The Not Unreasonable Podcast

Joe Henrich on Cultural Evolution

October 04, 2021 David Wright
The Not Unreasonable Podcast
Joe Henrich on Cultural Evolution
Show Notes Transcript

Joe Henrich is Professor and Chair of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University. He has written two books that have been incredibly eye-opening for me: The Secret of Our Success and the WEIRDest People in the World. Joe has put cultural evolution on the map as the best way for understanding why the world looks the way it does today.
In the interview we cover:
-How cultures are a statistical concept and what philosophers get wrong when analyzing culture
-What culture 'wants'
-What is the speed minimum of innovation?
-Are there things we can do to accelerate cultural evolution further?
-How should we analyze subcultures?
-Is Insurance really the fundamental application for culture?

Show Notes:
https://notunreasonable.com/2021/11/26/joe-henrich-on-cultural-evolution/

Youtube link:  
https://youtu.be/ud-1rhQHnKE

Twitter: @davecwright
Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-wright-73661214/
Social Science of Insurance Essays: https://notunreasonable.com/the-social-science-of-insurance/

David Wright:

My guest today is Joe Henrich, Professor and Chair of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. Joe has written two incredibly important books, the secret of our success, and the weirdest people in the world, how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous. The volume of these ideas and these two works is really incredible. So let's see what we can get through today. Joe, welcome. All right, thanks.

Joe Henrich:

Good to be with you, David.

David Wright:

So the philosopher Peter winch says, an anthropologist studying people wishes to make those beliefs and practices intelligible to his or her readers. My reading is you take actually a fairly different implicit philosophical position. If you're familiar with winch, you can tell me if I think that's right. And your work, but you do agree with that statement? And if so, how might you approach this question differently than other anthropologists?

Joe Henrich:

Yeah, well, the interesting thing is, I don't know when she's worked, but I do. I mean, that's a common sentiment within the field. And it's actually a sentiment that I hold is a kind of a first step. So I mean, we do want to try to convey how diverse populations feel and think and that's one of the reasons I've made such an effort to incorporate more quantitative methods into my efforts. So you could do that through qualitative ethnography and through thick description of people's social lives. But then you can enrich that with using lots of data and lots of tools from cognitive psychology, social psychology, behavioral economics, and other places to get the kinds of measurements that allow us to compare across diverse societies.

David Wright:

Which his he's got a funny kind of, like take on this, where he very much says that in order to really understand a culture, which I think that if I think of anthropology, that's, you know, one way of thinking about it, right, you really have to work within that culture. So in a few instances, in your works, you will make a point, something like this, where you will observe some institution which has emerged inside winning societies. And it'd be kind of weird, it'd be different than the societies around them. And you'll say something along the lines of, it's not clear to me that they themselves really understand what you know what the outcome is of this, and it's on that turn on that point, that winch would turn away. And he would say, well, without being able to understand what they really think is going on, it's hard to really understand yourself, what's really going on. And his kind of view, I think, I mean, he's passed away for a while now, but would be that you're actually an ethnographer of our culture, looking at other cultures to for inspiration and understanding better how we are today. But think about that.

Joe Henrich:

Well, I mean, I do think there is a role for this idea of reflection. So when you see the diversity across human societies, and also what's the same, it does give you more insight, because one of the one of our tendencies, I think, and probably as humans, but certainly as we're people, is to assume that the way our lives are is kind of the standard way that humans are, rather than being a particularly unusual way of thinking, or a particularly unusual way of living. So, you know, that's an important contrast. And that's one of the great things about anthropology that drew me to it is that, you know, it's kind of the fish out of water, or the the stark contrast that gets set up when you put yourself into a very different place and where you've grown up. But then I think, you know, with lots of the methods we have, now we can we can get further into that and determine how people do think about that institution, whether it's through various kinds of vignette experiments, or just in depth interviewing are lots of different methods to get at it. But, you know, you really need to tackle it with all the available methods from the social and natural sciences and not just assume you have to use the standard ethnographic toolbox.

David Wright:

What is it you get with those other tools, you get a deeper understanding? Or is there something else?

Joe Henrich:

Well, what you get is, is a deeper understanding a different, you know, from a different perspective and a measuring tool that allows you to compare across societies.

David Wright:

Okay? And can you give me example, something you've measured across societies that that's the

Joe Henrich:

thing that I started to cut my teeth on was measuring people's in fairness towards strangers. So societies vary, and there's lots of context specific norms, which, you know, you can find pro sociality in every society. But what turns out to vary a lot with markets or with pro social religions is this willingness to be fair towards strangers. So people you don't know and might be anonymous, and you won't see again. So using these tools for behavioral economics, I think we have a way of kind of getting at that. And then you can correlate that with other kinds of real world behaviors, whether it be markets or voluntary blood donations, or other kinds of things that occur in the real world that allow you to connect the behavioral experiments to actual behavior.

David Wright:

And these, these methods would be alien to a call that a traditional anthropologist would have talked to her undergrad courses

Joe Henrich:

heard of an anthropology until the late 90s when we started to build teams and get together with behavioral economists. But I mean, some of them have been published in the lead journals now in anthropology, but this is very far from the standard toolkit, and most your average cultural anthropologist doesn't much about it at all.

David Wright:

So what were they doing?

Joe Henrich:

Well, it's a pretty interesting trajectory. Because if you go back to the father of American anthropology, so Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and others of that school began to introduce methods. So and also in the British school, so whr river started using tools from cognitive psychology to measure things like color perception across society, Margaret Mead, use child's drawings and coded them, and some formal methods. But then gradually, by the time, you know, as you get into the 1970s, and 1980s, anthropologists are really turning to pure ethnography. So you're just supposed to kind of hang out, do long interviews with people and draw your conclusion through some self reflective process. And they draw, you know, in the 1960s, anthropologists were teaming up with psychologists to look at visual illusions. But then that was all gone by the 1980s. And so then in the night, in the 2000s, late 90s, we start to begin to reintroduce tools.

