2021 By The Books: Dry And Tedious

Daniel Issing
23 min readJan 22, 2022
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Having covered fiction in the last article, we can now turn towards the less prosaic. There’s some biology, political philosophy, psychology, business stuff, history of art and even urban planning! I hope there’s something in there for everyone, 18 books in total from which you get to pick. It’s always hard to come up with a favorite because there isn’t much apples-to-apples happening here, but if I had to make a choice, The Enigma of Reason (by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber) would most likely come out on top. Some major disappointments as well, which is a good sign — in reading as in real life, if you never fail, you’re not trying hard enough.

Behave, Robert Sapolsky

Sapolsky is one of the world’s most inspiring and captivating lecturers. If you haven’t watched his course on Human Behavioral Biology yet (courtesy of Stanford University), you should probably do so right now. Behave is, in a sense, this lecture series in book form, condensing everything we know about human behavior into a more-or-less consistent picture. Naturally, such a project is doomed too fail, but I think he fails gracefully. Unless you are specializing in this field, you will walk away with a much better understanding of what it means to be human in the bigger picture.

Obviously that doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything to nitpick on. Perhaps most annoyingly, I found that his oratory style translates poorly to the written format. The colloquial, how-do-you-do-fellow-kids seems forced, almost unnatural, like somebody trying too hard to show he’d be a great buddy, age notwithstanding. The worst of this he reserved for the footnotes (which, contrary to the endnotes, aren’t reserved purely for citations) which disrupt the flow and should just have been removed — I can’t recall a single one that added something relevant to the story. Having read the paperback version, I further curse the publisher for choosing the ghastly tiny font they chose, which makes you squint real hard, only to regret the extra effort immediately after.

Now don’t you mistake that criticism with a defense of the typical academic writing style that plagues journals, alas, many a pop science book. I found it refreshing that, in the midst of all the discussion about neurons, endocrinology and genetics, he does not shy away from personal anecdotes, and is pretty explicit about his biases (which are exactly those you’d expect for a Stanford biologist). Naturally there is a lot of disagreement because of the political and social implications of our perspective on human nature, and I appreciate that he attacks those heads-on, rather than pretend they wouldn’t exist. And the occasional cheap shot aside, he presents his opponents’ views fairly before critiquing them. For the purpose of illustration, I’m just gonna pick two aspects that are worth highlighting: Inequality and determinism.

For decades people have been debating whether poverty or inequality is the bigger problem, with liberals typically being more concerned with the latter than conservatives. It’s however quite unusual for someone to deny that inequality is the only problem and poverty mostly irrelevant. Yet Sapolsky seems to be doing exactly that. Time and again he stresses the detrimental consequences of living in close proximity to someone who’s much better off than you: Poverty among plenty is associated with worse health problems (mental and physical) than just being poor. Past a certain point, I find that hard to believe — are you really worse off living in a small apartment next to billionaire’s mansions than a typical(?) family in Burkina Faso, trying to make ends meet on $29 a month? And then there’s the question if he doesn’t sometimes jump a little too quickly from positive findings to normative judgement. So, yes, “studies show” that higher levels of inequality correlate with higher crime rates, and blaming the system (or the rich) is one way to attribute blame — but couldn’t you just as well argue that differences in wealth alone are no excuse for violently assaulting someone?

Which brings me to the second point: After discussing all the different factors (genes, hormones, environments and so on) that influence your behavior, there really doesn’t seem to be any room for human agency, i.e. free will. Sapolsky himself is a card-carrying member of the “hard incompatibilist” camp, which favors not only a deterministic view of human nature, but also denies that this is in any way compatible with the existence of free will. Now, I’d qualify as a determinist myself — I don’t see how one can get non-causality into the game without invoking the likes of souls, spirits or other supernatural forces — and yet it is almost impossible to think of ourselves and others as not having the capacity to choose how we behave. It may be an illusion, but it’s so perfect we can’t shed it, try as we might. Even Sapolsky cannot help but rely on concepts such as guilt, blame and intentions when discussing the implications of behavioral research. At one point, he explains why alcohol is no excuse for aggression (because alcohol doesn’t make people aggressive per se, it only magnifies preexisting aggressive tendencies). But of course, the very concept of an “excuse” implies that things could have gone differently, that it wasn’t just a series of inevitable events with no alternative choice available for the aggressor. And that’s precisely why, after more than 2,500 years of debating the question, we still haven’t found a convincing answer to this conundrum.

