To anthropologist Joseph Henrich, intelligence is overrated. Social learning, and its ability to influence biological evolution over time, is what really sets our species apart. He joined Tyler for a conversation on his work on cultural evolution, as well as his life among different tribes (academic and otherwise), Star Trek, big gods, small gods, China’s missing industrial revolution, the merits of coconut milk, the Flynn effect, American exceptionalism, and why he wants to travel in time to 6th-century Kent.
TYLER COWEN: Joe’s book is called The Secret of Our Success. The secret of his success is amazing intellect and drive. I would describe him as currently the leading theorist on how cultural and biological evolution interact.
He is an anthropologist at Harvard University, but much more than that he does experimental economics, political science, cultural psychology, sociology. He studied economics with Paul Romer. He’s a true polymath. I described him during our last session as, in the sense, the next Steven Pinker. The introduction could be much longer, but we’ll talk more about Joe as we proceed.
On the value of a cultural evolutionary framework
Now, let me start with a simple question about your method. I’m an economist, and I’m familiar also with evolutionary biology. If I come at a problem, I tend to use economic reasoning and then something from biology, but you have insights from how cultural and social evolution intersect or interact.
What would be an example of something you try to explain with that framework that’s much harder to explain using only economics and biology?
JOSEPH HENRICH: Sure. That’s a great question. One example that I’ve been working a lot on lately is how it is that in modern societies and in the last few hundred years, people all over the world have come to believe in big gods — gods that have power over life and death, can reward you in the afterlife — and what the implications are for cooperation, the scaling up of human societies. These kinds of supernatural beliefs.
For much of human history, people believed in gods that were weak and whimsical, not very powerful. There was no notion of afterlife. How can we explain this transformation of religions over the last few thousand years?
COWEN: You think there’s some kind of natural progression of religion, as societies become wealthier and more complex, and intersecting cultural and genetic evolution help explain that?
COWEN: Just fill in the pieces of that a little bit?
HENRICH: Sure. Some basic aspects of human cognition — for example, our ability to read other minds, to do mentalizing, to infer the thoughts inside of other people’s heads — makes it susceptible to dualism. To thinking that minds and bodies are separable.
People who are better at mentalizing are more likely to believe in supernatural agents. This means there’s a possibility for humans to believe in supernatural agents and then various forms of cultural evolution can take a hold of this basic raw material that’s provided by aspects of our evolved minds.
One of the arguments I’ve made is that societies that came to believe in certain kinds of supernatural agents — supernatural agents with punishing power, demanding certain kinds of behavior in humans — help scale up human societies to cooperate more in larger groups.
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COWEN: Cultural evolution, in a sense, carries those memes. You don’t necessarily need group selection, though that may be part of the story. But the cultural evolution is a more powerful way of propagating and replicating the memes without groups having to die out, necessarily. Though both of those could be happening at the same time.
Is that the right way to think about it?
HENRICH: Yeah. You have intergroup competition. You don’t want to get tied up in the semantic debate of group selection. But if some groups come to have sets of rituals and beliefs that allow them to out-compete other groups, then those beliefs are going to spread. That’s what seems to have occurred with certain kinds of supernatural beliefs.
If we look at the earliest human societies, the first time you see monumental architecture, it’s always religious. It’s always a temple or a tomb. This seems to help consolidate power and expand this fear of reliable social interactions.
COWEN: Let me give you a super-simple take I hear from a lot of people on how genetic and cultural evolution interact, and tell me if you agree with it. The standard story is we have genes that were optimized to some earlier environment, maybe being hunter-gatherers. Now we eat too much sugar, we become too fat, we have diabetes too often.
We give our leaders too much respect because we used to need them to stop ourselves from being killed, whereas now we’re too loyal to the president. We think in terms of anecdote and narrative rather than statistics, and thus there’s this quite radical mismatch between how we’ve evolved and the society we live in. Is that an accurate picture in your account of things, or not?
HENRICH: Certainly, part of that is an accurate account. The importance of, say, our taste for sugar, our taste for fat seems to be a misfiring from our ancestral environments. But I think in the case of human cooperation that doesn’t fit the story.
If we look at the smallest-scale human societies, hunter-gatherers, they still rely on all kinds of social norms and beliefs to cooperate even when they’re cooperating in relatively small bands. For example, food sharing in lots of hunter-gatherer societies relies on food taboos in which certain classes of people can only eat certain parts of the animal.
If you eat a part of the animal that’s not assigned to your class, say older married men or something, then the whole group has poor hunting. If people believe that, they’re going to enforce that taboo on other people. You create a self-interested incentive to share the meat.
Hunter-gatherers also have rituals. Psychologists have now shown when you cooperate, when you participate in communal rituals, you become more cooperative and you have greater social solidarity with other members of your group. Even the smallest-scale human societies are already using all these tricks of cultural evolution to make them more social.
COWEN: Now, another feature of your model, if I understand it correctly, is that you get more rapid or more complex or more interesting cultural evolution when you have a larger number of moving parts: more people, or more wealth, or more complexity. Is it kind of increasing returns to scale to cultural evolution? Is that fair to say?
HENRICH: Yeah. There’s a couple of different ways that that comes out. I think the simplest and clearest one is this idea that I call the collective brain. This is simply the idea because we’re so dependent on learning from each other in order to do innovations and to construct increasingly fancy technologies, larger and more interconnected populations tend to have fancier tools and technologies.
Humans really don’t think as individuals. We don’t innovate as individuals. We innovate as groups. Groups that, for whatever reason, are able to create more social interconnections produce fancier tools and technology, and they’re able to maintain larger bodies of know-how.
There are these great cases in the ethnohistorical record of groups like the Polar Inuit who get cut off from the rest of the Inuit population. Then they begin to lose valuable tools and technology because their own brains remain the same size, but their collective brain became severed. They’re not able to maintain as much know-how in the population.
COWEN: That connection between size and speed of cultural evolution, that’s true at most margins? Say, India evolves culturally more rapidly than Denmark because it’s larger?
HENRICH: There’s lots of pieces to this puzzle. The key is to create interconnectedness. To explain the difference between Denmark and India: of course, Denmark is interconnected with many other populations, but the flow of information is much less constricted.
