Did the medieval church make us WEIRD?

A growing body of research suggests that populations around the globe vary substantially along several important psychological dimensions and that populations characterized as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) are particularly unusual. People from these societies tend to be more individualistic, independent, and impersonally prosocial (e.g., trusting of strangers) while revealing less conformity and in-group loyalty. Although these patterns are now well documented, few efforts have sought to explain them. Here, we propose that the Western Church (i.e., the branch of Christianity that evolved into the Roman Catholic Church) transformed European kinship structures during the Middle Ages and that this transformation was a key factor behind a shift towards a WEIRDer psychology.

That is a new piece in Science by Jonathan F. Schulz, Duman Bahrani-Rad, Jonathan P. Beauchamp, and Joe Henrich, try this link tooThis one works for sure.  Here is Harvard magazine coverage of the piece.  Here is a relevant Twitter thread.

The two Jonathan co-authors are new colleagues of mine at GMU economics, so I am especially excited this work is seeing the light of day in such a good venue.


Ripping off HBDChick without attribution.

This is also one of the central theses behind the book by Francis Fukuyama, "The Origins of Political Order". Good to see it's being validated.

Bonus trivia: there's a nexus between those celibate Catholic priests and the rise of the modern state (Fukuyama again). Also childless people who devote their lives to science, bettering society (Ray Lopez), keeping in mind well over 95% of the value added in a new discovery is never recaptured by the average inventor (various sources).

I second that recommendation. "The Origins of Political Order" is my favorite Fukuyama book. It explains a great deal of why we are what we are.

But the Lutherans were the only ones who could really organize an advanced society.

I put down German misadventures to their Catholic influence.

Joking, not joking.

Might you please elaborate on this?

+1. Ray Lopez at his best. Enjoy.

This is basically what hbdchick has been saying for years. https://hbdchick.wordpress.com/

Saying it and proving it are two different things. F. Fukuyama also said it in 2011 and 'proved' it with a word picture and some logic, but no hard data.

Bonus trivia: Scott Sumner in his book on gold proved the Great Depression (which only lasted from 1929-1934, the rest was FDR bungling, and the great depression of 1837 was arguably longer and stronger) had monetarist causes, with a word picture and logic. Surprisingly good, even for somebody like me who thinks money is largely neutral and recessions have no real logic behind them.

The 1920s was a great time to be rich in America. Consumer prices were mostly flat, with many deflationary years (1921, 1922, 1926, 1927, 1928). Asset prices, on the other hand, roared (thus, the roaring twenties), in particular stock prices. And tax rates were coming down. Not surprisingly, wealth inequality spiked in the 1920s, up to levels in 1929 not experienced again until 2007. The financial crisis of 1929 resulted in collapsing asset prices and, with collapsing asset prices, collapsing wealth inequality (income inequality, on the hand, did not collapse). As Ray points out, the Fed did not attempt to stop or reverse the collapse with stimulative monetary policy, nor did Congress adopt a stimulative fiscal policy (until 1933 after the election of FDR but even then it was modest). Of course, in the financial crisis of 2008-09, the Fed did embrace a stimulative monetary policy and Congress adopted a stimulative fiscal policy (although modest compared to what was suggested by many economists). That was fortunate for the wealthy, as the combination (especially the stimulative monetary policy) stopped and reversed the collapse of asset prices and restored asset prices and wealth inequality to the levels before the financial crisis. Was it fortunate for the not wealthy? Was it fortunate for the wealth in the long run? Has the stimulative monetary policy, which the Fed once again embraced this year after a brief period of a contractionary monetary policy, restored the conditions that existed not only in 2007-08, but in 1929?

The Graet Depression was caused by Herbert Hoover in 1928 when he created the FCC and caused sudden agglomertion of national radio. Overnight, the streets of America, almost everywhere became clogged.

We can prove it for the great Depression, with data. We can prove it with the arrival of printing press, rotary press, telegram, television, telephone exchanges and the web. Major depressions are almost always associated with sudden break through in communications that disrupt the term of trade.

Since no one listens to broadcast radio (or read printed books, or dial rotary phones, or send telegrams, or watch broadcast TV ) anymore does the reverse hold true?

Asking for a friend.

Hbdchick has never been shy about providing data.