The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker

I’ll make a pledge right here and now and swear that this is going to be the last Steven Pinker book I’ll ever read. Don’t get me wrong, he is a thoughtful author and deep thinker, but after number four, I just don’t expect a high (marginal) rate of return anymore — The Blank Slate already stretched my patience far beyond what I’m usually willing to endure.

Like most of Pinker’s books, it’s voluminous, and like most of Pinker’s books, it could have been shorter. Especially because there are so many sections where he ventures into areas that are clearly outside of his expertise, or spends pages upon pages on describing the petty infighting among (in this case) evolutionary biologist. Readers of his other works will now doubt recognize many similarities that may tempt you to skip chapters. Just two example: Chapter 17 (“Violence”) is really just a summary of Better Angels, and chapter 19 (“Children”) is a shorter version of Judith Harris’ The Nurture Assumption.

Of course, the case against the so-called blank slate — i.e. the assumption that genetics plays little to no role in human development — is sound, but I can’t say that his arguments are particularly novel. But do you really need to read 600 pages to see this? If you’re deeply interested in the finer details of this topic, go right ahead, otherwise, it’s OK to pass.

A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell

Less interesting than Knowledge and Decision and somewhat repetitive. The basic theme is that there are two basic worldviews (and of course there’s a continuum between them…), which Sowell calls the constrained and the unconstrained vision. Adherents of the former sees limitations, shortcomings and imperfections everywhere, isn’t too sanguine about the possibility to overcome them, and believes that human nature is a rather durable thing. Followers of the latter don’t necessarily disagree with the observations about the state of the world, but they believe that massive improvements could be achieved by radically altering whatever they believe is the root cause of these injustices. Political identification is by and large predicted by the underlying vision, which explains why liberals or conservatives often have so strikingly consistent views about unrelated issues — take climate change and gun control for one obvious example.

Fittingly enough, the book itself is quite visionary, in that it precedes recent debates about polarization (still an underrated topic) by decades. It has some interesting discussions on the different approaches to war and peace-keeping (which side do you think will advocate for increasing the military budget to secure peace?) and on thinkers that don’t quite fall on the side that you’d expect them to be on. The weak point (apart from the fact that the book should have been about half as long) is that it’s a nice theory, but how well does it hold up in practice? Wouldn’t you at least try to run a basic survey to check how well believing in the inherent limitations of human beings would predict conservative political attitudes? But Sowell has a certain preference for armchair theorizing over empirical research, which make him an interesting, though not always very thorough thinker.

Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Joseph Schumpeter

This is Schumpeter’s claim to fame, in which he argues that capitalism is planting the seeds of his own destruction — not quite in the sense of Marx’ historical materialism, but rather because of the mismatch of material progress and institutional backing. In that, it precedes Peter Turchin’s notion of “elite overproduction” by several decades but lacked the catchy title to go viral. Say what you want about the old aristocratic order, but at least the old hereditary elites were low in numbers and didn’t make a living off throwing rhetorical sticks between the capitalists’ legs.

The most important meme originating from CS&D is of course that of creative destruction. Schumpter claims (rightly, I think) that perfect competition as described in the textbooks— i.e. competition by a large number of roughly equal-sized firms driving down the price of a given product —fails to capture the essence of capitalism. Far more characteristic are attempts to supplant entire modes of production by bringing in new technologies, supply sources or organizational patterns, leaving behind everyone unwilling to adapt. Motivated perhaps by exorbitant prizes that await a few lucky founders and CEOs, they push relentlessly for innovation (a neutral term in this context). [Just like Turchin above, Daniel Kahneman will later expand on this idea in Thinking, Fast and Slow and argue that the fuel that feeds the engine of capitalism is the inability of entrepreneurs to calculate their chances of success realistically.]