What happened in the scaling up of human societies in many places is societies get built on complex kinship structures in which you don’t have very much relations between different families and between different tribes. That constrains the flow of social information among these groups.
The trick the West pulled off is to manage to make individuals so that information could freely flow among individuals.
COWEN: Let’s say I’m a cultural pessimist, and try to talk me out of this. Here would be my worry. If your theory implies cultural evolution speeds up as you have more parts, more people, more interconnections, I worry that social evolution will bring us further from the point of what our genes can handle.
Think of there being an increased variance of the match between society and our genes. Most things do, in fact, work better because cultural evolution carries a lot of useful knowledge.
But just a few things stop working, like maybe electoral politics, believe it or not, or the diets we eat — or a few things in society go wrong. If you think of everything needing to work fairly well in society for it to sustain itself, should we then be cultural pessimists?
HENRICH: Before I get to the cultural pessimist question, a key insight is that we’ve been in that situation for probably over a million years. Human cultural products like tools and food processing abilities have been shaping our guts and our teeth and our hands for a really long time.
Culture was always pushing up against these things. The slow process here is the genetic evolution. It takes the genetic evolution a long time to respond to expand our brains, make them be able to deal with the new world that’s being created by cultural evolution.
The world we’re facing now is just more of the same. As far as cultural pessimism, things could get better, things could get worse. I don’t have any predictions.
COWEN: Now we have the Internet. That’s very rapidly multiplied the number of combinations and connections over a 20-year period. Much quicker than almost anyone had forecast.
If we apply that to your model, what does your model predict, if only in broad terms? What effects will the Internet have on society given that genetic and cultural evolution are interacting and the number of permutations has gone up a lot quicker than we expected? Is this a train wreck waiting to happen or the greatest thing since sliced bread but 10,000 times better?
HENRICH: Certainly in the short term, it should increase the rate of innovation. It’s easy to exchange ideas amongst very diverse minds.
COWEN: But productivity growth is falling, right? In most countries? This baffles me.
HENRICH: You mean why productivity growth is falling?
COWEN: Right. Japan, US, Western Europe. Productivity growth is lower than it was, say, before the ’80s. I don’t blame the Internet for that, but it doesn’t seem to have helped very much.
HENRICH: I’m a cultural evolutionist so I want to see this on much longer time scale. Ask me in 200 years.
COWEN: OK. 200 years, we’ll have you back for a second episode. Now, another area of interaction between genetic and cultural evolution — people talk about it a lot, but they don’t always agree on the facts — and that’s assortative mating.
The claim that like marries like more today than in earlier periods of time: (a) Is that part of your theory? (b) Empirically, do you think it’s true?
You may have law partners marrying each other, rather than, say, a lawyer marrying an assistant. Is that so much different than two high school valedictorians getting married in 1954? Is that one of the forces shaping American society today or not?
HENRICH: That’s not something I’ve looked into. I certainly think, compared to small-scale societies, it seems like there’s a lot more opportunity for assortative mating in the world today because your choices were just quite limited.
I’ve worked in three small-scale societies, and you just don’t have a lot of choices. It certainly seems likely, over the long run, that that’s increased, but that’s not something I’ve focused on.
COWEN: In which ways does culture make us dumb?
HENRICH: It removes a lot of need to think because it gives us prebuilt solutions to problems. It gives us protocols so that we don’t have to figure out things for ourself. Just lots of prebuilt solutions. It tells us what we need to think and what we need to know in order to survive in the world.
COWEN: It’s made us dumb in ways x, y, and z, but what would be an example today?
HENRICH: It’s also made us smarter, though, which I think is the more . . .
COWEN: Sure, it’s made us much smarter, but what would be an area today where we’re acting in a dumber way because of culture?
HENRICH: For one thing, we’re all much dumber, at least in the amount of societal knowledge we have in our heads compared to our ancestors. If we go far enough back, every single person had to know everything about how to find food, cook food, every feature of the productive system, how to make all the tools.
Now, left to our own devices, we wouldn’t be able to do the first thing in order to recreate the productive system that we have. We’ve been breaking knowledge down into smaller and smaller parts. In terms of our ability to produce for ourselves, it’s gotten smaller and smaller.
In the book, I have these cases of lost European explorers, where a particular group of explorers gets stuck in an environment where hunter-gatherers have survived for centuries, and they’re faced with the challenge of surviving.
Of course they can’t, because they’re missing this large cumulative body that the hunter-gatherers got for free but helps you find food and avoid disease and travel and all those kinds of things.
COWEN: As you know, it’s a common 18th-century theme that the division of labor possibly will make us stupid or uninteresting. It seems that was wrong in the 18th century. Nicholas Carr has argued, “Well, Google makes us all shallow, and we lose the ability to remember things.” Will that also be wrong?
HENRICH: The thing is, we probably have been losing memory ability. As soon as we can write, we can offload lots of information that we normally have to keep in our heads.
I’ve always been impressed, living in small-scale societies, the number of stories that people tell over campfires and just the amount of, say, folk biological information — information about plants and animals and what’s poisonous and what you can eat and what you can’t eat, and how you have to process it. There’s just this encyclopedic knowledge, which I would just use the handbook for, for a lot of that information.
That’s not available to you. We’ve been gradually figuring out ways to download stuff. I think that’s the Google problem, is that we have less stuff in our heads, but our ability to do things can still expand.
COWEN: From what I understand, people had larger brains 20,000 or 30,000 years ago. Brain size, roughly, is correlated with intelligence. Is it possible that they were smarter than we are? We’re a kind of mental cripple, in a way? But we get by, because, in essence, we’re riding on the back of this marvelous cultural evolution.
HENRICH: I do think that the division of labor could explain that decline, but there’s also been a self-domestication process, where domesticated animals have smaller brains. We’ve been gradually domesticating each other. For some reason, which is a little bit unclear, animals that have to engage in more aggression against each other have larger brains.
COWEN: That would be us, right?
HENRICH: We’ve been getting less violent for quite a long time, actually.
