Book review: WEIRDest People

post by PeterMcCluskey · 2020-11-30T03:33:17.510Z · LW · GW · 54 comments

This is a link post for http://www.bayesianinvestor.com/blog/index.php/2020/11/28/weirdest-people/

Contents

  The Dunbar Number and its cousins
  The Evolution of Religion
  Faster Cultural Evolution
  Flynn Effect
  Comparison with Related Explanations
  How Credible?
  Conclusion
None
54 comments

Book review: The WEIRDest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich.

Wow!

Henrich previously wrote one of the best books of the last decade. Normally, I expect such an author's future books to, at best, exhibit regression toward the mean. But Henrich's grand overview of humanity's first few million years was merely a modest portion of the ideas that he originally tried to fit into this magnum opus. Henrich couldn't quite explain in one volume how humanity got all the way to industrial empires, so he split the explanation into two books.

The cartoon version of the industrial revolution: Protestant culture made the West more autistic.

However, explaining the most important event in history makes up only about 25% of this book's focus and value.

Henrich doesn't want us to think of it as the most important event - because he views it not as a single event, but as a stage in a long process. Most books on the industrial revolution concentrate on some subset of the 1500-1800 time frame. WEIRDest People devotes a majority of its attention to the prior millennium.

When I last reviewed a book on the industrial revolution, I was pessimistic about ever getting enough evidence to distinguish between too many plausible hypotheses. Henrich found a solution: most of the proposed explanations describe features that contributed to the industrial revolution; they follow naturally from the way that WEIRD culture (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) altered our psychology.

Important aspects of this new culture / psychology include: analytic thinking, nonconformity, impersonal prosociality (trusting strangers, treating them fairly), and internal attributions (e.g. the idea that a good afterlife depends on internal mental states, rather than rituals).

Along the way, Henrich provides at least partial answers to a surprising number of questions that I carelessly neglected to ask, such as:

Much of Henrich's focus is on this key question: how do increasingly large groups of people cooperate enough to form increasingly large societies?

The Dunbar Number and its cousins

There's a phenomenon that is somewhat well known among financial traders of a limit of about 20 stocks, beyond which traders can't remain sufficiently aware of the details to be a competent market maker.

Henrich describes what is likely another manifestation of the same phenomenon in "truly individualistic" human cultures, such as the Matsigenka, where hamlets rarely get as large as 25 people before nuclear families decide they prefer to set off on their own.

I've also noticed a seemingly similar phenomenon in business, particularly in a dot-com where I worked that rapidly grew from 4 to 75 people. At some point between the 20 person size and 40 person size, it switched from feeling like users were part of the company's community, to a feeling that users were distant people who were dealt with via specialists such as customer service. Also, internal politics went from not being detectable, to being important.

Sadly, Henrich doesn't mention a name for this 20-25 entity limit. Nor does he name the Dunbar Number, despite providing important insights into how cultures manage to create social groups that are bigger than the Dunbar Number.

Dunbar-sized tribes often end up with rituals that artificially create interdependence and kin-like bonds that help hold the tribe together.

Switching from a system of bilineal descent to unilineal descent prevents some kinds of conflicts between extended families.

Some other norms that promote harmony in large villages include: arranged marriages, making entire clans responsible for harm caused by any clan member, and well-defined hierarchies.

The Evolution of Religion

There's at least one more size limit, well above the Dunbar Number, where rituals that expand kinship become inadequate for further expansion. To overcome that, societies needed Big Gods who can command subjects to cooperate with distant co-religionists.

Belief in heaven and hell correlates with (and likely causes) a large increase in economic growth. Alas, belief in heaven alone doesn't seem to be very valuable.

A similar pattern is seen for belief in supernatural punishment in societies before European contact.

The estimated probability of a historical transition to a complex chiefdom when no such punishment existed was - surprisingly - close to zero. By contrast, when ancestral communities already had beliefs in supernatural punishments for important moral violations, there was a roughly 40% chance of scaling up in complexity every three centuries or so.

Those religions succeeded better if they destroyed the kinship institutions that had previously been needed for scaling up past the Dunbar Number.

Why? Kin-based clans interfered with loyalty to larger, more abstract groups such as Christianity or nations. Here's a quote from a politician in contemporary Pakistan that illustrates how kin-based group identity conflicts with newer, larger social groups:

I have been a Pashtun for six thousand years, a Muslim for thirteen hundred years, and a Pakistani for twenty-five.

How? By changing many rules involving marriage and family relations. That included banning the marriages between cousins (a ban which sometimes extended to sixth cousins), and requiring monogamy.

Don't assume you can design your own religion:

the powerful Mughal emperor Akbar the Great tried to unify his Muslim and Hindu subjects by making his own highly tolerant religious creed ... At its peak, the powerful emperor's religion accumulated a total of only 18 prominent adherents before vanishing into history. My point is that throughout human history, rulers needed religion much more than religion needed rulers.

I sometimes got the feeling that the Western Christian church's success at stamping out kin-based institutions had to be mostly due to careful planning and foresight, but Henrich implies that's mostly hindsight bias, and calls the process "accidental genius". Henrich has good arguments that cultural evolution includes an important amount of semi-blind trial and error, but I suspect he goes a bit overboard with this line of thought.

E.g. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 clearly describes levirate marriage as an obligation. How does unplanned exploration of cultural variation get from there to declaring levirate marriage a sin, while still treating the bible as the word of God?

Fukuyama has a better model for that than Henrich: in The Origins of Political Order:, he implies that the church had a fairly deliberate strategy of destroying the kinship ties that were hindering the church's goal of inheriting property. Note that it's fairly WEIRD of me to care about whether the church's strategies were intentional.

Faster Cultural Evolution

Kin-based societies have strong constraints on who people can associate with. Accidents of birth, plus arranged marriages, mostly determine who a person will interact with. Cooperation between kin works fairly well, but distrust hinders most cooperation outside of the clan.

Early Western culture caused many clan-oriented social interactions to wither, creating some desire for new types of interactions. It also made people more independent and trusting of strangers, which enabled a wide variety of voluntary organizations to develop, such as guilds, charter towns, monasteries, and universities.

Monasteries morphed from clan businesses to NGO-like organizations. Guilds had to compete with goods from similar guilds in nearby towns. Most organizations competed for new members. Cities needed to experiment with better governance (including some democracy) in order to offset the urban graveyard effect.

That competition may not seem like much, but it seems to have been more than was possible in China / India / Islam. It likely contributed to faster experimentation and vetting of new cultural features.

Flynn Effect

The power of Henrich's model can be illustrated by asking how it explains the big 20th century increase in IQ. Henrich doesn't discuss this topic directly, but if I'd read WEIRDest People before learning of the Flynn Effect, I expect I would have found the Flynn Effect unsurprising. It seems like a natural consequence of thinking styles that became more analytical, abstract, reductionist, and numerical.

