists in an “aha” experience among those who consider them correct; on the other hand, his opponents consider them all but simplistic – the complex historical reality does not allow to explain the evolution of society and the resulting psychological traits in such a simple way.

In my opinion, this objection misses the purpose of science

All science seeks to explain reality – whether that of external nature or that of man – with as few principles and factors as possible. In his famous “world formula”, Albert Einstein only used three basic entities, namely energy, mass and the speed of light to explain matter. Jared Diamond has attributed to a single factor, namely the germ resistance of Europeans acquired through close cohabitation with domestic animals, a decisive influence on the victory of Europeans over the great empires of the Aztecs and Incas. Michael Mitterauer attributed to a single factor, namely the spread of rye (and oats for horses) in northwestern Europe, a major role in its emergence after the collapse of the Roman Empire.*5*

The fact that Joseph Henrichs regards the elimination of close kinship relations as a decisive factor explaining the uniqueness of European development must also be considered legitimate. It is not the question whether complex historical developments are explained by a multitude of factors, or by only one (monocausal explanation), that vouches for scientific respectability, but whether the explanation is right or wrong (also with regard to the scope attributed to it).

One-dimensional explanations of complex relations are often quite wrong – this makes them suspicious from the outset, but if they turn out to be right, then they meet the ideal of scientific explanation (the demand for greatest possible simplicity) to a special degree. For example, Henrich claims to have come across the following statistical correlation: “The greater the rate of cousin marriage in a province, the higher the rates of corruption and Mafia activity.” This finding is rather challenging because it relates two apparently completely different cultural dimensions: the density of biological relationships on the one hand, crime on the other. After reviewing the figures in different parts of the world, anthropology will have to either accept Henrich’s thesis as accurate or reject it as false (or partially valid only). Even if it turns out to be correct, it does, of course, not tell us anything about the cause of this correlation. One of the two variables could be the cause of the other or a factor that lies outside of both. For Henrich himself, the cause lies in the special clan mentality that results from such close kinship relationships.

The freedom of man,

his complexity and multidimensionality, remains, even if the limits of freedom are sometimes determined by very simple factors. From a scientific point of view, the crucial question always remains one and the same: do the statements in question stand up to scrutiny, are they right or wrong? For example, throughout his history, man has put forward the most ludicrous theories about epidemics. Witchcraft and magic, the wrath of the gods or personal enemies have been blamed, and a myriad of innocent people have been persecuted for such imaginary causes. It was not until the 19th century that the existence of bacteria and even later that of viruses was discovered. This correct monocausal explanation immediately swept away all those wrong and highly complex multicausal explanations of earlier times. As a matter of fact, human freedom may sometimes be limited by a single cause such as bacteria or viruses.

*1* His colleague Lüder Deecke (2012, pos. 1458): “Gerhard Roth, who worked predominantly on salamanders, is trying to persuade us to give up responsibility…. Another neuroscientist, Wolf Singer, an expert of the visual system…. is of the opinion that the principle of responsibility of man is untenable, for in the brain there is no leadership… Wolf Singer draws extensive conclusions for our legal system from his dubious premises, he pleads for the abolition of responsibility.”

*2* In my book “Creative Reason” I tried to extend these arguments in several directions.

*3* The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski expresses this very beautifully:

The unknown world can be a source of fear, but so can the overly familiar world with its well-known course planned by ourselves… In things we subdued thanks to centuries of dramatic effort, we are no longer able to discover a mythical organization, nor to believe in it seriously. Precisely because they are subdued, harnessed, as it were, before the cart which we know how to steer, the physical energies appear to our gaze a hundredfold more “dehumanized,” more indifferent, in the fullness of futility, although we have just meaningfully integrated them into our projects. We long again for the abandoned unpredictability of things…, we have been longing for it since the 18th century, from the moment that mechanized industry began to transform the surface of the earth”.

And “… complete predictability /is/ a quality fundamentally different from what is familiar to us from relationships with other people…. In encounters with other people, in which we succeed in relaxing the rules of factual exchange and in allowing the spontaneity pulsating on both sides to have its say, the inability to predict, as well as its superfluity, constitutes a specifically human value for us; the predictability of the other person is a quality of the reified relations between us: all spontaneity is creative… ” (my translation of the German edition Kolakowsky1973; p. 97).

*4* In the preceding essay, I examined Henrich’s theses in more detail.

*5* The conversion to new cereal varieties then led to more integrated agriculture with large livestock, deeper plowing of the soil, the use of water mills, and many other consequences.

This is my cover letter to Prof. Mitterauer:

Dear Mr. Mitterauer,

I read your two essays – one on the special path of Europe, the other on endogamous kinship relations – not merely with intellectual profit but with emotional pleasure as well, because they embody that kind of historiography which combines meticulous care in dealing with concrete events with the endeavor to recognize more general connections existing between them. It struck me, of course, that your research on the influence of the catholic church on the development of kinship relations, provides much of the empirical foundation on which Henrich could then pile his lofty edifice (after all, he quotes you 35 times). However, little is left in his work of the numerous reservations and restrictions found in your pages.

