Distinctions in Western Historical Famly Structures and Practices

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Richard Hanania,

in a review and discusion of the book: Joseph Henrich. The WEIRDest People in the World:

Note that MFP means Christian 'Marriage and Family Plan'.

"What makes for successful human societies? And what was so special about the Western edge of the Eurasian landmass?

Biology is complicated, but Darwinism is at its heart based on a remarkably simple principle. Various organisms exist. Mutations occur during the process of genes being passed on to offspring. Some of them are beneficial towards the ends of survival and reproduction, while others are harmful. Those that are beneficial spread, and populations change. One doesn’t have to know anything about the specifics of, say, how cells work or the structure of the brains of mammals to understand the basic concept.

Building on the work of Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, and others, Henrich’s big idea is to apply a similar principle to human culture. Groups differ on a countless number of dimensions, from the foods they eat to how they raise children. Yet the ones that adopt the cultural preferences that are most successful will see them spread, through some combination of the direct conquest of other groups, outbreeding them, immigration to more successful territories, and imitation by less successful communities. Henrich’s book goes through the steps from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and the rise of chiefdoms, and finally to cities, industrialization, and the modern world. Every step in the process is convincing and seemingly backed up by various streams of research. What’s particularly impressive is the ways in which he connects political developments to biochemical processes at the level of individual psychology. For example, he explains the potency of synchronous movements during rituals to our brains having evolved to use our own movements to predict the movements of those around us, which can create the illusion that others are more similar to, if not extensions of, ourselves.


Ultimately, Henrich traces the success of the West back to the sex and marriage taboos of early Christianity. The book highlights how obsessed early Christian leaders were with preventing incest, and just how rare this concern has been historically. An appendix to the book lists milestones in the process, beginning with the Synod of Elvira in 305-306 AD decreeing that a man could not take communion if he married his dead wife’s sister, to bans on marrying family members that started with close relatives like first cousins and nieces and expanded to include sixth cousins by the eleventh century in a system that covered not only blood relations, but affines (i.e., in-laws, step-children, etc.) and spiritual kin (godmothers, etc.). The first documented communication between a Frankish king and a pope is a letter from 538 AD about the incest issue. In the eleventh century, the Duke of Normandy, who would later be known as William the Conqueror, was excommunicated for marrying a distant cousin. While church leaders always had to be cognizant of political realities, European history shows that they did exercise power in their own right, even over the lives and behavior of some of the most powerful figures of late antiquity and the Middle Ages.

A fascinating line of evidence documenting the development of changing family norms can be found in the linguistic record. Earlier in their history, European languages had terms for things like “mother’s sister” or “male cousin on my dad’s side” instead of just saying “aunt” or “cousin.” Such distinctions matter in societies in which clans and extended family relations are important and descent is traced through either the male or female line alone, and so these kinds of words are still used in modern languages such as Arabic. They would disappear across Europe, first in the Romance languages like French and Italian around 700, and then German and English by around 1100. Usually, it takes languages a few centuries to catch up to cultural changes that have taken place in people’s daily lives, so the timeline is consistent with the decrees of the Catholic Church having had a major effect on society. Yiddish, however, which split from German in the Middle Ages, would continue to use highly specific terms to refer to extended family members, thus reflecting different marriage and reproduction norms among Jews.

What Henrich calls the Church’s “Marriage and Family Plan” (MFP), which included features like monogamy in addition to an obsession with preventing broadly-defined incest, had important downstream consequences in practically every aspect of life. Young men would be more likely to find marriage partners since a few high-status leaders could not claim a disproportionate share of women, creating incentives for individuals to be more hard-working and less violent. The power of elders was further reduced by an inability to arrange marriages in ways that would keep wealth and resources within the same family, unlike in Muslim societies where the son of one brother would often be wedded to the daughter of another. When incest taboos extended to sixth cousins, Henrich estimates that an individual may have had 10,000 total relatives that were off limits in the marriage market. This wouldn’t be a big deal in a modern city, but when most people lived in small villages it would have created major difficulties for anyone trying to find a spouse. This led to a population that was more mobile, less embedded in kinship networks, and ultimately more individualistic.

For most of those unfamiliar with the anthropological literature, what is sure to be one of the most surprising findings discussed in the book relates to how rare the individual components of the MFP have been throughout history. According to one database looking at 1,200 societies before industrialization, only 5% had newlywed couples start their own households, 8% organized domestic life around nuclear families, 15% had only monogamous marriages, 25% had little or no cousin marriage, and 28% had bilateral descent, meaning that lineages are traced through both the mother and father. Christian Europe under the MFP had all five, which wasn’t true for over 99% of other societies. Today, after the rest of the world has been heavily influenced by Western culture, given its success, it’s easy to lose sight of how unique its mating and familial practices have been in the larger historical context.

People prone to individualism would go on to achieve high rates of urbanization and form guilds, universities, marketplaces, and other voluntary institutions that were based on principles of mutual self-interest and competed with one another. Ultimately, Western Europe would conquer the world on the back of the strengths of these institutions, with democracy and capitalism being arguably the most important among them.

One can synthesize Weber and Henrich by understanding that while Protestantism was important for the Industrial Revolution, it was the MFP that created the psychological conditions for a faith that emphasized the individual’s relationship with God to conquer much of Europe. Henrich goes as far as in effect arguing that if Martin Luther had never existed, larger trends ensured that movements with many of the same characteristics of what became Protestantism would have gained adherents, even if they never officially broke with Rome.

It is important to note that the Church did not have any idea about what the long-term consequences would be when it began enforcing the MFP, any more than a hunter-gatherer tribe in the Australian outback understands that its traditional cooking methods are what make a particular seed digestible. Henrich argues that breaking down kinship ties was potentially a great way for the Church to seize large estates upon the deaths of individuals, and it therefore ended up as the largest landholder in Europe. So while individuals and institutions found certain aspects of the MFP appealing for reasons related to their own interests, no one could foresee the ways in which monogamy, incest taboos, and other Christian familial practices would eventually create the modern world."