Moreover, Henrich's model provides clues as to why low-IQ cultures are reluctant to adopt the changes that raise their IQs. It's not that they're lazy or held back by harmful mutations (Henrich doesn't dismiss the existence of those problems; instead, he convinced me that WEIRD culture shifts are more powerful explanations).

An important insight is that people take cues from their environment early in life, and use those cues to invest in cognitive features that are expected to yield the most benefit.

WEIRD culture gets people to invest more in high-IQ cognitive features, at the cost of less investment in skills that foster social ties (e.g. learning to read at early age seems to impair facial recognition). "WEIRD people are bad friends" - beliefs such as impartial rules, and moral universalism have important social consequences. E.g. WEIRD people are less willing to lie in court to keep their friends out of jail. It looks hard to separate that effect from the cognitive styles that promote high IQ.

There are also trade-offs between analytical thinking and holistic thinking. IQ tests tend to favor the analytical approach that Western societies reward, while kin-based societies reward holistic thinking more (see Ecocultural basis of cognition: Farmers and fishermen are more holistic than herders).

Many other books on the industrial revolution now sound like the proverbial blind men and an elephant.

How Credible?

I'll guess that the book is about 80% correct.

Henrich exaggerates and oversimplifies a modest amount, but he seems to be a pretty careful researcher, actively trying to find empirical tests of alternate causal models.

He often cites evidence that isn't especially compelling, but he's careful not to depend much on any one piece of evidence. E.g. he apologizes for only being able to cite one study each for the claims that the BIG-5 personality dimensions and endowment effect are not universal.

The book is somewhat limited by only having a sample size of one for some of his broadest claims, but Henrich manages to find a larger sample size for many interesting sub-points.

E.g. I had assumed that China's one-child policy was tricky to evaluate because it was only imposed once. Yet Henrich points us to Sex ratios and crime: Evidence from China, showing that we can get sort-of-causal evidence from comparing provinces that implemented the policy in different years. Yes, it sure looks like the policy caused crime to increase (the policy may have also had desirable effects via weakening kinship ties - Henrich doesn't express any overall opinion on the policy).

Henrich has a remarkable range of expertise (anthropology, evolutionary biology, engineering, psychology, and economics); these maybe make him better than a historian for the purpose of this book.

Historians are apparently upset at being bypassed, and at the inadequate nuance of a shorter version of WEIRDest People, but their disagreements don't sound particularly important to me.

If you're still undecided about whether to read the book, a fair amount of Henrich's evidence is available in this preprint.

Conclusion

This book is essential reading for any serious scholar of human nature.

Not only does it demystify some of the most important processes of human history, but it also provides an unusually balanced view of how Western culture compares to other cultures. Henrich discredits both "all cultures are equal" worldviews, and most of the common claims of Western superiority. Western culture is genuinely superior in key respects, but that superiority comes with possibly large downsides.

Henrich is a master at organizing large amounts of evidence into an understandable package.

Please don't treat this review as an adequate substitute for reading the book. I can't describe enough of Henrich's model to sound half as convincing as Henrich's full description is. I only hope to whet your appetite enough to convince you to read the book.

P.S. I was maybe a bit misleading when I used the word autistic to describe the psychological changes that Henrich attributes to Christianity / Protestantism. I can't confirm that he's even familiar with autism. I find it to be a convenient label to approximate his more nuanced, but hard to summarize, description of Western psychology.

54 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Vaniver · 2020-11-30T19:09:15.501Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Henrich resolves this dispute by convincing me that "lower-quality workers" means workers whose culture and psychology are poorly adapted to most modern jobs.

I don't understand how that resolves the dispute. If their culture and psychology are poorly adapted to most modern jobs, then why do their wages jump from $1 a day to $40 a day? Presumably their individual culture and psychology are only minimally changed by moving to the West.

To be clear, I think Clark / Henrich are right and Caplan is wrong, here, but if you found Caplan's objection compelling before, I think you should still find it compelling now (or haven't adequately explained how you were convinced).

comment by PeterMcCluskey · 2020-12-01T03:05:30.636Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think they both have good points, and I previously had some trouble reconciling them.

I expect that a modest fraction of the relevant culture can be altered within months by things such as co-worker influences that promote punctuality, obedience to non-kin bosses, and maybe even a slight change in honesty. There are few contexts other than immigration in which peer effects change drastically enough have those effects.

I previously thought that Clark's arguments implied that at least 50% of the labor quality difference was due to genes. Henrich convinced me to lower that estimate to less than 25%, partly by seeing a better model of environmental factors than I'd previously comparing it to. I guess I exaggerated when I said that resolves the disagreement, but I now see a clearer middle ground.

Farewell to Alms doesn't have a clear argument for genetic effects. It does indicate that the effects tend to be passed from parents to children, but he didn't really try to rule out culture in that book. Clark may make stronger arguments for genetic effects in The Son Also Rises, but I haven't read that.

Caplan overstates his point. The evidence is complicated by selection effects (the people who migrate are better workers, and also more open to adopting a new culture), and by location effects (taxi drivers and maids in San Francisco create more value than they would performing the same actions in a low-wage country). But there's still some genuine change happening with migration that rarely happens when Westerners try to export Western productivity to third world countries.

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-11-30T09:43:37.539Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm surprised that none of the books on the list of books explaining why the IR happened in the West and not China said "Because colonialism." Look at the world in 1700, just prior to the IR: maybe China was economically and technologically advanced, but they didn't control the world's oceans, plantations, and mines. Surely there are books out there arguing for this theory. Have you read any of them? What do you think about this theory? Do the books you mention consider it and rebut it?

(I've heard people say that GDP per capita was higher in the West before colonialism even began, and use this as a rebuttal of the idea that colonialism was the cause of the IR. Is this it? To be really convincing, I'd like to see some sort of analysis of how the IR started in Britain but Britain hadn't begun to benefit much from colonialism by the time the IR started. Or something like that.)

(Or is the idea that colonialism did cause the IR, but colonialism was in turn caused by technological advantages that were the result of WEIRDness?)

comment by PeterMcCluskey · 2020-11-30T20:20:56.748Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Pomeranz describes New World resources as one of the main causes of the IR, maybe second to convenient coal in Britain.

Henrich would likely reply that the correlation between colonialism and the IR was mostly causal in the other direction.

Institutional / cultural explanations seem to have a better track record than natural resources at explaining other divergences, although I don't know of rigorous comparisons. Think South Korea versus North Korea, and think of Russia's natural resources.

I (and likely Henrich) suggest that colonialism helped the IR slightly, by expanding the population that was accumulating knowledge.

Henrich argues that pervasive attitudes are more important than the whims of a single ruler, and would undoubtedly claim that cultural differences explain why it was the West that colonized. The Vries book claims there was a clear difference between globalist attitudes in Britain versus China denying that anything outside its borders mattered; that sort of follows from the universalist features of WEIRD culture.

Western culture established a practice of couples moving away from parents upon marriage, whereas kin ties discourage moving. I'd expect that to have an important effect on who moves to another continent.

