Henrich is an eclectic academic, having held professorships in both economics and psychology while also working on human evolutionary biology. But by background he is an anthropologist who did fieldwork on distant Fijian islands and with Chilean tribal people. Unusually for his own tribe, however, he has a facility with numbers. This anthropology-meets-big-data approach is not merely innovative, but underpins a fascinating and creative book, brimming with provocative ideas.
A casual reader may wonder how a book about the efflorescence of European culture could say next to nothing about racism, imperialism and environmental catastrophe – the undertow of individualism, market economics and representative government in Europe. “I’m not highlighting the very real and pervasive horrors of slavery, racism, plunder and genocide,” Henrich concedes in his final chapter. “There are plenty of books on those subjects.” But the omission is corrosive to his argument: not only because he presents “prosperity” and “innovation” rather than genocide and expropriation as the avatars of “weird” culture, but because Europeans failed to demonstrate “impersonal prosociality” when they ventured beyond Europe.
The Weirdest People in the World is one of the most consumingly fascinating books I’ve read in years. Its author is obviously a man of fairly staggering intelligence and learning. But does his theory risk sometimes sounding triumphalist? A bit too complacently late 1990s? I think you’d be forgiven for thinking so. In Henrich’s defence, he is careful to note that European expansion had “devastating consequences” for those living outside Eurasia and “less complex” societies.