A Key Theme from The WEIRDest People in the World

A Key Theme from The WEIRDest People in the World

A key theme from The WEIRDest People in the World by Joseph Henrich is the idea that cultural evolution can have real biological and psychological impacts on humans. Culture is often thought of as something that sits on top of our biology, influenced by the biological changes that evolution favors. But Henrich argues that culture can also shift our biology, by changing our brains.
 
 
In the introduction to his book, when calling this out as a key theme, he writes, “beliefs, practices, technologies, and social norms – culture – can shape our brains, biology, and psychology, including our motivations, mental abilities, and decision-making biases. You can’t separate culture from psychology or psychology from biology, because culture physically rewires our brains and thereby shapes how we think.”
 
 
For Henrich, this is evident in the way in which reading changes the physical structures of our brain. Our brains can adjust and change based on what we need them to do. Asking them to read a lot changes how brains are internally organized and structured, and that ends up creating further changes in how we perceive the world, how we think, and how we behave. Cultural practices can shape the brain which can then shift the way our thinking operates.
 
 
That is why we cannot separate culture and cultural evolution from psychology, biology, and human evolution as a whole. How we interact with and cooperate with others, what traits are favored and passed along, and what cultural practices spread and evolve are all intertwined in complex ways.
Protestantism Raised Literacy

Protestantism Raised Literacy

One important way in which Protestantism differs from Catholicism is that Protestantism encourages reading Christian scripture directly where Catholicism encourages learning scripture from religious leaders. Consequentially, the spread of Protestantism correlates to a spread of literacy across Europe from the 1500’s through the 1800’s. Joseph Henrich writes about this phenomena and its importance in his book The WEIRDest People in the World.
 
 
“The wave of Protestantism created by the Reformation raised literacy and schooling rates in its wake,” Henrich writes. The increased literacy in a region, created by the spread of Protestantism, had long lasting effects on literacy. Henrich continues, “countries made up entirely of Protestants had literacy rates nearly 20 percentile points higher than those that were all Catholic.” And he writes, “regions with early Protestant missions are associated with literacy rates that are about 16 percentile points higher on average than those associated with catholic missions.” Higher literacy spread throughout these regions and changed the cultures, “Protestantism likely caused a rise in female literacy.”
 
 
Henrich has shown that reading changes our brains and our psychologies. When a region is becoming more literate, more people’s brains and psychologies are changing, especially if literacy is expanding to women and other marginalized groups within a region. These changes help us understand why things like representative government and the industrial revolution took hold in Europe. By chance, a religion which encouraged direct reading and interpretation of religious texts spread through Europe. That religion increased literacy rates and eventually changed the way people’s brains were structured which changed how they thought and behaved. This created long lasting cultural differences that still shape how people from various regions think, behave, and are perceived. Protestantism raised literacy, started to create WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) people, and changed the world.
Cultural Evolution Changes Humans

Cultural Evolution Changes Humans

I have long thought that biological evolution and cultural evolution were distinctly separate phenomenon. I thought that biological evolution changed the actual individual creatures where cultural evolution only changed behaviors and institutions, largely as a downstream consequence of biological evolution. My view was similar, and possibly influenced by, modern computer technology. We don’t really think about the software and programs we run on computers as changing the hardware. But cultural evolution, it turns out, does make biological changes to the individual.
 
 
Joseph Henrich demonstrates this at the start of his book The WEIRDest People In the World. By showing how reading changes brain structures Henrich demonstrates how cultural evolution and biological changes in individuals took place simultaneously. Henrich writes, “learning to read forms specialized brain networks that influence our psychology across several different domains, including memory, visual processing, and facial recognition.”
 
 
New technologies enabled reading and reading became a new cultural practice and phenomena. As people began reading more, their brains literally changed. Parts of the brain which had specialized for certain functions throughout human evolution took on new roles and functions. This changed the psychology of many people all at once, changing the culture.
 
 
Henrich writes about the ways in which reading becomes automatic and unconscious, showing how cultural evolution, which changes how our brains operate, isn’t always a conscious act. If you see words in English you will automatically read and understand the word, even if you only see the word for the briefest moment. “Although this cognitive ability is culturally constructed, it’s also automatic, unconscious, and irrepressible,” writes Henrich, “this makes it like many other aspects of culture.”
 
