- Hardcover: 569 pages
- Publisher: Prometheus Books (May 23, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1633882934
- ISBN-13: 978-1633882935
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.8 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 21 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #180,399 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity's Search for Meaning Hardcover – May 23, 2017
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—Rick Hanson, PhD, author of Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom
“A tour de force on the biological and psychological background of the human predicament. If you are concerned about our future, you should know about our past. This amazing, well-documented book should be read by every college student and every congressman.”
—Paul R. Ehrlich, author of Human Natures
“A brilliant deep dive into the history of human cultures that brings us to today’s cultural dysfunctions that threaten the planet. Insight, illumination, and potential ways out of the seeming dead end that we’ve walked ourselves into. I would recommend it!”
—Thom Hartmann, author of The Last Hours of Agent Sunlight
“In prose that is a joy to read, Lent takes us on a tour of human history, guided by systems theory and cognitive science, to argue for the prominence of culture and the habits of the mind in shaping our collective destiny. If you’ve been too busy for the last twenty years to pay attention to the big ideas about the nature of the human animal, the engines of history, our place in the biosphere, and the shape of things to come, Lent can bring you up to date painlessly.”
—J. R. McNeill, University Professor, Georgetown University, and author of Something New Under the Sun
“The Patterning Instinct is a must-read for anyone concerned about the future of humanity. The book delves beneath the surface of problems facing our world today to examine the dominant cultural assumptions that lie at their root. The book thoughtfully traces how views about human nature and the natural world in both Eastern and Western culture have shaped history and how the emerging global culture of connectedness and the systems view of life may hold the key to humanity’s evolution and future survival.”
—Atossa Soltani, Amazon Watch founder and president
“This breathtaking book is already a classic. With its unique synthesis of thought history, actual historical events, and cultural patterns, it does what no other work has achieved since Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being. Lent explains in one sweeping argument why global civilization has separated from life. And he shows how we can find our way back into it. Lent narrates the history of humanity’s growing alienation from a shared biosphere and from our own feeling bodies with the suspense and art of a novelist. It is heart-wrenching to see to what degree thought patterns can form not only our worldview, but the actual world, handing it over to destruction. The good message though is Lent proves that humanity’s destructiveness is not God-given; it is, as any cultural pattern, reversible. That is our chance.”
—Andreas Weber, author of The Biology of Wonder: Aliveness, Feeling, and the Metamorphosis of Science
“Shell-shocked liberals and progressives are casting around to explain the political setbacks of 2016. The Patterning Instinct tells us that seeking answers from recent history is likely to prove forlorn; deep-seated patterns in the way we both think and behave have predisposed us to acting in ways that are self-evidently irrational and against our own interests. To have any hope of transforming this perverse and potentially apocalyptic worldview, we will need to dig much deeper into our own history—and this extraordinary book provides an authoritative and inspirational guide.”
—Jonathon Porritt, environmentalist and author
About the Author
Jeremy R. Lent is a writer and the founder and president of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a worldview that could enable humanity to thrive sustainably on the earth. The Liology Institute (www.liology.org), which integrates systems science with ancient wisdom traditions, holds regular workshops and other events in the San Francisco Bay Area. Lent is the author of the novel Requiem of the Human Soul. Formerly, he was the founder, CEO, and chairman of a publicly traded Internet company. Lent holds a BA in English Literature from Cambridge University and an MBA from the University of Chicago.
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This explains why elephants around the world live their lives in very similar ways, whereas us Homo sapiens have developed a dizzying variety of ways we look upon existence. Lent notes that Dualism is a common approach to cognitive patterning where the cosmos is divided into the physical here-and-now and a supernatural there-and-then.
Lent persuasively argues that the Chinese world view is a better model for humanity in the 21st century than outmoded ways of thinking that view "nature as a machine," or "nature as something to be controlled." An avid dualist would add "nature as irrelevant," since dualistic religions such as Christianity and Hinduism view this world as a temporary stepping stone to a higher spiritual reality; hence, a place to be escaped from rather than a permanent abode.