David Wright:

Because there's something that that called the ethnography, I guess it's it's like a, I read, I've read a couple of mid 20th century anthropologists, Mary Douglas, one, for example, I think you cite in your work. And the book, I read a first couple books First, it, I don't want to call it rambling. Because it's not really it's coherent. Right. And it's making continually making points. But there's a definitely a stylistic kind of there's a flavor to it, which I have not seen anywhere else. It's, it's in some I found it in some sense, kind of almost dense. But there is a lot, a lot of ideas, but they kind of like come at them from many different angles. Like it's a, it's verbose, but they definitely style there, there's a style there, right? And I'm wondering, like, what are the strengths of that, like, do we lose something by losing that style, like there was something that they were really good at by doing that, that that is kind of fading away a little bit?

Joe Henrich:

Well, I don't know if it's fading away. But I do think that there is a tendency to kind of want to be either qualitative or quantitative. And the line that I've always taken since graduate school is, you know, you can get in there and do the rich ethnography and learn the language and live there for a long time, and get a real feel for the texture of people's lives. And that doesn't mean you can't also do all of the experimentation and the systematic interviews and stuff. I mean, there's not really a trade off here too much. I mean, there's a little bit trade off in terms of time. But, you know, when you're doing the sort of systematic interviews of the kinda I did, among them of who che are with the Munch of Ganga, you're still experiencing life, you're getting to someone's house, you're seeing what it looks like, inside, you're maybe having lunch with them after or, you know, at least inter watching how their household runs while you're there.

David Wright:

You know, if I think about like, one of the thing about that, and I think come back to wind for a sec, just for another second. And considering what I think of as the kind of highly narrative form of anthropology, like, it seems that there's not a systematic way for analyzing change in there. And this definitely, I mean, to call that something that you've been focused on is a little bit of an understatement. But this absence of an idea of like an evolutionary concept, I suppose. It's just not there. And I, I had an interview with with another philosopher called Agnes calor, and she has an old this whole book on the philosophy of aspiration, and how and how kind of like, really hard it is, for a philosopher to wrap their head around this idea of somebody wanting to adopt a different value system, right, or change their value system, which is literally changing culture, right, which is actually entirely what you study. And so it feels to me like the the philosophical approach to these kinds of problems is missing something, you would probably say completely foundational. Right? And I'm wondering, maybe you can maybe talk a bit about why cultures change, or maybe if you can reflect on kind of what went missing there, but what's, what is the underlying kind of like need for this process inside of us?

Joe Henrich:

Well, so I mean, the way I anchored is very much if we think about how so humans are a cultural species. And if you compare us to other primates, or closely related in primates, what we're really good at is learning from other people. So from a young age, young children come into the world, and they're keying in certain members of their social group. And I've argued that we have lots of cues that we use to figure out who to pay attention to. And we're learning things like, well, what should one be? What is one aspire to be? What are the kinds of things one could be, you know, how should one thing, what are the heuristics one should use? What's a good solution to a problem? What's a valuable life or what's a valuable skill, and we're acquiring all that stuff in bootstrapping up our own abilities. Once you once you learn what the valuable things are the valuable ways to be in a society, you can then you know, work on your own on perfecting those skills and stuff. But it's really socially learning that tells us what competencies we should have.

David Wright:

are you drawing a link of ownership or as soon as we're making this up, but a link between the idea of socialization so kids becoming part of a culture is itself a kind of evolution? Right? Is it sort of remade inside of each child in a whole new different kind of way and eventually they assimilate into larger culture? Is that a way you think about it?

Joe Henrich:

Well, that's the foundation of cultural evolution is the idea that Children are, they come into the word world geared to learn and flow of learning from each from one from one generation to the next. So a single child may learn from lots of people. But then they have another generation that is learned all the stuff from the prior generation. And it's tracking that change over time, across generations, that is the meat of cultural evolution.

David Wright:

it you know, I think about like this pickup mimetic process, right. So that's not really a word that you use that way. But it's a word that's out there for related ideas as being a pretty conservative one, right? So to me, your your fidelity to the to the learning process has is related to your ability to actually just recreate the process inside your head or recreate the cultural outcome inside your head, right? So you're designed all these institutions or even kind of like psychological, biological mechanisms that are making us want to do this make us want to be like everybody else. So that to me is like a very conservative in the sense of conserving what happened before process, and yet we have change. So how do we how do we square that up?

Joe Henrich:

The great thing about that observation is that that's kind of built into these cultural evolution models. So under some conditions, you'll create stability. But if you have a condition, where the people who are succeeding being successful gaining prestige in society, are very different from the average person, then people are going to tend to copy those. And that's going to cause the entire society to shift in that direction. Or, as happens in a lot of contact between society situations, you have people copying the members of another group, whether it be language or hairstyles, or music styles, or economic practices, and then you get a quick change or relatively faster change in a society, because they're copying an outside society because that society seems more interesting, more successful, whatever that whatever the relevant cues are,

David Wright:

here to be about that is, I'm getting the sense that it may be in your concept. And you can react to since you here, there isn't really any hard boundaries between cultures, right? So there's kind of overlapping, and there's these there's these Borderlands where they're influencing each other all the time. And so I imagine it'd be very, you might be hard pressed to draw kind of an outline around this is these people are in this culture. And these people are in those cultures, and they're all different.

Joe Henrich:

Yeah. And that's, I think one of the ideas that really makes cultural evolution as we think of it now in the 21st century, different from how anthropologists and others thought of it in the 20th century, is that it's a statistical concept, right? So take any cultural trait, and a slice in time, and there'll be a statistical distribution of a certain cultural trait, the same way you can do that for height or something like that physical trait. And then what you're doing is tracking that distribution over time and looking at the forces that change it. But it's so it's individually something you can measure at the individual level. But at the group level, it only exists as a statistical distribution. Now, that could be a very stable trait, because there can be lots of reasons why a trait will remain stable or only change slowly. So that it could have a kind of endurance through time, it might be interconnected with other traits that help make it stable, so they form a package. So things like kin based institutions will do that, rituals will do that. So there is plenty of room for stability. But you can also get this rapid change if you have outgroups, or ecological shifts, or things like that.

David Wright:

And so this idea of cultures actually being distinct from each other, use this technical concept. I like that. So there's like, you know, with some probability, you're part of this culture, that culture is probably 100%. Because it's always a little bit different. So that, you know, if I think back again, to the philosophers I mentioned earlier, they're they're kind of conceptual error, if I could use that strong of a term is actually to pretend that there are differences. So there is your in culture a or culture B. And in that world, you know, you introduce the problem of Well, how do you would you ever transition away from culture a? Well, you're constantly in transition, right? cultures are always moving around even by small increments.

