Tag: Evolutionary mismatch

Ritual, by Dimitris Xygalatas

Whether weddings, national parades or religious festivals, rituals present a puzzle. We stress their importance, reflecting on these services as some of life’s most cherished moments. And yet, when prompted, most of us can’t explain why we perform them. What explains their persistence, and this apparent contradiction?

In his new book Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living, trailblazing anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas takes us on an electrifying tour of the world’s most exotic and extreme rituals. By fusing the latest breakthroughs in science and technology, Xygalatas presents a powerful new perspective on our most sacred ceremonies.

Ancient traditions

A native of Greece, rituals have fascinated Dimitris since his early childhood. Flicking through his first copy of the National Geographic and learning about exotic cultures in faraway places sparked his curiosity, planting the seeds of his career in anthropology.

Ironically, Dimitris started out as a ritual sceptic. “To me, the human obsession with ceremony seemed puzzling”, Dimitris writes. “Why do so many strange traditions persist in the modern age of science, technology and secularisation?”

Dimitris’s worldview was shaken when his father took him to his first football game. “For most of the game my father kept trying to lift me up so that I could watch the action. But that didn’t matter much to me. The most interesting part was what was happening in the terraces”. Forming a sea of black and white shirts, forty thousand football fans created a spectacle Dimitris would never forget. “As soon as the referee blew the first whistle, it was as though a jolt of electricity had run through the stadium . . . It was as though the crowd had become a single entity with a life of its own.”

According to Dimitris, sports events like this mirror some of our most primitive ceremonies. “There is something about high-arousal rituals that seems to thrill groups of individuals and transform them into something greater than the sum of their parts.”

Even as the Western world loses its religion, Dimitris argues that rituals remain rampant. “From knocking on word to uttering prayers, and from new year celebrations to presidential inaugurations, ritual permeates every important aspect of our private and public lives.”

Evidently, the human desire to congregate is ancient. From prehistoric hunter-gatherers to the urbanites of the 21st century, people across cultures and throughout history have felt compelled to form large crowds and participate in communal ceremonies.

The oldest known ritual is the funeral, where archaeologists have unearthed evidence of burials taking place over a hundred thousand years ago. However, humans do not hold a monopoly on rituals. Whether it’s the ritualised greetings of chimpanzees, frisky flamingos engaging in elaborate courtship rituals, or elephants trekking vast distances to pay respect to their dead, rituals have been spotted across the animal kingdom. That said, Dimitris stresses the prevalence and extent of our ritualistic practices is uniquely human.

My findings, as well as convergent discoveries from a variety of scientific disciplines, reveal that ritual is rooted deep in our evolutionary history. In fact, it is as ancient as our species itself – and for good reason.

One camp of scientists argue that the gravitational pull of rituals is an evolutionary accident, and that our ritualistic behaviour is the result of misfiring mental systems that detect danger. Although the ‘mental glitch hypothesis’ should be taken seriously, Dimitris argues the weight of evidence is stacked against it. “Evolution is not wasteful”, asserts Dimitris. “Behaviours that are impractical or maladaptive do not tend to stick around forever.”

Social glue

So, what are the functions of rituals then? In essence, Dimitris argues that rituals are cultural gadgets that help solve a raft of recurring challenges we modern humans face. These challenges include: finding a romantic partner, coping with the pain of losing a loved one, and instilling a sense of order in a chaotic world. Perhaps most importantly, rituals help solve the central challenge of getting large groups of fiercely tribal primates to cooperate.

Anthropologists have long explored the functions of traditions, amassing rich descriptions of the world’s most exotic rituals. Despite the groundwork they laid, Dimitris points out that anthropologists rarely put their theories to the test.

Through his ingenious use of biometrics, Dimitris reveals that rituals can now be detected in the human body. That is, by measuring how hard people’s hearts are pumping, and other aspects of their physiology.

Dimitris first experimented with these gadgets in the Spanish village of San Pedro, Manrique. Held on the summer solstice, the ‘festival of San Juan’ floods their small village with visitors, who catch a glimpse of the locals walking bare foot across burning hot coal. Dimitris got the idea when heard people repeatedly say that when they go out onto the stadium, ‘all three thousand people feel like one’. To Dimitris, this sounded like what the eminent sociologist Emile Durkheim called ‘collective effervescence’— a pulse of energy that runs through a large crowd and transforms them into a cohesive unit. Perhaps these biometric sensors can capture this sense of oneness?

Clearly, this firewalking ritual evokes strong emotions—and the intensity of these emotions is felt by everyone. Dimitris and his colleagues’ research revealed an extraordinary level of synchrony among people’s heart rates, both amongst the firewalkers and spectators.

Fire-walking isn’t just a challenge for participants. Spectators also feel the heat. Image credit: Dimtris Xygalatas

Ultimately, extreme rituals like the San Juan firewalk trigger a flood of stress and emotions, which in turn binds people together. “Each individual’s experience is affected and amplified by those of others, like a thousand streams of water merging to form a river that is faster and more powerful than any single stream could ever be.”

The dark side of rituals

Rituals are a source of magic, and like all potions, they can be used for good or ill.

Take degrading initiation rituals, also known as ‘hazing’ in the United States. As the crushing weight of pain and humiliation can only really be appreciated by those who have experienced such an ordeal, hazees quickly become comrades. This helps explain why societies at war perform much more brutal initiations, as these rituals instil cohesion at a time when solidarity is absolutely essential. However, Dimitris suggests if we take these rituals out of context and perform them for no good reason (say, performed at a frat party for shits and giggles), they can be extremely harmful.