Being attracted to Chinese philosophy, particularly Taoism, I enjoyed his praise of Chinese ways of thinking. They are naturalistic, compatible with modern science, and more systems oriented than reductionistic. Still, it's hard to say that either ancient or modern China is a model for how the United States, or any other country, should approach our pressing national and global problems today.
My only real criticism of The Patterning Instinct is that after spending about 400 pages cogently describing how various human ways of looking upon the world have gotten us to the not-so-great place we are today, the final chapters were a bit of a letdown. I was hoping for more specific descriptions of how it will be possible for massive numbers of people to embrace cognitive patterns that will bring us together, rather than apart; solve environmental problems like global warming, rather than ignoring them; view humanity as being an integral part of the natural world, not a domineering species that can run roughshod over the Earth.
I have a feeling that Lent ran out of pages, not out of ideas. This leads me to hope for a sequel to The Patterning Instinct that briefly reiterates how we got to the cognitive patterns which now are screwing up the world, and then talks in depth about how a re-patterning process can occur on a global scale.
Me, I have little or no idea how this can happen. The Taoist side of me thinks, "It could happen naturally, not much effort required." Well, maybe. But I'm worried that changing people's world views will happen too slowly given how rapidly existential threats to our existence are evolving.
Here's a key quote from the book: "As its heart, the crucial question is whether there is ultimately such a thing as the Truth, as opposed to cognitive constructions creating relationships between coordinates that are always true." (p. 353) In other words, facts are not enough. Yes, they often are lacking, especially in these Trumpian times. But even if science and scientifically-minded citizens were able to present us with perfectly true facts about the world, our instinct for patterning would demand that we weave those facts into a web of meaning.
The nature of that web, that pattern, is the key to what the future holds for humanity. Science-loving people such as me like to think that more knowledge is all we need. The Patterning Instinct went a long way toward ridding me of this belief. What we need is a large-scale cognitive makeover. Many millions, if not billions, of people need to embrace a way of looking upon the world that is both fact-based AND values what the world needs so badly now. As Lent says: (p.441)
"In diametric opposition to the dualistic framework of meaning that has structured two and a half millennia of Western thought, the new systems way of thinking about the universe leads to the possibility of finding meaning ultimately through connectedness within ourselves, to each other, and to the natural world. This way of thinking, seeing the cosmos as a WEB OF MEANING, has the potential to offer a robust framework for the Great Transformation values that emphasize the quality of life, our shared humanity, and the flourishing of nature."
In the tradition of such works as The Ascent of Humanity, and the Empathic Civilization, the Patterning Instinct takes a deep, holistic ,and unflinching look at the evolution of human culture from a systems view of life perspective, and through a uniquely cognitive lens. Throughout the meticulously referenced work, Jeremy Lent focuses his exposition on a complex systems approach paying careful attention to positive and negative feedback loops where present, and considering the interactions between linked systems. The underlying metaphor is that living systems form an intricate tapestry of nested networks of networks over many orders of magnitude. Hence, while it is clear that individuals possess agency, every part of the living earth is interconnected in such a way that individuals are in fact only semi-autonomous.This leads to a different kind of history.
At this point, a brief aside on the systems view of cognition is appropriate. Underlying the systems view cognitive approach is the Santiago school of cognition which has grown out of the seminal work Autopoiesis and Cognition by Maturana and Varela. Originally trying to understand some of the enigmas in color vision, the two researchers developed a definition of living systems demonstrated to be a necessary, and for the biological world sufficient definition of life(interestingly S.A. Kaufman in “Reinventing the Sacred” starts from first principles and arrives at a similar definition for a minimal autonomous agent). Simply, an autopoetic system structurally embodies a web of linked interactions capable of sustaining itself within a boundary of its own creations which is thermodynamically open(to food and energy), but operationally closed. That last bit means that the organism is only disturbed by its environment, but the resulting actions are determined by its internal structure alone, the equivalent is true for “ the environment” from the outward perspective.This is a very complex area ( for deeper understanding see “ The tree of Knowledge” by Maturana and Varela, “Mind in Life” by Evan Thompson, or A Systems View of Life by F. Capra and P. Luisi) but a couple of key take home messages are important here. Firstly, the process of life at all scales of organization is fundamentally a process of knowing and being known...life is a cognitive process. Secondly, the biosphere is a fractal tapestry of intertwined, and interacting nested networks of networks of autopoietic systems over many orders of magnitude. To navigate such a tangled web, all organisms, through recurrent interactions and mutual structural coupling(systemic memory arising from contingency based history), develop simplifying heuristics so that meaning (with respect to the organism’s internal autopoiesis) can be obtained in real time. The idea is that autonomous subjectivity(feelings, emotions, desires, intentions), through recurrent interaction, leads to instincts. As humans evolved increasingly sophisticated patterning ability leading to symbolic languages and birth of the metaphor, our meaning heuristics could be directly passed on to younger generations, honed collectively by social groups, and themselves become subject to selective forces(at a higher scale of organization). From this perspective, the author traces the evolution of major cultural metaphors and resulting cosmologies that have shaped human history since the agricultural revolution.