Still, unless you’re a historian of economic thought, I think it’s okay to skip this one. Schumpeter’s claims about capitalism remain relevant but have been by and large absorbed by the mainstream, and his discussion of socialism and democracy just feel very dated, not to say irrelevant. They’re also hard to follow (because Schumpeter often prefers to refer to “theorist X’s argument”, rather than explaining what that argument is about) unless you have immersed yourself in intellectual debates of 1920s Austria, which is a fine thing to do but certainly not everyone’s hobbyhorse.

The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Isaiah Berlin

It was a very fitting coincidence that I read Crooked Timber just after Sowell’s abovementioned Conflict of Visions, for Berlin is one of the foremost defenders of the constrained vision of the 20th century. The dominant theme of this collection of essays is related to Kant’s famous quote (from which the title is derived), arguing that humans simple aren’t malleable enough to create heaven on earth. He feared that those who thought otherwise and went out to eradicate every perceived injustice would end up creating totalitarian nightmares, and argued that the goal of a liberal social order was not to have everyone agree on the “correct” premises, but rather to find a working compromise that allows diverse preferences to coexist. Since Berlin was interested in the history of ideas first and foremost, there are many discussions in the volume of how different (political) philosopher thought about this subject. My favorite chapter was the one about Joseph de Maistre, de famous 18th century arch-reactionary — a figure that Berlin has little in common with ideologically, but admires for the clarity and depth of thought. The other essays were mediocre at best, and I expect the marginal benefits of reading another one of his works to be rather low.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs

I decided to read Death and Life because I know next to nothing about the theory and practice of urban planning, but (like everyone else affected by it) have strong opinions on some aspects of it. Curiously enough, those tend to be the aspects that matter most to me personally! But since it’s unlikely we’ll make any progress in the field as long as it’s everyone’s preferences vs. everybody else’s, I wanted to get an idea whether (mostly) Pareto-efficient improvements may be possible. Jacobs has made a name for herself by arguing for a bottom-up approach to “the kind of problem that is a city” (her phrase), which I’d expect to have important advantages over the then-dominant forms of centrally-planned improvement projects. And indeed she does have a lot of interesting ideas, just don’t expect a scientific treatise. It’s also rather bland.

The most unexpected thing I discovered on the pages was her argument how much a ‘good’ city should come to resemble a small town. Normally, you’d think that people who escape to the cities did so precisely because they are seeking the anonymity that is impossible to find in a small town. But Jacobs, despite pointing out time and again that it is a mistake to mold a city in the shape of a village, insists that knowing your neighbors (without necessarily being friends with them or even knowing much about the private lives) is essential for the community — being on “sidewalk terms” with the people living in the same street.

She isn’t too interested in the issue of infrastructure, be it highways, electricity or mass transit. The focus is on how to revitalize and keep alive districts: They should serve more than one primary function, have short blocks, ages and conditions of building should vary, and the concentration of people throughout the days should be “sufficiently” dense. At the same time, she is concerned that a district thus conceived already contains the seeds of its own destruction once other districts begin copying it — the famous “monoculture of diversity” dilemma. It isn’t clear that there is much of a remedy to it, just as urban planning has limited means to bring these districts to life in the first place. I am unsure what follows from that — should the city administration just “get out of the way” and allow organic growth to work its miracles? Zoning laws, building restrictions or eminent domain (to name just the most important tools) are hardly discussed in the book, and some topics that I would have been curious about (congestion and the transit to bike-friendly cities) were probably not yet a relevant subject in the 1950s. After finishing the book, I don’t have the impression that I learned a great deal.

For more substantial reviews of her work and her iconic battle with city planner Robert Moses have a look at these articles: Link 1, link 2.

The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker

“What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression and with all this yet to die.”