Joe Henrich:

And one of the one of the kinds of disciplines I impose upon my graduate students is whenever they give me a draft paper, and they use the word cultures as a now, I cross it out, and I read populations, okay, write about a population that currently has a distribution of various cultural traits. But it's not, you know, because the word culture is centralizes the group, and it makes it seem like it's a stable thing that we have to identify in the world, rather than a single distribution that can in principle, be changing through time, but maybe stable for various reasons.

David Wright:

Right? So it's a bundle of traits. Can you measure that? I mean, you back to the measurement point, like, I guess, how would you measure these traits? Like, is there a quantification of the idea of culture? Can you make it literally statistical?

Joe Henrich:

Yeah, well, and we do. So you do if you could do it through interviews, you could do it through observation. So how do people do a certain thing, and you know, everybody's going to do it a little bit differently within the society, but they might all make a fire in a similar way with slightly different protocols or something like that. I one of the things I've studied is is taboos that women hold during breastfeeding. And and you can ask women, what are taboos? What are the taboos on breastfeeding and you'll go through a list and you'll get a vector of ones and zeros. And then not every woman has the same ones into arrows, but many of them have the same ones and zeros. So you can then characterize the distributions,

David Wright:

right? So this is interviews. Okay. It seems to me like what I, you know, I work these days in the software business, where is the concept of actually asking people things and writing them down is like horrifying, right? Because they want to be automated and scalable, and all the rest of that. But maybe there isn't such a thing, there isn't a way to, you know, scale the measurement of culture, to your knowledge.

Joe Henrich:

Well, I mean, we are doing that now. So colleagues who do big data that are interested in these ideas will use like people's Facebook likes, or, you know, the information we'll provide in various online forums, or though you know, there's a natural language processing on blogs or something like that, to try to get the kind of cultural data that I go with a bunch of interviewers in a team of Fijians, and gather on the islands in a remote part of the Pacific, where you know, that kind of electronic data is just not available.

David Wright:

So do you do then do track quantities of change and culture? Like those are? What would the concept of that be?

Joe Henrich:

Well, so for example, you could look at that same thing I measured through time. So across generations, so one of the things I'll do with just a single measurement is looking at younger folks versus older folks and see if that's changing, or variation among villages. Or a principle I could do it, you know, 10 years later. So one of the things we study is we look at the world value survey, and we can see how culture changes, at least as reported and the values in the world value survey for a particular region over time. And you can see changes there, because that's been done now since 1980. So we have, you know, 40 years of data.

David Wright:

I think it's like the, to me that the social components of culture, it looks like there's a model of it, there's this tension between the conservatism versus the innovation, right. So I was mentioning earlier, that I think of the many processes very conservative one, which is designed to conserve things. This is innovation happening, right, there's this error. And there's also going to be other forms of innovation. Do you have Do you have a way of measuring the degree of that balance, or rather this balance that strictly can be measured independently, conservatism, or, I guess, I don't know, innovation inside of a culture?

Joe Henrich:

Yeah, well, so I have a graduate student undergrad, he was a graduate student now. He's a postdoc, Max Winkler. So he's an economist. And so what he does is he takes data and he looks at say, a whole bunch of reports on what the social norms are, and or what certain behaviors are. And he looks at how much group people within a particular population reported deviant answer. And he uses this tightness and looseness following people like Michele Gelfand, the psychologist. So I mean, that's kind of like what you're talking about in the sense that how you can say how tight a culture is, while people report? Is it okay to do this, you know, to what and to what degree some scale response or something? So yeah, you can get that through self through these report measures?

David Wright:

And what might be the forces that dictate that like, what causes the, I guess, yeah, the tightness or looseness of a culture hadn't actually map that onto this conversation. Think about that for a second. But I think we're getting it coming out like, is there is there some precedent influence, which kind of sets that that slider to more, you know, more conservative or not?

Joe Henrich:

Well, so one of the ideas that I've tried to use to explain that is something called kinship intensity. So societies have families that are organized in different ways. And so, you know, the families where I grew up, and we're many listeners probably grew up tend to be monogamous nuclear families, and people have to go out and make their own relationships and connect with others. But in other societies, lots of the ones across, you know, at least the last 10,000 years of human history, were what we call intensive. So they might have been polygynous, they had cousin marriage, there was lots of responsibilities and requirements, use behavioral requirements, and they tend to be tighter. Because people are kind of, they're trying to avoid shame, in a sense, and they're trying to go along and be conformist. As a way of going along with the rules, the elders tend to have more power. So that makes things more conservative. People are having less interactions with non members with people that aren't in their social network. And that can lead to greater conformity and tightness. So a lot more monitoring of the rules, and you just get this. So I think it's due to this kinship structure. So that's one possible thing that will affect tightness. Michele Gelfand has argued her and her colleagues that also environmental shocks affect this. So places that are shocky have earthquakes or storms or stuff tend to be a bit tighter.

David Wright:

Right? It's interesting, because I would have thought that a shock might force people to innovate a little bit depends on the source of it, I guess, because, you know, I think if the story you told and I don't remember which book it was now, but of a culture that observed the the expansion of a neighboring group, neither ethnic group, and stole a whole bunch of their ideas, right, and it worked out pretty well. For them, right? So there's a kind of shock there, which is not a natural disaster. But it's something else that actually probably, I mean, in some certain BIGBANG sense, loosen them up, is that the right way of thinking about it?

Joe Henrich:

Well, I think in that case, they didn't, they didn't actually innovate, at least in my definition, they copied what they were copying from a more successful group that was expanding militarily against another group. So that that just galvanized, you know, prestige, biased imitation, they didn't invent a whole new thing. That wasn't, you know, without precedent around them. So. And there's actually quite a bit of evidence that shocks may lead to greater tightness. So that same economists I mentioned max Winkler has done detailed studies, and he shows that economic shocks, epidemiological shocks, like pandemics, and weather shocks all create greater tightness in general and the norms.

