The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent
The Patterning Instinct explores the way humans have made meaning from the cosmos from hunter-gatherer times to the present day.
A Book review by Ian Crumpton
This book by Jeremy Lent, subtitled A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning and published by Prometheus Books in May 2017, covers the whole gamut of human prehistory and history, tracing how different cultures patterned meaning into their universe, developing their own unique understandings of it all – and how these evolving understandings have affected history. The result of ten years of research, the book offers a thesis that “culture shapes values and those values shape history.”
He begins with the hunter-gatherer worldview, which “caused them to respect the spirits of the natural world and trust nature to be a giving environment…” but gradually, as the easy pickings got picked, a different world evolved—with limitations and anxiety, requiring technological invention—the world of agriculture.
Lent traces early civilisations, and describes in detail the emergence of dualism in ancient Greece, comparing this development with ancient India, the Islamic world, and Song China: “Whereas the cognitive structure of Islamic civilisation was organised around submission to God, and gave primacy to faith, Chinese civilisation was organised around social cohesion and gave primacy to harmonising with the Tao.”
He notes how many of the conceptual foundations of our particular culture were set in Ancient Sumer, the outstanding contribution being that of writing. The Greeks then brought to bear a new toolbox of systematic and abstract thought – ground for the future emergence of science. Platonic dualism subsumed all the gods into one, inhabiting a perfect heavenly realm. But it was the Hebrew insight that because God was good, and consistent, so the earthly realm must reflect those qualities, and be orderly, consistent and coherent. These are the essential requirements for the emergence of a scientific worldview.
Lent argues that “The cognitive frames through which different cultures perceive reality have had a profound effect on their historical direction. The worldview of a given civilization—the implicit beliefs and values that create a pattern of meaning in people’s lives—has, in my opinion, been a significant driver of the historical path each civilization has taken.”
The book conducts what Lent calls an “archaeological exploration of the mind,” using findings from cognitive science and systems theory to reveal the layers of values that form cultural norms. The Patterning Instinct shows how medieval Christian rationalism acted as an incubator for scientific thought, which in turn shaped the modern vision of the “conquest of nature.” Thus the West’s scientific revolution got under way. It has spread across the whole world, coupled with western dominance, and is now unreflectively accepted by many as the norm to which all cultures should aspire. Those that don’t conform are deemed to be failures. Evaluating the sustainability crisis, Lent argues that it is culturally driven: a product of particular patterns that could be reshaped.
The book concludes by exploring scenarios for humanity’s future, foreseeing a coming struggle between two contrasting views: one driving to a technological world of artificially enhanced humans, the other enabling a sustainable future arising from connectedness among people and to the natural world.
The Patterning Instinct is a totally absorbing read, with lots of memorable passages, insights, and quotations. Guardian journalist, George Monbiot, has called it “the most profound and far-reaching book I have ever read.”