COWEN: There could be a long-run dysfunctionality. The more peaceful we become, there’s less competitive pressure put on us, and we’ll stultify mentally, institutionally, other ways.
HENRICH: I’m not sure that that necessarily follows.
COWEN: But it’s a coherent cultural pessimist scenario.
HENRICH: [laughs] I’ll have to think about it more.
COWEN: Presumably, in your model, unless intergroup competition kicks in in some new way, which it might, but it’s implicitly a tale of cultural decline. It looks wonderful on the surface, and you’re getting net benefits any period of time, but the longer-run mismatch between culture and the genes seems to be increasing.
Because one evolves much quicker than the other, and the cultural evolution is speeding up.
HENRICH: Actually, genetic evolution has been speeding up for the last 10,000 years. Genes are trying — and actually genes can evolve faster in larger populations. As the population gets bigger, genes can actually respond more. Of course, it will never go with the rate of cultural evolution.
COWEN: You think that’s sexual selection, group selection, speeding-up genetic evolution? Something else?
HENRICH: I think it’s individual, garden-variety selection responding to a culturally constructed environment. A lot of the genes that we know that have been selected over the last 10,000 years are response to agriculture. Blue eyes in people of the Baltic area is due to high-latitude agriculture.
There’s the famous case of lactose genes, which is due to not having cheese and yogurt processing, but still having access to cow’s milk. There’s just one example after another of these kinds of genes that are driven by agricultural know-how technology
COWEN: [Oded] Galor at Brown University, you probably know this work: there’s a number of papers arguing societies that have been producing agriculture for longer periods of time, they’re today much more cooperative. There’s something, if not quite permanent about that, something long-run, something enduring about that. Do you agree with that hypothesis?
HENRICH: I think the data is there. The question is why. One of the things I don’t think he takes into account sufficiently is that there could be long-run cultural differences between populations. What he really means by “more cooperative” is that they’re better at doing state-level societies.
COWEN: Right. But if they play economic games with each other, they’ll share more. They’re less likely to take the whole pie.
HENRICH: Yeah, dealing with strangers, higher levels of patience, but that could all be . . . we know we can move patience around, for example, with cultural differences.
COWEN: How persistent do you think those cultural differences are? You also know the literature. When migrants come to the United States, two or three generations later, their children, grandchildren tend to have a lot of the cooperative traits of the country their grandparents came from.
COWEN: That decays, but it decays more slowly than a lot of people had thought.
HENRICH: Yeah. I think that’s great evidence that it’s likely to be cultural and likely not to be genetic. If it was genetic, it wouldn’t go away in a few generations. It seems like they’re bringing heritage from the place, and it’s getting retransmitted because they’re in ethnic communities or they’re parents. Then it disappears once they converge to the local mean.
COWEN: Say the Bill Easterly paper (I think it’s Bill Easterly) that goes back to the year 500 AD. Per capita GDP in 500 AD predicts per capita GDP today relatively well, at least much better than almost any other model would lead you to think. Now, it could be cherry-picking. 500 AD actually may do better than 1500 AD.
But do you think that result is just an artifact? Or is it reflecting the fact that cultural evolution runs deep and once you’re in a good groove, it tends to be self-reinforcing and you don’t get out of it very easily?
HENRICH: Yeah, because you’re developing all kinds of institutions that themselves can endure — both formal institutions and informal institutions — family practices, cultural values. Yeah, so I think you’re capturing a lot of that.
COWEN: How quick is the catch-up in that process? The West has a lot of contact with the world in the 18th and 19th centuries or maybe a bit earlier, brings Western norms, not always in a welcomed manner and often with violence.
There’s a debate in the economics literature. How much growth convergence is there? If you put on your cultural-evolution-plus-genetic-evolution hat, on net, do you expect the poor countries to converge to the wealthy countries or not?
HENRICH: Yes. I think we’ve seen a lot of convergence. Certainly, lots of places that were poor a hundred years ago are now relatively richer, so that you’re seeing a certain amount of convergence.
One of the big problems is that key to understanding all this are family-level institutions, so small-scale societies, developing countries depend on complex kinship institutions, which are really hard to break down.
What you’re doing is you’re putting Western-style institutions on top of an underlying set of family institutions that doesn’t fit. That misfit causes a lot of problems. It’s only through process of urbanization that you gradually break apart those families.
COWEN: Let’s say we take Brazil, which is actually a pretty well-off society compared to a lot of parts of the world. The ratio of American, North American, US per capita GDP to Brazilian in the year 1900 is pretty much the same as it is now as best we can measure it.
Is that an argument for a different kind of cultural pessimism, that the lock-in effects are strong enough? Brazil’s much better off. It’s arguably more Western in some way, whatever that might mean. But Brazil isn’t really catching up on the United States, it seems.
HENRICH: Well, do you disagree that as a broad statistical pattern there’s been a lot of economic growth in the rest of the world in which there’s convergence? East Asia, for sure.
COWEN: I think we don’t know from the numbers. I think if you look at all countries together, you can debate either side, whether countries as a whole are converging on the richest countries. I would say I’m not sure.
HENRICH: The data that I’ve seen seems to suggest some convergence.
COWEN: Certainly, within the United States for sure, there is the opposite of convergence. Silicon Valley and Bethesda, Maryland, are getting richer, and West Virginia’s not catching up with them. There was convergence in the ’50s and ’60s. But across cities, counties in the US, we’re quite sure there’s the opposite of convergence.
That clearly is purely cultural and economic. It’s going to have nothing to do with genetics. There seem to be a lot of scenarios where you never get convergence. You have a kind of “average is over” scenario and the world diverges.
HENRICH: Yeah. The challenge that complex societies have always faced is that when they get big enough, they break down into little pieces. Systems for maintaining uniformity have always been a problem.
If you look at human history, what you’ll often see is the expansion of one group rapidly conquering or otherwise assimilating a large area. Then that group gradually breaks down as the inability to maintain cultural uniformity.
On WEIRD people, the Flynn effect, and what really drives intelligence
COWEN: You have a view communicated in a lot of your research, some of your most famous pieces, that people in the West or at least some people in the West, they are what you call WEIRD — that’s an acronym for Western-educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic — and we should not draw general conclusions about humanity on the basis WEIRD people. Most of us here, or possibly all of us, we’re deeply WEIRD. Tell us a little more about that.