David Wright:

You know, I work in the insurance industry, my whole career, and I've been kind of coming to terms with the word it, I will use the non capitalized version of the word weird strangeness, it's called of the insurance industry. And I'm starting to come around you actually reading your work has been very important in this evolution of my own thinking on it, where let me kind of draw to kind of possible, all set, primary applications will filter primary motivations for culture. So why do we ever want to write and I think there's like two big ideas, there's one, there's an idea of the development of wealth creation, or growth or enhancement of our livelihoods and the rest of that. And that's the economic growth side. And the other side of it is, which I'm distinguishing away from the prior one of security and insurance, basically. And so what it seems and I wonder, you think about this, it seems to me that the insurance case is the primary case. So the the reason the first reason why culture is came about was to ensure survival. And, and there's a lot of interesting work on and I don't know if you've read James Scott's the moral economy, the peasant, but there's this idea of moral economies where they, they are not trading in dollars or trading in favors with each other. So it's very much a tight culture, you know, echoes a lot of ideas that I read in your works. And to me that just like says, it has the insurance industry written all over it in a variety of ways. And so I see a lot of similar cultural features, to call it subsistence farmer and farming cultures and the modern insurance industry, which is all about protecting ourselves from these unknowns, right from these risks. And and Scott's argument is, you know, they're, they're at the subsistence level. And so anything that's gonna take them below that is a big problem. It's not just oh, I'm going to invest in incur some debt, and maybe I'll lose my investment. And you know, until they actually have this reluctance to invest in themselves and generate economic growth. And so there's like, really deep and very concerning trade off, and poor societies where they're not willing to actually, Michel Michel fab shop, and I've never heard of him. But he has a lot of interesting things to say about people at subsistence level just aren't willing to actually adopt new things, because they're just so worried about a book getting taken out next year from the next natural disaster or the next payment. So I'm, I'm wondering, so the question for you throw that diatribe is is is the protection argument actually, the original case for culture, even though most of your work is focused on the development side of things, which to me, I think it's just a separate thing. What do you think,

Joe Henrich:

well, so it just is just a semantic point would be that so am I, in my world, culture is just a socially learned information. So we're not tracking for not from another chimp, you know, that's culture. And so and there's lots of things like humans learn language, and that's, that's culture. So learning, you know, the grammatical rules or the meanings of words, I think the kind of thing you're talking about are institutions. So social norms, and especially things that benefit like some community. So yeah, I do think I mean, it's a that that makes sense. I'm not sure how we would test it. But there's certainly widespread in lots of groups, these, these risk managing institutions that are mostly about what happens when I get injured, shocked are old. Those kinds of things. Yeah, the,

David Wright:

the, the practice, so I could frame in terms of practice. I mean, I completely, obviously, take your point there about the semantics, I think of like, the applications of culture, the institutions that emerged earliest, that are most enhanced by culture, were definitely ones that are there to stop people from dying. Right, as opposed to looking for ways of accumulating wealth or, or, you know, they didn't want to change into a, I feel like people don't necessarily aspire to getting rich, so much as they just want to protect themselves. I think there's like a fundamental urge maybe

Joe Henrich:

one of the other ideas, though, that that's around the traces to anthropology, and now some economists are working on it, is the notion that, at least in some, especially subsistence farming situations, there's this, you end up in a zero sum world where if your wealth is land, then you either have the land or you don't have the land and so, you know, assuming you have a fixed territory, then you're in a zero sum world, and that that tends to favor Some of these kinds of thinking that I think the authors you mentioned, are talking about, you need something like either markets or technological innovation that gets you out of the zero sum world.

David Wright:

Yeah, that that is the result, at least the short paper that I was referring to, where he talks about this sort of puzzle of the lack of adoption of innovation, and subsistence economies and his point there as well. They're in this little tiny world, where once you introduce markets that kind of reduce the price elasticity of a lot of goods, now they can trade away the surpluses and make lots of money, and they invest in cash crops and so that this, the outside marketplace, the outside world market is actually a great example of a way in which, you know, freer trade can really enhance just by having somebody else to trade with expands the total market for your stuff, which is a

Joe Henrich:

good thing, why and others have argued that that leads to that if your culture is evolving in a zero sum world that leads to certain social norms, practices and beliefs, that can be a bit sticky, right? So if you get suddenly gets a positive and a positive sum world, you're not a rational actors, you don't immediately switch.

David Wright:

Another, I think, to about the kind of what's the direction this is sort of going, and it seems to me that the implicit I'm gonna call value system of of change is towards at least greater scale. You know, I think of the back to the example of those two societies, we're talking about the trigger for change, and for, well, for the prestige, you mentioned, the word prestige there. So the reason why they started thinking that this next culture beside them was so great, was that they were expanding. And seems to me that's like a kind of universal good, I don't know, maybe at least there's a survivor bias. So those cultures we see are the ones that expanded. And so that is the end goal, right, of cultural evolution is getting bigger. Is that right?

Joe Henrich:

Well, that's one of the forces that's driving cultural evolution is the way to think about it. So I mean, one of the dynamics that I my my colleagues are interested in is that there's competition among social groups, and social groups that can maintain larger, more harmonious and more cooperative groups, those cultural traits are going to have an advantage against others. Now, there's lots of reasons why they might still do some groups fall apart all the time. So there's nothing you know, lineal here, or, you know, you'll have could have long stretches where groups are just breaking down into smaller groups. But then there is this thing, because groups are able to be larger, and be more economically successful expand at the expense of others. We think that's a force in cultural evolution that explains a lot of traits.

David Wright:

Well, at the very least, it seems to me that that is the I don't call it is not necessarily an explanatory variable. But that seems to me to be the force that describes the world as it is like, those are the cultures that expanded, and the ones that didn't expand got extinguished, and they're gone. Right. So it's very powerful.

Joe Henrich:

And it's not just through conquest and things like that. But it also works by groups copying more successful. Sure,

David Wright:

yes. Right. Yes. They can just disappear by by, right by evolving themselves into a different culture and assimilate.

Joe Henrich:

So if you look at word of English, and you know, English is widely spoken language in the world, because the British were successful expansionist,

David Wright:

yes, yes. And copied. Right, exactly. And so I think, on this point, you know, you make an enormously convincing case, about the the Catholic Church being a source of acceleration for a lot of cultural illusion, introducing new psychological traits, which we can touch on. But that to me, like the underlying the underlying forces at work, didn't need that. Right. So and I'm wondering, you think about that. So if if expansion is the goal, and there's a sort of this, this prestige mechanism is kind of feeding back new innovations. Even in the absence, it seems to me of that kind of Big Bang, that acceleration, we may well have wound up with a lot of similar things we have today, maybe not today, but maybe a few 100 years later, or something. And I think of China in particular, which didn't have been over the Catholic Church, which is doing pretty well, and continue to do pretty well, it might not have broken through kind of an industrial pollution sort of barrier, but maybe it kept accumulating things. Right. So it to me is, is the development that we see today. inevitable on sort of some timescale? Or was there something incredibly special about, say the Catholic Church changes? Or is that just kind of like, you know, maybe a little uptrend for a while, but actually, the trend was going that way, anyway?

