If you’re from a Western society, chances are you value individuality, independence, analytical thinking, and an openness to strangers and new ideas.
And the surprising reason for all that may very well have to do with the early Roman Catholic Church and its campaign against marriage within families, according to new research published in Science by Joseph Henrich, chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, and a team of collaborators.
“If you’re going to ask the rise-of-the-West question,” said Henrich, an author of the paper, “there’s this big unmentioned thing called psychology that’s got to be part of the story.”
About a decade ago Henrich coined the acronym WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) to describe the characteristics of cultures that embrace individualism. And those groups were weird, which is to say unusual within the rest of the modern world’s substantial psychological variation. Most of the prior studies attempting to explain the discrepancies focused solely on geographic or ecological factors.
Henrich and his collaborators decided to look at how social groups mold the psychology and values of members, the most important and fundamental being the family.
“There’s good evidence that Europe’s kinship structure was not much different from the rest of the world,” said Jonathan Schulz, an assistant professor of economics at George Mason University and another author of the paper. But then, from the Middle Ages to 1500 A.D., the Western Church (later known as the Roman Catholic Church) started banning marriages to cousins, step-relatives, in-laws, and even spiritual-kin, better known as godparents.