I know of few thinkers who were able to summarize the fundamental absurdity of human existence as concisely as Becker does in what’s probably the most famous passage of The Denial of Death. Indeed I think that it is this glaring cosmic injustice — if you want to call it like this — that makes existentialism both so appealing and so repugnant. No doubt we humans have developed all kinds of techniques and mechanisms (most of them not conscious) to divert our attention from the brute fact of death, a fact that calls into question all possessions, relations and values that we are so busy establishing and affirming during our lifetime. Like Becker, I believe that these defense mechanisms are integral to our very sanity, and like Becker, I believe a refusal to face it makes our lives poorer, shallower, mediocre. It should have been a challenging but rewarding read.

Unfortunately, after a good start, it quickly gets worse. Most of the decline I blame on the fact the Becker is a psychoanalyst. True, he is not an orthodox Freudian, but his differences with the master are either insignificant or just replace one crazy idea with another. You’ll find a lot on the Oedipus complex, penis envy, anal characters, subconsciousness and a host of other brainchildren that supposedly hold deep truths about the human animal but have rightly fallen out of favor among psychologists. Let’s not mince words: Psychoanalysis is essentially a theory masquerading as science, all claims to its “clinical” nature to the contrary, and it’s hard to take (m)any of the conclusions drawn from these concepts seriously. Becker’s almost religious devotion to his predecessors (whose books he will uncritically praise as “the most profound insight into the human condition ever produced”) rather reinforces the pseudoscientific character of the whole enterprise.

Energy and Civilization, Vaclav Smil

Full review here.

The Enigma of Reason, Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber

A wonderful book; cynical, provocative, witty without going down the contrarian rabbit hole. Fans of Jonathan Haidt, Robin Hanson as well as the “cultural brain” camp will find much to like. Mercier and Sperber mount an original attack on the “heuristics and biases” program that informs much of modern pop psychology and behavioral economics. The existence of reason, they argue, poses two deep challenges: Why did something so thoroughly “unnatural” arise from an evolutionary process in the first place? And why, despite its undeniable achievements, is it often so badly flawed? Those are old questions, but oddly enough, most researchers have focused on only one of them, leaving their theories vulnerable to arguments from the opposite tradition.
Bonus points for the opening paragraph, which should catch everyone expecting an academic treatise off guard .

Good to Great, Jim Collins

The book is an amazing summary of everything that makes management “research” truly insufferable. It’s like homeopathy dressed up in medical garb, and just like the former, it tries a little too hard to assert just how scientific their approach was (if a cookbook would tell you on every page that it’s really important to wash your hands before preparing the meal, you’d get a bit suspicious as well, right?). Mired into this are irrelevant anecdotes about discussions they had in the team on what to include in the book and, invariably, silly Venn diagrams that seem to be the be-all and end-all of every Great Business Analysts. And, lo and behold, we come up with some concepts so simple that anyone can implement them and become an amazing, market-crushing company!
I can’t say it’s all nonsense, but it clearly seems that what’s true isn’t new, and what’s new is likely false.

The Meaning of Conservatism, Roger Scruton

This might be the best defense of conservatism that I have yet come across. Indeed parts of it a so good that I find myself leaning slightly more conservative after finishing the book, or at least less confident in the arguments I would typically hold against them. It’s also a good reminder that conservatism, properly understood, was once a respectable intellectual position, unlike what it has come to be today.

It would be easy to pick on the eccentricities of the book, of which there are many — a rather narrow conception of love and marriage, shallow diatribes against non-traditional university courses, a rather rose-colored view of monarchism and a similar one-sided (but negative) view of the EU — but what would be the point of that? Scruton presents a substantial challenge to (classical) liberalism, and it’s this that I’d like to focus on.