Joe Henrich:

Well, I mean, it depends on the there's a bunch of different ways to answer that question, because it depends how long the timescale is. So the I think the key idea is that the idea of path dependence, so the argument I make in the weirdest people in the world, is that the usual way that societies scale up to states is to have an intensive kinship system, and then have a complex chiefdom. And then to have a state, which means that at the Foundation, you still have pretty complex kinship. And that's going to make it hard to build the kind of institutions that are common in the modern world today. So things like representative democracy and the kind of voluntary associations firms competition that characterize the modern economy. And so what the catholic church did was kind of reset the kinship system to something very simple and force, that part of Europe down a channel that wasn't common across human evolution. Now, I think, you know, eventually, you know, there would have been some other religion or some other mechanism that opened that avenue, we just don't know how long, you know, the world would have waited for that avenue to get opened up.

David Wright:

If you make if you make it the point, I think, mostly the secret of our success, but this idea of density of social interconnection, being critical for In addition, spreading across a culture, and the more more people there are, the more likelihood one of them can have a good idea. And as long as you have a dense inner connection, that idea will spread, right. And so to me, that's a very powerful and very general force that's going to propel any human population in a particular direction, which is the direction to meet through scaling and getting bigger. And so I think if like, nothing stops that. So it really is a question of time before, like, it seems to me to be the path we're on. Maybe not the Catholic Church, as you say, maybe something else. But the rewards to the kinds of discoveries that the Catholic Church made implicitly, in culture are always going to be there. And if they didn't pick them up, somebody else would have found out maybe not all of it, maybe part of it, maybe even more of it than they did. But it just seems to be all be kind of pretty much inevitable, there's a crystal clear direction of change. And, and you know, that we just got to see it play out.

Joe Henrich:

Well, I think the only thing that I mean, the thing to keep in mind, though, as you're laying that out is this, this multiple equilibrium, or the path dependence thing I mentioned before, because think about a tech technology. So one of the examples I sometimes use is bow and arrows versus blowguns. So once you have a really good blow gun, the first bone error you're gonna make is always going to be terrible relative to this highly refined blowgun you've evolved over centuries. So you're never going to switch to the boat, even if it's the better technology for the environment. Because that would take so much work for you to make a bow so many generations to get to a boat, it's better than your best blowgun, that, you know, you're never going to want to go down that path. So one of the things, one of the problems with the interconnected argument is that I think that's generally held for human history, but there is at least a theoretical argument that you can be too interconnected, and you won't experiment with new pathways. So you kind of want at least technologically speaking, and this could also be true of social institutions, you want some degree of independence, because of there's different ways to reconfigure things. And once you go far enough down a particular path, it's hard to you know, you can't unwind it, you're not going to be able to remake it. And so that's one thing to keep in mind. And relate relating to China, you know, there really was a resetting in China. So in 1950, they began to adopt a bunch of the civil codes from the west, which included western style marriage, they ended uncle nice marriage, they burned the genealogies, they had bilateral inheritance, they did a whole bunch of the things that Chinese state did, from the top down, that the church took 500 years to do. And the you know, the communist government did it in 50 years, and the one child policy, so they one of the things people like to point out is that there was they didn't ban cousin marriage until 1980. But they imposed the one child policy, which if you don't have any siblings, you know, many cousins. And so they, you know, they solved that problem. And it went through a different mechanism.

David Wright:

Yet China was still like, I think you made the point, it was like 200 million people or something. They're in the 1500s. And that was, you know, you've and other other forums, I guess you've made the point that your Jared Diamond's description of the world is fantastic up until about 1080. Right. So that seems to describe go the ecological forces that allow us, you know, this sort of maximum ecological density, or density that ecological you know, I don't know, prior conditions allow us. And that, to me, gives us sort of maybe a concept of a speed limit of innovation before any kind of serious culture takes us over. So, you know, the maximum density you see in the world, there was some distribution of culture institutions for accepting innovation tight and loose, just sort of says, you know, if it's, you know, point 1% economic growth a year, that's just what we're gonna get until something breaks through somewhere. Is that a way of thinking about Diamond's work?

Joe Henrich:

Yeah, no, that's good. Sounds Sounds okay. To me. And I think that diamond point is correct. I mean, Eurasia is always going to have a big advantage over the other continents, just because as diamond points out the distribution of sea types and domesticated animals, the size of the continent, the ability for China to share ideas with India, with Central Asia, the Mediterranean and Europe. There's lots of evidence for ideas moving across the continent, leading to technological evolution. Then, of course, there's the world religions all emerge in Eurasia. I mean, except for the ones that emerge in the US like Mormonism, and you know, they may provide machinery social technologies for scaling up societies. So yeah, that makes sense to me,

David Wright:

I want to come back to this back to the idea of the idea of prestige, and kind of the real basic fundamental psychology of this, where in the mimetic pursuit process, you have dominance and prestige, the two kind of ways that you can select your model for mimicking, and for learning culture from, and maybe having it shoved down your throat, perhaps. And I wonder about kind of the how that's evolved, because clearly, like the prestige model is something that's fairly new. Right? That's kind of incredible. If you think about the magnitude of innovation at that level of fundamental level of of our cultural evolution process, is that something can happen again, is prestige itself evolving?

Joe Henrich:

Well, I mean, the, what seems to be clear from the cross cultural record is that the domains of prestige, what what makes one prestigous can evolve. So if you find immense variety in the things that one has to excel in the main attribute that seems to distinguish things that can be prestigious, there's that not everyone can do it, right? It has to be a high variance domain, where there's at least the appearance that people vary in skill and domain are actually you don't need actual various skill you need the appearance of skill varies some beliefs about that. So like people can be good at shamanism or something like that, you know, cure curing diseases using rituals or something like that. Yeah, so so that's, that's the big thing that I'm interested in, in the longer run, like in terms of genetic evolution. Yeah, I mean, so we haven't looked much into that.