 
We do not realize how drastic and important culture can be to how our brains function. Our psychology can be shaped by many cultural factors, as a result of changes in brain processes and structures. It is not just biological evolution that can have real changes in humans. Cultural changes can have similar results. This is important for us to think about when we consider how we relate to each other, our ancestors, and to the global species we want to be in the future. I fear more understanding of this type of cultural evolution could be used to discriminate against cultures, but I hope that it is instead used to demonstrate the dangers of oppressing cultures. Instead of a justification of discrimination it can be a bridge and an invitation to help cultures grow and evolve to live on a planet where all humans cooperate and can coordinate for a healthy and sustainable future.
7 Consequences of Learning to Read

7 Consequences of Learning to Read

In The WEIRDest People in the World Joseph Henrich writes about the mental ability that you are engaged with right now if you are ingesting this information without the help of an auditory tool, reading. “Acquiring this mental ability involves wiring in specialized neurological circuitry in various parts of the brain,” Henrich writes. What that means is that reading changes our brain, and consequentially, it rewires parts of our brains that have historically done different things for us. Here is a quick shorthand of the seven ways that reading changes our brain according to Henrich:
 
 
 
  1. Developed a new specialized area of the brain, the left ventral occipito-temporal region
  2. Thickened the corpus callosum which bridges the hemispheres in your brain
  3. Altered areas of the brain involved in language production and other neurological tasks like speech processing and thinking about what other people are thinking
  4. Improved verbal memory and expanded what parts of your brain are active when processing speech
  5. Moved facial recognition predominantly to a region in the right hemisphere of the brain rather than sharing that ability among both hemispheres
  6. To directly quote Henrich, “Diminished your ability to identify faces, probably because while jury-rigging your left ventral occipito-temporal region, you impinged on an area that usually specializes in facial recognition.”
  7. Shifted your tendency to be more analytical in your processing of visual information so that you consider component pieces rather than the whole to which pieces belong
 
 
These brain changes are fascinating, and are the result of something we rarely think about as having the ability to restructure and reshape the brain and how it operates. We have repurposed brain processes and structures so that our eyes can recognize text and so that we can associate that text with language and meaning. It is fascinating that the brain can do this at all, and fascinating to think of the changes that take place across the brain when we do this.
 
 
Reading, and the changes it makes in our brains, are weird. Not all humans today have the ability to read, and throughout human history, most humans have had no need for reading. But if you are WEIRD, that is western educated in an industrialized, rich, and democratic country, then you can probably read well. You probably have these rare brain changes that most humans have not had. You think about and perceive the world differently than many humans before you as a result of learning to read. What you understand, spend your time thinking about, and what makes sense to you may not make sense to many of your ancestors, precisely because they couldn’t read and didn’t have the same brain structures performing the same brain processes that you do.
 
 
This is the starting point for Henrich’s book and the premise that we are the WEIRDest people to ever live. We are different for many reasons from our ancestors, and much of that difference lies in how our brains operate based on the WEIRD settings in which we find ourselves and WEIRD behaviors we engage in.
Rich Representations of Things

Making Connections From Rich Representations of Things

On August 12th, Tyler Cowen released a podcast interview with Stanford Economics Professor Nicholas Bloom on his podcast Conversations with Tyler. In response to a question from Cowen about making adjustments in his life, Bloom said the following:

 

“For me, I really like to read broadly rather than deeply — sounds an odd thing to say. Every Monday, for example, or Sunday night, the National Bureau of Economic Research has this vast email of all the recent papers. I tend to try and scan every title and abstract. I read the papers. I like the Economist magazine. It’s good. It’s often been a source of ideas, actually.
We were talking before the call — I listen to your podcast. I actually listen to a lot of podcasts because I try and go out for a walk or a run for about an hour every day. I mostly listen to podcasts. [laughs] If I’m getting too tired, I have to switch to music. For me, that’s been helpful for coming up with new research ideas.” 

 

The quote from Bloom came back to mind this morning as I looked over a quote I highlighted in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s quote is about connections in the mind, and how having a rich set of connections can help us have better representations of the world. When people are asked questions about Michigan, research in Kahneman’s book shows, they have different responses depending on whether they remember that Detroit is in Michigan. People with more knowledge of the state think differently of it compared to people with minimal knowledge of Michigan. Kahneman writes,

 

“More intelligent individuals are more likely than others to have rich representations of most things. Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.” 

 

This idea relates to what Bloom said in the interview with Cowen. Bloom was asked about his productivity, and how he is able to keep up a high level of publications with co-authors across a wide range of academic institutions, geographic locations, and subjects. Bloom responded that he is developing rich representations of most things through broad, but not necessarily deep, investigations of a wide range of topics.