That said, there are a range of rituals that seem terrible on the surface, where Dimitris and his research team have scratched to reveal these rituals’ hidden benefits. Exhibit A: the Thaipusam festival. Performed by millions of Tamil Hindus every year, the Thaipusam is one of the world’s oldest religious festival. The most extreme aspect of it is the Kavadi Attam, where devotees are repeatedly punctured with needles whilst carrying heavy shrines in a long procession to their holy temple (are you tempted?).

If you expect undergoing such hell would trash your health, you’re mistaken. Whilst the pilgrim’s wounds healed quickly, Dimitris and his colleagues discovered their mental health was substantially improved through suffering this torment— where those who suffered the most experienced the greatest psychological benefits.

A sceptic would argue that there are other activities that offer similar benefits and carry far less risk. For example, intense exercise has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants in treating major depression. However, Dimitris notes the conundrum of getting someone who’s suffering depression to summon the strength to go for a run. “Cultural rituals may help circumvent this problem by exerting external pressure to participate.”

Ritual feasts

Whilst exploring some of the world’s most exotic and extreme rituals, Xygalatas also reflects the more mundane moments in our lives, including the artificial landscape of the modern workplace.

There are sound ethical and legal reasons why you don’t want to subject your teams to extreme rituals (HR would not be pleased to hear of new hires having needles stuck in their backs). And whilst drinking is an easy way to alleviate anxiety in awkward social situations, the appropriateness of alcohol in work settings is increasingly being called into question. However, there are alternatives that are both suitable and effective.

Having lived in Denmark, Dimitris documents what he deems peculiarities of Danish working practices. The Danes apparently work less than virtually all other nations in the world. Whilst this can help us understand why Danes are so happy, they certainly aren’t slackers. To the contrary, Danes are also amongst the most productive workers in the world. How on Earth is this possible?

Whilst numerous factors are probably involved, Dimitris suspects Danish workplace rituals can explain their striking successes. “While at first glance the numerous rituals of the Danish workplace may have seemed odd or wasteful, as soon as I embraced them it became clear to me that they contributed something vital to the efficient, productive and enjoyable work environment.”

Although less time crunching spreadsheets can be perceived as wasting company resources, the Nordics appreciate the social benefits of team activities and communal feasts, and that these benefits more than outweigh the costs. “Eating together is an intimate act, usually reserved for close relatives and friends. Sharing food therefore symbolises community and helps strengthen bonds among colleagues”.

Focusing further afield than efficiency, Dimitris suggests that communal feasts and team activities effectively harness the power of rituals, strengthening social bonds whilst also boosting morale. “What is more, work group rituals make work-related tasks feel more meaningful, which makes for a happier as well as more productive workforce.”

Of course, it’s not as easy to forge strong bonds amongst corporate workers, as does, say, devotees enduring backbreaking toil in a long procession to their holy temple. However, sprinkling the modern workplace with rituals can help the ordinary feel a little bit more meaningful and special.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living is published by Profile Books. Click here to buy a copy.

Not Born Yesterday, by Hugo Mercier

In 2017, Collins Dictionary crowned ‘fake news’ its word of the year.

Collins’ entry can be credited to two unforgettable events that defined 2016: the decision taken by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, and the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. Dismayed and disoriented by the outcome of these votes, elites on both sides of the Atlantic were quick to say misleading statistics and outright lies precipitated these political earthquakes.

Like the coronavirus itself, misinformation has also exploded during the pandemic. When COVID began permeating our borders, the head of the World Health Organisation warned that “we’re not just fighting a pandemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”.

This raises the question: how impactful is misinformation generally, and are we really as vulnerable to propaganda as pundits make us out to be?  Not quite, argues French cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier in his new book, Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust And What We Believe. Rather than being easily duped, Mercier argues that, ironically, we are not as gullible as we’ve been led to believe.

The case against gullibility

For many, Mercier’s argument will seem rather odd. Following the atrocities committed during World War Two, social psychologists have spent the past 70 years detailing the various ways we frail humans are vulnerable to social influence and persuasion. Some of social psychology’s most infamous experiments suggest that we are all natural conformists, forming our beliefs and altering our behaviour in order to fit in with the group and be in our bosses’ good books.

Despite the case for gullibility seeming an easy verdict, Mercier objects, stating that the case is far from settled. Rather than being gullible, Mercier argues, each of us come fully equipped with mental hardware, an ‘open vigilance’ system, that, most of the time, can correctly determine who we can trust, and what is ultimately true.

Viewed through the lens of evolutionary biology, Mercier argues that pure gullibility would be too easily taken advantage of by unscrupulous actors, and thus isn’t an evolutionarily stable strategy. “What should be clear in any cases is that we cannot afford to be gullible”, Mercier writes. “If we were, nothing would stop people from abusing their influence, to the point where we would be better off not paying any attention at all to what others say, leading to the prompt collapse of human communication and cooperation.”

Despite our bullshit detectors working well most of the time, Mercier argues that we’re prone to making mistakes when we’re navigating new environments that evolution hasn’t fully equipped us to deal with. What does this mean? Mercier argues that the prevalence of conspiracy theories and antiscientific beliefs can be explained, at least in part, by how intuitive these ideas are.