David Wright:

So there's an economist named Robin Hanson. And I read a fair bit. And he's got a real problem with the dominance prestige system, as it exists in British in particular, and he sees it as being a messy signal of what he would call true value. So there's ways of cheating that, at least in the very, very short near term, right, so you can have people who who are frauds who generate prestige for no good reason, right, you have errors in the prestige process. And I think he sees that as one of the things that is most fundamentally holding back, another kind of acceleration of our development. And if only we could assign prestige in a more efficient manner, we might be able to unlock yet more positive beneficial minisas. What do you think about that?

Joe Henrich:

Well, so yeah, I do think prestige goes, goes quite awry in the modern world, for all kinds of reasons, because our minds aren't calibrated to a world of media, and a really large population. So you know, anything from the diffusion of eating disorders to, you know, people who can be famous for being famous, just because a lot of people start paying attention. So more people start paying attention, because we we respond to what others are attending to right. One of the big cues we use. But I mean, so that that hasn't been around long enough for any interesting genetic evolution. And I don't see how that's going to get fixed. Well, maybe maybe we'll figure out a way to fix it through cultural evolution. But no obvious candidates have popped up in my

David Wright:

Yeah, the the, I just didn't odd, but in all of the ambition of the of the question, right. And Rob, the question of, you know, how might we tweak this feature of our cultural evolutionary process to make for better societal outcomes? seems to me to be like a pretty tall order.

Joe Henrich:

Yeah, I mean, it is, and especially do it in some kind of bottom up way. Because I mean, you can imagine having some state apparatus tried to shape that, but that seems like they're gonna have the wrong and said,

David Wright:

Yeah, yeah, that's right. Yes. And there's a couple sociologists who actually extend when Peter Lynch's work philosophers argument earlier, Harry Collins, and Robert Evans, who talked about expertise a lot, and he wrote a book on expertise. And, you know, they identify three different modes. This is much more analytically distinct, much more philosophical than that. And here's the definition of prestige. They actually didn't even have prestige in their model. They say the three ways of identifying expertise or credentials, track record and experience. They like experience. And this is a very winching kind of argument because quite explicitly, so because they say, by immersing yourself in the culture of the of the domain of expertise, that's the only way to really get it. Right. So by being inside of there in the language by you know, you can't be an anthropologist if you've worked it into colleges for 10 years kind of thing, right. And so that's the right way to allocate this prestige is through kind of one of those three things. Robin Hanson likes to track record one, although I don't know that he is familiar with the work. And credentials is much more of a kind of top down thing, right to your point there about top down or bottom up. So it seems like people are out there with ideas. But I again, I just sort of don't really sure how we might even ever implement such a such an improvement. Dude, what do you do you think that that is a plausible mechanism? So if you're to imagine ways of, of kind of beneficially nudging our cultural evolutionary process, would that be one that would make sense to you or would you pick something else?

Joe Henrich:

No, I mean that I, I think Rob is probably right about that, that strikes me as a pretty powerful piece of our cultural system. But I get Well, I haven't spent any time thinking about it. But offhand, I can't think of any obvious public policy that one could implement that would help us with that.

David Wright:

So there's another kind of like, I don't know, a fractal kind of analysis of this, which, to me, you know, culture is sort of the big thing. And now I actually, your earlier question of yours, helps me out here because I was gonna ask about subcultures, which which are themselves kind of lesser organizations or subsets. And themselves can be more or less distinct, but don't really fit into this kind of the big picture of culture. How have you worked with subcultures and trying to measure diversity between, you know, the differences between subcultures within a greater culture?

Joe Henrich:

Well, let's see, I haven't done that per se. But within the framework that I've been describing, that's pretty straightforward. In the sense of, you know, we're not really imagining cultures as a now, right, we are measuring distributions. And so if there's some cluster in there, that shares a bunch of traits that we call that a subculture, now they're going to share other traits with a more general larger population that they're embedded in, they probably only vary along some subset of traits. And then it's just a matter of measuring those and figuring out what what those are, and, you know, going from there, now that

David Wright:

you've, you've worked in business schools, and to me, business and industry is an interesting kind of parallel universe of cultures and subcultures. What do you teach MBAs?

Joe Henrich:

Well, the only time I've taught MBAs was I co taught a course with a psychologist john hight. And we taught him some cultural evolution. So we were teaching about, you know, because there's social learning stuff that I've mentioned, where you learn from more prestigious people, or you match people on cues of similarity, like on sex, or ethnicity, watch what dialect they speak, all of these things are, you know, really interesting from a business point of view, because it kind of tells you who people are going to pay attention to, and who they're going to listen to. And then we've also talked about cooperation. So the central role of social norms, how do people learn social norms, who they pay attention to, for that, how you get maladaptive norms,

David Wright:

I think of culture is actually being you know, at least the word gets bandied about in the corporate world. A lot, right? The there's a saying, which I really enjoy about business, which is culture eats strategy for breakfast. Right. So the the identity of an eye of an organization actually, is really what drives its, its, its, its, its operations, and very, you know, all the decisions people make. And so culture is a point of obsession for a lot of organizations. And it's interesting to me that there that, you know, that there isn't more talk of this kind of thing, right about the modeling of cultural evolution, and how we might, you know, feed that. So, my mind goes there is to think that maybe the process is just too small. We talked about timescales earlier, right. And I remember there's an interview, I listened to yours, where the interviewer was asking to make some predictions. And he said, I have a cultural guy asked me 200 years, right? So if that's the timescales we're operating on, that's not really good enough to, you know, hit the earnings for next quarter or something, or even, you know, five years from now. So what do you think about the application of cultural evolution to? Let's call it building ideas in the near term, kind of within generational change? Is that is that applicable?

