WEIRD  - Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic

It seems that there is not only a physical effect to intermarriage between close relatives. A new book by Joseph Henrich, a Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, shines a light on the more widespread effects of the rules about who you can marry and who you canít marry.

When suggesting a new way of looking at things - and wanting to sell a book - I suppose that having an acronym can be quite useful. It tells the reader that there is something different on the way, something novel and so worthy of a new Ďwordí. This essay will refer to the rules around who was entitled to marry whom in the middle ages. But such rules had their origin long ago, possibly as a result of seeing the unfortunate result of successive marriages between close relatives - as the Pharaohs found out when trying to preserve power within the family. Consanguineous marriages placed offspring at risk of nasty deformities and early deaths.

Professor Henrich however dates a  psychological and economic change in the nature of our Western society from a decision by the medieval Catholic church to discourage what it classed as incest. It was a classification which as time went on became defined ever more widely. And he tells us that this provided the basis for the increasingly successful economic development of the West in contrast with other parts of the world. Why the church became obsessed with incest is still unknown. The suggestion is, however, that it may have been material gain - follow the money! Religious leaders could benefit financially from shrinking family ties. Without a kin-based extended network, those without heirs often left their wealth to the church. Whatever the reasons, one thing seems clear to Professor Henrich and his fellow researchers: the Churchís crusade against marrying within kin groups coincided with a big change in the way that life was lived and how society functioned in Europe.

Europeís kinship structure was originally not much different from the rest of the world. But then, from the Middle Ages to 1500 AD, the Church started banning marriages to cousins, eventually up to cousins 6 times removed, step-relatives, in-laws, and even spiritual kin - godparents. Meanwhile in Iran, in Persia, Zoroastrianism was not only promoting cousin marriage but promoting marriage between siblings. Although Islam outlawed polygamy extending beyond four wives, and the Eastern Orthodox Church adopted policies against actual incest, no institution came close to the strict, widespread policies of the Catholic Church.

Henrich says that those policies first altered family structures and then the psychologies of their members.  In most agricultural societies, people have lived enmeshed in kin-based institutions - within tribal groups or networks. Inheritance and post-marital residence often followed either the male or female line, so people often lived in extended households and the wife or husband moved to live with their spouseís kinsfolk, thus maintaining the link between families.  Many kinship units collectively owned or controlled territory, and kin-based organisations provided members with protection and security, caring for sick, injured and poor members as well as the elderly. Arranged marriages with relatives such as cousins were customary, and polygamous marriages were common for high-status men. These intensive kin networks nurture what Henrich calls a non-WEIRD psychology, creating, he says, a more collectivist mindset with greater conformity, obedience to authority, nepotism and in-group loyalty.

So then how did the churchís change in marriage rules change things? The prohibitions introduced meant that there was an emphasis on marriage well outside the family. This in turn broke down ties between families, tribes and clans. In conjunction with the prohibition of polygamous marriage and even the discouragement of the adoption of relativesí children, some lineages simply died out because they had no heirs. The church also encouraged, and sometimes required, newly married couples to set up independent households, and so promoted the individual ownership of property.

Henrich considers that this meant that instead of being born into a world where everything is about inherited social relationships, now you have to find and develop your own mutually beneficial relationships. And when you are deciding which towns, guilds or other voluntary associations to join - which will be your new safety net, rather than your kin network - you will be looking for people that share your interests, beliefs and so on. This focuses attention on peopleís underlying personalities, traits and dispositions, rather than their pre-existing relationship to you. Your success in the world is now tied to cultivating your attributes, making yourself appealing to others because you are going to do business together or get married. Individuality is at a premium.

We are told by Henrich that Individuals adapt cognition, emotions, perceptions, thinking styles, and motivations to fit their social networks. Iím not sure thatís entirely true of non kin-based societies, where itís relatively easy to find social groups which conform to your ideas. I would though accept the assertion by Henrich that kin-based institutions reward conformity, tradition, nepotism, and obedience to authority. These are traits that help protect assets - such as farms - from outsiders. But the researchers have data to support the idea that once familial barriers crumble, individualistic traits emerge, such as independence, creativity, cooperation and fairness towards strangers.

The main question, however is whether WEIRD characteristics have produced the financial success of Western society, as the researchers propose. They say that a willingness to trust strangers far more, as opposed to just trusting family or members of your clan, is associated with higher levels of innovation, greater national wealth, and faster economic growth. This certainly makes some sense in that a business able to look outside the extended family may well find people better qualified to do the work or be able to make the investments required to make the business a success.

But, as we know, correlation is not causation and so even after all of this research, we still donít know if there is actually a causal link between the Westís remarkable progress and the reduction in the influence of kin. And if so, we donít know which is cause and which is effect. Maybe it wasnít marriage rules which caused the breaking down of kinship. Maybe it was a realisation by influential people within society that success depended on dealing with people outside your clan, which then in turn became a meme, so causing the break-down of kinship. Or maybe it was that the industrial revolution meant that people went to find work in the new conurbations, where the revolution which would be the source of our wealth was taking place. And so they left their kin groups behind in order to do so. I think that more grants are required for the extra research needed!

29 September 2020

Paul Buckingham