I think GDP differences were small before 1800, and I haven't seen a good argument that they're important.

comment by Charles Freeman (charles-freeman) · 2020-12-01T11:28:36.658Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Joel Mokyr does argue convincingly  in his Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, Princeton UP, 2017)that the contribution of an intellectual elite was crucial for the IR. He dates this as important from about 1660.  (Mokyr has chapters on Newton and Francis Bacon.) But Henrich seems to assume that WEIRD psychology developed much earlier than this and  for the population as a whole. 

Whatever, as E.P. Thompson showed in his classic THE Making of the English Working Class, the regimentation of work in the cotton mills and and the dangers of working in the coal mines destroyed the independence and variety of tasks some had experienced as labourers in the open air of the fields. Western individualism (and I would argue that it was partly dependent on the rediscovery of the rich and various texts of the classical authors) certainly was only possible for a small elite. This is so obvious for anyone who knows something of European history and culture which is why I astonished when I began reading my copy of the Weirdest People.

comment by PeterMcCluskey · 2020-12-02T23:04:04.566Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You are probably at least half right about the elite versus general population difference. Henrich is often vague about whether he's describing upper class phenomena or more pervasive changes, and I see hints that changes usually spread to the general population more slowly than Henrich implies.

He goes overboard in arguing against the great man theory of history. I mostly agree with Henrich that we should pay more attention to models of decentralized sources of beliefs. But Henrich seems to contribute to polarization between extremes on this axis, when I want something closer to a middle ground.

Henrich mostly uses the term individualism to refer to beliefs. You appear to be using it in a less standard way.

New working conditions around 1800 presumably created some pressure for workers to be less individualistic. Maybe that even led to mass schooling designed to beat some conformity into the average worker. Yet that doesn't mean those pressures had much effect on culture. It sure looks like the West continues to value individualism more highly than do most cultures.

comment by Charles Freeman (charles-freeman) · 2020-12-03T09:11:38.463Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree, Peter, that  in many ways the western nations have been more individualistic than others. I have explored this in my recent book The Awakening, A History of the Western Mind AD500-1700, published in the UK with a US edition coming from Knopf under the title The Reopening of the Western Mind. This is precisely why i bought Henrich's book when it came out in the UK! As my title suggests I am concerned with the rise of the individual mind. I would argue that it lies in the relationship between an intellectual elite and the classical sources- so from 1400 onwards. This is why I like Mokyr's approach (see another of my comments) which links a cultural elite to influencing the Industrial Revolution. 

I was immensely disappointed by The Weirdest People. The first time i read it I was mildly interested and kept on going, the second time I got very irritated by the poor editing, the imprecise terminology and above all, his complete ignorance of European history (which was obvious from the first reading). Because it is so poorly organised (did he not have an editor?) it is hard to see the weaknesses, but I now realise that he did not know that the Roman empire existed and that many of the changes he attributes to the Church (the break-up of cousin marriages and communal landholdings) had already been in effect during the long centuries of Roman rule. There is very little evidence that anyone took much notice of the consanguinity rules anyway. ( I have searched for this but can only find one article on the nobles of the tenth to eleventh century where there was some acquiescence but unlike the mass of the population they were mobile and so could marry out.) While one can see a transmission of culture across the European elite (using Latin as a common language) over time, there is no evidence that it extended beyond this elite. It is true that the Protestant areas of Europe ( I wonder whether Henrich knew of the persistence of Catholicism over much of Europe- France, Spain, Italy, Bavaria,etc. as he seems to attribute much of WEIRDness to Protestantism but this would only have affected part of Europe) encouraged the reading of the Bible but this hardly compares with those who had access to the rich resources of the classical world.

We shall see whether the whole argument on which this book depends unravels as better historians than I come in contact with it. It certainly does not deserve to be seen as a major academic work.

comment by PeterMcCluskey · 2020-12-04T00:17:44.327Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

He is aware of some relevant Roman norms. From page 176:

Early Roman law, for example, prohibited close cousin marriage, though the law of the Roman Empire - where Christianity was born - permitted it without social stigma.

comment by Charles Freeman (charles-freeman) · 2020-12-04T09:30:09.714Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Brent Shaw, the classical historian, has done an in-depth survey of this and analysed 33 Roman marriages none of which were between cousins, He makes the good point that rising aristocratic families who needed to secure their position deliberately married into established aristocratic families so that there was a good reason for avoiding cousin marriages. Of course, as with medieval Europe, we don't know what went on with the mass of sexual relationships. Henrich seems to have assumed that there was some sort of formal marriage under the auspices of the Church. This was not the case as marriages by mutual consent without even a priest in attendance were valid.

The fact that around me in rural East Anglia, there were marriages within the villages, most of whose inhabitants were born and died in the same village, up to the Second World War shows that Henrich's argument that rural life was split up in the Middle Ages  is erroneous. My late father-in-law ,a GP in Norfolk in the 50s had to sort out the  medical consequences of inbreeding!  Luckily we have extensive evidence of marriage patters from the rich Florentine archives and an analysis of 700 dowry documents from the fifteenth century  showed that rural men married rural wives and urban men urban wives and seldom was there a crossover.

As I have already said that as a historian who has been researching these things over the years,I am exasperated by Henrich's imaginary narrative !

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-11-30T20:49:13.753Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

OK, thanks. I find it hard to take seriously the idea that the IR caused colonialism, since colonialism happened first (just look at the world in 1750!). Maybe the idea is that there was some underlying advantage Europe had which caused both colonialism and the IR?

I agree that maybe western culture is part of the explanation for why colonialism happened in the West more than it did elsewhere. But I think having good ships and navigation tech is a bigger part of the explanation.

I like the point that resources in general don't seem to cause technological growth. Russia, North Korea, etc. Vaniver mentions China below, maybe a better example would be Mongolia, which suddenly ruled almost the entire world after Ghenghis Khan but didn't spark an IR. (Though maybe it did spark a bunch of new tech developments? Idk, would be interested to hear.)

FWIW, my current view is something like "WEIRD culture helped there be science and market institutions to a mildly strong extent, though not dramatically more than other places like China; then the Europeans lucked into some really good ships & navigation tech (and kings eager to use them, unlike some emperors I could mention) and started sailing around a lot, and then this spurred more market institutions and more science, creating a feedback loop / snowball effect. In this story, WEIRD culture is important, but it's the ships+navigation+kings that's the most important thing. I'm no historian though and would love to hear criticisms of this take.

comment by Lanrian · 2020-12-01T19:46:10.290Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If we're comparing europe to china, did ships+navigation tech really have anything to do with it? We certainly don't need to invoke them, since certain emperors' whims are sufficient to explain why china didn't colonise. And some chinese ships were going to east africa already by the 9th century (afaict from wikipedia), which seems like it could be sufficient to start colonising? I suspect it was farther than europeans was going at the time.

Or did you only mean to cite ships as something that europeans was disproportionally good at compared to other advanced societies? (maybe middle eastern ones?)