Joe Henrich:

Well, it's applicable in the sense that it helps give you insights into the psychology. So like I was mentioning, people pay attention to for information. So one of the examples that I use in class is the British government that was done a campaign around 2013 2014, to try to get women to go in for, for gene genetic screening for breast cancer genes. And, you know, they were having limited success in getting people to go into it. And then Angelina Jolie wrote an op ed in the New York Times, in which she discussed her decision to get a double mastectomy. And this came from a screening, and that caused all the help lines and all the clinics to flood with women seeking to get the genetic screening that Angelina Jolie had discussed. So there's a case where, you know, prestige, swamped all the government's information dissemination programs. They studied whether women knew more about this, and it had nothing to do with knowledge, like wasn't like this. Let me read up on genetic

David Wright:

screening. Yeah, there's a pure, authentic explosion. Everybody start doing that comes comes about in insurance a fair bit, that kind of thing. Or I spent some time selling health benefits insurance. And there's this category of like, accident policies, right. And sure enough, I was talking to somebody who has done this for years. And what happens when a celebrity breaks their leg in a ski runs, like everybody buys it, not everybody but a huge improvement increase in in the, in the in the uptake of certain policies like this temporary, and it's you know, it's relatively speaking not big, but it definitely is detectable. So we are, you know, silver, silver driven for this, especially in areas where like you say, we don't We don't understand things as deeply. You know, there's a back to Mary Douglas, actually, for a sec. So one of the things that I learned reading her was that the institutions of great uncertainty, the decision making process, this is something that matters a lot in insurance, the decision making process that you engage with is a social one to ask your people around you for help. And that becomes a political and moral decision making process. This is the chain that she lays out in one of her books. And, and I was very informative insight for me, because it explained a lot of kind of what I thought was strangeness inside the insurance industry. But it's interesting like, she identifies a similar situation that you do in your work where you say, in situations of uncertainty, that's when our cultural decision making process kicks in. Right? That's when we look for the related idea, but not the same thing. And I'm just wondering what you think about that? Is there a difference between a cultural using cultural knowledge and then going through a political process to make that decision? Is the same? I mean,

Joe Henrich:

yeah, I do. So yeah, so are working, going right back to the sort of earliest cultural evolutionary models where you're looking at genetic and cultural evolution suggests that under uncertainly, you should rely on cultural learning. And then there's certain kinds of cultural learning what conformance transmission that you're going to lie under your common majority. But then I think what you're suggesting is, once you begin to do that social learning, you might find out their social norms, or that people have evaluative judgments about certain choices. And then you're in a world where social norms matter. And I think that's what that what Mary's talking about is that not only is there the informational aspect of it, that says, You social learning, but to the degree to which people have opinions about those who would make choice A or choice B, then then you're in the moral domain,

David Wright:

introduced, like, when I first read that I thought to myself, politics, I just kind of sat there for a second, I was like, that's really amazing. The use of that word here. And it made sense to me. The thing that, that and this kind of comes back to you, you mentioned, Jonathan Haidt, right, comes back to his work, which is we kind of hate politics, right? Politics is a unpleasant word like, that's not positive, right? That's, it's a reality. We go through it. It's how we make decisions socially. We all get that. But man, anybody like politics in the sense of, you know, maybe you like the combative nature of it, but I don't know, I think most of us don't, right, we sort of hate politicians and all the rest of that, to me, it kind of invokes this concept of cultural norm enforcement isn't free, or isn't conflict free, right. So we probably bristle against at least we do and weird societies. And that might be the source of the political force there.

Joe Henrich:

Well, I mean, so at least one way that this has been described is when you're, you're deciding what you're going to do, you're gonna get vaccinate, you're gonna wear a mask, you know, you're also picking a team, or you're communicating what team you're your favorite.

David Wright:

Yeah. Which culture you're part of perhaps, or, you know, which of the moral foundations in jumping back to, to the idea of a business and kind of changing culture. There's a, the word got used. Again, more recently, and there's a literature in economics about this change in intangible capital. I don't know if you follow me this stuff. But the, we're observing this really interesting trend in and public markets where the market value of companies is diverging from the book value. So the stuff that they write down their balance sheet saying we have does not add up to anything close to how much we're valuing the companies for, right? So this is intangible side to the capital that they're generating. And, and we're culture gets used a lot there in describing what we're really buying when you're buying such company, and the decision making process they have. And so this is a huge assignment of value, right to cultures. And of course, one of the ways in which we measure that value is its ability to to expand. What do you think about about is that is that kind of making sense to you, as an anthropologist that we're focusing on the culture of these organizations? And how might change?

Joe Henrich:

Yeah, I mean, it's kind of an informational. Good, right. So there's something in the complex of norms and ways of doing things that that organization has, which, you know, the the market price is saying, well, that has value, and we're going to put a number on it. But I want to talk people, right, that culture can change, and then that could have no value

David Wright:

looking to be destroyed, you know, when you see I see and in some organizations, when leadership changes, there, there can be a real deterioration and the decision making process inside of an organization and this can happen at any institution, right? Where the culture will suddenly shift. And in a negative direction. We see that kind of a little more dramatically than we see. But it seems to me that there's like a fragility to culture. Right, particularly cultures, which are, in a sense, good cultures, it seems like your change kind of one small thing, it can very easily collapse. you agree with that?

Joe Henrich:

Yeah, I mean, it certainly I think it's empirically true,

David Wright:

right? How would you measure that I guess, what what is the incidence of cultural collapse

Joe Henrich:

and kind of visual right so so you know, these are kind of subculture so organizations are the subcultures. People have certain sets of values. But a lot of times that's those are shallow, and they could be set by the highly prestigious members of the of the organization. And if something happens to those individuals or they, you know, fall from grace or any number of things, then you can have an evaporation that,

David Wright:

is there it Can we talk, we tie this to maybe the historical record of cultures more generally, do you have data on cultures rising and falling? is there is there a way to measure the incidence of cultural collapse across a broader sweep of history?

Joe Henrich:

Well, Peter turchin, is a kind of cultural evolutionist, University of Connecticut, you know, tracks the rise, Fall of empires and other politics, political organizations through time and you know, that there is definitely a life cycle and, you know, they over expand, and then they crash from the middle, basically, because of internal squabbling. So, success, lays the seeds for the eventual internal struggles and collapse, right. And that just repeats itself. So that does seem to be at least a pattern.

David Wright:

But it seems to me that the more the more common source of collapse, or all the, or the result of the expansion, so we measure the large Empire because we could talk a lot of data on them. But then, you know, they extinguished dozens, hundreds, I don't know. Right? That seems to be more common ways to get out competed. Do we have any any idea for like, you know, for if you're sort of pluck our culture at random, from all the history of all the different cultures, I know, I'm using as a noun, so apologies. But, you know, statistically, cultures, what percentage of them just get blown away by a giant? Do you think?

