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Joseph Henrich on Cultural Evolution, WEIRD Societies, and Life Among Two Strange Tribes (Ep. 16 — Live at Mason)

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Mercatus Center
Dec 14, 2016 · 61 min read

On the value of a cultural evolutionary framework

Now, let me start with a simple question about your method. I’m an economist, and I’m familiar also with evolutionary biology. If I come at a problem, I tend to use economic reasoning and then something from biology, but you have insights from how cultural and social evolution intersect or interact.

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I’ve always been impressed, living in small-scale societies, the number of stories that people tell over campfires and just the amount of, say, folk biological information — information about plants and animals and what’s poisonous and what you can eat and what you can’t eat, and how you have to process it. There’s just this encyclopedic knowledge, which I would just use the handbook for, for a lot of that information.

That’s not available to you. We’ve been gradually figuring out ways to download stuff. I think that’s the Google problem, is that we have less stuff in our heads, but our ability to do things can still expand.

COWEN: From what I understand, people had larger brains 20,000 or 30,000 years ago. Brain size, roughly, is correlated with intelligence. Is it possible that they were smarter than we are? We’re a kind of mental cripple, in a way? But we get by, because, in essence, we’re riding on the back of this marvelous cultural evolution.

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One of the big problems is that key to understanding all this are family-level institutions, so small-scale societies, developing countries depend on complex kinship institutions, which are really hard to break down.

What you’re doing is you’re putting Western-style institutions on top of an underlying set of family institutions that doesn’t fit. That misfit causes a lot of problems. It’s only through process of urbanization that you gradually break apart those families.

COWEN: Let’s say we take Brazil, which is actually a pretty well-off society compared to a lot of parts of the world. The ratio of American, North American, US per capita GDP to Brazilian in the year 1900 is pretty much the same as it is now as best we can measure it.

On WEIRD people, the Flynn effect, and what really drives intelligence

COWEN: You have a view communicated in a lot of your research, some of your most famous pieces, that people in the West or at least some people in the West, they are what you call WEIRD — that’s an acronym for Western-educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic — and we should not draw general conclusions about humanity on the basis WEIRD people. Most of us here, or possibly all of us, we’re deeply WEIRD. Tell us a little more about that.

But the Flynn effect, I think, is a great example of people adapting their cognition to the economic and social world that they face. They’ve got to deal with new kinds of problems, and that’s going to favor more analytic thinking.

Most of the increase in the Flynn effect is due to the three subtests. There’s 10 subtests on the IQ test and three of them are about analytic thinking. Those are the three that have really dramatically gone up over the last hundred years.

COWEN: The Flynn effect in the short run puzzles me more than in the long run. If I compare today to the 18th century, I can see where the difference might be. But in many countries, it seems the Flynn effect hasn’t stopped. Nutritional gains probably are over.

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A simple example is everyone in this room…[has] a specialization in your left hemisphere, and you have a thicker corpus callosum than you would otherwise.

You’ve acquired a particular cultural skill, literacy, that changes your brain and makes you biologically different and actually thickens that information highway between your two hemispheres. When you hear spoken speech, you get greater full-brain activation patterns than you would if you’d still been illiterate. Culture changes our biology and causes us to think differently.

On the conservatism of cultural evolution

COWEN: We’re at George Mason University. I need to ask you about Hayek.

On things over- and underrated

COWEN: In all of these dialogues we have a segment in the middle called underrated versus overrated and I name a thing, a person, a thinker. You’re always free to pass and you tell us if you think it’s underrated or overrated. I’ll start with secular humanism.

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On the fragility of positive-sum thinking

COWEN: You’ve done a lot fieldwork in southern-central Chile with the Mapuche. What would you say is the main thing you personally have learned from the Mapuche in terms of your research?

Envy and people’s negative emotions — people believe it has a real force in the world and it can cause bad stuff to happen to you. This I think is one of the main challenges to some economic development in some places.

COWEN: Amongst the WEIRD people, how fragile do you think the positive-sum mentality is? Can you readily imagine that 30, 40, 50 years from now we’ve in some way regressed and become much more zero-sum? Or would that be extremely unlikely?

On religious versus atheistic societies

COWEN: You’ve done a lot of work on religion and the social role of religion and how religion can have a prosocial role, and the costly signaling of certain things through religion can be useful.

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On American exceptionalism

COWEN: What’s your opinion on American exceptionalism, culturally? I know you’re from Canada.

On chimps, apes, Neanderthals, and the start-up problem

COWEN: Your work on animals, we have a little time to talk about this. You’ve studied chimpanzees, their termite-fishing, their ant-dipping, their nut-cracking. How conservative are chimpanzees? How much is there chimpanzee culture in addition to their instincts?

On social science tribes

COWEN: You’re an anthropologist. You’ve spent a lot of time with economists — coauthored, worked with Paul Romer, Colin Camerer, others. As an anthropologist, what do you find strange about the tribe known as econ? [laughs]

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Q&A

AUDIENCE MEMBER: This is about cousin marriage. I’ll try to be quick. If it begins with the churches undermining cousin marriage around 600, and then European economic success only really takes off maybe a thousand years later — depending on what you think about the economic history — is it plausible that the initial effects of undermining cousin marriage may have been quite detrimental, weakening social stability? Making societies more fragmented?

COWEN: But if you’re just betting on countries: here’s a country with only one language, here’s a country with five languages — which will be more creative? What’s your bet?

HENRICH: It’s unclear because if you have multiple languages, you can potentially learn from people. Suppose you speak Spanish, Mandarin, and English: then you can search the web in three languages. You get access to a much wider collective brain than if you can just read the English. The extra languages can actually expand the size of the collective brain.

COWEN: Next question.

If you’re a cultural learner and you learn a little bit from this guy and a little bit from this guy and a little bit from that guy and recombine them, you get a brand-new thing. But you actually didn’t. You actually were just cultural-learning from three different people. Knowing people in very different domains of knowledge that normally don’t meet is a great way to be an innovator.

COWEN: To follow up on that, in the 19th century, Tocqueville wrote that Americans were among the most conformist of people. It was precisely because they were free, and that they could be organized in mass numbers in a larger market setting and you had a lot of economies of scale. He thought that made us, on average, quite conformist. Do you agree with that portrait?

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages…

Mercatus Center

Written by

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

Mercatus Center

Written by

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

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