My 2003 article in "The American Conservative" on cousin marriage is relevant:

Cousin Marriage Conundrum
By STEVE SAILER • January 13, 2003

Many prominent neoconservatives are calling on America not only to conquer Iraq (and perhaps more Muslim nations after that), but also to rebuild Iraqi society in order to jumpstart the democratization of the Middle East. Yet, Americans know so little about the Middle East that few of us are even aware of one of the building blocks of Arab Muslim cultures: cousin marriage. Not surprisingly, we are almost utterly innocent of how much the high degree of inbreeding in Iraq could interfere with our nation-building ambitions.


Just goes to show that where you publish matters.

Specifically, Science versus https://hbdchick.wordpress.com

If I published my work on https://hbdchick. wordpress.com, I wouldn't be surprised if no one paid a lot of attention to it (or to be truthful, less than they do now).

People paid attention, as evidenced by a number of people pointing this out. That's not the issue. The issue is giving some credit where it's due.

Yep. You can make a sound case on toilet paper if you got what it takes.

"Leaders of that branch became obsessed with what they saw as incest, the researchers say, and launched a “marriage and family program” that eventually banned marriages between even distant cousins"

Medieval Europeans are smarter than their 21st century inbred trailer trash descendants on opioids and welfare.

Very, very low rates of cousin marriage among modern american whites of any socio-economic class.

Forget it, he's rolling.

Most Americans don't live near,their cousins so opportunities for romance to develop are pretty limited.

The Church however handed out dispensations like Halloween candy so there was not exactly a hard ban on cousin marriages. As late as the 19th century the Church was still to permit uncle-niece marriages.

Probably never happened. There's a good set of ancient DNA from early Medieval, late Iron Age, Roman Europeans. Before any putative cousin marriage ban by the Church and outside its influence.

No sign of cousin marriage in the DNA. Oops.

WTF do you mean by "putative" ban? There's tons of papal bulls on it and other documents too. Go to @hbdchick's blog and search, it's all there.

"Putative effectual" then, and "Putative effect of", if you prefer for precision.

Dispensations were easy to get. Look at the lineage of any well documented royal or noble clan.

Dispensations were easy for nobles to get, which is to say, i95% of the population couldn't get 'em.

But the point that the paper is arguing is that the change happened among elites (prior to the Church’s efforts, the kin-based institutions of most European populations looked much like other agricultural societies and included patrilineal clans, kindreds, cousin marriage, polygyny, ancestor worship, and corporate ownership - e.g. at the level of political elites).

Indeed soon we can, directly - https://eventpilotadmin.com/web/page.php?page=IntHtml&project=ASHG19&id=1922226 - "Genomic game of thrones: Ancient DNA analysis of European and Asian royal dynasties."

Some tweets on twitter were "spoilers" for this upcoming information. Apparently Runs of Homozygosity accelerate over time in the "noble" pool (from late medieval to early modern), showing emergence of a close breeding structure in time. (Good luck finding them on twitter though, the thing is functionally unsearchable).

Romans had their own religious ban on first-cousin and uncle-niece marriage, which was seen as an Oriental barbarism. The Western Church, however, expanded prohibited degrees much further than is easily detectable by genetic tests, and the prohibited degrees included not only blood relatives but also spiritual relatives. At one time marriages within seven degrees were deemed consanguineous. That would put all the Ashkenazi population in violation, for example.

No particular long ROH patterns indicating consang found in Iron Age Celts in Britain, large transect of pre-Roman Iberian Iron Age, or even Levant Roman period it seems (and many other pre-Roman samples but generally earlier than Iron Age).

When hbdchick was perhaps beating the drum that consang rates as in the greater ME today were normal and this changed, it was perhaps plausible to talk of correlated shifts in culture. It does not seem on the genetic evidence that this happened. If we are talking of not these kind of patterns, but patterns which are in fact involve such extended relatives that they are effectively genetically invisible....

Are changes in very, very extended family inter-marriage patterns, which probably weren't tracked or enforced for large majority of population, decisive for changing personality traits and culture, which is then decisive on later growth rates/"civic institutions"? I would guess probably not. Certainly it isn't very compelling set against the other explanations for the Great Divergence.

"which probably weren't tracked or enforced for large majority of population"? And you base that declaration on your careful study of the matter?