Rather than attempting to isolate any simple causal influences, Jeremy states that cultures shape values and values shape history. This pays full heed to a major positive feedback loop in human societies, namely worldviews shape human intentions, intentions determine the institutions and technology societies construct, institutions and technologies in turn shape values and worldviews. With this in mind, the author is careful to view history through a cognitive lens. Careful reading of the vast majority of history and anthropology for instance reveals an understandably human, but nearly universal tendency to color insights in the frame of prevailing contemporary worldviews. With impeccable scholarship Jeremy makes the effort to view events in the context of the worldviews/cosmologies/mythologies that prevailed in each particular time and place.
Jeremy starts by tracing the evolution of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the human brain and its necessary role in the rise of the unique human ability ( and relentless drive) to find meaningful patterns in the universe, and construct explanations for what we observe. Convincingly, he argues that rather than possessing a language instinct, humans exhibit a patterning instinct mediated by the PFC, that facilitates the learning of language in infants. Evidence is presented to demonstrate that infants can distinguish between phonetic units, and by nine months or so, distinguish only those present in their native language. Further, it is demonstrated in an array of studies including some stunning results for bilingual speakers and isolated tribes, that perceptions and frames of understanding are strongly influenced by the language one speaks. From there, the evolution of core metaphors and rise of cosmologies are examined as they split into two major groups, the dualistic indo european cosmologies, and the holistic cosmologies of china. The resulting worldviews lead to vastly different ideas about our relationships to nature and each other leading to vastly different attitudes and intentions towards science, technology, political and intergroup relations. Some fascinating questions are addressed from this fresh and unique perspective. At the time of Columbus, the Chinese were far superior technologically to the Europeans, why was it that the Europeans conquered the world? The chinese had all the preconditions for a scientific and industrial revolution hundreds of years before the europeans, yet this did not occur in China. The traditional view, colored by our own worldview, is that this was a failing on the part of the chinese, was it, or is there something about the vastly different cosmologies of China and Europe that shaped the history we observe? For instance, the stirrup and gunpowder were known in China many centuries before in Europe without being particularly disruptive, yet when these technologies arrived in Europe they revolutionized warfare in each case; could it be that the Chinese viewed technologies with an eye towards harmony rather than dominion? The early Muslims had among them great scholars in science and mathematics, they also had all the seeds for a scientific revolution before the Europeans, what was different between the European christians, and the muslim world that led to the scientific revolution for the one, and religious fundamentalism for the other? The prevailing view is one of great antagonism between christian faith and scientific investigation, this is clearly true of contemporary christian fundamentalism, but given the hegemony of the catholic church in Europe through the middle ages, is it even possible that the scientific revolution could have occurred without the support of the church? For that matter, is there any inconsistency between the clockwork universe of Descartes, and the creator god of christianity? What is the common intellectual thread that unites Plato, Descartes, and Ray Kurzweil? These and many other provocative questions are answered compellingly while little known historical developments are revisited in a new light. The Patterning Instinct is a stunning achievement.
Some of the champers are a bit challenging as they take a deep dive at the foreign cultures and the foundations of these "alien" cultures.
Still, excellent read.
Charles Johnston, MD
The Institute for Creative Development
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