HENRICH: In around 2006, I arrived at the University of British Columbia, and I’d been in an anthropology department at Emory University, and I met a couple of cultural psychologists. We got to talking over lunch and we realized in each of the areas for which we were experts on, that Westerners were unusual compared to all the other populations that had been studied.
We thought this was interesting and we began to compile all the available data we could find where Western populations were compared against some larger global sample. What we found, in not every but a large number of important domains in the psychological and behavioral sciences, that Westerners were at the extreme end of the distribution.
This made us wary and I think it ought to make lots of people wary about the typical textbook conclusions that you would find in psychology textbooks. Much of behavioral economics, at least at the time, was based on running experiments on undergrads. It’s actually mostly American undergrads that are studied.
COWEN: For instance, peoples are better at cooperating if they have had many generations in a market economy or needing to do a lot of cooperative hunting. That would be an example of how we’re WEIRD. We have some positive-sum mentality that maybe is relatively rare in the world.
HENRICH: Right. The case that I’ve made for this particular is that in order to make markets work, we need particular social norms for how to deal with strangers and interact with them in a mutually beneficial way. In the smallest-scale human societies, you have social norms for dealing with different kinds of relatives and people you have a certain kind of relationship with.
But this kind of general-purpose norm for how you’re going to treat anybody is a product of cultural evolution. Much of what I think we measure in behavioral economics, experimental economics is actually just a measurement of a culturally local social norm.
COWEN: Culturally local.
If I try to tie this to other areas of psychology — we all know about the Flynn effect, that measured IQ each generation, at least in the West, probably many other places. It goes up consistently just by having a new generation. It goes up a surprisingly large amount.
Is this the same as the Flynn effect? Is it operating in parallel? Is it explaining the Flynn effect? Is the Flynn effect explaining this? Is the Flynn effect real or artifact? What’s your take on how the big picture fits together?
HENRICH: I don’t think there’s any relation between these numbers. Efforts to control for IQ or intelligence scores don’t seem to predict behavioral games. (There’s a few exceptions to that.) I don’t think those are linked.
The Flynn effect is a great example. People tend to think of IQ as being a product of genes. Certainly, genes make a contribution to IQ. Although the heritability of IQ actually depends on the population you use.
You pick one population, you get a high heritability — saying there’s lots of genetic influence, 0.8 — that would be middle-class, upper-class Americans. But if you study low-class Americans, it’s like 0.2, 0.1. That’s because there’s a lot of variation in the environments that people in lower classes face compared to the relatively homogeneous environments that they face in upper classes.
That’s just a comment on IQ heritability. But the Flynn effect, I think, is a great example of people adapting their cognition to the economic and social world that they face. They’ve got to deal with new kinds of problems, and that’s going to favor more analytic thinking.
Most of the increase in the Flynn effect is due to the three subtests. There’s 10 subtests on the IQ test and three of them are about analytic thinking. Those are the three that have really dramatically gone up over the last hundred years.
COWEN: The Flynn effect in the short run puzzles me more than in the long run. If I compare today to the 18th century, I can see where the difference might be. But in many countries, it seems the Flynn effect hasn’t stopped. Nutritional gains probably are over.
The environment — smartphones are newer than the Flynn effect, but it doesn’t seem to be changing now compared to a generation ago. They both seem quite complex. We’ve had TV for a while. People have books, market society. What exactly is the difference over the last generation in the short run?
HENRICH: It’s a cultural-evolutionary treadmill. One place where you see this is the complexity of television shows. Now, you have an ensemble cast and 20 different plots going on. You’ve got to track all these different plots. That wasn’t the television of the 1950s. It was one plot, one thing after another. Simple. The whole world is getting more complex, at least in terms of your need for analytic thinking.
COWEN: Some of that in your view is the supply-side effect. It’s not that we got smarter and they made TV better, it’s also they made TV better and that made some of us smarter.
COWEN: Coevolutionary. This is going to make you out to be quite an optimist, then, because TV is going to get better and better. We’re just going to keep on getting smarter.
HENRICH: Yeah, of course.
COWEN: When we tie that back in with the people 30,000 years ago having bigger brains and maybe they were smarter. Somehow, how the whole picture operates: Is it that the variance of our smarts goes up and we use society as a crutch for the areas where we’re really stupid? Is that what the picture looks like?
HENRICH: One of the cases I make in the book is that we have this tendency to think that our intelligence is about raw brain processing power. But I make the case that a lot of our intelligence comes from our culturally downloaded tools.
A simple example is all of you have a numbering system that you can count without bound. But the smallest-scale human societies will count one, two, three, many. They can’t differentiate 36 from 37. You can see the full variation of numbering systems by looking at these body-part counting systems.
Some groups in New Guinea will have a body-part counting system that goes up to 27. Another one will have one that goes up to 17. Somewhere in cultural evolution, we developed this ability to count without bound. Once we do that, we actually get new cognitive ability. When you grow up with this new kind of system, you get abilities you didn’t have before.
The same thing is true of our spatial cognitive abilities. In English, there’s three different spatial reference systems. There’s absolute: north, south, east, and west. There’s body-centered — left, right, front, back.
Then there’s also a relative one. Between me and the door — I could say she’s to the left of the door. That’s by drawing a line between myself and the doorway, and then using that as a reference point.
But in some languages, they just have north, south, east, and west. They can’t tell you to drive on the left or drive on the right because it’s not one of the systems that’s built in there. Once you have those, you can redeploy them in all kinds of fancy ways to do new stuff.
Cultural evolution is making us smarter by giving us all these new cognitive tricks. I think something else is important. People often conflate biological differences with genetic differences. Culture changes our biology even when it doesn’t change our genetics.
In the book, I make this long-term story that culture’s been shaping our genetic evolution, but it also shapes our biology. A simple example is everyone in this room — I would say with . . . I can’t be 100 percent sure — but you have a specialization in your left hemisphere, and you have a thicker corpus callosum than you would otherwise.
