Weird people. Northwest Europeans are more individualistic, less loyal to kin, and more trusting of strangers. (Wikicommons)
Northwest Europeans are WEIRD ... as in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. These traits are in turn associated with certain behavioral and psychological characteristics: "People from these societies tend to be more individualistic, independent, and impersonally prosocial (e.g., trusting of strangers) while revealing less conformity and in-group loyalty" (Schulz et al. 2019).
In a recent study, Schulz et al. (2019) argue that WEIRDness is a heritage of Western Christianity: the branch of the Christian faith that gradually evolved into Roman Catholicism and, later, Protestantism: "we propose that the Western Church's transformation of European kinship, by promoting small, nuclear households, weak family ties, and residential mobility, fostered greater individualism, less conformity, and more impersonal prosociality."
Social relations are indeed different north and west of a line running approximately from Trieste to St. Petersburg, Everyone is single for at least part of adulthood, and many stay single their entire lives. In addition, households often have non-kin members, and children usually leave the nuclear family to form new households (Hajnal, 1965; ICA, 2013; Laslett, 1977). This is the Western European Marriage Pattern (WEMP), and there is an extensive literature on it going back to work by John Hajnal.
Was the Western Church a cause or an effect?
Schulz et al. (2019) stress the role of the Western Church in creating the WEMP, particularly by banning consanguineous marriages. The ban came about because "the Church had become obsessed with incest."
That isn't the whole story. Even before Christianity, Roman Civil Law forbade marriages within four degrees of consanguinity. The number was increased from four to seven in 732 by Pope Gregory III, but in this he was following similar bans among the newly converted Germanic peoples. The mid-seventh century Visigothic Code proclaimed that "it shall not be lawful to defile the blood of such as are related even to the sixth degree, either by marriage or otherwise" (McCann 2010, p. 57). In the early ninth century, the Church changed its way of calculating degrees of kinship by adopting the Germanic system. Under the old Roman system, first cousins were considered fourth degree; the Germanic system made them second degree. This change had the effect of doubling the number of ineligible marriage partners (McCann 2010, pp. 57-58).
Schulz et al. (2019, p. 2) assume that the WEMP postdates these prohibitions against cousin marriage: "by 1500 CE (and centuries earlier in some regions), much of Europe was characterized by a virtually unique configuration of weak (nonintensive) kinship marked by monogamous nuclear households, bilateral descent, late marriage, and neolocal residence."
Actually, no one really knows when this pattern arose. As we go farther back in time, we have less demographic data to work with, but the same pattern still appears in the little we do have. In thirteenth-century Lincolnshire before the Black Death, households were already nuclear and a late age of first marriage was the norm, being 24 for the woman and 32 for the man (Hallam 1985, p. 66). In ninth-century France, two surveys show that households were small and nuclear among married people and that 12 to 16% of the adult population were unmarried (Hallam 1985, p. 56). A third survey shows that both men and women were marrying in their mid to late twenties; (Seccombe 1992, p. 94). Admittedly, the earliest data are limited to France, hence the authors' caveat "centuries earlier in some regions," but France was hardly an outlier in the demographic evolution of northwest Europe.
Earlier demographic data are too fragmentary to produce firm conclusions. Furthermore, the data usually concern elite males who typically took much younger brides. Nonetheless, in the general population we see some evidence of first marriages at late ages. The first-century Roman historian Tacitus wrote about the Germanic tribes: "Late comes love to the young men, and their first manhood is not enfeebled; nor for the girls is there any hot-house forcing; they pass their youth in the same way as the boys" (Tacitus Germania 20). Julius Caesar made the same observation:
Those who have remained chaste for the longest time, receive the greatest commendation among their people: they think that by this the growth is promoted, by this the physical powers are increased and the sinews are strengthened. And to have had knowledge of a woman before the twentieth year they reckon among the most disgraceful acts; of which matter there is no concealment, because they bathe promiscuously in the rivers and [only] use skins or small cloaks of deers' hides, a large portion of the body being in consequence naked. (Caesar De Bello Gallico 6: 21)
The direction of causality may thus run in the other direction. The WEMP does not exist because the Western Church diverged from the Eastern Church on the issue of consanguineous marriage. Rather, this divergence arose because the Western Church was assimilating the behavioral norms of its newly converted peoples, including the WEMP. By the eighth century, those peoples were dominant within the Western Church and able to push Christian practice in certain directions, particularly postponement of marriage and marriage outside the kin group (Frost 2017). The tail began to wag the dog.
