Why Are We In the West So WEIRD? Or, Why the West is So Great!

Saturday, 12th September 2020

I haven’t read the book reviewed by Daniel Dennett in the link here. Pretty sure I’d hate it with a passion. Also pretty sure (from the last paragraph of the review) that my hatred would be dismissed as ideological. And, I’m also quite sure that it’s not, but labeling something ideological is a great way of not having to take it seriously.

The real problem here, from the review at least (and I admit that Dennett might have systematically misrepresented the book, but he usually doesn’t do that), is that the wrong question is asked. This is a book like Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel (mentioned here also) that starts from the premise that the West is GREAT! Now let’s figure out just why it is great. And no mentioning racism, colonialism, or any of that stuff. That would be ideological, and we can’t have that sort of thing here.

The explanation has to take the form of things that the West did right that others didn’t do right. Maybe the West did these things right on purpose, or maybe it was accidental, or maybe it was a deep mystical insight that people in the West possessed that others didn’t, but whatever the reason, there was a point at which history diverged.

And once we figure out what the West did right and others didn’t, the implication is that the others have to do things like the West if they are to likewise succeed at whatever we admire the West for.

We will produce mountains of statistics, carefully selected to filter out the noise (you know, like racism), and only look at good things, not the things that now incline the West towards putting in power more than its share of demagogues and tinpot dictators. We will take two moments in time, the first being a “turning-point” and the second being some mythical time when the West was GREAT!!! and we will use the statistics to connect those two points, ignoring any problems that might currently be occurring in the West, anyone that had to be exploited along the way, and any definition of success that doesn’t reduce to property accumulation.

Once the question is defined in these terms, we can proceed to answer it, showing that indeed, the West can rest smug in the assurance of its own superiority, earned through its prescient decisions, and we can continue on our mission of civilizing the rest of the planet by showing them just how we did it here.

Well, I’m sure this will be on the New York Times bestseller list, and serious people will discuss it on serious panels. And those of us who think that the problem here starts with a loaded question will just be dismissed as ideological. How dare we not analyze the carefully assembled statistics in their own terms, and argue about this fundamentally flawed question?

The title of the review is maybe the most problematic part of this whole thing. “What Are We In the West So Weird?” As we see right away in the review, WEIRD is an acronym for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic”. So it’s really asking, Why is the West So Great? And that’s the problematic question in a nutshell. It asks for positive causes rather than negative and exploitative ones. It assumes that the West is great. It’s the worst kind of fake insult – weird, us?! Oh, that’s what you mean <blush>.

So yeah, if the job of a review is to help me decide whether I want to read a book or not, job done. I want to read stuff that asks real questions, not fake ones. And if I were an anthropologist, I’d be mighty annoyed that this is being presented as anthropology. It’s a bit like when Jordan Peterson or Bernard-Henri Levy get presented as philosophy – I just want to start throwing things and screaming “That’s not philosophy, you idiots!”

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