Joe Henrich:

Well, I mean, it's interesting, well, so one thing is they could be assimilated. So in the sense that they, you know, they get some cultural diversity or some cultural variation to the group that politically assimilates them. So in that sense, their culture is not completely wiped out. But I mean, if you look at the expansion of human languages, or the genetic data, it looks like human history is characterized by a series of expansions, right? So one group speaking a particular language expands at the expense of other, sometimes genetically, sometimes there's more genetic mixing. But that's certainly a recurring pattern going far back going, you know, back into the Paleolithic.

David Wright:

Okay, a couple minutes left, I want to close on this concept of predicting the future. And I wonder if you could, if you could say, whether you see any trends in our change, cultural change today, confined to Western societies, or wherever you'd like to, you know, what are the things that are changing a little bit now? And how might those changes influence where you think the our culture will go in the next, you know, 220-200-2000 years, like, what is what do you think might happen?

Joe Henrich:

Well, I'm not much of a future prognosticator. I mean, I do think there's a general trend towards greater individualism. Yep. I mean, there are counter trends to that though, too. But this idea of breaking the breaking the world down into individuals who are endowed with lots of rights, and lots of lots of rights and responsibilities, even the nuclear family seems to be breaking down now. So that used to be the core unit, right? But now you can have children, you don't even need to get married, and you know, make enough money, then that can work. So yeah, so breaking down to the individual seems to be a big thing.

David Wright:

So what does that mean? Like? How does that affect cultural evolution?

Joe Henrich:

Well, I mean, in this in this stuff that I'm interested in, like, greater individualism, your psychology more focused on your attributes and aspirations, less sense of community. So you know, things like suicide rates increasing could be a problem. And less people can find other ways to get a sense of meaning and need imagine communities for people to live in. At the same time, religion is declining. So you need, you know, assuming that continues to decline, you would need some other magic community for people to be part of because we're so social, right? So we don't like to be, we'd like to be individuals, at least in individualistic societies, but we don't like to be lonely.

David Wright:

But we still have, like, there still is a culture. Right? And so I feel like one of the ways One of the ways My mind went there, when you're describing that was you're almost predicting the end of of culture, because we're sort of losing these. Well, we're losing the traditional channels through which it is transmitted. So it's coming from somewhere, learning from other people. So how do we, I mean, we just, it's just people on Instagram, and is that is that think's gonna happen?

Joe Henrich:

Yeah, I mean, people seem to be able to learn from each other online. Although it's interesting. You don't learn everything online. So you don't seem to learn accents as much. Yeah, so it all depends on the configurations. I mean, and this is just one trend. So there do seem to be other trends where like, you know, the US is clearly fragmenting into, you know, it's becoming more so we've been looking at this data from john hight Where part of the country is becoming more morally parochial. They're staying morally universalistic. So they're the country is getting further apart in terms of moral psychology. So that's affecting the politics and stuff. So we've linked the counties that are more morally part to our particularistic parochial to voting for Donald Trump in both elections. And so that's obviously playing a role in politics

David Wright:

have have cultures as there have been schisms before inside of cultures that you've seen in the historical record.

Joe Henrich:

Yeah, I mean, I think that's pretty standard as a standard pattern is the expansion of a big group. And then over time, that big group breaks down into small parts, and then fragments and fractures. That's

David Wright:

right. So the subcultures become more dominant than the main culture.

Joe Henrich:

And over time, the groups are always going to become more distinct. Now in a world of social media, that's, it's less clear because geography is less of a constraining factor. Right? It'd be become balkanized. But we're balkanized. In a virtual world. The physical geography is less important, although at least at this point, the physical geography still seems to assert itself.

David Wright:

Yeah. Yeah, at least in physical geography, he still has a fairly strong influence on, you know, language and alike, right. And I think of, let's say, China or India, right, which are colossal, colossal, II populous places. I mean, it's unbelievable how many people are in those places. And and, you know, we from over here, I don't know about you, but I don't, I don't really have a lot of insight into how granular the subcultures emerge there. Gotta be just because humans are humans got to be pretty intense. You got to think that eventually, you know, some strain will emerge of on the on the, you know, on the cohesiveness of those societies, is that inevitability in your mind?

Joe Henrich:

Well, yeah, unless there's unless there turns out to be cultural technologies that prevent that.

David Wright:

Really interesting,

Joe Henrich:

you know, some ways of creating unified language unified identity, similar values. And technologically, maybe that is possible. But at this point, I'm it's not jumping out at me. If you look at the cultural data, places like India and China are actually more especially India, more culturally diverse than the US by far, you know, besides in the US variation, but it's actually kind of mild compared to lots of other places,

David Wright:

really. And and this variation is you're talking the measurements you're talking about earlier about, you know, checking whether people conform to certain cultural features,

Joe Henrich:

or I mean, you can take lots of questions about values on the built world value survey, for example, and use that to look for differences between regions in the US, or is there

David Wright:

something unlike unusual that that kind of cultural diversity might predict or be associated with in your mind? Like, what surprises might surprise me about the consequences of that?

Joe Henrich:

Well, I mean, there are these papers in economics, which look at that and, and use it to predict violence, right. So more culturally similar places tend to trade more, they tend to have less civil wars, less violence, those kinds of things. So it's kind of the intuition of what you would think. Right? So cultural similarity leads to interaction.

David Wright:

Right. Right. Right. And then cultural differences lead to a very negative kind of

Joe Henrich:

doesn't mean violence has to occur, but as a statistical matter, it's more likely to

David Wright:

Yeah, I mean, it has been, I think, for the most part A lot, a lot less well, I don't know, there was a quite a lot more violence in the first half of the 20th century. And then it's really tamped down. I wonder if there's like a non violent, I don't know, catharsis that can occur to sort of edit out, maybe that's going to be the most important thing that may or may not happen, the decline of violence since World War Two. Yeah. Yeah. Well,

Joe Henrich:

I mean, I think those trends are real. My colleague, Steven Pinker's written about this. So there is a broad long term decline of violence and in particular since World War Two, but there's the that trend may or may not continue, we basically don't know.

David Wright:

My guest today is Joe Henrich. Joe, thank you very much for your time today.

Joe Henrich:

All right. Great to be with you.