Take vaccines for example. Most of us have no clue how vaccines work, and the idea of injecting your healthy child with an alien substance can ring alarm bells. “All our intuitions about pathogens and contagion scream folly.” Despite the remarkable successes of vaccination programmes over the past century, communicating the effectiveness and safety of vaccines clearly remains one of the scientific communities’ thorniest issues. “In the absence of strong countervailing forces”, Mercier writes, “it doesn’t take much persuasion to turn someone into a creationist anti-vax conspiracy theorist.”

Mass persuasion

Mercier documents the astronomical funds paid for Western political campaigns, with the US presidential election taking centre stage. Given the mountains of money ploughed into these political campaigns, you would expect a commensurable return on investment. However, you may be short changed. Mercier argues that the scientific research on whether political campaigns can sway public opinion and win elections has produced surprisingly ambiguous results.

Rather than being able to socially engineer the masses’ political preferences, Mercier argues propagandists can only craft messages that already resonate with the public. “With a bit of work, they will be able to affect the audience at the margin, on issues for which the audience is ambivalent or had weak opinions to start with. Yet many have granted prophets the power to convert whole crowds, propagandists the ability to subvert entire nations, campaigners the skill to direct electoral outcomes, and advertisers the capacity to turn us all into mindless consumerists.”

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, is hailed as one of history’s master manipulators. Generally speaking, historians hold mixed views on the potency of Nazi propaganda. Provocatively, Mercier proclaims that essentially no persuasion took place in Nazi Germany. Rather, Mercier suggests that Hitler and his henchmen road on a ticket to heal the humiliations that Germany endured in the aftermath of World War One.

As stated by Mercier:

The power of demagogues to influence the masses has been widely exaggerated. . . If one steps back for a moment it soon becomes clear that what matters is the audience’s state of mind and material conditions, not the prophets’ power of persuasion. Once people are ready for extreme actions, some prophet will rise and provide the spark that lights the fire.

If propaganda is so staggeringly ineffective, why do millions of people living under authoritarian regimes act like they’ve been brainwashed? The answer, according to Mercier, is simple. Authoritarian regimes that plaster billboards with propaganda also closely surveil their citizens, and crush any whiff of dissent. Given their plight, it is entirely understandable why people living under repressive regimes would want to keep their mouths shut, out of fear for their personal and family’s safety.

Mercier hammers the point home:

Failure to perform the Nazi salute was perceived as a symbol of ‘political nonconformism’, a potential death sentence. In North Korea, any sign of discontent can send one’s entire family to prison camps. Under such threats, we cannot expect people to express their true feelings. Describing his life during the Cultural Revolution, a Chinese doctor remembers how “to survive in China you must reveal nothing to others”. Similarly, a North Korean coal miner acknowledged, “I know that this regime is to blame for our situation. My neighbour knows our regime is to blame. But we’re not stupid enough to talk about it.”

If repression explains acquiescence in authoritarian regimes, why do seas of people in freer societies also act like they’ve been indoctrinated? According to Mercier, professing bizarre beliefs isn’t necessarily a symptom of gullibility. Rather, jarring public declarations can serve as an oath of loyalty.

Take overinflated compliments. Mercier argues that domineering leaders don’t fish for compliments because they actually believe the lavish praise heaped onto them. Rather, excessive flattery can serve as a reliable signal of commitment to his or her reign. Counterintuitively, the more over the top and outrageous the flattery is, the more effective it can be. Why? Because the orator is demonstrating a willingness not only to burn serious social capital, but also to burn bridges with other groups they may be members of— thereby credibly signalling their allegiance to the cause.

It’s hard to believe that people would boldly pronounce absurd or repugnant views for these reasons, but loudly broadcasting outlandish views is precisely what is required to pledge one’s loyalty (say, that Hillary Clinton ran a child-sex ring out of a local pizzeria). With this, Mercier argues we shouldn’t always assume that people actually hold the batshit beliefs they regurgitate.

“People aren’t stupid”, Mercier writes. “As a rule, they avoid making self-incriminating statements for no reason. These statements serve a purpose, be it to redeem oneself or, on the contrary, to antagonise as many people as possible. By considering the functions of self-incriminating statements, we can react to them more appropriately.”

Psychological operations

With growing alarmism over the proliferation of misinformation, Mercier’s sceptical inquiry into credulity is both refreshing and somewhat reassuring. Rather than misinformation causing people to believe absurd things, Mercier argues that this account gets causality backwards. Internet trolls are not so much persuaded by misinformation, but rather, they consume and share it to attack and infuriate their political foes.

Although Mercier makes a strong case for the limited role gullibility plays in our digestion of information, I still have my doubts. Take disinformation pumped out by the Kremlin. Written before Putin launched his ‘special military operation’, Mercier claims that Russian propaganda in Ukraine succeeds modestly when preaching to the choir, and backfires when targeting Russia’s opponents. However, I suspect the Kremlin’s firehose of falsehoods has been more impactful than this.

Whilst it’s unlikely that the majority of Russians buy Putin’s torrent of lies, the core narrative that Western nations are the real aggressors in this war clearly holds sway in Russia. Mercier stresses that public opinion research conducted in autocratic regimes cannot be trusted (if you might be thrown in jail or murdered for criticising your government, I’m sure you’d also keep schtum). However, clever experiments allow people to indirectly express their true preferences. A month after Russian tanks began rolling into Ukraine, researchers using these innovative methods found widespread support for the invasion amongst Russians.