You’ve acquired a particular cultural skill, literacy, that changes your brain and makes you biologically different and actually thickens that information highway between your two hemispheres. When you hear spoken speech, you get greater full-brain activation patterns than you would if you’d still been illiterate. Culture changes our biology and causes us to think differently.
On the conservatism of cultural evolution
COWEN: We’re at George Mason University. I need to ask you about Hayek.
COWEN: Hayek had a theory that we still have atavistic instincts. We have the instincts of a collectivist people with strong sharing norms, which we needed when we were near subsistence. But we’re now much wealthier and these norms are dysfunctional and, in fact, they give us a bad politics. Agree, disagree? What’s your take on this?
HENRICH: I think I can agree with the broad claim. One of the things we always face in complex societies, meritocratic-based societies, is there’s a tendency for people to want to surround themselves by people that are loyal to them, by family and friends and people who owe them things, right? We call this corruption. In most human societies, this was called business as usual.
There is this tendency to want to surround yourself with those loyal to you, those of your same tribe, ethnic group, all those kinds of things. Maintaining well-functioning institutions requires constantly resisting the tendency to surround yourself with reciprocal partners and family members that would otherwise corrupt the system.
COWEN: Let me try a somewhat related question. I’m not at all intending this as asking you about your personal views on politics. But let me pose the question, and then circle back to what I’m really trying to ask.
I look at your research. You have papers. We learn better from teachers who are like us in some way, maybe slightly senior, but they’re similar in terms of their groups. Religion is something that’s very prosocial. There’s a kind of wisdom in intuitions about repugnance. Not always, but often. There’s a wisdom to these carried intuitions.
There’s a high value to cultural evolution. War in some cases can foster cooperation, especially over the longer haul. Biology really matters, and the West is quite distinctive in terms of what we do and how we think and the culture we’ve developed.
I’m not trying to ask personally are your views conservative. But in some temperamental sense, if I can just whisper this, do you ever feel even here, does it make you conservative believing all these things?
HENRICH: I just follow the trail where it goes. I don’t think of these things as conservative ideas although —
COWEN: I don’t mean conservative in the sense of modern political parties, but in the sense of the broad sweep of human history there are conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke would be one, or Adam Smith.
You could argue today, right now, the Democratic Party is in some ways more conservative than the Republican Party. Do you think of yourself fundamentally as a conservative thinker in that sense?
HENRICH: I’m not sure. I don’t think I’ve really thought about that question. One of the things I think thinking about cultural evolution and the scaling up of human societies and the adaptive nature of culture means that when you see a practice you’re thinking about how could that have emerged, why would it have spread?
You need some way of making sense of that, so one of the things I’ve worked on is a normative monogamy. It’s really puzzling in so much of the world today we have laws that prohibit elite males from taking additional wives. Eighty-five percent of human societies have allowed polygyny, so this is an example of one of those things where what is monogamous marriage doing, if anything?
I wrote this paper where I made the argument that it actually reduces male-male competition, so it’s a very biological argument. It actually lowers male testosterone and it reduces crime rates and has a bunch of positive, prosocial effects.
COWEN: It’s a kind of redistribution in a sense. Of sex.
HENRICH: Yeah, it’s sexual egalitarianism.
COWEN: There is a wisdom to that even before we could articulate those gains from monogamy.
HENRICH: Right. And the people who spread that themselves don’t appear to have known what it was doing. They believe God wanted it that way or something.
COWEN: That was an efficient form of cultural evolution . . .
HENRICH: It gave a competitive advantage to the societies that adopted it and then other societies began copying the West. For example, China adopts Western marriage norms in 1950, Japan adopted it in the Meiji restoration in the 1880s, Nepal doesn’t adopt it until 1963; it’s all relatively recent.
On the fragility of positive-sum thinking
COWEN: You’ve done a lot fieldwork in southern-central Chile with the Mapuche. What would you say is the main thing you personally have learned from the Mapuche in terms of your research?
HENRICH: The Mapuche was the main source for an idea that I’m working on now and the idea is that one of the cultural ways I’m interpreting the world is as a zero-sum game and that envy and witchcraft can play an important role in influencing economic behavior and economic development.
The Mapuche — I saw clearly that if someone else in the community did well, that meant that everybody else in the community had to do worse, because there is a limited good in the world. An anthropologist named George Foster famously describes this. People would hide when they had a good crop and they brought in a big yield; they would underplay it and try to hide how much they did.
They might have had a particularly good fertilizer, they might have figured out a new cropping technique — but that would be concealed from dissemination because of this concern that if people knew they were doing well they would envy them, and then bad stuff would happen to them.
Envy and people’s negative emotions — people believe it has a real force in the world and it can cause bad stuff to happen to you. This I think is one of the main challenges to some economic development in some places.
COWEN: Amongst the WEIRD people, how fragile do you think the positive-sum mentality is? Can you readily imagine that 30, 40, 50 years from now we’ve in some way regressed and become much more zero-sum? Or would that be extremely unlikely?
HENRICH: I think it’s a ready ability for us to see the world in zero-sum terms and I don’t think it takes very much to push people into zero-sum thinking.
COWEN: You think it’s scarcity or slow growth or ethnic conflict or what? What are the triggers?
HENRICH: The main thing would be negative growth, and yeah, conflict with various groups. We don’t know yet, but those are my suspicions.
COWEN: We have some cases, like, say, the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. It fights a vicious war; not too long before it seemed levels of ethnic conflict were going to prove manageable if you look at measures such as intermarriage or just domestic violence.
Then all of a sudden things break loose and you would think at this time people would have had optimistic views about the future and maybe wish to go their own way, but not fight on such a scale. What’s the right conceptual framework for thinking about conflicts like that?
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HENRICH: Well, I don’t know much about that conflict. I don’t want to speak too quickly on the idea that the zero-sum thing can change. I think it can go from positive-sum to zero-sum relatively quickly, but at least in the studies that anthropologists have done in different parts of the world the zero-sum thinking can get really embedded.
Just because things are going good for a little while — external forces can cause economies to grow and people could still have fundamentally zero-sum thinking or at least be able to drop back into it pretty quickly. That kind of thing could help explain this situation.
