In the West, we trust that our public policies are guided by rationalism, and that our governments “listen to the science”. (For more on this topic, see Science – there is method to the madness)
We believe that despite being messy, the adversarial nature of our parliaments, combined with transparency from the fourth estate, journalism, and objective laws from an independent judicial system, ultimately translates to a healthy society. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed weakness in political leadership, social media has gutted the effectiveness of traditional journalism, and a toxic mix of populism and nativism is threatening many democracies. We are in the middle of an existential crisis, no longer certain that western democracy is the best social structure, or that it is even sustainable. How did we suddenly find ourselves here, and what is the way forward? Perhaps some answers and solutions can be found in science.
Let’s start by thinking WEIRD. Some will have read The WEIRDest People in the World (Henrich, 2020), which explains the theory for a general audience. One aspect easily grasped is that most subjects of scientific tests – medical, psychological, sociological, and so on – are drawn from WEIRD societies: White Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic. The reason for this is simple – scientific studies are mainly done at western universities, where cash-starved students make willing subjects. This means that most scientific research on humans is being done on highly biased samples. But surely factors distinguishing western university students from other demographic segments are minor, and can be ignored or accounted for? Wrong. A growing body of work shows that people from WEIRD societies have quite dramatically different psychological profiles from those of the rest of the world.
Briefly, people from WEIRD societies behave more as individuals; they are analytical, can shamelessly flout societal norms, focus on self-fulfillment, and feel a deep sense of guilt if they violate their personal values. People in other societies behave as members of kinship groups, not as individuals, and their psychological profiles are based on this perspective. They tend to conform to their societal obligations, and feel a deep sense of shame if they fall short. There is a huge body of evidence for these concepts in Henrich’s book, laid out in a dry, exhaustive, academic manner.
Henrich builds an explanation for all of this. He describes deep-rooted European social trends that started perhaps 1,500 years ago and manifested early on when the Catholic Church systematically dismantled traditional family structures around marriage, inheritance, and identity, and replaced them with new Church-based rules (Marriage and Family Program, or MFP). The imposition of monogamy, from kings down to peasants, created cracks in the psychological adherence to patriarchal authoritarianism, and planted the seeds of egalitarianism. The tightening of incest taboos lowered kinship intensity and opened people to broader social interactions. This paved the way to the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, the advent of representative government and the nation state, and other elements of the modern world including impersonal markets, free competition, and professional specialization.
The details can certainly be disputed. What was the role of the printing press? Did the Reformation drive change? Or did change drive an inevitable Reformation? Other thinkers have alternative or complementary theories to explain the rise to dominance by the West. Henrich goes out of his way to explain how the Guns, Germs, and Steel theory (Diamond, 1997) dovetails WEIRD thinking. The key point is that we can argue over how western society got here, but there is no disputing that it is indeed here – a society unlike any seen before, its members behaving in ways that had been rare or unknown for the human species.
The implications of this new field of research are significant. Fully considered, they can lead to a complete revision of how the West fits into the human world. This is unsettling, realizing that personality aspects we (meaning “we” people from western democracies) consider normal and universal, are in fact outliers in the global spectrum of the human condition. Certainly, there are cultural differences within other parts of the world, but those between the West and the Rest are far and away the most significant. The Rest simply does not share our WEIRD beliefs in such things as individual rights, self-control, trust in government, open interactions with outsiders, moral universalism, prosociality (behaviours benefitting others), and rational thinking.
In a corporate crisis, management science advises a company to revisit its core values and the key elements of its original success. A plan built around these core values and operating principles can guide it out of crisis. Perhaps the theories being developed from WEIRD research could be used in the same way to lead us forward? After all, we are a culture founded on analysis and rationalism.
Fundamental to WEIRD theory is the concept that humans are born with only partially hardwired psychological software, allowing our attitudes and behaviours to be shaped by the culture in which we grow up. Unlike other species that have limited, if any, ability to change from generation to generation, our behaviours are shaped in us as we age. It’s our killer app – not language, not the opposable thumb, not a highly developed sense of consciousness (although these all play a part in our adaptability), or any of the other reasons put forward to explain our success. We can alter our psychology, especially in a group sense, to best fit the ecological niche in which we live. Examples of this flexibility are numerous. For instance, just a few generations after the Spanish brought horses to the Americas, North American plains cultures were totally rebuilt around their use.
Picture the prehistoric world with scattered human societies, each with an evolved package of behaviours allowing it to thrive. Hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, farmers, fishing people – each would have a set of beliefs and attitudes that allowed it to succeed. A society that hunts small game might favour individualism and creativity. Large game hunters could be structured around co-operative packs. A farming society might favour a community-based mindset in which labour and harvests are shared. A marine society such as the ancient Polynesians would require social structures that ensured navigational skills were transferred from generation to generation.
Now picture a rise in human population, causing these societies to encroach on each other’s territories. The interaction tends to cause less successful societies to adopt cultural aspects of more successful ones. The processes are very similar to genetic evolution, albeit at a much quicker rate – successful cultural traits flourish and grow, while others fade away, in just a few generations. In the distant past, the key factor driving cultural evolution was resource scarcity. Human societies were structured to survive food shortages, which nature tended to create on a regular basis. As humans developed ways to ensure larger, more reliable food supplies, most notably through farming, technology, and alternative forms of energy, cultural attributes that allowed societies to scale up in size became paramount. Larger societies swallowed up smaller ones, even if those smaller ones had been successful in their own right. Currently, cultures around the globe see and often envy the size, power, and wealth of western democracies, and are drawn to adopt WEIRD culture.
