Joseph Henrich, evolutionary anthropologist: ‘The best antidote to white supremacy is more science’

The chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard spoke to EL PAÍS about immigration, social structures and his book on cultural evolution

Joseph Henrich at Harvard University in a courtesy promotional image from 2020 during the promotion of the book.
Joseph Henrich at Harvard University in a courtesy promotional image from 2020 during the promotion of the book.Kris Snibbe / Harvard

Dr. Joseph Henrich always felt that anthropology’s explanations weren’t helpful to understanding the psychological differences between people and societies. So, he decided to write a book called The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.

In this voluminous work from 2020, he tries to explain why “weird” societies – “western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic” – cannot be used as the global standard while observing humanity as a whole.

Henrich, 54, chairs the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. While writing his book, he combined the scientific elements of evolutionary anthropology with history, economics and psychology. In this interdisciplinary approach, he examined the evolution of family structures and its subsequent effects on human society and behavior.

The anthropologist from Norristown, Pennsylvania sat down with EL PAÍS to discuss – among other things – why centuries of accumulated cultural and social behaviors have made Westerners the weirdest people on Earth.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Question. Can you explain your thesis about culture-driven genetic evolution?

Answer. We’re a cultural species. More than any other animal, we depend on learning from others. Cultural evolution occurs alongside biological evolution. You can look at a human and study the genes that they’ve inherited from their parents… but that person has also acquired beliefs, values, practices, norms, languages and ways of thinking from their parents and other members of their community. All of this affects the behavior of people. Culture – like genes – accumulates over generations.

Q. For most of our species’ history, we were hunter-gatherers. But cultural evolution has modified us so much that, if we were dumped in the woods today, we wouldn’t survive.

A. That’s right, because we’ve become a species that can’t live without culture. Other animals don’t require it to find food or build a nest, but we require a great deal of cultural information. We only survive if we interact. In another book I wrote – The Secret of Our Success – I discuss how our strength as human beings lies in the capacity that we have to learn from others.

Joseph Henrich conducting ethnographic field experiments circa 2003, to understand cultural transmission and social norms on the Yasawa Islands in Fiji.
Joseph Henrich conducting ethnographic field experiments circa 2003, to understand cultural transmission and social norms on the Yasawa Islands in Fiji.Harvard

Q. Are cultural differences enough to explain the diversity that exists among global populations?

A. While doing ethnographic fieldwork in Peru, I realized that cultural analysis alone for the study of human behavior was inadequate. I started reading a lot of psychology, political science… I also studied behavioral economics. All my research since then has been multidisciplinary, a combination of biology and the social sciences.

Q. And all this work led to your new book: The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.

A. Yes, the book tries to explain the psychological diversity that we’ve been finding around the world. I start off by mapping Western thought, which begins with individualism and analytical thinking. This led to the modern, impersonal society, which is imbued with the notion of trusting strangers and cooperating with them. I suggest that family organization plays an important role in this. Families are the first institutions that humans encounter in the world. And, it turns out that many populations of European descent have families that tend to be small, nuclear and monogamous… an unusual structure, compared to the much larger, extended family networks and clans we find elsewhere.

The Catholic Church had a lot to do with this. In much of Europe, it made up new social taboos, imposing measures such as a ban on marriage between close relatives, which led extended kinship networks to become small, monogamous, nuclear families. Once families were eliminated as the central [societal] structure, people had to find other institutions for production and social security, to care for the elderly, orphans, widows... this led to universities, increasing urbanization and, eventually, the industrial and scientific revolutions, as well as the Enlightenment.

Q. In the book, you note that the academic research samples you were working with were biased…

A. That’s right. For instance, in 2010, when I was working with Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan – both of them are psychologists – we noticed that the populations most studied by psychologists were unusual in terms of global distribution. That led us to create the acronym “WEIRD” – western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic – as a way of pointing out a problem in research. The social sciences have made a lot of generalizations about human behavior based exclusively on rare subjects, when most of the world is not like those populations.

Q. Your book also deals in depth with the reduction of violence. Has this type of control via cultural norms – once community kinship ties are broken – helped to pacify human beings?

A. We’ve seen a shift from a world with more intense kinship to a more individualistic outlook. In a society with intense kinship, one often has a strong notion of honor – you uphold loyalty to your group, your family, clan, tribe or the country. If you’re in a bar and someone offends you by attacking one of those things, it can lead to violence. Whereas, in an individualistic world – where everyone is trying to sell you their goods – you have to cultivate more marketable ties with others. You can’t immediately turn to anger or appear hostile. You must know how to negotiate, since not everyone will agree with you. So, you’re more patient and you’re less concerned about honor. Basically, there are fewer threats.

Q. Does immigration affect the emergence of new ideas and economic growth?

A. Yes, the evidence on this is clear. Immigration energizes innovation. And the reason is – and this is something I emphasize regarding the origins of the Industrial Revolution – that most new ideas are reformulations of pre-existing ideas. That’s why you have to bring together a variety of people and have them freely exchange hypotheses. The larger the population of heterogeneous minds becomes, the more the plural exchange of ideas becomes popular. As a result, creative innovation becomes faster. One good example of this is the United States.

You can look at the history of innovation by studying demographics. If you go back to 1840 – or even earlier – and check a country’s census against the patent database, you’ll find that the countries that had more waves of immigration subsequently produced more knowledge and better-cited studies. Creativity can be studied through immigration!

Q. Could it be dangerous to associate the progress of countries with the psychological differences between populations? Aren’t you afraid that racists will use your work to support nativist political agendas?

A. White supremacists hate this book because it undermines their view that biological differences are due to genes and are somehow deeply racialized. In the book, I explain how Europe used to be a wasteland… the global technology and commerce leaders were the Middle East and China. But then I analyze and ask: why did Europe emerge as an expansionist power after the year 1500? That’s when I present the theory of cultural evolution, which arises accidentally because of the Church’s reforms on marriage and the family. It’s not about European geniuses or anything like that… European growth was the result of the shrinking centrality of family structures, which led to the need for other institutions and innovations.

I also look at the variability within Europe itself and show that it has nothing to do with white people. It really depends on the details of the history of specific places. I reference Italy and the UK and point out the differences between regions of these countries. I also research China and India, with special attention to different family models. All of this rejects a racialized point of view.

I want to point out that there’s a big problem in the current state of public discourse, where, by wanting to offer a scientific explanation for why the world is the way it is, some instantly imply that I’m supporting white supremacy. When, in fact, I’m dismantling it! It’s almost like if you merely speak about certain topics, you’re automatically on the side of racism… but it’s not like that at all. The best antidote to the racial pseudoscience of white supremacy is more real science – not an atmosphere where we can’t discuss ideas.

Q. Do you think we should stop criticizing cultural appropriation?

A. Not at all, we must be concerned about the looting of Indigenous populations. That’s a big problem and there’s a lot of work to do. Having said that, it’s undeniable that most innovation is a recombination of ideas from different societies. So we also shouldn’t try to stop taking ideas and remixing them. Rock ‘n’ roll, the steam engine… these concepts can be traced from all over the world. The best example is food. For instance: a pizza has tomatoes that come from the New World, but were added in Naples, Italy, by people who were already eating flatbreads in the Mediterranean region. A recombination of that was later brought to New York – New Yorkers went crazy over the idea and did all kinds of interesting culinary experiments.

Stealing resources or knowledge from Indigenous populations isn’t acceptable. But banning cultural miscegenation in its entirety would kill some of the most precious legacies from previous generations and would stifle new ideas.

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