September 24, 2020

A Catholic legacy, naturalized

A recent article “A New Theory of Western Civilization” (The Atlantic) leads me to wonder about connections between this giving context to the rise of western ideas of the individual self, and the “widely held” beliefs ingrained in Wise Use and Property Rights movements.

The Atlantic article is a deep look into evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich’s “ambitious theory-of-everything book”, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.  I think it offers dimension to the overlooked “how’d we get here, and then export it as if it’s always been this way” and helps me personally stop saying “humans” as if al of us descend from this now-dominant ideology that eagerly seeks to erase its historical coming-to-be.

Human beings are not “the genetically evolved hardware of a computational machine,” he writes. They are conduits of the spirit, habits, and psychological patterns of their civilization, “the ghosts of past institutions.”

One culture, however, is different from the others, and that’s modern WEIRD (“Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic”) culture. Dealing in the sweeping statistical generalizations that are the stock-in-trade of cultural evolutionary theorists—these are folks who say “people” but mean “populations”—Henrich draws the contrasts this way: Westerners are hyper-individualistic and hyper-mobile, whereas just about everyone else in the world was and still is enmeshed in family and more likely to stay put.

Starting around 1500 or so, the West became unusually dominant, because it advanced unusually quickly. What explains its extraordinary intellectual, technological, and political progress over the past five centuries? And how did its rise engender the peculiarity of the Western character?

Given the nature of the project, it may be a surprise that Henrich aspires to preach humility, not pride. WEIRD people have a bad habit of universalizing from their own particularities. WEIRD people have a bad habit of universalizing from their own particularities. They think everyone thinks the way they do, and some of them (not all, of course) reinforce that assumption by studying themselves. In the run-up to writing the book, Henrich and two colleagues did a literature review of experimental psychology and found that 96 percent of subjects enlisted in the research came from northern Europe, North America, or Australia. About 70 percent of those were American undergraduates. Blinded by this kind of myopia, many Westerners assume that what’s good or bad for them is good or bad for everyone else.

*Somehow* I wish to discuss this in relation to the assertions of US policy, and these “widely held” beliefs ingrained in wise use and property rights movements that essentialize American humans’ definitive edges and their entitlements, while simultaneously and by necessity determining who/what is inert, and therefore a mere resource to be used, extracted, owned. (Sounds like slavery).

While the Layzer book focuses on the US (and from what I’ve read so far, some transboundary effects of phenomena such as American pollution), Henrich’s books appears to shed light on precedents to consider so we don’t get stuck at Reagan, or even the founding of of the US Constitution. For instance: the Catholic Church, which, through laws, significantly altered marriage structures, which used to “thicken” relations among kin, within localities and families.

The Catholic Church changed all that. As of late antiquity, Europeans still lived in tribes, like most of the rest of the world. But the Church dismantled these kin-based societies with what Henrich calls its “Marriage and Family Program,” or MFP. The MFP was really an anti-marriage and anti-family program. Why did the Church adopt it? From a cultural evolutionary point of view, the why doesn’t matter. In a footnote, Henrich skates lightly over debates about the motivations of Church leaders. But his bottom line is that the “MFP evolved and spread because it ‘worked.’ ” (Henrich’s indifference to individual and institutional intentions is guaranteed to drive historians nuts.)

Forced to find Christian partners, Christians left their communities. Christianity’s insistence on monogamy broke extended households into nuclear families. The Church uprooted horizontal, relational identity, replacing it with a vertical identity oriented toward the institution itself. The Church was stern about its marital policies. Violations were punished by withholding Communion, excommunicating, and denying inheritances to offspring who could now be deemed “illegitimate.” Formerly, property almost always went to family members. The idea now took hold that it could go elsewhere. At the same time, the Church urged the wealthy to ensure their place in heaven by bequeathing their money to the poor—that is, to the Church, benefactor to the needy. In so doing, “the Church’s MFP was both taking out its main rival for people’s loyalty and creating a revenue stream,” Henrich writes. The Church, thus enriched, spread across the gl

In contrast to this, I would look at Annie Sprinkle and her wife Beth Stephens ongoing project of polygamy: The Ecosexuals, a series of public wedding rites in which Beth and Annie marry various actors of Planet Earth such as Soil, Forest, Ocean, the Appalachian Mountains….

Sexecology (their site)
at Dokumenta

Their Ecosex Manifesto declares: “We caress the rocks, pleasure the waterfalls, and admire Earth’s curves often. We make love with the Earth through our senses.” This affective proliferation, extending to everything and everybody, is an exercise not only in de-heterosexualizing relations but also in dehumanizing social links: as opposed to defining love within the languages of romance, religion, or institutions, it seeks instead a definition in political, ecological, and artistic terms.

Art Professor Beth Stephens and Performance Artist Annie Sprinkle to "Marry  The Soil - A Dirty Ecosexual Wedding" | | Art Department, UC  Santa Cruz

The article goes on to describe Henrich’s journey forward from 6th century Catholicism:

By the time Protestantism came along, people had already internalized an individualist worldview. Henrich calls Protestantism “the WEIRDest religion,” and says it gave a “booster shot” to the process set in motion by the Catholic Church. Integral to the Reformation was the idea that faith entailed personal struggle rather than adherence to dogma. Vernacular translations of the Bible allowed people to interpret scripture more idiosyncratically. The mandate to read the Bible democratized literacy and education. After that came the inquiry into God-given natural (individual) rights and constitutional democracies. The effort to uncover the laws of political organization spurred interest in the laws of nature—in other words, science. The scientific method codified epistemic norms that broke the world down into categories and valorized abstract principles. All of these psychosocial changes fueled unprecedented innovation, the Industrial Revolution, and economic growth.

In applying his theory of cumulative culture to the evolution of ideas, Henrich claims that WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) people think in a cognitively distinct way, through the lens of individualism. He is not lauding them for that. They tend not to think relationally, but instead, analytically by breaking things down into atomized parts (I think i got that right):

Democracy, the rule of law, and human rights “didn’t start with fancy intellectuals, philosophers, or theologians,” Henrich writes. “Instead, the ideas formed slowly, piece by piece, as regular Joes with more individualistic psychologies—be they monks, merchants, or artisans—began to form competing voluntary associations” and learned how to govern them. Toppling the accomplishments of Western civilization off their great-man platforms, he erases their claim to be monuments to rationality: Everything we think of as a cause of culture is really an effect of culture, including us.

Henrich’s macro-cultural relativism has its virtues. It widens our field of vision as we assess Western values—such as objectivity, free speech, democracy, and the scientific method—that have come under sharp attack. The big-picture approach soars above the reigning paradigms in the study of European history, which have a way of collapsing into narratives of villains and victims.