On religious versus atheistic societies
COWEN: You’ve done a lot of work on religion and the social role of religion and how religion can have a prosocial role, and the costly signaling of certain things through religion can be useful.
What is your view on how what seem to be some atheistic societies can be so orderly? Possible nominations would be Japan or Sweden, though those are subject to possible challenge. Is it that you think religion gets replicated through some kind of nonreligious belief? Or you think there’s really some different set of categories of thought where you can in a sense move beyond religion and still cooperate?
HENRICH: The case we make in this paper we wrote recently reviewing all this work is that these big-god religions that we talk about allowed for the construction of well-functioning secular institutions, but once you have well-functioning secular institutions then religion loses its functionality and begins to ebb away.
One of the best predictors in Europe of not being religious, of atheism, is good social safety nets. The reason why the US is such an outlier in being so religious is, one, not such a great social safety net, and actually variation across states in that, which predicts religiosity.
The second one is the kind of free market for religion. Religious freedom meant you had the kind of production of the Walmart of religion. You don’t get that in European powers. So a combination of those two things explains why the US has religiosity closer to Lebanon.
COWEN: But say Japan, which doesn’t have an enormous safety net — it has in some ways more cooperation through families — and they’re possibly the most atheistic society in the world. Is it ethnonationalism that carries that, or some embedded ethics since medieval times?
HENRICH: I think it’s an open question as to how much religion there is in Japan. Certainly, when you ask people, people think religion means the Christian God and people say no to that question. But then if you start talking about other kinds of beings and spirits and agents, people get a little bit softer . . .
COWEN: Sure, quite a bit softer perhaps.
Something else I find interesting in your work — there’s the sense of how firmly we can believe in some god or gods, and how hard it is to get us to believe in others. Very few people today believe in Zeus, or if they do it might be a kind of joke or affectation.
And this splitting our intuitions between these very firm loyalties and these very loose loyalties. Now there’s some societies, I think Haiti in the Caribbean would be an example, where that seems much more fluid. You can talk people into new gods at times. It’s not easy, but it’s probably easier there than here. What accounts for that across societies, the ease of believing in additional gods?
HENRICH: I think the standard way from looking at religions all around the world is that most people accepted that their tribe or their clan or their group had a god and naturally that meant that other people’s tribes or groups had a god, so there were lots of gods and you dealt with your god and they had their god.
COWEN: Henotheism, yeah.
HENRICH: Right. And what was unique about the Abrahamic religions was that they at a certain point in their history — in the past they were more similar to everybody else, but then they decided there was only one God and the other gods were nonexistent.
This may have given them a competitive advantage because then you go and you actually try to stomp out . . . Christian missionaries — I’ve encountered them in the Peruvian Amazon and other places — and they’re hard at work at this because it takes a long time to convince people that all these other beings don’t exist.
COWEN: That’s a competitive advantage through group selection or through the memes of cultural evolution?
HENRICH: It’s divided loyalty. The problem in Europe was that people still maintain their ancestor gods and the Catholic Church wanted them to believe in the Catholic God, and it’s trying to serve two masters.
You can do that, but it’s really better if you get rid of the ancestor gods, which might have been one of the reasons why the Catholic Church dismantled all these complex kinship systems that led to ancestor worship. Then you get people fully invested in the one Church and the one God.
COWEN: That’s correlated with higher cooperation on other matters?
HENRICH: Here’s what we know —
COWEN: People being WEIRDer?
HENRICH: Our effort to test this is to go to places around the world where people believe in the Christian God but also maintain local gods, and then we look at their willingness to cheat in an experiment.
We find that the more they believe in the Christian God (or other big gods too — works with Islam), the more they believe that God is punishing and monitoring them, then the more cooperative they were in the game, less willing to cheat they were. But their belief in the local god either didn’t have an effect or caused them to go the other way.
One of the ways we deal with this is we unconsciously prime them of either their local god or the big god. In the case of the local god, it usually makes them more pro their in-group, whereas priming the big god made them more fair towards out-group members, towards this larger circle of coreligionists.
COWEN: So maybe more cosmopolitan, more likely to buy internationalism for larger —
HENRICH: Yeah. The idea is the one god is for building a big society and the other god is for galvanizing cooperation in this village.
COWEN: Then if you have cultural evolution operating more quickly for larger units, that will be correlated with a more rapid pace of cultural evolution and carrying more positive things.
HENRICH: It allows you to scale up, basically.
COWEN: There is in this account some positive external social benefit to a lot of forms of monotheism?
HENRICH: Yeah, that’s the idea.
COWEN: That’s very interesting.
What would be a prediction you would make about religion that you think a lot of other frameworks would not or could not make?
HENRICH: The typical evolutionary approaches to religion don’t take into account that the kinds of gods we see in religions in the world today are not seen in small-scale societies. I mentioned the ancestor gods; other kinds of spirits can be tricked, duped, bought off, paid; you sacrifice in order to get them to do something; they’re not concerned about moral behavior.
Whatever your story is, it’s got to explain how you got these bigger gods. The kind of obvious alternative is people believe in gods that reflect their society. What we’ve been trying to do is work to see if those gods are doing any work.
It might be that people believe in bigger gods, but can they lead to greater cooperation or other kinds of prosocial benefits? That’s why we’ve done all these experiments in different parts of the world trying to see if there’s any evidence for this.
COWEN: If you’re thinking about a series of connected problems — say the origins of the Industrial Revolution, how we should spend foreign aid, how economic development can be encouraged — for this reason, do you see the roles of ideas and religions as primary, as driving forces? Or not so much?
HENRICH: 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.
COWEN: What did the British and Dutch arguably have that, say, other parts of Europe or for that matter China might not have had as much of?
HENRICH: 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 stopped the kind of . . . 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.
COWEN: What’s your take on how China fits into this picture? Because during the Song dynasty a lot of economic historians feel, well, there might have been, could have been, should have been an industrial revolution.
There wasn’t. China ends up stagnating for a while. Has a disastrous 19th century, but it’s still the case that Chinese immigrants coming to the West even not from wealthy backgrounds, they seem to assimilate into WEIRD culture very rapidly and very successfully. How does that fit this picture? They’re not monotheistic in any simple way.
