Anthropologist and cultural psychologist Joseph Henrich is an academic whose work I’ve been following over the last couple years. His work has been highlighted multiple times here at Difficult Run. He is a co-author of some of my favorite studies in the last decade or so. And his latest book–The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter–looks absolutely amazing (it’s waiting patiently for me on my Kindle).
He recently sat down with economist Tyler Cowen for a segment of Conversations with Tyler at GMU’s Mercatus Center. The interview is fascinating as they discuss Henrich’s work on cultural evolution and its implications for both today and the future. What perhaps excited me the most was Henrich’s discussion of his work-in-progress on marriage norms and the development of Western individualism:
In my latest project I’m really looking at the kind of spread of the Western church into Europe and how it transformed the social structure in ways that I think led to individualism, it led to a different kind of cultural psychology that would eventually pave the way for secular institutions and economic growth. The church is the first mover in that account…When the church first began to spread its marriage-and-family program where it would dissolve all these complex kinship groups, it altered marriage. So it ended polygyny, it ended cousin marriage, which…forced people to marry further away, which would build contacts between larger groups. That actually starts in 600 in Kent, Anglo-Saxon Kent. Missionaries then spread out into Holland and northern France and places like that. At least in terms of timing, the marriage-and-family program gets its start in southern England.
This project is in its early stages (according to the email Henrich sent me), but it’s something I’m greatly anticipating. The entire interview is worth watching/listening to. Cowen provides both insightful feedback and even pushback, making the discussion a productive one. Check it out.