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-12-01T20:30:01.984Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, good point, maybe it was something like "Will to explore and colonize" that was the most important variable, even more important than the ships+navigation tech. Or maybe it was a more generic tech advantage, that made it cheaper and more profitable for Europeans to do it than for the Chinese or Arabs to do it.

I think the ships+navigation tech are definitely worth mentioning at least, because they were necessary, and not easy to acquire. And Europeans were certainly disproportionately good at it at the time, as far as I can tell. I know their ships were (in the relevant ways) slightly superior to the ships in the Indian Ocean in 1500, and while I haven't looked this up, I'd be willing to bet that their navigation tech (and therefore, their ability to cross the Pacific and Atlantic) was superior to the Chinese. The Polynesians had excellent navigation tech, but tiny ships and insufficient military or economic tech to exploit this advantage. No one else comes close to those groups as far as I know.

comment by Vaniver · 2020-12-02T19:04:00.463Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, good point, maybe it was something like "Will to explore and colonize" that was the most important variable, even more important than the ships+navigation tech.

Interestingly, this feels connected to the 'centralization' variable again. In both the Chinese and Muslim empires, there's a sense of everything flowing towards the center, whereas in the European empires, there's much more of a sense of growing out toward the edges. In a book about the history of trade (I think?) I came across a claim that the Muslim explorers / merchants seemed pretty uncurious about the local language or culture; they already spoke the best language and had the best religion, and so while they could trade in goods there wasn't as much value in trading in ideas (or the standard way for them to trade in ideas was for the Other to learn Arabic).

European exploration and colonization looks somewhat different. European explorers and conquerors were much more likely to learn the local languages, I think, and be interested in the ways that locals did things. A lot of European settlement of the world looks like sending farmers from the highly populated places to the less populated places, in a way that I have many fewer examples of in non-European history. [There's the "cultivation of waste lands" in the Book of Lord Shang, for example, but this wasn't about distant colonies.] One might imagine Europeans being excited about settling in South Africa as an opportunity to strike it out on their own, whereas Muslims might view it as a punishing exile.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-11-30T11:31:40.938Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(Or is the idea that colonialism did cause the IR, but colonialism was in turn caused by technological advantages that were the result of WEIRDness?)

The Ming treasure voyages do suggest that the technical capability for colonialism exist in China. It was just not persued after 1433. 

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-11-30T11:56:47.389Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, this is further support for the "Because colonialism" theory. Maybe there's a nearby possible world where the Emperor got really excited about exploration and colonization, and sent the fleet out again and again instead of burning it, and then historians in the 2000's write big books about why the Industrial Revolution happened first in the East because of Confucian values.

comment by Vaniver · 2020-11-30T19:15:38.863Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Look at the world in 1700, just prior to the IR: maybe China was economically and technologically advanced, but they didn't control the world's oceans, plantations, and mines.

But what need had they for oceans? China itself was full of plantations and mines; the only good they reliably imported from the rest of the world at that point in time was silver. Opium later became a foreign policy issue in part because the government wanted to protect users from addiction, and in part because it wasn't grown in China and yet was demanded in China, so allowing the import of opium would break the advantageous balance of trade position that China was in.

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-11-30T20:36:09.914Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The question is whether the IR would have happened in China if they, and not the Europeans, controlled the world's oceans, plantations, and mines. (And by that I mean, imagine if in the 1700s the Americas were all Chinese colonies, if the Indian and Pacific and Atlantic oceans were controlled by Chinese fleets and port-forts, if kingdoms all along the coast of India and Arabia and Africa and Europe swore fealty to China instead of Europe... In this scenario, would the IR still have happened in Britain?)

Yeah, china was rich, but plenty of rich places failed to generate IRs. The unique thing about Europe prior to the IR may have been its WEIRDness... but it also may have been the fact that it controlled so much of the world at the time. Why would this help? Well, maybe having a glut of resources for a relatively fixed labor pool raised GDP per capita a bunch and incentivised labor-saving devices like windmills and watermills and eventually steam engines. Maybe all the oceanic trade made for a robust free-ish market and spurred the development of good financial instruments and institutions (in other words, maybe what makes capitalism work so well was particularly present due to all the oceanic trade).

comment by ryan_b · 2021-01-21T14:00:17.579Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have something for this: Asia in general and China in particular was doomed by the signing of the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. The argument is essentially that China locked themselves into stagnation by disrupting trade over land.

Land-bound trade in Asia took place primarily over the Silk Road. This is something of a misnomer, as it isn’t a trade route between Rome and China but rather trade with and through Inner Asian economies.
The success of the Silk Road is defined by these economies, and these economies in turn are defined by the nomads who populate the steppe and Central Asia.

However, agrarian empires are traditionally hostile to trade. The reason is that the volume of trade is higher the closer two trading partners are. This in turn means most of the gains from trade are realized by the recently-conquered frontier, and that trade is happening with their not-conquered-yet neighbors, which runs the perpetual risk of drawing the frontier away from the imperial core.

The Treaty of Nerchinsk fixed trade at a certain volume and to go through specific locations between the Russian and Chinese empires. This suited the interests of Peter the Great and the Kangxi Emperor, but severely constricted the flow of goods going through the interior in both directions.

This was the period that ocean going trade exceeded overland trade in volume. Along with the decline in total wealth generated, they also cut themselves off from the flow of information that comes with trade. I suggest this pitched the Qing Empire into stagnation, radically reducing the likelihood they would experience an industrial revolution internally.

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2021-01-21T16:50:59.693Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, I hadn't heard of that. First the burning & banning of ships, next the reduction of overland trade -- that's two massive unforced errors on the part of Chinese emperors, during the same couple of centuries that European power was waxing.

But wait, the wiki article doesn't say this restricted trade, it seems to say it promoted trade? Do you have a source for your claim that it reduced trade?

comment by ryan_b · 2021-01-21T22:02:22.373Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It promoted trade between Russia and China but all of that came at the expense of trade through the rest of inner Asia. The treaty was negotiated shortly after the Qing defeated the Dzungars, and was the first time they could trade directly because they shared a fixed border.

Further, this trade was imperially backed, so the actual imperial families and their patronage networks were the prime beneficiaries. This is a very different situation to one where trade is unrestricted, because patronage from the court is the deciding factor rather than, say productivity. By analogy to the English case, why would a Qing textile mill care about producing more if the demand is satisfied locally and the amount they can send to Russia is fixed by imperial writ? Or more broadly, suppose England swore off trade with Europe and signed a large trade treaty with Russia instead; would that have helped or harmed the industrial revolution?

The strongest argument is located in the book Empires of the Silk Road by Christopher Beckwith. He goes further than the consensus position about the influence of trade on China, but the consensus has been updating rapidly for years and his picture agrees better with my understanding of economics. The position that Beckwith is arguing against is articulated by Thomas Barfield in The Perilous Frontier. The most detailed description of the period of history is Peter Perdue, China Marches West. The latter two are on my reading list, so I might wind back my estimation; consider it a strong opinion lightly held.

comment by Vaniver · 2020-11-30T22:42:55.167Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And by that I mean, imagine if in the 1700s the Americas were all Chinese colonies, if the Indian and Pacific and Atlantic oceans were controlled by Chinese fleets and port-forts, if kingdoms all along the coast of India and Arabia and Africa and Europe swore fealty to China instead of Europe...