Perhaps there’s another layer of this onion that we need to peel. In his new book The Story Paradox, Jonathan Gottschall argues that it is stories that hold the main sway over our hearts and minds, rather than postulates of factual information. Whilst stories help bind groups of people together, Gottschall reveals the dark side of storytelling, warning that stories can fuel hostilities and tear societies apart. In contrast to factual claims, stories are a potent form of persuasion that pack lots of baggage into little packages, and therefore cannot be easily evaluated through fact checking.

One could argue that Mercier underestimates the dangers of modern information warfare. But of course, any attempt at questioning the veracity of open vigilance would make Mercier proud. If you try to argue against open vigilance, you lose the battle the moment you show up.

Rebuilding trust

Stepping back, what should we do with this knowledge? Before gossiping with a friend or hitting retweet, Mercier encourages us to ask ourselves what the practical consequences of sharing these rumours are, and whether the actions that follow would land us in hot water. By anticipating the consequences of our actions, we are less likely to be part of the problem. To be part of the solution, Mercier says we should penalise those who spread false rumours, or at the very least, deny them kudos for doing so.

Whilst social media giants have been getting a good bashing from politicians on both sides of the aisle, Mercier and his colleagues’ research suggests that, when it comes to the dissemination of misinformation, social media is not the problem per se. False rumours have been told since the dawn of human language, and there are arguably greater societal forces crashing over us that are powering political polarisation within Western democracies.

The take-home message of Not Born Yesterday is that, contrary to what many TED Talk gurus will tell you, influencing people is incredibly difficult. Far from being too trusting, Mercier argues that, generally speaking, we don’t trust enough. In other words, we tend to hold our guards up, where we’d benefit from lowering our defences more often than not. With this, Mercier encourages us to give the man in the street the benefit of a doubt, and to be more trusting of experts.

Of course, it takes two to tango. For experts’ opinions to carry weight, trust needs to be nurtured and sustained. To curb the spread of conspiracy theories, Mercier suggests the best strategy isn’t employing an army of fact-checkers, but rather, rebuilding trust in our key institutions (say, by passing strong laws against corruption). Trust is the glue that binds society together, and as the cliche goes, building a solid house starts with a strong foundation.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust And What We Believe is published by Princeton University Press. Click here to buy a copy.

Drunk, by Edward Slingerland

As workers across the corporate world have begun scuttering back into their offices, many of us are sneaking away with our comrades for a drink. Given the substantial hazards alcohol presents, what should our stance on drinking with our colleagues be?

In his new book Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilisation, Edward Slingerland, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, leaps to the defence of alcohol, arguing that the benefits of drinking have essentially been disregarded by public health experts and policy wonks.

Alcohol is evidently a lethal drug. The World Health Organisation blames alcohol for 3 million deaths every year. Not only does alcohol trash our health and strain our healthcare systems, alcohol-fuelled crime wreaks havoc in our communities and drains public finances. And behind the cold statistics of deaths and government spending, alcohol addiction has ruined many people’s lives and caused immense suffering within families. 

Defending drinking may appear crass to people concerned about harms inflicted by alcohol, including those of us who have suffered first-hand from the ills of alcoholism. However, Slingerland argues that only by stepping back and seeing drinking through the lens of evolution can we have a proper debate about the costs and benefits of drinking.

To date, scientists’ main explanation for our thirst for firewater has been either ‘hijack’ or ‘hangover’. The white jackets in the hijack camp claim alcohol parasitises our brains’ reward systems, whereas those endorsing the hangover theory see drinking as an ‘evolutionary mismatch’. That is, getting a little tipsy may have been beneficial for our distant ancestors. But in the modern world awash with cheap booze and happy hours, drinking has become deleterious.

Although plausible, Slingerland pours cold water (or rather, warm beer) on these explanations. “Evolution isn’t stupid”, Slingerland quips, where he argues that evolution can happen much faster than most people think. “If ethanol happens to pick our neurological pleasure lock, evolution should call in the locksmith. If our taste for drink is an evolutionary hangover, evolution should have long ago stocked up on the aspirin. It hasn’t”.

Like an expert mixologist, Slingerland melds evidence from disparate fields including archaeology, history, neuroscience and social psychology. Far from being an evolutionary mistake, Slingerland argues that chemical intoxication has helped humans overcome an array of social challenges. For example, drinking helps alleviate stress and anxiety, especially in awkward social situations. Similarly, Slingerland claims hitting the bottle helps build trust and cohesion amongst strangers, providing a quick and easy way to get ‘fiercely tribal primates’ to cooperate.

“Humans have been getting drunk for a really long time”, Slingerland writes. He points to this, along with the ubiquity of drinking across cultures, as the primary evidence for alcohol’s adaptiveness. “Images of imbibing and partying dominate the early archaeological record as much as they do twenty-first-century Instagram.”

Of course, religions such as Islam have come down hard on alcohol like a ton of bricks. Although Slingerland concedes that “in the cultural evolution game, Islam has been extremely successful”, he questions how strictly curbs on alcohol have actually been enforced in the Muslim world. Slingerland also emphasises the efforts to outright ban alcohol, whether in ancient China or more recently in the United States, have all essentially failed. “If a ban on alcohol were a cultural evolutionary killer app, you’d expect it to be more consistently enforced”.

