Why did Europe play such an outsized role in human history? A generation ago, the geographer Jared Diamond offered an elegant answer in his book Guns, Germs and Steel: Europeans weren’t smarter than non-Europeans, but geography and natural resources propelled Europe’s development in particular directions. Harvard professor Joseph Henrich is a fan of Diamond but his new book takes a different approach. Henrich was trained as an anthropologist but now describes himself as a “cultural evolutionist”. In the same way that Darwin’s theory explains how life follows pathways of adaptation via natural selection, cultural evolution proposes that human cultures develop and transmit deep understandings and values across generations. There are many pathways of cultural evolution, Henrich contends, and no single human culture. To better understand the world and Europe’s influence on it, we need to recognise that European culture is, in Henrich’s key acronym, “weird”: western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic.
Henrich insists that “weird” values are culturally determined and specific rather than universal or natural. Specific doesn’t mean bad. As the book’s subtitle suggests, he credits the “firmware” of “weird” cultural evolution for many of the modern world’s core values: meritocracy, representative government, trust, innovation, even patience and restraint. These were the products not simply of Europe’s distinctive and highly unusual milieu, but of a narrow force many of us have forgotten: the prescriptions and hangups of the Christian church.