Review of The Patterning Instinct, a fascinating and vital new book by Jeremy Lent

Our societies, our ecosystems, and our planet seem to be coming apart before our eyes. The earth faces potentially catastrophic climate change, disruption of fresh water and nitrogen cycles, nearly ubiquitous disruption of ecosystems, and may well be at the beginnings of a sixth mass extinction event. Our societies are rapidly losing cohesion. Our economies now exhibit the most pronounced wealth and income inequality in history, and along with it, the erosion of our democracies to the point at which most governments are thinly disguised corporate oligarchies. To make matters worse, globalization and rise of the “service economy” has led to a shredding of the fabric of community cohesion. If that were not enough, the increasing secularity of our society has led to a pervasive nihilism. As an atheist, i’m not pushing for religion, rather lamenting the fact that in the western worldview that dominates today’s neoliberal societies, spirituality has long ago been hijacked by judeo-christian religions, so that with increasing secularity we observe a concurrent loss of meaning. The elephant has entered the room…in the face of this existential crisis, we seem powerless to make a concerted globally cooperative effort to save ourselves. Why? In The Patterning Instinct, Jeremy Lent begins with a simple observation: Root metaphors combine to create a cultural worldview that shapes societal values, and these values shape history. He attempts (quite successfully) to answer the question: If the confluence of our core metaphors constrain the way we see the world and the paths we follow, is it the case that to change the disastrous direction of our society we must change these core metaphors? But if we hope to change them, we must both identify their essence and understand how they have evolved. With an understanding of the evolution of root metaphors, and how they constrain societal directions we may hope to change the direction of history before it is too late.

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 Marturana 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 autopoietic 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, a verb rather than a noun. 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. Mythology,culture, and cosmology then are ultimately distant evolutionary descendants of bacterial chemotaxis. 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. Critical 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 in contradiction to mainstream thinking in linguistics. 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. For instance, there are tribes with languages that have no word for left or right, only cardinal directions, members of these tribes can point to any direction on command. 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 very 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.