Incredibly, Slingerland goes as far to argue that alcohol consumption played a starring role in the rise of large-scale human civilisations (known as the ‘beer before bread’ hypothesis). In support of this theory, archaeologists working in the Fertile Crescent have been surprised by their findings: the tools and grains they’ve unearthed seem more suited to brewing beer than for making bread. Slingerland argues the best explanation is that these hunter-gatherers were stocking up on the magic sauce for an epic religious experience. Although the jury is still out, this proposition challenges existing narratives about how agriculture got the ball of human civilisation rolling.

Our (at least) 9,000-year love affair with booze. Image credit: National Geographic.

Although other drugs also play a role in this story, Slingerland crowns alcohol as the ‘unchallenged king of intoxicants’. Whatever the benefits of other recreational drugs are, Slingerland claims none of these potions offer alcohol’s full suite of features.

As stated by Slingerland:

It’s challenging to negotiate a treaty whilst high on mushrooms; the cognitive effects of cannabis show a high degree of variability between people; And dancing all night without food or sleep makes it really hard to show up for work in the morning. A two-cocktail hangover is, in contrast, a relatively minor burden to bear. This is why alcohol tends to displace other intoxicants when introduced into a new cultural environment, and has gradually become ‘the world’s most popular drug’.

That alcohol serves as a social lubricant may not be an earth-shattering revelation. Another less obvious benefit of drinking is that it gets our creative juices flowing. Slingerland endorses the ancient trope that poetic inspiration can be found at the bottom of a bottle. Indeed, Slingerland’s idea to write Drunk was seeded whilst boozing with Google employees.

When it comes to communal bonding and creativity, Slingerland singles out the prefrontal cortex as the enemy. The prefrontal cortex is the most evolutionary novel part of the human brain, and is the motherboard of rational thinking. Slingerland says the prefrontal cortex is arguably what makes us human, but that it also trips us up.

To embody the tension between self-control and creativity, Slingerland draws on Greek mythology. Apollo, the son of God, symbolises rationality, order, and self-control. Conversely, Dionysus is the God of wine, drunkenness, chaos, and fertility. So, what’s the moral of the story? If we want to be more creative, we need to quieten our overly controlling prefrontal cortices. Slingerland argues that alcohol is perfectly adapted to mute the prefrontal cortex, giving us permission to be more open and present in the moment. In other words, allowing our inner child to reemerge.

Being human requires a careful balancing act between Apollo and Dionysus. We need to be able to tie our shoes, but also be occasionally distracted by the beautiful or interesting or new in our lives. Apollo, the sober grown up, can’t be in charge all of the time. Dionysus, like a hapless toddler, may have trouble getting his shoes on, but he sometimes manages to stumble on novel solutions that Apollo would never see. Intoxication technologies, alcohol paramount among them, have historically been one way we have managed to leave the door open for Dionysus.

Apollo and Dionysus’, by Leonid Ilyukhin. Image credit: Leonid Ilyukhin.

In summary, Drunk is both fascinating and hilariously fun. Exploring alcohol consumption through the lens of cultural evolution provides nuance and perspective on drinking that has so far been lacking. Combined with Slingerland’s sharp wit and exquisite writing, Drunk packs a punch.

As is always the case, there are quibbles one could raise. I’m sure sceptics will contest the adaptationist programme that Slingerland subscribes to. To elaborate, Slingerland points to the prevalence of drinking across cultures and throughout history as the primary evidence for alcohol being a cultural adaptation. However, could this reasoning not also be used to argue that trephining and bloodletting were ‘adaptive’ too? Understandably, scientific studies that directly measure the effects of alcohol on groups’ performance are sparse. More research in this space would presumably bolster Slingerland’s claims of alcohol’s benefits.

Slingerland mentions ‘Asian flushing’, where some people with Asian ancestry experience unpleasant side-effects when drinking. Possessing the gene responsible for alcohol flushing, ‘ADH1B’, dramatically lowers your odds of abusing alcohol. ADH1B has been kicking around the gene pool for at least 7,000 years, where Slingerland argues it should spread like wildfire if drinking was merely an evolutionary mistake. However, what’s interesting is that this gene is most common in areas of Asia where some of the earliest cases of drinking have been documented. So if Asia got the party started, perhaps evolution’s locksmiths are already on their way?

Ironically, Slingerland comes full circle and presents a revised version of the ‘hangover’ theory. The arrival of spirits dramatically raised the stakes of drinking, allowing anyone to consume a lethal amount of ethanol in just a few gulps. “It is very difficult to pass out from drinking beer or wine; it is nearly impossible to kill oneself,” Slingerland writes. “Once distilled liquors are in the mix, however, all bets are off.” Infused with the modern epidemic of loneliness and binge drinking cultures in the Northern hemisphere, Slingerland argues that spirits may fundamentally change alcohol’s balance sheet, moving alcohol from being a net-benefit to a net-harm.

Drunk is filled to the brim with references to the workplace. According to Slingerland, appreciating alcohol’s ancient roots can help us think more clearly about what role drinking should play in our professional lives.

Slingerland penned Drunk during the coronavirus pandemic, where he says it will take us years to fully understand how lockdowns and home working have impacted innovation. Slingerland observes that the length and scope of our conversations through Zoom have narrowed, where our discussions have become more regimented. “Video meetings are probably more efficient; But efficiency, the central value of Apollo, is the enemy of disruptive innovation.”