 

By taking in a wide range of information, Bloom is able to pick out the important connections between disparate topics. This gives him an ability to deploy attention where there is a lack of study on certain topics. By reading across many fields, he is able to look at current developments in economics, news, and society to find relevant material that can generate useful knowledge for the world of economics.

 

Not all of us are ever going to be economists, and not all of us will be in a place where we can publish academic articles on lots of topics. But all of us are asked by social media every day to offer our opinion on something. If we have a narrow and limited knowledge base, then our opinions and ideas are going to also be narrow and limited. If, however, we can work to broaden our horizons and work to focus our memory and attention on relevant material, then we can start to offer better opinions about the world, and we can start to move discussions forward in a better direction.

Confidence and Self Awareness

Colin Wright’s book Act Accordingly is in some ways a collection of essays and ideas written by Wright that all focus around the idea of living a full life with the limited time we have on this planet.  The fifth chapter of his book centers on confidence, and he starts the chapter with the following quote, “Confidence means knowing the value of your knowledge, while maintaining awareness of how much you have left to learn.” What I love about this quote is the focus on continued learning and an ever growing knowledge base combined with a self awareness to focus on areas where our mind can still grow.

 

Wright continues to explain that knowledge will allow us to get to where we want to go by giving us the opportunity to participate in more areas and have greater input in the world.  One way in which greater knowledge translates into a more connected and engaged life is through confidence.  When we are confident we are able to more freely participate in discussions, activities, groups, and events because we have knowledge related to what it is we are participating in. We can better connect with others and provide more value to the world.  This confidence is brought on exclusively by knowledge and familiarity in the world, but it can lead to a downfall of hubris,

 

What Wright also advocates for is a strong sense of self awareness to be able to reflect on what we know well, and what we do not know.  For me I find myself discussing various topics, and often times the discussion will move in directions I am not familiar with. I will catch myself spreading information that I never truly understood, or even making up information based on assumptions and conclusions that I have drawn from other things that I have been told.  In this situation Wright would argue that it is best to move into a purely listening mode and avoid interjections made with a lack of confidence.  By recognizing these areas I can see where I can read and study to become more well rounded in my knowledge. This also helps prepare me for future conversations, building my confidence.

Developing a Personal Philosophy

Two key aspects of Colin Wright’s writing and philosophy are personal flexibility in our growth and seeking out multiple perspectives for how one interprets any aspect of life.  Wright has an incredible ability to see more than what is in front of him, and to adopt the perspectives of others.  He tries to live a very flexible and free life by determining his own path and searching for meaning and reason in his own way.  Many of his decisions center around the idea of how much freedom, time, and options his choices provide him.  In his book Act Accordingly the author ties this idea in with philosophy, “All else being equal, a job that would give you greater flexibility in terms of promotion would be better than the alternative, and the same goes for a philosophy.  A set of beliefs and personal rules that allow for a great deal of evolution and growth are superior to ones that do not.”

 

What I love about this quote is that Wright breaks down his definition of philosophy for us in a simple and clear way.  According to Wright, a philosophy is not something contained in a dusty book on a shelf, and philosophy is not limited to politics or religion. Instead, a philosophy is a set of ideas, rules, guidelines, beliefs, and emotions related to any area of life.  We can have personal philosophies about driving, keeping our house clean, developing a work ethic, or even a philosophy about cat videos.  What is being advocated for in Act Accordingly is the development of personal philosophies that accept multiple perspectives.  Wright spends much of his time reading, and he has come to understand that as we read we learn and see things from new perspectives. For him, it is crazy to develop personal philosophies in any area that limit our possibilities and ability to change.  As we grow and learn throughout life our ideas and positions will shift, and it is important that we have a personal philosophy that will allow those belief systems to change with us.

 

The author is also advocating that we search out as many new perspectives as possible.  In our work lives we will constantly be looking for new opportunities, promotions, and ways to expand what we do, but we don’t always think to do this with our personal philosophies.  It is difficult to encounter ideas and perspectives that seem to run against the philosophies that we have developed, but if we never explore the perspectives and ideas of others we never grow. I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who is studying at a private christian university. He and I have very different religious views, but we both value that we can have discussions regarding our views that present our ideas and backgrounds without becoming argumentative and explosive.  At one point during his discussion he said to me that he was disappointed that many of his classmates never explored ideas of people from other religious backgrounds or those who lived without a religious belief system.  In his mind, by not exploring difficult and often scary ideas that do not align with those that we already have, we miss out on a chance to understand our ideas better. This is at the heart of Colin Wright’s philosophy, and it is only by pushing ourselves to expand our thoughts and perspectives that we grow and better understand others.