I think we had a trial run of that, and it didn't result in an IR for China. That is, the tributary system was a lot like "everyone aware of China swore fealty to China."

In this scenario, would the IR still have happened in Britain?

I think this is less obvious, but that the answer is still "yes." Like, Britain would still be developing an engineering culture; steam engines would still be useful for pumping water out of coal mines; the people that made textile mills didn't themselves own cotton plantations, instead buying their inputs as commodities on the open market, and selling their outputs as commodities on the open market. Would there have been brain drain from Britain to China, so that the prime inventors are missing from Britain? Maybe, but it seems somewhat unlikely to me.

Like, when you look at industrialization efforts in other countries, it always involves the importation of cultural practices and technological knowhow, and only sometimes involves colonialism or acquisition of territory.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-12-01T13:24:25.149Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is, the tributary system was a lot like "everyone aware of China swore fealty to China."

It sounds like in practice they didn't?

The "tribute" entailed a foreign court sending envoys and exotic products to the Chinese emperor. The emperor then gave the envoys gifts in return and permitted them to trade in China. Presenting tribute involved theatrical subordination but usually not political subordination. The political sacrifice of participating actors was simply "symbolic obeisance".[8] Actors within the "tribute system" were virtually autonomous and carried out their own agendas despite sending tribute; as was the case with Japan, Korea, Ryukyu, and Vietnam.[9] Chinese influence on tributary states was almost always non-interventionist in nature and tributary states "normally could expect no military assistance from Chinese armies should they be invaded". [...]

The gifts doled out by the Ming emperor and the trade permits granted were of greater value than the tribute itself, so tribute states sent as many tribute missions as they could. In 1372, the Hongwu Emperor restricted tribute missions from Joseon and six other countries to just one every three years. The Ryukyu Kingdom was not included in this list, and sent 57 tribute missions from 1372 to 1398, an average of two tribute missions per year. Since geographical density and proximity was not an issue, regions with multiple kings such as the Sultanate of Sulu benefited immensely from this exchange.[7] This also caused odd situations such as the Turpan Khanate simultaneously raiding Ming territory and offering tribute at the same time because they were eager to obtain the emperor's gifts, which were given in the hope that it might stop the raiding.

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-12-01T06:44:33.017Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

OK, thanks -- this is the sort of argument I was looking for, and it is updating me.

Do you think there's a common cause between colonialism and the IR? Say, science + capitalism? Or maybe simply engineering culture (producing steam engines, but before that ships + navigation?)

comment by Vaniver · 2020-12-01T19:54:05.187Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you think there's a common cause between colonialism and the IR? Say, science + capitalism? Or maybe simply engineering culture (producing steam engines, but before that ships + navigation?)

Possible but unclear. China had its own engineering culture, for example, as did the Muslim world, and both had proto-capitalism, in that they had large mercantile networks with significant wealth.

My models of this have shifted a lot over the last decade or so. One factor that's seemed the most variable in importance over that time has been political centralization. It looks to me like the old world has spawned three or four major civilization groups, depending on how you count things; Europe, the Middle East, India, and China. Europe was the only one that 'never really unified'; Rome only barely touched the bits of Europe that ended up leading the IR. When you have books like a Farewell to Alms, they point to Britain becoming a 'nation of shopkeepers' through downwards social mobility, and this being a sort of domesticating and improving force. But those forces were even stronger in China (according to Sinologists who have reviewed his book; he touches on the comparison only briefly).

Was it relevant that lots of different countries in Europe were trying different things, with different focuses, and a handful of them led to industrial growth, that then ended up seeming like "what all of Europe" was like? Or, if it had happened in China instead, would we be pointing at features of Fujian that turned out to be the ideal birthplace, and ignore its position as an imperial province in much the same way my analysis here is ignoring Britain's position as part of Christendom?

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-12-01T20:34:46.742Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

See, if they both had engineering cultures and proto-capitalism, that seems like evidence for the "Because colonialism" hypothesis.

But I do think the "never really unified" hypothesis is intriguing. After all, the Chinese not only destroyed their own treasure fleet but basically banned maritime trade and sent the army to depopulate their own coastline for 20km or so inland, IIRC, because of the misguided policy decisions of the central government. No central government, no misguided policy decisions applied to entire civilizations.

comment by Vaniver · 2020-12-02T16:59:25.769Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

that seems like evidence for the "Because colonialism" hypothesis.

Another thing to think about: according to my way of looking at things, Muslim Arabs colonized the middle east, southern side of the Mediterranean, and India; this includes massive transfers of resources from the periphery to the heartland. (Mansa Musa going on the Hajj seems similar to Spain discovering Cerro Rico, for example.) And yet we don't see an IR in the Muslim world; is this just because barbarians on the frontiers caused collapse too soon, or was it just not going to happen there?

if they both had engineering cultures and proto-capitalism

I think there's a difference between 'proto-capitalism' and 'capitalism', and a difference between 'proto-science' and 'science'. Like, I can point to several Islamic figures who are the equivalent of Bacon, but I can't point to many institutions that are the equivalent of the Royal Society or Republic of Letters. (I'm only moderately informed about this period of history, tho, so absence of evidence is only mild evidence of absence.)

Like, one of the things that was relevant to James Watt commercializing his steam engine was an engineer who knew how to bore iron cylinders in the right way, which he knew because it was useful for making cannons. I think Europe had much higher demand per capita for cannons than China (but am not sure about this, and maybe absolute demand is what matters?), which maybe led to tech transfer in a way that the high points of Chinese engineering didn't.

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-12-02T17:20:18.371Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good point about the colonization. One thing I was surprised to learn when I researched the conquistadors stuff is that Muslim merchants, fleets, armies, and rulers had penetrated into India, Indonesia, all around the indian ocean, and even into China I think by the time the Portuguese showed up. Malacca was ruled by a Muslim for example. And yeah, no doubt this led to a lot of resources flowing back towards the middle east.

How much damage did the Mongols do to Muslim science? My vague guess would be, quite a lot? Perhaps this is also relevant.

comment by Vaniver · 2020-12-02T18:49:53.673Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How much damage did the Mongols do to Muslim science? My vague guess would be, quite a lot? Perhaps this is also relevant.

Both the capture of Cordoba in 1236 and the capture of Baghdad in 1258 seem relevant to me; both were home to some of the aforementioned Muslim paragons of science, and we don't see any further paragons after that period (until the Timurid Renaissance, which I view as mostly having regional paragons instead of global ones, and so was more akin to the Carolingian Renaissance in terms of broader historical impact than the European one). 

