Monday, November 11, 2019

Cousin Marriage and Western Individualism

Westerners are different from other people around the world: more individualistic, more analytic, with less automatic deference to tradition. How they got this way has been a subject of debate for centuries. And now some social scientists have a new theory, that it happened because the Catholic church's ban on cousin marriage led to the breakdown of family networks:
Henrich, Schulz and colleagues began to investigate a major driver of change in the kinship structure of Western nations: The medieval Catholic Church. The Western Catholic Church, starting in about A.D. 500, gradually began issuing edicts having to do with marriage and family. Cousin marriages were banned, along with polygamy, concubinage and many forms of interfamilial marriage that had traditionally strengthened ties within tribes and clans. In these arrangements, families were tied together by overlapping bonds of marriage and blood relationships. This led to what psychologists and anthropologists call “intensive kinship.” In intensive kinship societies, people tend to be highly loyal to their in-group and to distrust outsiders. They’re also more likely to value conformity, because survival in these societies means throwing one’s lot in with family and kin. In contrast, societies with less-intensive kinship require people to trust and cooperate with strangers for survival, and encourages individualism and noncomformity to the larger group. In these less-intensive societies, people marry outside of their blood relations and set up independent family lineages.

“What we know about kinship structure before the church entered the scene [in Europe], you see that it's not so much different from the rest of the world," Schulz told Live Science. People lived in tight clans, held together by close intermarriage. By about 1500, though, Europeans were largely living in monogamous nuclear households that were only weakly bound to other nuclear families.
This is interesting but I can think of reasons to be skeptical. First, family structure was quite different between northern and southern Europe both before and after Christianization. Old English didn't even have a word for "cousin," which is why we use the French. Europeans depended on family networks for a long time after they became Christian; this is a major reason why early medieval states were so weak. Also, the notion that this depends on the church goes against certain other observations, for example that people in cities are more individualistic than peasants.

Not to mention that the data we use to show that Europeans are psychologically different from others only go back about 50 years.

But I wonder if this might be a part of the equation.


G. Verloren said...

So where exactly does Feudalism enter into this theory?

Close knit tribal societies lack the flexibility of a feudal order. A political order in which family ties aren't quite as important as vassal / lord relations is a totally different kind of thought technology that allows people to choose the winning side more easily.

Don't like your tribal leader? Tough luck - you're largely stuck with them, because to oppose them is to betray your kin, which is supremely taboo.

But if you instead don't like your liege lord, you have more options available to you, in large part because there are often not bonds of kinship. You can seek to be legally released from your vassalage, or to have your vassalage transferred to another lord. You can unilaterally break your vassalage and swear fealty to another lord you believe can protect you. You can band together with fellow vassals and work to force limits on the authority of your king and ensure your legal rights. Etc.

I would attribute a tendency to individualism FAR more to the decentalization of power throughout Europe and the complicated legacy of the vanished Roman Empire than I ever would to the Catholic church's moralizing on things like marrying cousins.

David said...

"Westerners are different from other people around the world: more individualistic, more analytic, with less automatic deference to tradition."

There are distinctions between civilizations, but they are subtle and complex. It seems to me pretty clear that virtually any civilization is going to have deep-seated rational, individualistic, and communitarian aspects.

For what it's worth, I would say western civilization has been distinguished by a certain model of rationality, which in the last 250 yrs or so has essentially meant mass submission to bureaucratic-organizational norms and discipline. Our individuality in practice means striving to please organizational superiors and rise in the ranks. In the days when the west was dominant, these were the source of our power (as well as still being the source of much misery, anxiety, and our invention of Prozac). These models of rationality and individuality have proved extremely transferrable, which is why western dominance is now fading.

If you want a hypothesis about the deep historical roots for this model of western-ness, I would point to the church's sacramental system, which involves submitting the self to externally-imposed, bureaucratic-rational discipline for the purpose of attaining individual salvation.

David said...

I would add that I share John's skepticism about an understanding of a civilization's centuries-long "nature" when that is based on psychological studies from the last 50 years.

For one thing, I suspect a tendency to answer psychological surveys in a way that reflects non-conformity and individualism reflects European and American civilization as it has developed since 1945, and even more since 1960.

szopeno said...

It's not really a new theory. I've read about it first many years ago on HBD blog by HBDChick, who was analysing the data about interbreeding from the around the world and their modern correlates, and later I've learned that actually there was also some another guy with similar theory earlier.