Sources of inspiration?
Schulz et al. (2019) seem to have been inspired by earlier work by Steven Heine and Joseph Henrich (who is one of the co-authors). Curiously, no references are made to the literature on the WEMP, not even to the work by John Hajnal. Less curiously, they pass over the more speculative work by myself, hbd chick, and Kevin MacDonald (Frost 2011; Frost 2017; hbd chick 2011; hbd chick 2012; hbd chick 2014; MacDonald 1990; MacDonald 2011). To the best of my knowledge, Kevin was the first to notice an apparent relationship between northwest Europeans, Western Christianity, and certain psychological and behavioral characteristics. This is evident in his 1990 article and even more so in his 2011 one:
The nuclear family, freed from extended kinship obligations, is the basis of Western social organization. It is unique relative to other culture areas. This pattern is particularly noticeable in the Northwest of Europe rather than the Pontic steppe region. As one goes from the Northwest of Europe to the Southeast, there is an increase in joint family structure, with brothers living together with parents, grandparents and children. Family historian John Hajnal discovered the "Hajnal line" that separates Western Europe from Eastern Europe, the former characterized by nuclear family structure, relatively late marriage and large numbers of unmarried in economically difficult times, the latter by joint family structure and relatively early and universal marriage.
I suspect Schulz et al. (2019) had read material by all three of us. I base my suspicion partly on their use of certain terms and expressions and partly on their references, particularly the curious reference to Claude Lévi-Strauss as an authority on kinship. An American anthropologist would normally cite Lewis Henry Morgan or Robin Fox. I like to cite Lévi-Strauss partly because I was trained at a French-language university and partly because he was, in a sense, my academic grandfather, being the dissertation supervisor of my dissertation supervisor. He was also the first to come up with the concept of gene-culture coevolution, but that fact is poorly known even among francophone anthropologists.
Anyway, does it matter? The important thing is to put new ideas into circulation.
Frost, P. (2017). The Hajnal line and gene-culture coevolution in northwest Europe. Advances in Anthropology 7: 154-174.
Frost, P. (2011). The Western European Marriage Pattern. Evo and Proud. November 12 http://evoandproud.blogspot.ca/2011/11/western-european-marriage-pattern.html
Hajnal, J. (1965). European marriage patterns in perspective: essays in historical demography. In D.V. Glass and D.E. Eversley (eds). Population in History. Chicago: Aldine Publishing, pp. 101-143.
Hallam, H.E. (1985). Age at first marriage and age at death in the Lincolnshire Fenland, 1252-1478. Population Studies 39(1): 55-69.
hbd chick (2014). Big summary post on the Hajnal Line. October 3
hbd chick (2012). Behind the Hajnal Line. January 16
hbd chick (2011). The Hajnal Line. June 30
ICA (2013). Research Themes - Marriage Patterns, Institutions for Collective Action http://www.collective-action.info/_THE_MarriagePatterns_EMP
Laslett, P. (1977). Characteristics of the Western family considered over time. Journal of Family History 2(2): 89-115.
MacDonald, K. (2011). Going against the Tide: Ricardo Duchesne's Intellectual Defence of the West. The Occidental Quarterly 11(3): 1-22.
MacDonald, K. (1990). Mechanisms of sexual egalitarianism in Western Europe. Ethology and Sociobiology 11: 195-238.
McCann, C.A. (2010). Transgressing the Boundaries of Holiness: Sexual Deviance in the Early Medieval Penitential Handbooks of Ireland, England and France 500-1000. Theses. 76. Seton Hall University https://scholarship.shu.edu/theses/76
Schulz, J.F., D. Bahrami-Rad, J.P. Beauchamp, and J. Henrich. (2019). The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation. Science 366(707): 1-12.
Seccombe, W. (1992). A Millennium of Family Change. Feudalism to Capitalism in Northwestern Europe. London: Verso.