Human social groups tend to be limited in size by the number of people who can be trusted, and in primitive societies this usually equates to the size of kinship units. Most societies have successfully found ways to scale up by creating larger family-like structures. Examples include tribes, clans, city states (e.g. Greece), dialect-based groups (e.g. China), and the highly successful social construct that is religion. Present day, most non-WEIRD countries have adopted some mix of nationalism, religion, and ethnic identification to scale up to WEIRD-like levels. In Western Europe, religion was a steppingstone to a belief system that has allowed a society of unprecedented size and scope to develop. The shared values of rationalism, representative government, and other elements of western society have created a world in which huge numbers of people trust each other enough to work together somewhat co-operatively.
That world finds itself under attack, primarily via two factors. First, the trust required to support such a complex system is difficult to maintain, and there is a tendency for humans to revert to tribalism (often with the help of politicians), along with many other non-WEIRD behaviours. Second, it takes a culture and its members time to adopt the values and behaviours of a new society. This is problematic when immigration brings large numbers of people from non-WEIRD cultures into WEIRD societies.
How can WEIRD societies possibly find their way out of the current mess without understanding who they are and how they got here? To start with, for a culture based on rationalism, we are not doing a very good job of using our scientific knowledge. Currently, it is sickening to watch western leaders make a big show of parading health experts to the media, only to make COVID-19 public health decisions based on political calculus, or even worse, their unqualified gut instincts. Surely, if the electorate and politicians could better understand and value the science behind critical areas such as public health and protecting the environment, it would help avoid harmful policies and laws. (See Manipulating science – activism and advocacy for more on this subject)
Another sensible step would be formal recognition that our western societies are based on a specific societal framework held together by key shared values, which are not natural or universal. Those values need to be enshrined and protected much better than they are presently. There should be no option for politicians to use democratic mechanisms to take societies down non-democratic paths. The critical role fact-based journalism plays needs to be recognized and re-established. There should also be an understanding that there is no quick way to transition a non-WEIRD society to a WEIRD one. You can’t just send a country some foreign aid, ensure that elections are held, and presto – an instant western democracy has been created. It takes time (a few generations), patience, and a desire for the non-WEIRD society to change. Tying trade and foreign aid to instant change, especially around what we consider human rights, is naive and unrealistic.
Regarding the problems in nativism and populism, it seems obvious that immigration issues, especially societal frictions related to the integration of immigrants, are the ingredients with which populists and nativists cook their toxic stews. Understanding WEIRD-related mechanisms could allow governments to create smoother, more effective integration policies. Clarity around what is expected of immigrants would be highly beneficial for both the immigrants and the societies they are entering.
In the U.S., the American Dream philosophy underlies the approach to immigration – if you play by our rules, then all the benefits of society are open to you. However, a large part of the American population does not believe or want that. They see immigrants as outsiders who should never be granted full membership. Division over that issue is a significant roadblock to progress. In Canada, there is a philosophy of pluralism that promises immigrants the freedom to continue their cultural practices in their new home, yet Canada views itself as a WEIRD society. There are fundamental incompatibilities in this scenario, usually related to non-WEIRD kinship rules, and can result in things abhorrent to most of Canadian society, such as forced marriages and “honour killings”. That conflict, too, needs to be better understood and sorted out. Canada can’t have it both ways, with WEIRD and non-WEIRD under one flag.
The thorny issues of Indigenous rights and integration fall into this discussion as well. North American aboriginal cultures are essentially non-WEIRD societies forced to integrate into a WEIRD one; immigrants who never moved. Rather than being viewed as primarily a political issue, perhaps we should come at it from a scientific perspective. A Fair Country (Saul, 2009) argues that Canada is already a hybrid culture, a mix of European WEIRDness and Aboriginal non-WEIRDness, forged over the many centuries of Métis cultural development prior to Confederation. Perhaps Canada’s somewhat anachronistic and outdated political systems could be tweaked in ways to more accurately reflect Canadian culture, in particular the importance placed on compromise and consensus.
Huge risks to this science-based approach can be found in recent human history. Science has often been used to justify ghastly public policies – for example, eugenics and forced sterilizations. (For more on this topic, see Science and morality – ethics and judgment)
Simply substitute cultural purity – in this case WEIRD – for racial purity and you have the makings of an extremely dangerous political ideology. Of course, there is no guarantee that science is objective, nor that all scientists and scientific bodies remain independent and avoid politicization. As with anything related to public policy and human society, the issues are complex, pitfalls abound, and clear answers are difficult to find. However, those are not reasons to give up, as our society is at risk.
This discussion has not looked deeply at what are multifaceted and challenging issues. However, the primary point made is clear and simple – western democracies are in a crisis that demands analysis and answers. Our culture is built on using science to find and implement solutions. Rationalism is in our cultural DNA, and the science-based theories related to WEIRD offer a model that explains western society, both how it evolved and how it operates. Let’s use that as a way to analyse our challenges and forge a path of pragmatic progress, rather than mindlessly drifting back toward the Dark Ages.
Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W. W. Norton. Retrieved from http://www.jareddiamond.org/Jared_Diamond/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel.html
Henrich, J. (2020). The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Retrieved from https://weirdpeople.fas.harvard.edu/
Saul, J. R. (2009). A Fair Country : Telling Truths About Canada. Toronto: Penguin Canada. Retrieved from https://www.johnralstonsaul.com/non-fiction-books/a-fair-country/