HENRICH: There’s two questions. One is why didn’t you get an industrial revolution in China. They’re always going to be impeded by the fact that there was a strong patrilineal clan system, cousin marriage, all these things that prevent individualism which is the fuel for entrepreneurship and individual innovation.
You can’t get that going or it’s harder to get that going. Now because of this large cultural capital that’s been built up in China for having a state for a very long time, having early agriculture, those forces, you have a lot of cultural capital in migrants that they then take when they move. They’re arriving with a bunch of cultural stuff that allows you to do well in societies like the US.
COWEN: They somehow maintained that cultural capital without moving onto the most rapid growth path?
HENRICH: You mean why China doesn’t move on?
COWEN: Right, China now arguably is moving onto that path. But if you start at say 1730 when China might have been wealthier per capita than France, you have a long period of decline, maybe two and half centuries for the most part, and yet so much of that remains intact at the level of individual family, that Chinese migration in terms of per capita incomes goes very well very quickly.
HENRICH: There were still functioning markets, there was still a functioning state, there was still an economic system that was pretty complex, linked lots of different places. Of course since the 1950s China has been pushing exactly the same marriage-and-family program that the Catholic Church started pushing in 600 in Europe, so they dissolved cousin marriage.
They actually did the same thing as the church. First, they ended first-cousin marriage, and then a little later they ended second-cousin marriage, ended polygyny, all those kinds of things. They’ve been transforming society from the grassroots and China can do this because it’s such a powerful state. This would be hard for any other state to do.
On American exceptionalism
COWEN: What’s your opinion on American exceptionalism, culturally? I know you’re from Canada.
HENRICH: In terms of the WEIRD psychology? The —
COWEN: Yes. Are we special in some way?
HENRICH: In a lot of our measures, you can’t always detect it, but Americans turn out to be WEIRDer than Canada, and WEIRDer than the rest of Europe.
COWEN: In which way are we WEIRDer than Canadians?
HENRICH: More individualistic, a little more analytic thinking —
COWEN: Do we really have more instrumental rationality? I don’t observe it these days.
HENRICH: Yeah, valid point.
HENRICH: Let’s see, what was the other . . . greater overconfidence, more focus on the self. Part of the individualism thing is an obsession with the self and the attributes and individual achievements. Americans are particularly obsessed with themselves.
COWEN: Do you have an account of how much neighbors matter? It’s a common debate in development economics, like Mexico versus Brazil. They’re right about the same level of per capita income. Mexico’s immediate neighbor, of course, is the US and also a link to Canada through NAFTA.
Brazil doesn’t quite have anything comparable. Chile is small and in some ways it’s quite distant. Is the correct inference that Mexico, as part of this larger network, will grow more rapidly than Brazil?
HENRICH: Well, I think there is some evidence to suggest that you’re more likely to copy useful institutions, social norms from nearby neighbors, so there is a proximity effect that could result in both positive and negative copying. So yeah, I think neighbors matter.
On chimps, apes, Neanderthals, and the start-up problem
COWEN: Your work on animals, we have a little time to talk about this. You’ve studied chimpanzees, their termite-fishing, their ant-dipping, their nut-cracking. How conservative are chimpanzees? How much is there chimpanzee culture in addition to their instincts?
HENRICH: Chimps definitely have some culture. They do some social learning; they learn a few tools. The key difference between other animals and humans is that human culture is cumulative. We’re able to learn stuff from the previous generation, add a little bit to it, pass it down to the next generation, add a little bit to it.
In chimps, because of their social structure and in part maybe because of their cognition, they’re not able to generate this cumulative cultural evolution. Nothing that a chimp does he couldn’t figure out by himself. He might get it more easily by learning it from another chimp; nothing is so complex that he couldn’t figure it out by himself.
In humans, even in the simplest human societies — hunter-gatherers — there’s tons of things that no single individual could figure out in their lifetime. You’re completely dependent on this body of knowledge, know-how, norms that’s bequeathed to you from prior generations just to survive.
COWEN: There’s some breakthrough in the past that’s quite remarkable. What are now human beings start doing something that the other great apes don’t. This is all speculative, of course, but what in your opinion is that confluence of events that leads to this great filter: What are now human beings pass through it, but the other great apes basically do not?
HENRICH: That’s the start-up problem. The key thing to understand the start-up problem is how humans went down the special trajectory. The way I think about it is you want to think about natural selection as investing either in bigger brains that make you better at figuring stuff out by yourself — better at individual learning — or better at cultural learning, at learning from others.
When there’s not very much interesting things, interesting tools, techniques, ideas in the minds and behaviors of other members in your social group, individual learning is better because learning from others doesn’t get you anything because nobody else in the group has anything.
What you need is a situation where you’re able to have useful ideas in the minds of other members of your social group. In the book, I make the case that when humans are on the savanna as bipedal apes, the predator guild was probably much larger.
Humans have a chimpanzee-like brain, except they lived in larger groups and they would’ve had to be more social with each other so there’s a chance they could’ve crossed this threshold and started down this road. There’s a few other factors like the climate was changing in a way that would’ve favored cultural evolution, so a few other things play into it. But that’s the basic idea.
COWEN: But it’s odd in a way there are not intermediate species, or maybe there were and we killed them off, but like Neanderthals, Denisovans, might they have been smarter than humans?
HENRICH: Yeah. In the book, I make the case that Neanderthals were probably smarter than us. In primates, basically, it’s overall brain size predicts how good you are on various cognitive tests. Neanderthals are our cousins. They’re around, say, from 200,000 to 25,000 [years ago].
They have larger brains than us. We’re about 1,350 cc. Neanderthals are 1,500. We should expect them be smarter than us. The difference is the African variant — we’re the African variant.
We had larger groups because we were living in a climate that allowed us to have a larger collective brain. We’re able to generate probably bows and arrows, other fancy technologies. Then we move into Europe and exterminate the Neanderthals.
