Research Article

The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation

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Science  08 Nov 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6466, eaau5141
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau5141

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  • RE: “WEIRD” Societies and the Medieval Christian Church: A Comment

    The ambitious project reported by Schulz et al. explores an interesting and promising path to discovery concerning psychological differences among civilizational traditions. They argue that policies of the Medieval Christian church undermined traditional marriage practices such as cousin marriage and the levirate, setting the stage for the eventual emergence of today’s “WEIRD” societies that tend toward individualism and high levels of cooperation based on impersonal social ties. This comment is not meant as a critique of this interesting premise and the methods used to evaluate it. Rather, I suggest that additional causal factors and theoretical frameworks could be brought into play that have the potential to enhance the project’s research goals.
    Most notably, this reader was struck by the fact that regions long influenced by Western Christianity (which carried Medieval policies to some degree into more recent periods) constitute the relatively wealthy and democratic polities of the core zones of the post-1500 CE world-economy (1). I mention differential political-economic growth across the globe to point to another set of possible causal relations at play to explain the WEIRD societies that my colleagues and I discovered based on a cross-cultural study of premodern state-building (2, 3). We demonstrated a strong correlation between the degree of economic development and degree of cooperative forms of state-building, and this was irrespective of the degree of influ...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • Does exposure to the Church really explain these patterns?

    Dr Schulz and his colleagues have created an impressive database, and drawn fascinating conclusions from it. However, I am slightly concerned that their use of linear regressions to conclude a relationship between exposure to the Western Church in medieval times and being "more individualistic, less conforming, and more impersonally prosocial" today.

    Visual inspection of many of their plots, where exposure to Medieval Churches is on the x-axis, show a step change at about 200-250 years of exposure. This is evident in pane C of their summary plot; pane A of Figure 2; and A & C, also arguably B & D, of the left-hand column in Supplementary Figure S4.1. In Supplementary Figures S4.2 and S4.3 it is less clear.

    One interpretation of such a step would be that the populations of countries who had been exposed to the medieval Western Church for more than 200 years before 1500, or who had at least 20% of their modern populations deriving from locations where the Western Church was present by 500CE, have different behavioural patterns than other places. And the authors' Figure 1 shows that those are almost exactly the WEIRD countries. So we would be back to saying that Europe and the colonies of the British Empire where Europeans largely displaced and replaced the indigeneous populations (America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) now show different behaviour patterns from the rest of the world. And it is not clear that the Church adds anything...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.

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