Parallel to the challenge of hybrid working is prioritising business travel in a post-pandemic world. According to Slingerland, the ultimate function of business travel mirrors our thirst for firewater. “Neither makes sense unless we discern the cooperation problems to which they are a response.” Whilst most of us are happy buying goods online from a faceless website, Slingerland says he’d hesitate to enter into a foreign business venture if he didn’t know who he was getting into bed with. “If I am entering into a long-term, complex venture with a company in Shanghai, where the impact of screwups or corner-cutting or backstabbing or simple fraud is multiplied a thousandfold, I need to know that the people I’m dealing with are fundamentally trustworthy.”

By coincidence, a key requisite for doing business in various countries is the drunken banquet. “In the modern world, with all of the remote communication technologies at our disposal, it should genuinely surprise us how often we need a good, old-fashioned, in-person drinking session before we feel comfortable about signing our name on the dotted line.” For Slingerland, folk wisdom that we’re more honest whilst drunk rings true. With our prefrontal cortex compromised, aspects of our personalities that we successfully suppress will inevitably burst to the fore. “You may seem like a nice person on the phone, but before I really trust that judgement I would be well advised to reevaluate you, in person, after a second glass of Chablis.”

President Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai toast the opening of US – China relations in Beijing, February 1972 . Image credit: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Whilst toasting to rituals like the drunken banquet, Slingerland doesn’t gloss over the worse aspects of drinking. For example, Slingerland warns of drinking cliques reinforcing the ‘old boy’s club’. Here, he reflects on his own university department’s pub sessions, where those who attended were virtually all men. “Female colleagues were welcome, indeed encouraged, to join, and occasionally did. But it was usually about as male-dominated as the Japanese water trade.” Although problematic, Slingerland argues the solution is not immediately obvious. “Given the demonstrable payoffs of this sort of alcohol-lubricated brainstorming, it seems counterproductive to declare that it should never happen. And yet there are obvious dangers of exclusion and inequity”.

Ultimately, Drunk is a love letter to the Greek god Dionysus. However, your Apollonian inner parent may ask if Dionysus is a lover you should really be courting.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilisation is published by Little Brown Spark. Click here to buy a copy.

The Weirdest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich

Here’s an ethical dilemma for you to mull over:

You are riding in a car driven by a close friend. He hits a pedestrian. You know he was going at least 35 miles per hour in an area of the city where the maximum allowed speed is 20 miles per hour. There are no witnesses. His lawyer says that if you testify under oath that he was driving only 20 miles per hour, it may save him from serious consequences.

If you found yourself boxed into this awkward situation, what right would you say your friend has in expecting you to protect him?

If you would refuse to testify and protect your friend, you are probably pretty WEIRD. That is, you most likely grew up in a country which is Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (lucky you).

If you’re WEIRD like me, you may be surprised to learn that of the corporate managers across the world who were presented with this ethical dilemma, a sizable proportion outside of Western countries said that they would lie under oath to protect their friend.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, being WEIRD makes you an outlier psychologically among the world’s diverse inhabitants of humans.

Compared to the rest of humanity, we Westerners are highly individualistic, self-centred, control oriented, and analytical. We tend to focus on ourselves— our unique characteristics, our achievements and our ambitions— rather than on our relationships with our family and friends.

Despite our rugged individualism and benign levels of narcissism, we WEIRDos tend to treat people fairly, and are unusually trusting of strangers. Similarly, we think nepotism and cronyism is wrong, and we forgo numerous opportunities to further our friend’s and family’s interests.

This raises the million-dollar question: how did we Westerners become so peculiar?

The Weirdest People in the World

In his new book The Weirdest People in the World, American anthropologist Joseph Henrich not only explores the psychology of ‘WEIRD’ people, but also excavates the origins of the modern world (a tall order, I know).

Joseph Henrich is Professor and Chair of Harvard University’s department of Evolutionary Biology, and is a champion of interdisciplinary science (Henrich initially trained as an aerospace engineer, and has held professorships in psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology). Henrich’s first popular science book, The Secret of Our Success, was an instant classic in the social sciences, where he convincingly made the case that culture is now the dominant force driving human evolution.

Ten years ago, Joe and his colleagues Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan penned a scientific paper with the same title of his new book. Their paper served as reality check for psychologists (ironic indeed), where Henrich and his colleagues lamented the lack of diversity among psychological studies. To elaborate, they criticised psychologists for making sweeping generalisations about human psychology, when their research actually narrowly focused on a thin slice of humanity— WEIRD people (more specifically, WEIRD university students). Having trawled through the literature, they discovered that over 96% of participants in psychological experiments were WEIRD.

Although this publication made waves across the world of behavioural science, Henrich admits that he wasn’t entirely satisfied with their paper. “I’ve always found it unsatisfying, because it doesn’t explain anything. How can we account for all this psychological variation?”. In the aftermath of their publication, explaining the existence of these broad psychological differences monopolised Henrich’s thinking.

Joseph Henrich demonstrates proper posture at Harvard Museum’s Evolution gallery (Image credit: Kris Snibbe)

So, what does explain Westerners’ unique psychological profile? The surprising conclusion that Henrich and his collaborators have reached is that these psychological differences can be traced back to the Catholic Church.

The Holy Scriptures

In The Weirdest People in the World, Henrich argues that around 1,500 years ago, the medieval Catholic Church (the branch of Christianity that would become the Western Church) began promoting a particular set of prohibitions and prescriptions about marriage and the family, which inadvertently altered people’s psychology.