The conservatism that Scruton has on mind is not necessarily identical to the positions espoused by famous conservatives of the day. Indeed I would argue that it is a view not unlike Hayek’s (yes, that’s the guy who wrote Why I Am Not A Conservative but it’s not surprising he never felt compelled to produce Why I Am Not A Socialist). It’s the view that society is, in some fundamental sense, beyond the grasp of individual reason, and that talks of steering it into some direction (he is particularly skeptical of “progressivism”) usually results in chaos and confusion. Against this, he claims that the fundamental reality of politics — not its goals! — is its social character (Aristotle would agree, one thinks). And thus the primary challenge of all politics is how to sustain the politeia. Individual aims and desire have to step back wherever they threaten the established order, and it is the legitimacy of this order the the conservative is most worried about.

This also squares well with Henrich’s research on cultural evolution and how humanity’s ecological success has been so dependent on the “social brain”. No doubt Scruton would reject the premise that conservatism is an excellent means to furthering this Darwinian success story, but it’s an interesting perspective.

Scruton accuses liberals to lack any clear answer to the question “Why liberty?”. I think he’s right with this charge, although there have of course been many attempts to answer it. But when all is said and done, many of these answers come down to some version of utilitarianism, which not a lot of people subscribe to. He claims that it is only within the social context — with all its constraints — that liberty acquires any value. Again, he might be right in that regard — “mere” satisfaction of individual desires could indeed lead towards a somewhat shallow, uninspiring consumerism.

The problem I have with this view is that he doesn’t give a very good answer either why we should take one particular aspect of human nature — our socialness — and elate it to a guiding principle to which everything else has to be subdued. My own guess is that any kind of political philosophy is bad at providing ultimate answer as to why *everyone* should follow its lead, but conservatism may be unique in pretending that it can circumvent this very question.

There are a great many more points worth elaborating, but I don’t want to stretch this review beyond reasonable bounds. If I have one take-away from it, it’s that the “tyranny of the present” (or immediate past) of which conservatives are often accused (anything that exists exists for a reason, and is therefore “good” in some sense) has a lot going for it, and should not be dismissed as mere nostalgia.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan

The omnivore’s dilemma is the observation that the more types of food you can potentially eat, the easier it is to screw it up — a classic case of explore/exploit. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is only partly related to this concept. It’s part adventure story (hunting and foraging), part criticism of agricultural policy, and a lot of personal anecdotes. Unsurprisingly, the book could have been half as long.

My expectations to read mostly about how big business has ruined our perfectly fine approach to eating were partly met, and there’s certainly a lot bigger journalistic distance between Pollan and the corn growers and processors of Iowa than between him and the pastoral farmers (exemplified by Polyface Farms). But even though I think his view is blurred by nostalgia and downplays the miracle that modern agriculture was able to achieve — feed even the poorest citizens with a supply that the kings of old could not have imagined, eradicating famine in the developed world (and of course creating a whole new set of problems in the process, as almost everything does) — I appreciate that he’s honest enough to point at the many contradictions that exist for the different approaches to feed ourselves.

The book is replete with musing on philosophy and economics, and while Pollan is a great writer, the latter is not necessarily among his strengths. By contrast, I found the section on vegetarianism, although quite a digression, most interesting, as are all the parts where he takes a critical look at his own attitudes without coming to a firm conclusion what’s right and what’s wrong. And lest you think he always succeeds with his honest self-criticism, read the episode about him eating at McDonald’s with his family — it’s hard to find as much snobbery and faux richness of detail (as if he had never been there before, and expects that same to hold for his readers) in such a short paragraph.

On Liberty, J.S. Mill

How much value is there in reading the classics? Like everybody else, I presume to have good secondhand knowledge of Mill’s philosophy, so: On the margin, how much more do you learn by reading him in the original? Because I generally care less about an author’s intellectual history (and discussions about the correct interpretation of their oeuvre) than I care about “timeless” arguments for or against a certain philosophical/political/social stance, the answer is usually: very little. But I realize this is a bias of mine, so every so often I try to actively counter it.

