The strangest people in the world

Man may name him Epimenides, the elephant who is here in the room, after the Cretan who said that all Cretans lie, and thus reduced the self-statement ad absurdum. When a Canadian anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist who teaches at Harvard points out that “strange people” – loosely speaking: residents of the Christian-influenced West (“WEIRD” is the acronym for it: “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic”) – tended to see the world through strange glasses, then the question arises as to whether this Westerner, who also blends the West with the “modern world”, has really taken off his glasses. And indeed: no matter how much knowledge Joseph Henrich has compiled in his universal theory (the bibliography alone is ninety pages long), his book leaves the stale taste of Western idiocy behind.

The author attributes a higher degree of analytical thinking, individualism, trustworthiness, diligence, honesty, self-control, patience and “impersonal prosociality” (towards strangers) to Westerners than the rest of the world, all of which are supposedly scientifically proven by various comparative social experiments. Henrich’s central message is that these are culturally acquired character traits; genetically, this will have an effect at best in millennia. This elephantine study is perhaps the strangest version of culturalist Eurocentrism (which includes North America).

More of a perceived number

The author is also strange in a special way. It is said that since the early modern period, the West has had the strange notion that “every single human being could discover completely new knowledge”. While Henrich tries hard to refute the said belief in genius – complex innovations arise from the “addition of small extensions” – he himself has discovered something completely new, a “massive psychological and neurological iceberg that many researchers have simply overlooked”, this one immodest claim jumps out at the readers of his book.

Joseph Henrich: “The Strangest People in the World”. How the West became very strange and particularly rich.

Image: Suhrkamp Verlag

The author massively accuses experimental disciplines such as social psychology, cultural anthropology or economics of having mostly only researched their own students: “Even today . . . still more than ninety percent of the participants in experimental studies are strange.” It is probably more of a felt number. Henrich has to drum so loudly to cover up that his findings from applied folk psychology, spread over more than nine hundred pages, are by no means particularly new. Despite his indications of a strong variance within the European/American and the non-European cohort, he even believes that he can identify a fundamental dualism: “we” and the others.