It was, in fact, tracked and enforced, that no marriages were allowed between peasants (due to dispensations for nobles) sharing any one great-grandparent, a relationship far enough that it isn't reliably distinguishable by DNA testing. And then further expanded by bans based on degree of affinity, which has no genetic trace at all.

And in a world where most people lived in peasant villages limited in size to the number of people who could be supported by farms within walking distance, that had the effect of requiring that spouses routinely be sought outside the immediate local community.

Do you really doubt that having an influx of "outsiders" in every single village in every single generation could plausibly have definite counter-insularity effects compared to societies (the rest of the agriculture-using world) where every village was usually its own endogamous unit?

Second-cousin (share one great-grandparent) are distinguishable in Runs of Homozygosity patterns, particularly when this is cyclic. Read Ceballos 2018 - http://www.biostat.ulg.ac.be/pages/BIM/Theory/ROH_windows_into_population_history_and_trait_architecture_nrg2018.pdf

As to whether villages themselves were large enough to sustain endogamous marriage without consanguinity at the second-cousin level, I'll provide no comment. But the point is whether there was a change in the rate and degree (decrease) of consanguinous marriage across the population which was caused by church edict, and which can then be causal on the Great Divergence within Eurasia by some kind of psychological mechanisms.

If ancient dna show no particularly contrasting high or low patterns of consang offspring in Europeans over time through the pre-Western church and post-Western church period, and it appears so far they don't, then this will not work at all as a theory of the Great Divergence. (Falling at the first hurdle, though there are many other hurdles it can fall at).

If you're saying there could be effectively 1) some effect, perhaps small, relative to the rest of the world(?) recently or today, which difference emerged at no clear time and may causes nothing specifically with regards to economic and institutional divergences, that is different from saying 2) there is a decisive and large shift in psychology and personality and this is exactly the consequence of medieval church edicts and this determines the Industrial Revolution and Great Divergence (which is the thesis that I specifically strongly doubt).

Staunch Catholics are against almost everything in WEIRD. Remember that liberalism is "thin civilizational gruel" sayeth the faith militant.

Western- catholic teaching obviously not against
Educated- Catholic teaching obviously not against
Industrialized- Unless you add some esoteric meaning to this, Catholic teaching obviously not against
Rich- Catholic teaching obviously not against, though it is against the Love of money.
Democratic- Catholic teaching is sort of against, but Democratic is such a vague adjective to be almost meaningless. Church teaching isn't against wide participation in state decision-making.

Democratic- Catholic teaching is sort of against, but Democratic is such a vague adjective to be almost meaningless. Church teaching isn't against wide participation in state decision-making.

The 19th century popes taught contra the political ideologies of the day, which were commonly quite anti-clerical. The Church had co-existed with elective and conciliar bodies for centuries. The Churchmen who participated in the Estates-General co-operated with the Third Estate until the passage of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.

Somebody doesn’t know much about the history of western civilization....

@hbdchick has been beating this drum for a decade. They were obliged to cite her.

They being your new colleagues, I and a lot of other people would be happy if you told them that they should cite prior work.

thanks. schulz, at least, has definitely read my blog. he emailed me at one point and we corresponded for a bit.

they've done a lot of great work here, tho. crunched the numbers.

Also my gamer friend youstink_249lol. His contributions to science can go unacknowledged for much longer.

I’d suggest later, at the Protestant reformation for the broad cultural shift and the Black Death where individual self reliance was inescapable.
South American cultures seem to me to be less WEIRD than than new world countries colonised by north Western European powers.
The north Eastern parts of Russia were mostly avoided by the social upheavals of that period.
I see 3 squarish blocks that jump in the scatter plots after 3 (not A in the structural abstract where the individualism doesn’t match with cultural change) & 6 Centuries of exposure to the church.
How long have Australia and New Zealand been exposed to the Roman Empire?

So higher genetic variation from out-of-family (non-counsin) marriages leads to psychological qualities like individualism, independence, pro-social, and law-abiding. These qualities lead to societies that have higher innovation. Higher innovation (like the printing press) leads to greater freedom. Greater freedom leads to greater prosperity that leads to even greater innovation (computers and the internet) that leads to even greater prosperity. And even greater prosperity leads to a Marginal Revolution?

Haven't Emmanuel Todd and others written about the effects of family organization (including rates of cousin marriage) on different peoples?