 I understand your criticism of Joseph Henrich and can imagine your surprise that I respond to it with an essay that first speaks very generally of freedom and necessity. Let me justify this approach in this cover letter.

In our time, I see two tendencies at work which fundamentally change the way history has been understood up to now. While the classical way consisted in taking great, wise, venerable people as models (above all men) and regarding them as the actual demiurges of historical transformations, an altogether different tendency has established itself at the latest with Marx. Now impersonal mechanisms of a social, psychological, political kind were held responsible for historic change. This substitution of the personal by the impersonal was accompanied by what we may call democratic pathos that finds the idea unacceptable that men or women of the past should be considered more credible than the normal man of our time (since we are all basically the same). Such democratic pathos logically culminates in Henrich’s proceedings: People living today are questioned about every imaginable item and their answers then statistically evaluated in order to interpret even past history. 

I deal with what I believe to be a second modern tendency in dealing with history when – via the detour of freedom and necessity – I respond to your objection that you cannot accept Henrich’s approach as scientifically serious. Here I do not quite agree. Certainly, his approach would not be scientifically serious if his peers can prove that his generalizations are not empirically justified – that is, false. But there is nothing wrong with generalizations per se – even the most daring ones – from a scientific point of view. More precisely, nothing except that little remains of previous historiography. For what Henrich presents to us is a most alarming assimilation of the human sciences to the natural sciences. The latter may allow themselves to summarize the whole order of nature in one single formula like E = m*c2, because the regularities of nature are laws which from the human perspective are eternally. But this obviously does not apply to the sphere of man and human institutions.

Now, the endeavor to transfer the methods of the natural sciences to those of the mind as well exists since the 17th century – German Romanticism merely repelled it for some time. It is precisely this endeavor which manifests itself in full strength in Henrich’s work. So, it is no surprise that his work too (difficult to read due to constant repetitions) may be summarized in a single formula: Progress = destruction of close relations + psychic factors A, B, C….

As I said before, this endeavor in itself should not be called unscientific. It only becomes so, if one believes to be able to apply such formulas just like those of the natural sciences. What these are meant to achieve, is obvious. Einstein’s world formula gives us immense power. With its help we have tamed the nuclear forces of nature.

But let’s assume that Henrich’s formula is empirically correct. Would it then be possible to use it in the same way in order to exercise power over people and society? For instance, could we provide government with a recipe of the kind: Be careful not to allow marriages between cousins. If you do so, you can be sure that society will develop in the direction of democracy, innovation, etc.?

Just like you, dear Mr. Mitterauer, I harbor the strongest reservations against this new way of using history (which in fact amounts to its abolition). Until recently, people used to look up to great role models for guidance. With immense pleasure I followed Will Durant, a master of this empathetic way of presenting history. But I know a professorial philistine who, to speak with Nietzsche, never discovered more than one or two philological earthworms, but nevertheless allows himself to disparage this encyclopedically educated man as a mere popularizer. He is doubly wrong since Durant is no longer popular at all, nobody reads him anymore, although his time is separated from ours by only one generation.

Now, let me express my real reservation against Henrich, which I omitted in my first essay. Even if his generalizations are not invalidated as empirically wrong, the formulas based on them can never be used for practical purposes like those of the natural sciences. For it is here once more that human freedom comes powerfully into play. If man suffocates under too much order, he longs for chaos (see my quotation from Kolakowski), if around him the world disintegrates in chaos, he longs for nothing so much as for order. To put it in the words of Paul Valéry, two things constantly threaten the world: order and disorder. In this way, he lives with and in opposites – and both condition each other.

A formula of the kind “progress = destruction of close relations” therefore leads us completely astray. At the beginning of the 21st century we are aware that America is no longer a melting pot but threatens to disintegrate into independent ethnic groups. But not only in the US, everywhere in the world ethnic nationalism seems to be on the rise. Moreover, the consequences of progressively loosening all close interpersonal ties become more and more visible as it now even threatens to disintegrate the oldest institution of mankind, namely marriage. Couldn’t we even argue that the dissolution of endogamous ties posed no problem for the very reason that the closest of all, namely marriage, still provided the individual with a sufficient emotional anchorage?

Henrich knows nothing about the dialectics of interdependent opposites, Henrich does not know anything about the conditionality of opposites, and neither do those of his successors who destroy humanities by wanting to transform them into a natural science (because it only partially overlaps with them).

Kind regards

Gero Jenner

Max Weber – Jared Diamond – Joseph Henrich

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

My response.
This comment is so interesting that I will answer it in my following essay.