What Is the “Interesting Index” of Humanity?: Recommended Reading

Henrich, J. (2020). The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. [wikipedia, author Q&A, excerpt]

Graeber, D. and D. Wengrow (2021). The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. [wikipedia, excerpt]

What gets your attention? What do you find interesting? The “Interesting Index” ranges from low (no interest) to high (lots of interest). In wondering what was interesting, sociologist Murray Davis suggested that people give their attention to that which surprises them. The unexpected gets our attention: we seem to be wired that way. We rarely notice everything else.

And, we tend to assume that everyone else’s world looks just like ours. You think the same things, feel the same things, have the same intentions, values. Physics and biology have shown us that we are all made out of the same physical components, and that our biological elements are very similar. Psychology and sociology have shown us that we each, in fact, are completely unique. We each grow up in a unique context–no other being can stand in the exact same spot at the exact same time as another, so they receive different inputs through their organs. Always. So, we are each in our own unique context. And, from the first instant we are created, we start with different genetics, mature in different wombs, as different bodies, in different settings. We are uniquely constituted. This means, as individuals, we are each uniquely contextualized and constituted. Everything we perceive, process, and do is from a uniquely constituted context and a uniquely contextualized constitution. If this is true for individuals, what happens when we interact with other people?

We tend to think that other people, individuals and groups, think, value, and act like us. Yet, if we are all individually unique, when we interact, our interactions must also be quite unique. Maybe in subtle ways or maybe in not-so-subtle ways. Many current stories about what humanity holds to be important and, therefore, how we should organize assume a common context and a common evolution for everyone. This is what is important and real now, and this is how we all got here. Simple. And, possibly very wrong. Two recent books detail what we actually know now about (1) how people perceive, process, and engage in the world, and (2) how we got here.

Professor Joseph Henrich describes, in The WEIRDest People in the World, what most Western, Educated people in Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) groups think everybody else does. They all look WEIRD–some are better or worse at being WEIRD. Henirch dives deep into the ample evidence of actual belief systems and the institutions we build to support those beliefs. He starts by looking at what might have happened along the way to being WEIRD today, pointing many particular choice points and events that might have led to this particular form of WEIRDness today. He then looks at how differently contextualized and differently constituted people, over time, developed different beliefs and different institutions, based on those different beliefs. In terms of my initial question about the “Interesting Index” of humanity today, Henrich suggests that most people assume the world is WEIRD in similar ways, and thus not that surprising or interesting–people assume a low Interesting Index for humanity. And, Henrich shows the ample evidence for very different and surprising forms everywhere, a high Interesting Index for humanity. To quote Professor Murray Davis, “That’s interesting!”

The Davids, in their book The Dawn of Everything, take on a similar question, from the perspectives of archaeology and anthropology. They tackle the assumption that “everyone on earth shared the same idyllic form of social organization” (p8), where we assume that “no one..experimented with alternative forms of social organization” (p8). They invite the reader to assume that “We are projects of collective self-creation…What if we treat people, from the beginning, as imaginative, intelligent, playful creatures, who deserve to be understood as such?” (p9). What if their uniquely constituted and contextualized responses to life led to different forms? Lots of different experiments. That would be interesting. They proceed to share what is known and what is not known from the archaeological evidence, around the world, to show vast experimentation, in parallel pathways, for thousands of years. That’s interesting.

If the Interesting Index of humanity is high, maybe very high, then there very well might be lots of people already figuring out how to organize our interactions together to achieve what we want. Maybe they are everywhere, now. The issue might not be that there is no answer to our challenges, rather that we haven’t looked. We can find them and learn with them.