This is essentially the thesis of Robert Wright in his 2009 book The Evolution of God (in particular the part about trust due to a shared religion fostering trade). Of course, people see in their mashed potatoes what they want to see, especially in matters relating to religion, but I was impressed by Wright's thesis not because it's Christianity but any social or cultural phenomenon that affects the behavior of a large swath of believers. Consider the Mormon colonies in Mexico. What are they thinking?

rayward finally found an immigrant group he doesn't like!

1) Where does Ashkenazi Judaism fit into this.

2) Doesn’t this refute Caplan’s open borders thesis if he secret sauce travels with immigrant populations? (One would expect the failure of Caplan’s premise anyway, given the success of diaspora Han and Ashkenazi across home cultures. As Milton Friedman predicted, pre-Great Society US immigrants have a different success rate than post-Great Society US immigrants admitted by lottery.)

During the feudal era people were less exposed to strangers than before or after. Marriages between relatives were more likely. Later, as urban societies developed, there was more opportunity for opposite-sex strangers to form relationships, many of which were aimed at uniting family fortunes, which is still the case today.

so what cause Roman Church to implement this ? Roman culture ? Celtic culture ? Germanic culture ? Did Constantinople Church pre-Ottoman follow similar policy ? why not ? Greek Culture ? How to differentiate Roman Church influence versus Roman Empire minus Islamic occupation ?

Weakening kin-bonds makes people less loyal to family and more loyal to institutions such as the Catholic Church.

All large societal institutions tend to want to break down kin bonds.

Freud said it first.

There's another aspect to this story which I addressed briefly in Beethoven's Anvil, 247-247, where I argue that plainsong (aka Gregorian chant) created a mental space. This is from an excerpt I've uploaded to New Savanna:

The various tribes, cities, and states of Medieval Europe were all, in some measure, under the sway of the Roman Catholic church, and thus of its plainsong-based ritual. Europe was dotted with communities of chanting religious, and congregations would hear chanting at church services. Plainsong thus has geopolitical implications. While Europe’s various cultures each had their own local musics, they all had plainsong as a common musical practice.

European tribes first began to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world as Christians. As such they deemed themselves superior to all infidels—such as the Arabs, who showed their inferiority by studying mathematics and drinking coffee rather than alcohol. It wasn’t until the 17th century, after the Western Church had been split by the Reformation, that the secular concept of Europe replaced the sacred concept of Christendom as a touchstone of identity.
Just as humankind originated through music-making somewhere in Africa, so Europe begins to unify through the sacred music-making of the chanting religious. As that body of music begins to differentiate and develop, it moves into secular contexts and mingles with vernacular musics.

Most cultures gave a chauvinistic view of themselves vs other peoples. The ancient Greeks certainly did, claiming they were the only people who were both free and civilized.

This talk of the Church Effects confuse me.

The Western Church led to religious wars that decimated Europe for hundreds of years.

Maybe that conflict had the effect of improving artillery.

How does the growth of individualism fit in with religious social conformity?

Mao had his little Red Book and the Bishop his Bible.

You could more reasonably argue that it was the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution and its confiscation of Church property and the removal of Eclesiastical Courts, that ushered in WEIRD.

Lavoisier - didn't keep France WEIRD enough, apparently.

The Western Church led to religious wars that decimated Europe for hundreds of years.

It didn't, and they didn't.

The era of religious wars lasted from the early 1500s to 1648- not a long time historically. The earlier Crusades were waged on foreign soil and had the salutary effect of bleeding off excess population from Europe.

"Just as humankind originated through music-making somewhere in Africa..."

Yeah, what differentiated the Hominina from the Panina must have been the music-making ability. Sure, dude, whatever makes you feel important as a musician.

what unique work! have not seen anyone prominently and rigorously defend this thesis in the public domain over the course of the past decade

The western church? Certainly not the church in the middle ages.

Individualistic - Medieval Catholicism certainly did not promote individualism. For centuries medieval art and for that matter biographies was about ideal types not individuals. Abelard bucked the trend in the 1100s by writing about himself as an individual.

Independent - No, this is more due to Protestantism, which is not medieval.

Impersonally prosocial (e.g., trusting of strangers) while revealing less conformity and in-group loyalty. -- No way. Even today, the areas of Europe most affected by Catholicism (e.g. Italy) are far less trusting of strangers. Again, this is mostly a protestant thing, not medieval Catholic.

