Saturday, October 19, 2019

Very Interested in These Lost Red-Headed Stepchildren....,


ineteconomics |  Under the shadow of a future darkened by climate crises, political instability, inequality, and super-human machines, how to best proceed? For some, the answer is more technology and scientific advancement; for others, better policies and political arrangements. Or some combination of these. 

Not enough, warns Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. First we’ll need to confront something deep in our psyches that prods us toward destruction. 

To get at that something, Lent traces a “cognitive history” of the human species in a book delivering big, sweeping ideas and a discipline-hopping approach drawing from neuroscience, archaeology, linguistics, and systems theory, the study of complex living systems. 

Lent argues that how we view the world arises out of language, specifically core metaphors that shape our values and culture, which in turn mold history in a reciprocal feedback loop. Cultural templates are often long lasting, but can also shift dramatically, sometimes in a generation or two. The process of cultural evolution, Lent observes, determines how well humans fare as much as the genes we inherit (there’s a feedback loop between culture and genes, too). 

As Lent sees it, you and I are in the midst one of history’s great transitions — a process which could lead to conditions far less hospitable for most, or even a total collapse of global civilization. To avoid these dire fates, we can train our brains to adopt alternative metaphors that allow us to live less destructively. 

So which metaphors are causing the trouble? For one, Lent faults a tendency to conceive a dualistic universe of binary categories, like mind and matter, reason and emotion, self and other. This framework, as the postmoderns observed, drives us to favor one category over the other and to build societies based on hierarchy and separation. 

The pattern is not universal: Lent presents evidence that early hunter-gatherers emphasized connectivity rather than separation, a mindset that engendered a more egalitarian social structure. (Unfortunately, they also lived by a metaphor of nature as an endlessly giving parent, resulting in problems like overhunting, which illustrates that even seemingly harmless metaphors can eventually lead to catastrophe).