Mill is of course most famously known for his exposition of utilitarianism, which On Liberty barely ever touches upon. I’d go out on a limb and claim that it could have just as well been written by a deontologist! So many of Mill’s arguments are intended to delineate a sphere of action for individuals which neither the state not society may rightfully interfere with. Overall, I don’t think he succeeds in drawing the line as clearly as he seems to think. Probably the most famous chapter, on freedom of speech, often grapples with the issue when speech is mostly a private act — and hence may not be suppressed — and when it becomes fully public, and therefore ought to be regulated (he gives the example of handing out an inflammatory pamphlet during a protest against corn dealers). Unfortunately, in almost all cases that are being discussed, the separation of the two seems arbitrary. Despite its shortcomings, I would still argue that historically, this book is an important milestone and one of the intellectual founding documents of modern liberal democracies.

Other Minds, Peter Godfrey-Smith

Godfrey-Smith proposes to take us on a tour of conscious beings very different from us, and I applaud this attempt. Popular understanding of animal minds has, sadly, not advanced much since the days of Descartes’ animal-machines, even though we now tend to make the opposite error of anthropomorphizing. Alas, Other Minds does too little to contribute to a more solid foundation.

For one thing, the book being as short as it is should allow you to focus on the essential. Instead, cephalopod (octopus, cuttlefish and squid) mating behavior, the enigma of their short lifespans, as well as on the author’s diving excursion consume a great many pages, while comparatively little time is devoted to the fascinating question what it is like to be an octopus? My main takeaways were (1) octopuses may be one of the few (the only?) species that developed a higher form of intelligence without being particularly social animals, and (2) that cephalopods’ brains aren’t concentrated in their heads, but stretch out more or less over the entire body. A nice primer on creatures that most of us hardly spend any time thinking about, but ultimately too shallow on the philosophical side.

Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit

I see no need to try and summarize a book that has been referred to as the most important contribution to moral philosophy since Henry Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics. Whereas ethics traditionally deals with the right or wrong of our actions towards people around us, Parfit could be read as an attempt to remove the narrow personal as well as the spatio-temporal focus from our moral reasoning. Parfit was an advocate for the interest of future generations before it became fashionable (and those future generations may include your own future self!).

The exposition is sometimes overly careful, trying to hedge his claims against any possible misinterpretation, and the style is rather bland and repetitive. But to the extent that you’re able to disregard this, you can expect a highly original work full of mesmerizing thought experiments.

The Story of Art, Ernst Gombrich

In 2017, Salvator Mundi (attributed to wholly or in parts to Leonardo da Vinci) became the world’s most expensive painting ever sold. A mere 45cm x 66cm in size, it was acquired by Prince Badr el Abdullah for a staggering $450 million. Why would anyone in their right mind spend such an obscene amount for a painting that — let’s be honest — wouldn’t exactly arouse your attention if you saw it in a thrift store? The short answer — to impress others, to send a signal of what kind of (cultivated) person you are, or as an investment — are all basically correct, but they miss a fundamental point: Why did we begin to care about art (and endlessly debate what counts as art and what doesn’t) in the first place? Why do the works of some artists receive enormous attention, while most (skillful) painters remain unknown to everyone except their closest friends? Why is (post)modern art so ugly? I find all of these questions fascinating, and yet continue to find it difficult to access the world of painters and sculptors. Gombrich’s popular History of Art was an attempt to finally tear down that barrier.

If there is such a thing as the canonical view, Gombrich comes closest to represent it. His presentation would no doubt be charged with eurocentrism today, but whatever one makes of that accusation, I would think it’s a great introduction for anyone unaccustomed with the subject. It sure did help me, when I visited the Musee d’Orsay shortly after, to approach the paintings in a more productive, curious, stimulating way. He makes a great point early on about Egyptian artists, whose drawings we tend to think of as almost childish, and not very skilled at least. Not so, Gombrich says — once you understand what they tried to achieve, what the mental model is they used to decide how things are “correctly” depicted, what trends (artistic and otherwise) they were responding to, you really do start to see them in a different light.

Obviously you do want to get this book as a hard copy to go back and forth between the painting and the text (I say this as a card-carrying e-reader fanatic).