In sum these traits are mostly of the bourgeois mindset, which is almost the very opposite of the medieval Catholic mindset, and are thus more due to Protestant Christianity than medieval Catholicism.

Industrialized - The church did nothing to promote industrialization. And of course, industrialization happened first and most in Protestant areas.
Democratic -- The medieval roots of democracy are in the Germanic areas of Europe, least touched by Catholicism.

Does GMU have anything resembling an economics department? You know, one populated with researcher who study economic phenomena?


has our contemporary and rival Congregation of Holy Science across our modern era helped leave most of its congregants Scientific, Trusting, Untethered, Partly-Informed, and Dysphoric?

(Dopamine fasting does not appeal to everyone, no surprise there.)

LOTS of tacit science fideism going around these days . . . .

This could be further traced back to the grammatical shift of the verb "to be" in European languages at their inception. "Sum" becomes something like "I am", a clear, new assertion of individuality. This coincides with a new emphasis on contrition and confession (cathedrals, Louis I, monasticism, etc), which marks a greater concern for the personal soul. Individuality in other words.

The kinship changes were themselves an effect of these deeper movements.

A problem with this is that while one can find some things that happened under Catholiicism that did not further east, notably the Renaissance, otherwise Catholic Europe was not obviously all that much ahead on either scientific knowledge compared to China say or on real per capita income with many areas, until the Industrial Revolution came along. And with that we are back to Max Weber and his emphasis on the Protestant Ethic. his argument is not as widely accepted as at one time, but it remains the case that with a few exceptions such as Belgium, the Industrial Revolution largely started in Protestant nations.

The causes of the industrial revolution are immensely complex IMO. Critical junctures as acemgolu points out are often great historical accidents, such as the black plague leading to labor shortages that broke the back of feudalism in the West. That said, i am not sure that the industrial revolution would have been possible without the development of catholic cathedral schools (which became the modern university system, of which the great British universities have at their origin) where the scientific revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries was born. Further banking, while exiting in various for millennia, took on its modern form in Catholic northern Italy. It does also seem to be the case that the worlds first multinational corporation was the financial services arm of the Templar Knights. Further, it seems to be the case that the Christian understanding of the dignity of the individual soul (which was born of the Church) put the individual person at the pinnacle rather than the state as in Greece and Rome.

So it seems likely that the industrial revolution would not have been possible without the scientific revolution, the development of modern finance, and the reorientation of the dignity of the individual soul.. in all of which the Church played a critical role.

Oh gag, more fanatical Catholicism by "Student."

Islam had universities before the Christian/Catholic world, some of which still exist, e.g. al-Azhar in Cairo. It also is and was concerned with the state of the individual soul. The Templars financial servic operation died many centuries ago. The mutlinational corporations that survived came out of the Protestant nations, notably the Netherlands and Britain after they went Protestant. I will grant that the Tuscans invented modern banking and also gave us the Renaissance, but this looks like a very local matter, and they petered out before we got modern science or the industrial revolution.

ok boomer. Hahah couldn’t resist.

This is a central problem of "Deep Roots" theories; they either fail to explain intra-Eurasian divergences in either the present (Europe richer), or the past (Europe not richer).

(At the coarse level of Eurasia vs the Americas+Africa, fine, but this coarse level is probably not sufficient.)

Since most putative factors existed either then and now, when Europe was and was not richer (including lower rate of consanguinity in Europe), or in any case are not timed with the divergence at all, or are shared across Europe while the Great Divergence only happens in England, really.

A torturous 'Just So' causality can be invoked to resolve this ("Individualist technological innovation matters now but not then, and cousin-marrying collectivists can't do it! That was then, this is now!"). But the fairly ad hoc and arbitrary weakness of causal mechanism of this argument is salient.

Reading the later comments, it is clear to me that many have missed the implication that the church missives favoured genetic change in personality, which was the precondition for things like Protestantism, Enlightenment, respect for the rue of law etc

Tyler, have you looked into David Bentley Hart’s *Atheist Delusions*, the title of which is misleading by the way?

On a different note, Christians everywhere are praying for your conversion, Tyler! Prayers of love!

The anthropogist Jack Goody wrote so much about all this so long ago. Great man, obviously unknown to economists, who are never literate in anthropology.

Comments for this post are closed