This is perhaps more evidence for the "centralization decreases robustness to disruption" theory; the House of Wisdom in particular was an attempt to gather all of the intellectual wealth of the empire into one place, which then meant that if it's burned down and the scholars murdered, there's not much to start over from.

comment by lsusr · 2020-11-30T04:54:10.981Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The conflict between kinship institutions and universalism reflects my experience growing up as an Asian-American. The old technology of artificial kinship ties is less-than-optimal for thriving in a WEIRD society.

If you're familiar with Chinese culture you can watch the elaborate kinship system dissolve in real time as the country industrializes.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-11-30T11:18:10.914Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see a strange parallel to Marxism when Henrich describes the need for societies to go through different, partly opposing (dialectic), stages. But Henrich is the opposite of a Marxist in many other respects, such as the ability of intellectual leaders to predict those stages.

Marx took that from Hegel and Marx it not the only one influenced by Hegel. 

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2021-01-20T07:31:42.175Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Promoted to curated: I haven't gotten around to read this book, but this review has put the book very high on my reading list, and I think the general topics that both the book and this review covers are very important. 

comment by MichaelLowe · 2021-01-20T21:48:55.155Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

While I agree that the review is written engagingly, and I personally would like to see more book reviews/summaries, I find this decision surprising. Surely, the most important question in evaluating a history book is whether it is accurate. The author addresses this point, but dismisses criticism with "the historians are upset they were bypassed", and "it does not seem important to me". This is neither true, kind or necessary: the authors of the review criticize that despite Heinrich's claims, the Catholic church did not have the power to bring about the changes in social kinship norms that Heinrich attributes to them. This is, like, the central thesis of the book, so it is certainly not unimportant. 

To his credit, the author of this review engages openly with the criticism of Charles Freeman in the comments.

comment by Pattern · 2020-12-02T00:24:16.370Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
P.S. I was maybe a bit misleading when

This should be a footnote.

comment by ESRogs · 2020-12-01T22:48:37.583Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

E.g. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 clearly describes levirate marriage as an obligation. How does unplanned exploration of cultural variation get from there to declaring levirate marriage a sin, while still treating the bible as the word of God?

Why is this more of a problem for unplanned exploration than for purposeful change?

comment by PeterMcCluskey · 2020-12-03T05:10:15.697Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems like there should be a significant reputation cost to the reversal, since it needed to be widely understood.

I'd expect arbitary exploration to be averse to conspicuous costs. Whereas planned strategies can be plausibly motivated by a vision of inheriting valuable land from widows who have less pressure to leave the land to kin in their wills.

comment by ESRogs · 2020-12-03T05:47:29.606Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm, I would have assumed that gentile Christians just never followed the practice (just like they didn't keep kosher or follow other Old Testament laws), and (fairly naturally) saw it as conflicting with monogamy.

Am I mistaken -- was levirate marriage actually ever widely practiced in the Western Christian church?

comment by PeterMcCluskey · 2020-12-04T00:20:02.088Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't have any evidence directly answering that, but levirate marriage seems to have been encouraged among a wide variety of pre-industrial cultures.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-11-30T10:46:37.269Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Belief in heaven and hell correlates with (and likely causes) a large increase in economic growth. Alas, belief in heaven alone doesn't seem to be very valuable.

That seems surprising to me. Didn't the dark ages start with those spreading? And the middle age ending with the enlightment?

comment by PeterMcCluskey · 2020-11-30T20:23:34.802Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes. There's a fair amount of dispute about whether the dark ages were bad. Henrich doesn't claim the average person was better off then, only that the cultural changes were moving in a direction that made phenomena such as the enlightenment more likely. His model suggests that the destruction of kin ties had many bad effects, and doesn't suggest that the benefits came quickly.

He expresses a similar but clearer picture about the adoption of farming being initially bad:

With the "right" set of institutions, farmers could spread across the landscape like an epidemic, driving out or assimilating any hunter-gatherers in their path. Thus, early farming spread not because rational individuals prefer to farm, but because farming communities with particular institutions beat mobile hunter-gatherer populations in intergroup competition.

comment by Charles Freeman (charles-freeman) · 2020-12-01T11:16:40.538Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But individual landownership was the key feature of Roman farming, villas, small farms, tenant farmers,etc. This lasted for centuries for much of Europe and gave reasonable standards of living. (I once took part in a field survey around Rome to assess how far Roman farmholdings followed from earlier Etruscan sites post 300BC, and there was a good correlation.) Henrich seems to know nothing about the impact of Roman law and society. (For a start the Romans banned cousin marriage to the fourth degree of consanguinity and a study by the classicist Brent Shaw of 33 recorded marriages showed that none of them were to cousins.)  Chris Wickham (q.v.) ,the authority of such things, sees what he calls 'a caging of the peasantry' in the ninth -tenth centuries. We do then have some evidence of farming yields improving, more land being taken into cultivation and a slow rise of population allowing the cities of northern Italy, Venice, Pisa and Genoa, to expand as the trading routes opened up again in the Mediterranean.  

If you read this book carefully ,it soon unravels.  So page 315 attempts to correlate 'representative government' in urban areas with exposure to the Church.  As 'representative government ' is nowhere defined there is an immediate problem. As someone who has studied the cities of northern Italy, they went through phases of representative and non-representative government and usually hostility with their neighbours. (Florence had wars with Pisa, Milan, Siena and the papacy.) The rise of secular representative  government in the cities, such as it was, involved lessening the power of the Church. Florence had no problem in declaring war on the Church in 1378.

Bizarrely, p. 315, 'Before the Church arrives, the estimated probability of developing any form of representative government is zero-making  pre-Christian Europe just like everywhere else in the world.' LOL. How can you work on 'estimated probabilities' when we have all the evidence of Roman republicanism, Athenian democracy and the constitutions of elected magistrates in the Roman municipia? One of the discoveries in Pompeii is election graffiti. This sentence highlights the possibility that Henrich thinks: 'I have this idea that urban society arises (in the eleventh century when the first recorded magistrates are found in Pisa) as the Church becomes more powerful. So the break-up of kinship groups by the Church CAUSES urbanisation (not trade or surplus population as most historians think- I know better than they do).  As I have decided that representative government in cities can only take place as a result of the Church, then before Christianity there CANNOT  have been representative governments in urban areas. ' You can see where the logic fails. 

I don't see why he ever needed to go back to the Middle Ages, especially  when Henrich clearly knows nothing of the history of Europe, medieval or Roman. I am a mere generalist historian but a first year course in medieval and Roman history would have helped him, I think. 

comment by PeterMcCluskey · 2020-12-02T23:07:11.908Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You appear to be correct about the sentence that you quote (with the estimated probability of zero).

Henrich (and Fukuyama?) appear to overstate the novelty of the church's influence on land ownership and marriage norms.