Ten Philosophical Mistakes, Mortimer Adler

A distinctly old-fashioned philosopher sets out to correct everything that’s wrong with modern philosophy. That sure sounds like an ambitious idea, and unsurprisingly it fails rather miserably. His general line of argument goes something like this: Philosopher X declared that Y is the case, and from there on reached “repugnant conclusions” (it is unclear whether their repugnancy reflects more than just the author’s own value judgement). Philosophers who came after X weren’t happy with the conclusions, but instead of rejecting X, they performed mental gymnastics in ever-increasing stages of complexity.

Part one clears the path for most of the arguments in the following chapters. Here Adler argues that ideas, rather than being the objects that we apprehend, are tools by which we apprehend. What looks at first glance like a pointless debate over semantics has enormous practical consequences, if he is to be believed — among other things, it would grant a kind of objective reality to the things that are being perceived of via ideas (which could be percepts, but also “justice”, “equality”, “freedom” and so on). [What about dreams and hallucinations — is what we experience in those cases “real”? Of course not, says Adler — because when we hallucinate or dream, we aren’t really perceiving! Is it fair to call this an argumentum ad definitionem?]

Many other similar proclamations follow. What separates humans from other animals? Easy: Man possesses an intellect and brutes do not (his words). Subatomic particles are less real than chairs, because we cannot perceive them directly. And on and on it goes, chapter by chapter…

The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich

Henrich is quickly becoming one of my favorite social scientist. After the phenomenal Secret Of Our Success, which I can’t recommend enough, his tome on WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) people is another excellent achievement, though not quite as strong as its predecessor. An anthropologist by training, Henrich and his team have spend many years documenting just how much people around the world are psychologically different from American undergraduates, and has lambasted his colleagues for drawing far-reaching conclusions from experiments performed almost exclusively with the latter group. It’s an example of the typical mind fallacy, and a startling one at that: WEIRD people tend to be outliers on a host pf psychological metrics; among other things they tend to be highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist, analytical, and value abstract rules and processes over relationships. One of those fascinating data points is an analysis of diplomatic parking violations in NYC prior to 2002, when diplomatic immunity still exempted foreign government officials from penalties for wrongly parked vehicles. Many ambassadors accumulated zero tickets, while representatives from corruption-riddled countries came in a 100 or more violations per diplomat. For a deeper understanding of this gap alone, the book is well worth reading.

Starting from these observations, Henrich sets out to present a grand theory of how this difference between “the West and the rest” came about, which manifests itself not only in cognitive styles, but also in, among other things, vastly different standards of living. Hayek’s theory about small hunter-gatherer style groups trying to come to terms with the great society of our time serves as a backdrop here, but Henrich wants to be more specific and singles out the Catholic Church’s ban on cousin marriage and other related practices (which he refers to as the Church’s “Marriage and Family Program”) led, in a slow, cumulative process to a widening gap between Western Europe and the rest of the world. It would be unfair to accuse him of single-cause explanations, but I am not particularly convinced either by his emphasis.

Hot take to finish off this round of reviews: Of course you can’t really evade judgement when you write a book about cognitive diversity across populations, and Henrich says in many places that he thinks psychological diversity is desirable in itself; that he does not meant to denigrate other populations. Yet is this claim believable? Page by page he lists behaviors that just seem objectively good — don’t steel even if no one is looking — that some people are significantly more likely to endorse than others. Indeed, just take a look at his famous WEIRD acronym — is being poor, uneducated and non-democratic something that has just as much merit as the opposite? I don’t want to claim the argument can’t be made that WEIRD cognitive styles are worse than others along certain dimensions (he does make the point that WEIRD people have a harder time understanding social dynamics, for example), but it’s a point I’d rather have argued than merely asserted.

See you again at the end of the year for the next series of reviews!

Previous editions: 2018, 2019, 2020 (1), 2020 (2), 2021 (1)

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Daniel Issing

Book reviews, trail running, physics, and whatever else I feel like writing about.