The WEIRDest people in the world by Joseph Henrich

The WEIRDest people in the world by Joseph Henrich. The author is professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. I learned about this fascinating book from a podcast featuring Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University. What caught my attention was his observation that highly educated people show differences not just at psychological level but also in their biology. It turns out that some parts of the brain responsible for recognizing faces are located differently in the brains of highly literate individuals. This is connected to how they use their verbal memory in their brains.

The book’s first part delves into the history of large populations with high literacy. Even though reading and writing have been around for thousands of years, it’s only relatively recently that many people have gained a high level of education. In the past, reading and writting was mostly limited to monks during medieval times.

The book mentions a significant turning point in history: Martin Luther’s 1517 proposal. He argued that it should not be the church or priests’ role to connect people with God; instead, it’s the duty of every individual. Before Luther, the Church used to sell indulgences, like pardons, to people, promising to save their loved ones from purgatory. Luther found this practice unacceptable and encouraged people to learn how to read the Bible to understand Jesus’s true teachings. Additionally, Luther was one of the first to suggest that the government should be responsible for education.

Centuries later, it became clear that countries with a strong Protestant influence had higher literacy rates and better economic conditions compared to other Christian countries. This example highlights how Protestantism led to highly educated and economically prosperous societies. It shows that morals and discipline play a role in building a productive society, contrary to some criticisms of religion in the 21st century.

In a different section of the book, the author discusses an interesting topic: how United Nations (UN) diplomats ended up receiving parking tickets. Before 2002, the people who worked as diplomats at the UN headquarters in New York didn’t have to pay fines for parking violations. However, when the total amount of these fines reached a staggering 18 million US dollars, the UN decided to change the rules and stopped granting immunity to their diplomats. As expected, the number of parking violations went down, but some diplomats still received tickets. Surprisingly, countries like Egypt, Chad, and Bulgaria had the most tickets, while Sweden, Canada, and the UK had the fewest.

What’s intriguing here is that you might assume that most of the diplomatic personnel had received some education in Western countries. However, it seems that when they believe no one is watching, they sometimes break the rules, especially when they feel protected by their diplomatic status. This shows that respect for the law can be influenced by cultural factors and individual personality traits.

Another book I reviewed on a similar theme is Class Matters by Bill Keller.

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