I searched for "land ownership in ancient rome", and found evidence in Property Rights in Ancient Rome that supports at least a small part of the Henrich / Fukuyama story of land ownership:

In the nineteenth century, legal theory created the myth of absolute, exclusive, and unbounded individual ownership, which seemingly had its roots in classical Roman law. The chapter shows that such ownership was never an abstract, unlimited right in ancient Rome. Ownership was rather a dynamic category with changing legal content according to its social, political, and economic environment. It met a broader target, and fostered conditions amenable to an optimal exploitation of the main natural resource, agrarian land.

How much should I alter my opinion of the book due to these issues?

Creationists sometimes criticize stories such as a linear increase in the size of horses. They have a valid point that evolutionists sometimes misleadingly portray change as an inevitable, linear form of progress. We should have some distrust of evolutionists, but that doesn't say much about the central features of evolutionary theory. Historian's reactions to Henrich sound a bit like this - valid criticisms, which don't tell me much about the ideas in which I'm interested.

comment by Charles Freeman (charles-freeman) · 2020-12-04T09:10:43.048Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Peter. I am happy to agree that Roman land law was highly sophisticated- the Romans were a legally sophisticated civilization (as the northern Italians rejoiced to find when Justinian's Law Code was rediscovered in the eleventh century just when it was needed!) What is important in assessing Henrich's assumptions is to look at what actually happened on the ground. So a major problem was what to do with retired legionaries, especially after the civil wars of the first century BC. The pragmatic solution, give them a plot of land in an area where there needed to be a secure base, then they could marry, and would defend their land with  fury if attacked. These colonies were accorded elections and assemblies (As noted, Pompeii, which was given the status of a colony, provides a mass of evidence.) Look again at how the land was divided in the rich areas of north Africa and also the many Roman villas with their own estates. (There is one just down the road from me ( I helped in its partial excavation when i was fifteen!) and even today a farm track marks one of its original boundaries,) So the ASSUMPTION ( the more I reread Henrich, the more I realised that he ASSUMES ( I would even say 'imagines') something which the historical evidence directly contradicts!!) by Henrich that communal land ownership was still in place in 400 AD is nonsense. He has a better case with the northern Germanic tribes but the centuries of Roman civilization left much more of a mark across more of Europe- even into Britain, and a tradition of individual property rights that the medieval  Italian cities were happy to adopt. 

If Henrich wanted to produce a theory of individualism in European history, he needed to talk to historians (much more specialist than I -and he would have found world class ones in his own university) before creating a theory which has no backing. So far  the reviews suggest that he has got away with it!

comment by ryan_b · 2020-12-01T14:40:59.709Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

when we have all the evidence of Roman republicanism, Athenian democracy and the constitutions of elected magistrates in the Roman municipia?

While I haven't read the book, it is worth pointing out that these innovations did not spread. Athens occasionally converted to tyranny, but no one outside of Athens ever converted to democracy. Rome abandoned the Republic for a dictator and then emperor; neither Carthage nor the Parthians ever dropped their local systems for republicanism. By comparison democratic institutions spread like a rash after the American Revolution, and kept spreading since.

comment by Charles Freeman (charles-freeman) · 2020-12-02T16:42:31.467Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you access 'Pompeii and politics' you will find a vast amount of evidence of the vitality of representative government in a typical Roman town. So when Henrich  on page 315 writes 'Before the Church arrives, the estimated probability of developing ANY [ my emphasis] form of representative government is zero- making pre-Christian Europe just like everywhere else in the world' one can only gasp.  He cannot use ANY if he ignores the Roman republic but even ignoring that one can look at local Roman politics in the cities which had their own constitutions.

  What Henrich has done  in the accompanying chart is  to ASSUME  that the growth of representative governments in urban areas of Europe correlates with the existence of the Church. The chart shows a steady rise of representative government so that  ninety per cent of  urban areas have  'representative government' by 1200 (forty per cent by 1000 when cities hardly exist and secular government only emerges in Italy c. 1100). He does not provide any evidence for this  and he does not even offer a definition of representative government (which was lost in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries anyway as many Italian towns fell under single family rule). But Henrich appears to assume that the growth of representative government is linear and progressive and  then takes the line back to the moment when representative government on the chart  becomes zero ( and one assumes from his sentence that it remains zero throughout the previous  Roman centuries).

As he is a professor at Harvard, he has one of the best classics departments in the world on his doorstep. so they could have told him all about representative governments in the coloniae and municipia of Rome cities.  Henrich's is an extraordinary way of  presenting an academic argument. I can't understand why, if he wants to chart 'representative governments', he does not start with some basic texts on Roman and medieval urban life and he can see  the rise and collapse of different forms of government over the centuries. Urbanisation in European history is very complex and certainly not a story of linear progress!

comment by ryan_b · 2020-12-03T18:20:12.489Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is extremely suspect. This makes me deeply curious where the data came from for the graph, and why he bothered to include the section at all. The linear and progressive implication also peculiar, because it flies pretty directly in the face of his previous work.

I think I can leave this one lie, and come back once the supports and criticisms have been lined up source-wise.

comment by PeterMcCluskey · 2020-12-04T00:22:03.431Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I did not get the impression that Henrich believes in or implies linear progress.

The citation for the chart on p 315 is Kin-Networks and Institutional Development. It sort of looks like the data came from table C.6, column 1 or 2. Oddly, that uses the term commune instead of representative government.

comment by ryan_b · 2020-12-04T14:34:43.503Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Now the chart makes more sense, but it looks like a brute misunderstanding of the table data; it only contains data from 800-1500CE; the earliest date I found even mentioned was 500CE. In the appendix it starts in 305CE.

So it really looks like Heinrich accepted the limits of the data in the paper as a direct claim for the book, when the paper is explicitly looking at trends over Church exposure and is indifferent to periods before then. It doesn't look like Schultz entertained the question at all, but he does have this to say:

Data availability allows to go as far back in time as 800CE when the Carolingian Empire was forming. The analysis shows that already in 800CE, higher anti-incest legislation exposure is associated with larger cities. This is further evidence for a link between incest legislation exposure and city development, which later led to the formation of communes.

This paper is based on Church data, so BCE events are not considered. This looks to me like a ding on Heinrich for misinterpreting the paper.

comment by Charles Freeman (charles-freeman) · 2020-12-04T08:46:45.835Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The chart on p. 315 shows a steady rise in so-called representative governments to ninety per cent and then a small dropping off to 80 per cent by 1500. Generally after 1500 city life in northern Italy  became stagnant and most cities came under foreign rule, e.g. Milan under Spanish rule. The word commune is used of the governments in the Italian city states which emerged in the eleventh century. The cities gradually eased out the power of the Church so that commune governments were largely secular, with magistrates and the communal buildings being built apart from the Church (an excellent example is Siena). Certainly one can equate representative government with secularism, not with the continuing influence of the Church. The cities were mutually antagonistic so Henrich's idea of a 'collective brain' extending between cities is imaginary. Many cities fell under one person rule so there was generally, with some exceptions, a decline in representative government after 1350, nothing like the line shown on the chart on p,315. Of course one cannot evaluate Henrich's argument when he does not provide a definition of 'representative government'. Each in northern Italy evolved its own- in Venice participation in government was confined to those of noble birth- is this a representative  government or not?