On social science tribes
COWEN: You’re an anthropologist. You’ve spent a lot of time with economists — coauthored, worked with Paul Romer, Colin Camerer, others. As an anthropologist, what do you find strange about the tribe known as econ? [laughs]
HENRICH: I had a real opportunity. I was very fortunate in my career to be a professor of psychology and a professor of economics at the same time but to be neither in some deep sense. I would get to go back and forth from seminars in economics and psychology.
In economics, there’s this really competitive culture. The way I like to describe it: If you’re giving a seminar in economics, the crowd — everybody’s trying to show who’s the smartest guy in the room. Just on your first slide, someone will raise their hand. (I’m like, I haven’t said anything yet!) Then they’ll try to ask the killer question which undercuts your whole talk so that they can get you right at the beginning.
HENRICH: Whereas psychologists, they’ll sit quietly. They watch your talk. You go through your whole PowerPoint. You probably touched a lot of different research projects.
Then there’ll be question time; at first no hands will go up. Then someone will be like, “I got a question.” Then they say, “I just have one small question. I mean, it was a great talk and this is just a very minor thing.”
Then it could be a killer question at that point when they’ve done the preface. It’s a very strong cultural difference between the econ tribe and the psychology tribe.
I’ve always wanted to write an ethnography: My Life among Two Strange Tribes: The Psychologists and the Economists.
COWEN: What’s strange about the anthropologists?
HENRICH: That’s a whole other thing.
HENRICH: Anthropology is strange field because it’s split not down the middle but about 75 percent of the way through between the humanities on one side and then evolutionary biologists on the other who call themselves anthropologists. There’s this science, antiscience war that goes on within the same department. That’s a whole other thing.
COWEN: Now, what I would call narrative, or more subjective or interpretive anthropology, does that have a future in a world where everyone has access to audiences? People post anthropological accounts on the Internet every day. Some of them are quite wonderful. They’re typically by people with little or no training in anthropology.
The world pays more attention to those on average than to the writings of narrative anthropologists. Is there some kind of disconnect here that the profession, due to tenure, is in one stage of its cultural evolution and the rest of culture already has moved somewhere else?
HENRICH: That’s possible. Although in my work, I’ve always tried to say that there’s — and make the case and do — that there’s real value to ethnographic work. That you really learn a lot and you get lots of ideas when you’re in a village and you’re living with the people, you’re working with them, you’re eating their food, and you’re just watching village life go on.
Some of my best ideas come when I’m in that situation. I think there’s great value to doing this rich, deep ethnography. But we should combine it with the full set of tools that the rest of the social sciences has to offer: behavioral experiments, biometric measures, fMRI, all these kinds of stuff.
COWEN: If you had to name two or three thinkers and/or books that were your main intellectual inspirations, what would they be?
COWEN: Yes. Boyd and Richerson. We have a copy of that here.
COWEN: Outside of your field, what’s really influenced you?
HENRICH: Outside of my field. My undergraduate degree was aerospace engineering, or one of my undergraduate degrees. That gave me a real appreciation for a body of math and a way of thinking that’s very different from the field I went into, which was anthropology at first. I think I always had that kind of engineer in me, which might’ve led me to think ways different from your usual anthropologist.
COWEN: That’s quite unusual for an anthropologist, correct?
HENRICH: I think so.
COWEN: And it’s unusual for an aerospace engineer, correct?
HENRICH: As far as I know, yeah.
COWEN: [laughs] When you originally became an aerospace engineer, what was the thought in your mind for doing that and not anthropology or something else?
HENRICH: I like Star Trek.
COWEN: Sure, you like Star Trek. [laughs]
HENRICH: Actually, I wanted to do space propulsion. When I was at the end of my undergraduate, I was trying to decide if I wanted to go to grad school in anthropology or study space propulsion. I took a job actually here in Northern Virginia, and thought about it for a while. Then I decided, then I quit my job and drove to California and became a grad student at UCLA.
COWEN: If you’ve watched Star Trek and thought about space, let’s say someday, whenever, we encounter intelligent aliens. How intelligible do you think they will be to us?
HENRICH: I wouldn’t be very optimistic.
COWEN: Wouldn’t be very optimistic?
HENRICH: I can imagine an evolutionary track that is so different from anything we can comprehend.
COWEN: They’re not going to be like Vulcans and Romulans?
HENRICH: I don’t think so.
COWEN: They’ll be a kind of pulsating mass mind and we’ll never be able to translate into their language, and we won’t even be sure how smart they are for a long time?
HENRICH: Yeah. I think that seems like the most likely scenario.
COWEN: In your own work and in the social sciences, what are you currently most excited about?
HENRICH: Well, I’m most excited about this book, which I was partially describing. I’m writing a book on the WEIRD people problem on this question of how Westerners became psychologically unusual. That’s taken me kind of deep-dive into European history. That’s what I’m working on now.
COWEN: You’re mainly working on the historical side of that?
HENRICH: No. I move back and forth, so there’s tons of experiments and lots of work from economics, actually, lots work on institutions and culture from economics. But I’m trying to weave that together where I move back and forth from the history.
I might have some historical sequence, but I can’t show the causality because I don’t have the data from history. But I can test the theory up here in the real world, and then I go back to the history and move back and forth between those two.
COWEN: You’re allowed to go back in time and visit one historical era as an anthropologist. Assuming you can speak the language and won’t catch a disease, when and where would it be?
HENRICH: 600 AD in Kent, when the first missionaries arrived.
COWEN: What would you ask them?
HENRICH: I’d observe them. I’d live among them —
COWEN: Sure, you’d live among them. But at some point, you’d sit down for breakfast . . .
HENRICH: We have some insights, but what was the social structure at the time? How were people living? What was the real political power of the chiefs? What were the missionaries really up to? We have a few letters they sent back to the pope, but I’d want to get the whole story.
COWEN: As to what life in Kent was like in the 6th century.
HENRICH: And what the missionaries were actually up to. Like, were they actually trying to ban cousin marriage and all the stuff that they purported to do in their letters back to the pope.
COWEN: Joe, we look forward to your next book. His current book, The Secret of Our Success, will be available for sale outside afterwards.
Originally published by the Mercatus Center at Medium.com.