It’s well known that outlawing polygyny— a form of polygamy where a man has multiple wives— helps keep the worst aspects of our nature at bay (monogamy insures against armies of incels inciting violent uprisings). However, counterintuitively, Henrich argues one of the most impactful of the Church’s prohibitions was the banning of cousin marriage. Why was this practice so impactful? Because the banning of cousin marriage (along with the Church’s overzealous imposition of incest-taboos more generally) effectively dissolved the densely interconnected clans and kindreds that roamed Western Europe. Consequently, these clans were shredded into small and independent nuclear families.

Why would the nuclear family structure fundamentally alter our psychology? Henrich’s central claim is that the Catholic Church’s ‘Marriage and Family Plan’ effectively dismantled tribes and clans in Western Europe, which relied heavily on arranged marriages to cement political ties (think of the prolonged political wrangling that takes place in the make-believe world of Game of Thrones— let alone all the incest). These social arrangements forced people to venture outside of their closed-knit communities to find their lovers to be, rather than fulfilling their obligations and duties to their extended families (which were largely assigned at birth). This incentivised people to build their own social circles and to cultivate traits that other people would find valuable and attractive, as they had to compete in the market of affection.

The impact of these practices on Westerners’ lives cannot be overstated. Henrich spells out what this meant for day-to-day living:

In most WEIRD societies, you can’t marry your stepson, take multiple spouses, or arrange the marriage of your teenage daughter to your business partner. Similarly, you could tell your son that he must move into your house after he gets married, but he and his wife may have other ideas when you have little leverage. You are compelled by custom in law to build relationships by other means and to depend on impersonal markets, governments, and other formal institutions (e.g. to provide safety nets for injuries, disasters, and unemployment).

Henrich argues that these curbs enforced by the Catholic Church got the ball of individualism rolling, which subsequently sparked a chain of large-scale societal changes— sprouting the seeds of impartial institutions such as guilds, universities and businesses. By the high Middle Ages, catalysed by the Catholic Church’s social cauldron, Henrich argues that these newly formed WEIRD ways of thinking and feeling propelled novel forms of government, whilst also accelerating innovation and the emergence of science. These self-reinforcing forces thus fuelled the rise of capitalism and liberal democracy.

If Henrich’s thesis is correct, then the Catholic Church ironically created the fertile conditions necessary for the scientific Enlightenment. However, Henrich stresses that the rise of Western societies over the last 500 years was not inevitable, nor that anyone would necessarily have predicted it beforehand. To put it bluntly, the idea that a bunch of barbarians in Europe would later amass great wealth and expand across all corners of the globe would have been inconceivable.  

As stated by Henrich:

If a team of alien anthropologists had surveyed humanity from orbit in 1000 CE, or even 1200 CE, they would never have guessed that European populations would dominate the globe during the second half of the Millennium. Instead, they would probably have bet on China or the Islamic world.

Henrich continues:

What these aliens would have missed from their orbital perch was the quiet fermentation of a new psychology during the Middle Ages in some European communities. This evolving proto-WEIRD psychology gradually laid the groundwork for the rise of impersonal markets, urbanisation, constitutional governments, democratic politics, individualistic religions, scientific societies, and relentless innovation. In short, these psychological shifts fertilise the soil for the seeds of the modern world.

The Weirdest People in the World is peppered with evidence of the lingering effects of Catholicism and Protestantism on Western minds. For example, Henrich shows that when a country received their first ‘dose’ of the Catholic Church’s family plan predicts how much their inhabitants currently respect tradition, trust strangers, and how ‘tight’ they are culturally. Remarkably, when countries were first exposed to the Western Church also predicts their rates of voluntary blood donations, and also the amount of unpaid parking tickets that UN Diplomats clock up during their time in New York City.

A busy map, detailing Church exposure and ‘kinship intensity’ across the world (Schulz et al, 2019)

One knee jerk criticism of Henrich’s theory is that the prevalence of Catholicism varies across the Western world, and also within Western countries. However, this is actually one of the most convincing pieces of evidence in favour of his thesis. For example, Henrich points out that provinces in Italy which have the lowest rates of cousin marriage (which serves as a proxy for Catholicism) donate much more blood on a voluntary basis.

The prevalence of first cousin marriage across 93 Italian provinces, and the frequency of blood donations (Henrich, 2020)

Henrich stacks several layers of evidence to make his arguments watertight, ruling out alternative explanations for the impact of the Western Church on people’s sense of trust, fairness and ‘impersonal prosociality’ (Henrich controls for factors including wealth, ecology, climate, and geography). Evidently, Henrich knows he’s going to be dragged into a fight— and he has covered all bases accordingly.

Rewriting history

With the passing of time, it’s inevitable that scholars will poke holes in Henrich’s writings (appreciating the inter-disciplinary nature of Henrich’s research). For example, evolutionary anthropologist William Buckner has questioned Henrich’s portrayal of polygyny in traditional societies, raising doubts regarding how much ‘choice’ women really have in such arrangements.

One scathing review of The Weirdest People in the World implied that Henrich has trivialised the scale of suffering inflicted by colonialism. However, this criticism doesn’t seem fair. Henrich clearly acknowledges the “very real and pervasive horrors of slavery, racism, plunder and genocide”. Rather, henrich explores the trajectories cultural evolution has taken and its enduring impact on our psychology, long after such horrors took place.

Personally, I’m still trying to wrap my head around how Stoicism fits into Henrich’s grand narrative. What do I mean? Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics which flourished in Ancient Greece and Rome, and the Stoics’ meditations on impartial justice and rational thinking strikes me as pretty WEIRD (from a modern interpretation of the philosophy at least). Yet, Stoicism actually predates Christianity by at least 300 years.

