As the case of Black Lives Matter and its official policy statement seems to prove (“We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement”), the institution of the family is under attack in most Western societies. The death of George Floyd surely sparked a new wave of activists who criticise the nuclear family structure in the name of social justice, but in fact, such schemes can already be traced back to Marx and Engels’ explicit call to abolish the family in the 19th Century. 

Predictably, the Catholic Church has been an important bulwark against this sort of ideology. Although no official document has been released pertaining explicitly to Black Lives Matter, most members of the Catholic clergy are happy to fight racial injustice, but opportunely warn that aspiring to abolish the nuclear family can only have detrimental consequences. Indeed, we ought not to expect differently from an institution that for two millennia has been enshrined in the defense of traditionalist values. 

But, it may come as a surprise that in the realm of family values, the Church has not been as traditionalist as it may seem. That, at any rate, is the thesis put forth by Joseph Henrich, an anthropologist at Harvard University. His recently released book The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous is massive, but Henrich summarises the book’s main thesis as follows: “The accidental genius of Western Christianity was in ‘figuring out’ how to dismantle kin-based institutions while at the same time catalyzing its own spread.” 

You see, when it comes to family values, a prosperous society needs a balancing act. When traditional family values are utterly disregarded, as in the case of Black Lives Matter, society is likely to encounter all sorts of problems, from high crime rate to low academic achievement, as it is unfortunately the case with African Americans, when compared to other ethnic groups in the United States. 

But, when everything in society revolves around family and kinship, other problems will ensue. In most societies throughout human history, family and kinship have been the top priority. And, in order to keep things that way, people are likely to marry their cousin, so that everything stays within the clan.

Modern cosmopolitan societies cannot be functional with that kind of organisation. In order to create wealth, you need to cooperate with people who are not biologically related to you. The clan needs to have less importance, and you are required to engage more with your guild and people not necessarily from your village. Things cannot stay within the family. You have to go beyond the family, in order to expand horizons. If you want to get something done, you hire the best person qualified for the job, not your cousin. 

As Henrich argues (as MercatorNet readers may be already aware), this disengagement from kinship has only happened in Western societies, although it is beginning to expand to other civilisations. And, it has made us weird, in a twofold sense: we are weird, in the sense of being very strange when compared to the rest of civilisations (kinship reigns supreme in non-Western societies); but we are also WEIRD, i.e. Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. 

Henrich’s profound historical analysis indicates that we ought to thank the Catholic Church for this remarkable transformation. By the early Middle Ages, the Church was imposing severe restrictions on cousin marriage, which ultimately, led to the weakening of kinship ties in Western Europe. Not that the Church had in advance any pre-designed modernising program. Such prohibitions were likely the result of the Church’s interest in acquiring people’s property. By not marrying cousins, there were fewer inheritance claimants when someone died, and in the absence of these, unclaimed property would go to the Church. 

But the less-than-noble intentions are not so relevant here. The truly important thing is the end result. And as Henrich adequately proves, the end result has been thoroughly positive. One can measure a society’s Kinship Intensity Index, which basically indicates how prevalent cousin marriage and polygamy are in a society, and consequently, how relevant kinship is in social structure. As it turns out, Kinship Intensity Index is inversely correlated with many of the things that prosperous, educated societies strive for (civic altruism, industriousness, rationality, etc.). And unsurprisingly, Western societies have the lowest Kinship Intensity Index. 

As far as I can see, Henrich’s views come at a very opportune moment, for two important reasons. First, it makes us aware that, as with many things in life, when it comes to family values, you need a balance. To go in the direction of Black Lives Matter and say that the nuclear family can be dismissed, will only lead to disaster. But, at the same time, to go in the direction of hyper-traditionalists who have a blood-is-thicker-than-water mentality, can also be detrimental.

Strangely, the sort of identity politics that Black Lives Matter is so fond of, participates in this kind of traditionalist mindset. In our day and age, minorities are not encouraged to marry cousins. But, they are certainly encouraged to participate in a form of ethnic nepotism. Identity politics dictates that people of color (whites are crucially excluded from this dictum) ought to relate first and foremost with their own kind, because they need a “safe space”. This safe space is not altogether different from the Medieval village in which everyone is related through blood, and consequently, villagers are ill-prepared to engage with other people on the basis of talent and cosmopolitan cooperation, instead of identity. 

Second, Henrich’s book comes at a time when university professors are so fond of repeating the lie that all cultures are equal, so as not to offend anybody. Henrich’s book is not particularly combative; he is a social scientist, not a polemicist. But one can clearly see the implications of his thesis: not all societies are equally praise-worthy. We are weird, and for that, the West is unique. But we are also WEIRD, meaning that we are more educated, industrialised, rich and democratic than other societies. 

Yes, the West has plenty of things to atone for. But the Leninist notion that Western prosperity was built by robbing natives during the age of empires, is a tired old theory that holds very little water. Henrich does a decent job in proving that Western prosperity derives largely from the transformation of its kinship system. If other societies are to join the education, prosperity, industry and democracy wagon, then they will need to reform their own kinship systems, so as to dilute them.  

There is no clear path on how to do this, but in my view, outlawing polygyny is a good start. Extensive research proves that polygyny is related to high degrees of violence among young men, and mistreatment of women. Life in the Ottoman harem was quite depressive, and it is not difficult to see why: jealousy and intrigues were all too constant. This nicely fits with Henrich’s main thesis. In most polygynous societies, marriages are arranged, and they usually involve cousins. It all stays in the family, but this is no happy scenario. Precisely because cousin marriage enshrines people in their kin groups, women are tightly controlled by their kin. 

Henrich insists that there are no fundamental biological differences among human beings. So, if the West was capable of reforming its kinship system in the early Middle Ages, surely other civilizations (most notably, Islam and India) can follow suit. There is no biological impediment to that. But, in order to incentivise this transformation, one cannot use the language of cultural relativism. Such transformation can only take place by clearly stating that not all civilisations have equal worth, and that the path to prosperity is to embrace many Western mores. 

Gabriel Andrade

Gabriel Andrade is a university professor originally from Venezuela. He writes about politics, philosophy, history, religion and psychology.