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North Star Podcast


Oct 5, 2020

My guest today is Joseph Henrich, a professor at Harvard and an expert on the evolution of human cooperation and culture. I am a big fan of his book, "The Secret of Our Success" and he just published a new one called the Weirdest People in the World about people who fall under the acronym WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Through his research, he explains culture's role in evolution. He shows how evolutionary theory can help us learn, innovate, and share knowledge.

We begin this episode by talking about the role big Gods play in cultural evolution. Then we talk about the time Joe spent living with small-scale societies in rural Peru and Fiji. He talks about how he learns the language, plans the trips, and assimilates into societies so he can study them. Towards the end of the podcast, we talk about what economists can learn from anthropologists and the evolution of attraction. My favorite part of the conversation was learning about the tradeoffs between having an open or closed society, and how those factors contribute to innovation. Please enjoy my conversation with Joseph Henrich.

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Show Notes

2:06 - How the role of God has evolved over time and why bigger and bigger Gods have become the norm.

4:50 - Why acting as a third party for people made Gods culturally and socially so much more important.

8:36 - Marriage across cultures and religions and why they diverge sometimes wildly from what Western culture considers "normal".

13:44 - Why many religious restrictions that created the Western norm of a nuclear family also set up the stage for heightened individualism.

16:58 - How and why social safety nets transitioned from kin-based institutions to the states and governments.

18:46 - What surprising similarities and differences Joe saw between Americans and the Machiguenga of the Peruvian Amazon.

22:22 - The role of humor in enforcing social norms, why Joe thinks it is absolutely universal, and the other universal ways trust is built-in communities.

28:35 - How narcotics and psychedelics are utilized in different cultures and the way their roles differ.

31:20 - Why cultural imitation does not always yield positive outcomes.

33:11 - How the introduction of agriculture changed family relationships and culture.

39:36 - The biggest takeaways Joe got from Guns, Germs, and Steel.

43:28 - Why Joe believes that religion is innate in human beings.

50:31 - The possible implications of losing rituals that for millennia have brought families and clans closer together.

52:24 - What the clock and a universal time have done to human psychology.

1:01:16 - What the collective brain is and why it is so prevalent throughout creative booms in history.

1:04:55 - How the proliferation of information helps and hurts creativity, and why the internet hasn't had the impact people thought it would.

1:08:26 - How information is affected by biases and manipulation and why humans are so susceptible to them.

1:11:39 - How the technology, institutions, and tools we use affect the way that we think.

1:15:12 - Why learning disabilities should not be looked at as purely negative and the benefits that cognitive diversity brings to humanity.

1:19:00 - The way gossip in a society helps define the collective philosophy of its people.

1:21:07 - How imitative education is currently at its peak and what doors it opens for people around the world.

1:24:36 - Why rituals and multiple gods were so common in the past and are so uncommon now.

1:28:40 - How Jon would alter the current research practices in the social sciences on "WEIRD" people and why.

1:31:39 - Why certain assumptions about humans are actually specific to a region or population, and why they don't represent humanity as a whole.

1:35:10 - Why the top-down lecture model is not serving education as well as it should, and why it shouldn't be replaced completely by Youtube.

1:39:20 - The selective physical and cultural evolution of certain populations and why it happens the way it does.

1:42:12 - What Jon finds to be the most interesting elements of culture to study and why.

1:45:33 - Why Jon's aerospace engineering degree is so valuable in his anthropology career.

1:47:41 - The problem with focusing solely on models in research and studies.

1:53:20 - Why humanity seems to be stagnating in intelligence but rocketing upward in cultural development.