These points aside, I’m confident the critiques that’ll continue to come Henrich’s way will resemble minor quibbles, rather than challenges that threaten to tear down the walls of the theoretical edifice.

In summary, The Weirdest People in the World is dazzling in its breadth, along with its broad sweeping implications. When I reviewed Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success, I described it as a “a tour-de-force and a significant advancement of social science”. I’d confidently state that Henrich has once again raised the bar; this book is a landmark in social thought.

By chasing the ghosts of the medieval Catholic Church, Henrich has essentially rewritten the story of modern history. Indeed, Henrich illuminates the value of approaching history from a cultural-evolutionary perspective, and builds on recent efforts to make history a more quantitative and scientific discipline. To quote Henrich; “The cultural evolution of psychology is the dark matter that flows behind the scenes throughout history.”

Similarly, The Weirdest People in the World may well transform the field of psychology. Henrich and his colleagues began their intellectual journey by raising concerns about the overreliance on Western university students in psychology studies, and their efforts continue to influence the field. However, another lasting impact of Henrich’s contributions may be for psychology to be transformed into a historical science.  

Henrich’s research reveals the counterintuitive impacts of cultural practices enacted hundreds of years ago on our psychology (and even on our physiology). These are timeframes which psychologists rarely consider, and the field will probably be forced to dig a little deeper into history in light of these findings.

Globalisation and its discontents

Henrich’s theorising has clear implications for organisations whose ambitions span continents, including the inherent challenges of managing cultural differences. However, Henrich’s historical insights seem most relevant to aiding international development and efforts to curb corruption.

Henrich’s cultural-evolutionary perspective on modern history helps us understand how countries like Japan and China have managed to adapt rather quickly to a globalised world, whilst others including Iran and Iraq have struggled greatly (as large parts of the Islamic world still have intensive forms of kinship).

Evolutionary psychologists are fond of describing modern ailments as evolutionary mismatches (that is, heritable traits that were selected for in our ancestral past, which are now misaligned with the demands of the modern world). However, Henrich has identified a new strain of evolutionary mismatches: mismatched in our cultural-evolutionary psychology. In other words, a mismatch between societies’ culturally acquired customs and know-how, and the here-and-now.

What does this mean? To be frank, we can’t assume institutions that work in the Western world can just be lifted and dropped elsewhere— especially in regions where kinship ties remain strong. As stated by Henrich; “Modern formal institutions are now to a degree available “off the shelf”, though their performance depends on the cultural psychology of the populace.”

Protesters burn property in front of the US embassy in Baghdad, Iraq (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, 2019)

The following passage hammers the point home:

Many policy analysts can’t recognise these misfits because they implicitly assume psychological unity, or they figure that people’s psychology will shift to accommodate the new formal institutions. But, unless people’s kin-based institutions and religions are rewired from the grassroots, populations get stuck between “lower level” institutions like clans or segmentary lineages, pushing them in one set of psychological directions, and “higher level” institutions like democratic governments or impersonal organizations, pulling them in others: Am I loyal to my kinfolk over everything, or do I follow impersonal rules about impartial justice? Do I hire my brother-in-law or the best person for the job?

Henrich continues:

This approach helps us understand why ‘development’ (i.e. the adoption of WEIRD institutions) has been slower and more agonising in some parts of the world than in others… Rising participation in these impersonal institutions often means that the webs of social relationships, which had once ensconced, bound, and protected people, gradually dissolve under the acid of urbanisation, global markets, secular safety nets, and individualistic notions of success and security. Besides economic dislocation, people face the loss of meaning they derive from being a nexus in a broad network of relational connections that stretch back in time to their ancestors and ahead to their descendants.

Instead of pretending these cultural differences don’t exist, Henrich implores policy wonks to cater their strategies depending on community’s norms and practices. If social engineers are serious about improving the human condition, they must work with, or work around, such cultural-evolutionary mismatches. Just as importantly, Henrich invites social planners to consider how their interventions might alter people’s psychology centuries down the road.

The fathers who banned cousin marriage could not have fathomed the reverberations their actions would have across space and time. With a dizzying array of social changes, technological breakthroughs and environmental problems engulfing humanity in the 21st century, there will inevitably be profound and enduring changes seared into our collective psyches over the coming decades and centuries.

On the one hand, trying to predict the psychological impacts of these awesome forces would be wise, however fallible our forecasting is. On the other hand, Henrich illustrates the inherently unpredictable nature of cultural evolution– and the weird places it can take us to.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous is published by Allen Lane (£30). Click here to buy a copy.

Evolutionary Organisational Psychology, with The Dissenter

Here’s a podcast episode I recorded with Ricardo Lopes, for The Dissenter.

Ricardo and I explore the application of evolutionary psychology to the business world. We start by tackling the concept of evolutionary mismatch, and then go through some examples of how it applies to the modern workplace— such as Dunbar’s number, hierarchy and leadership, and work stress.

We recorded this episode on the January 29th, 2020.

Evolutionary Mismatch in the Workplace, with Mark van Vugt

Here’s a podcast episode I recorded with Mark van Vugt, for the This View of Life podcast.

Mark van Vugt and I discuss his book Mismatchcoauthored with Ronald Giphart. We then delve into the science of evolutionary mismatches, and how this knowledge can help us understand human behaviour in modern settings, such as the workplace.

We recorded this episode on December 23rd, 2019.