Generally, I cannot find any evidence that Henrich knows of the history of individual city-states. If he had, he could not have generalised in the way he did.

As you can imagine as a historian who leads tours round these very cities, I get annoyed when someone does not know anything about their history but makes grand generalised and misleading statements about it!!

comment by Charles Freeman (charles-freeman) · 2020-12-04T10:48:31.862Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To show that the rise of 'representative government', in northern Italy at least, was NOT consistent, I am giving you the Encyclopedia Britannica introductory paragraph under: Signoria, (Italian: “lordship”), in the medieval and Renaissance Italian city-states, a government run by a signore (lord, or despot) that replaced republican institutions either by force or by agreement. It was the characteristic form of government in Italy from the middle of the 13th century until the beginning of the 16th century.

So please ignore any of Henrich's charts, as on p.315, which show a consistent rise in representative government. As further research (Including the full article of the above) will show there were so many political problems in the representative governments of the communes that many cities relapsed into one man rule. This is 101 level history for those of us who have to write about these cities or lead tours to them!

comment by Charles Freeman (charles-freeman) · 2020-12-04T11:43:12.612Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And again, Henrich seems to believe that 'representative government ' appears quite early (forty per cent of cities by 1100 according to his chart). I refer him to Chris Wickham's Sleepwalking into a New World, The Emergence of Italian City Communes in the Twelfth Century (Princeton University press, 2015) p.68. 'Pisa had one of the earliest established communes of all, together with Genoa, with the years around 1100 being the most likely period for its crystallisation..'

The growth of these city port cities (Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Amalfi) were as a result of the reviving trade in the Mediterranean. There is no reason to link them to Catholic marriage policies!

comment by Charles Freeman (charles-freeman) · 2020-12-04T12:13:08.386Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

' From J. SCHULZ (2019) 'Kin networks and Institutional development' ( the article cited for the chart). ' This analysis supports the hypothesis that the Church’s incest legislation fostered the formation of communes. Areas in which bishops were active in incest legislation are associated with a higher probability of cities being communes." 

 This is a complete disregard of sophisticated  study of why the  communes emerged. These cities became wealthy as a result of trade and loot. (There is an inscription on Pisa's cathedral saying that it was loot from raids on Arabs that financed it.)  One reason why Pisa was able to develop communal government in 1100 was because the bishop had gone off on the First Crusade (1099 sees the  taking of Jerusalem)  and so was not in the city to stop them. There is no problem about Schulz putting the two together but surely, before going into print (with Henrich following him), he should have asked whether there was any literature about the rise of communes. My bible on this is Philip Jones' The Italian City- State , From Commune to Signoria, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997 - Jones deals at exhaustive length with the economic factors- so Schulz/Henrich needs to be conversant with this work so that they are at least aware they are challenging decades of sophisticated scholarship on the rise of communes- but, sadly, there is no sign that they are even aware of it. (And Henrich has all the expertise on his Harvard doorstep!)

comment by Charles Freeman (charles-freeman) · 2020-12-05T15:05:26.147Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Rewriting Henrich’s chart on p.315.

In his recent acclaimed book The Life and Death of Ancient Cities, Greg Woolf writes that ‘the Roman urban apogee was located sometime in the early third century.’ (This was also the moment when one there is a genuine Roman collective brain as the cities were all part of the same peaceful empire, same architectural features, and  well connected with roads.)  While we know from Pompeii that local politics was very vibrant in AD 79, we don’t know how vibrant they were in 250 AD when Henrich’s chart begins. Certainly more than zero. I would guess that forty per cent of the cities still had some kind of representative government. So let’s start the left hand side of the chart with that figure.

There was a steady decline into the collapse of Roman towns in the fifth/sixth centuries. So probably no or very few urban areas had ‘representative government’ from then to the emergence of commune government in northern Italy in 1100. So a long period of zero representation.

We would then  have a period of ‘representative (communal) governments’ for say two hundred years but gradually these governments would be supplanted by the signori, one family rule, so after 1300 there were be a steady decline of representative governments  on the chart until 1500- and if the chart had gone further the decline would have become steeper.

This is only for the Roman west and then just northern Italy. The chart might be more complicated if the cities of northern Europe had been included.

comment by nels.in.newmexico@gmail.com · 2020-12-29T20:33:24.301Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for your critique of and insights about what I find to be a remarkable and provocative, though far from perfect, work by Henrich. On a quick read of Schulz (2019), the reference Henrich uses for Fig. 9.6 on p. 315, it appears that the data for that figure come from the Iberian Peninsula, the Carolingian Empire, and Roman Britain. That is, the communes and city-states of Italy are only a small component of the entire dataset. Perhaps this fact explains why your observations and conclusions are at variance with Henrich's. From your comments, one might conclude that what the Italian peninsula received a "dose" of was Rome, rather than the Church, and so its data would have been less relevant for Schulz and Henrich's immediate thesis -- though could address a different thesis, perhaps involving how an “inoculation” with a dose of Rome leads to immunity against subsequent "infection" by the Church. Other of your comments make me suspect that the Church was, to a degree, "Rome by other means," those other means largely excluding force of arms. Again, thanks for bringing your expertise to bear on this fairly enormous subject.

comment by Charles Freeman (charles-freeman) · 2021-01-18T16:35:34.657Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for your comment, nels. Sorry I did not see them earlier. The chart on p. 315 is chronological. so while the cities of Roman Europe (including the Iberian peninsula) were lively politically, they were in decay by the fifth century- but there has to be some sort of 'plus' representative government in Roman areas before then (e.g. search 'Pompeii politics'). So after the Roman collapse the main urban areas are the Arab cities and it is only slowly that urban life in Europe revives. (The shortlived (770-843 AD) Carolingian empire was not urban- rather the centres of power were the court and monasteries.) Chris Wickham sees the first representative governments in northern Italy as c.1100. It is hard to know how Schulz choose his cities  (I am longing to get to a university library to check his sources!) but he seems to assume that once a city is marked as having a town council it remains in the chart  as a representative government from then on (so a steady line UPWARDS as new cities come in). Yet we know that many of the most prosperous Italian cities fell under one family rule after c.1300 so his chart should then start going DOWNWARDS as representative governments are lost for this prosperous region.

After the banning of pagan cults in the 390s by the Roman emperor Theodosius, the Catholic church was the only institutional religion in town and it is still with us so ANY development in European society correlates with its existence (as do cold winters). Henrich' error is to suggest that the Church caused these developments when there are perfectly good historical reasons (mostly economic) for the revival of European cities in the Middle Ages.At the very least he should have  challenged conventional historical explanations to sustain his thesis but I wonder if he is even aware of them.

One day he will be challenged for his view that the church broke up kinship groups as, being unaware of the Roman ban on cousin marriages and their individual landholdings, he does not realise that intensive kinship had been broken up centuries before his start date of 400 AD. I am amazed that it has not been already done.