The Future Is Not a Spectator Sport

Like all self-organized, adaptive systems, society moves in nonlinear ways. Even as our civilization unravels, a new ecological worldview is spreading globally. Will it become powerful enough to avert a cataclysm? None of us knows. Perhaps the Great Transition to an ecological civilization is already under way, but we can’t see it because we’re in the middle of it. We are all co-creating the future as part of the interconnected web of collective choices each of us makes: what to ignore, what to notice, and what to do about it.

Excerpted from The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe (published in June in the UK, and available July 13 in the US).

The nonlinearity of history

There are many good reasons to watch the unfolding catastrophe of our civilization’s accelerating drive to the precipice and believe it’s already too late. The unremitting increase in carbon emissions, the ceaseless devastation of the living Earth, the hypocrisy and corruption of our political leaders, and our corporate-owned media’s strategy of ignoring the topics that matter most to humanity’s future—all these factors come together like a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut driving our society toward breaking point. As a result, an increasing number of people are beginning to reconcile themselves to a terminal diagnosis for civilization. In the assessment of sustainability leader Jem Bendell, founder of the growing Deep Adaptation movement, we should wake up to the reality that “we face inevitable near-term societal collapse.”

Our civilization certainly appears to be undergoing profound transition. But it remains uncertain what that transition will look like, and even more obscure what new societal paradigm will re-emerge once the smoke clears. A cataclysmic collapse leaving the few survivors in a grim dark age? A Fortress Earth condemning most of humanity to a wretched struggle for subsistence while a morally bankrupt minority pursue their affluent lifestyles? Or can we retain enough of humanity’s accumulated knowledge, wisdom, and moral integrity to recreate our civilization from within, in a form that can survive the turmoil ahead?

An important lesson from history is that—like all self-organized, adaptive systems—society changes in nonlinear ways. Events take unanticipated swerves that only make sense when analyzed retroactively. These can be catastrophic, such as the onset of a world war or civilizational collapse, but frequently they lead to unexpectedly positive outcomes. When a dozen or so Quakers gathered in London in 1785 to create a movement to end slavery, it would have seemed improbable that slavery would be abolished within half a century throughout the British Empire, would spur a civil war in the United States, and eventually become illegal worldwide. When Emmeline Pankhurst founded the National Union for Women’s Suffrage in 1897, it took ten years of struggle to muster a few thousand courageous women to join her on a march in London—but within a couple of decades, women were gaining the right to vote across the world.

Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King Jr., Tarana Burke: their impact is evidence of the nonlinearity of history

In recent decades, history has continued to surprise those who scoff at the potential for dramatic positive change. It took eight years from Rosa Parks being arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech inspired the nation—leading to the Civil Rights Act being passed into law the following year. In 2006, civil rights activist Tarana Burke used the phrase “Me Too” to raise awareness of sexual assault; she couldn’t have known that, ten years later, it would potentiate a movement to transform abusive cultural norms.

The rise of an ecological worldview

Might people one day look back on our era and say something similar about the rise of a new ecological civilization concealed within the folds of one that was dying? A profusion of groups is already laying the groundwork for virtually all the components of a life-affirming civilization. In the United States, the visionary Climate Justice Alliance has laid out the principles for a just transition from an extractive to a regenerative economy. In Bolivia and Ecuador, traditional ecological principles of buen vivir and sumak kawsay (“good living’) are written into the constitution. In Europe, large-scale cooperatives, such as Mondragon in Spain, demonstrate that it’s possible for companies to provide effectively for human needs without utilizing a shareholder-based profit model.

Meanwhile, a new ecological worldview is spreading globally throughout cultural, political, and religious institutions, establishing common ground with Indigenous traditions that have sustained their knowledge worldwide for millennia. The core principles of an ecological civilization have already been set out in the Earth Charter—an ethical framework launched in The Hague in 2000 and endorsed by over six thousand organizations worldwide, including many governments. In China, leading thinkers espouse a New Confucianism, calling for a cosmopolitan, planetary-wide ecological approach to reintegrating humanity with nature. In 2015, Pope Francis shook the Catholic establishment by issuing his encyclical, Laudato Si’, a masterpiece of ecological philosophy that demonstrates the deep interconnectedness of all life, and calls for a rejection of the individualist, neoliberal paradigm.

Perhaps most importantly, a people’s movement for life-affirming change is spreading around the world. When Greta Thunberg skipped school in August 2018 to draw attention to the climate emergency outside the Swedish parliament, she sat alone for days. Less than a year later, over one and half million schoolchildren joined her in a worldwide protest to rouse their parents’ generation from their slumber. A month after Extinction Rebellion demonstrators closed down Central London in April 2019 to draw attention to the world’s dire plight, the UK Parliament announced a “climate emergency”—something that has now been declared by nearly two thousand jurisdictions worldwide comprising over a billion citizens. Meanwhile, a growing campaign of “Earth Protectors” is working to establish ecocide as a crime prosecutable by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The campaign to Stop Ecocide is just one example of rising movements that may transform our future

Is this enough? Can the collective power of these movements stand up to the inexorable force of corporate capitalism that so tightly maintains its stranglehold on the political, cultural, and economic systems of the world? When we consider the immensity of the transformation needed, the odds look daunting. Those nonlinear historical shifts described earlier—while revolutionary in their own way—were ultimately absorbed into the capitalist system, which has the tenacity of the mythical multi-headed hydra. The transformation needed now requires a metamorphosis of  virtually every aspect of the human experience, including our values, goals, and behavioral norms. A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event, on the scale of the Agricultural Revolution that launched civilization, or the Scientific Revolution that engendered the modern world. And in this case, we don’t have the millennia or centuries those revolutions took to unfold—this one must occur within a few decades, at most.

Is the Great Transition already under way?

Daunting, yes—but it’s too soon to say whether such a transformation is impossible. There are powerful reasons why such a drastic change could come to pass far more rapidly than many people might expect. The same tight coupling between global systems that increases the risk of civilizational collapse also facilitates the breakneck speed at which deeper, systemic changes can now occur. The world’s initial reaction to the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 showed how quickly the entire economic system can respond when a recognizably clear and present danger emerges. The vast bulk of humanity is now so tightly interconnected through the internet that a pertinent trigger—such as the horrifying spectacle of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis by a police officer—can set off street protests within days throughout the world.

Most importantly, as the world system begins to unravel on account of its internal failings, the strands that kept the old system tightly interconnected also get loosened. Every year that we head closer to a breakdown, as greater climate-related disasters rear up, as the outrages of racial and economic injustice become even more egregious, and as life for most people becomes increasingly intolerable, the old story loses its hold on humanity’s collective consciousness. As waves of young people come of age, they will increasingly reject what their parents’ generation told them. They will look about for a new worldview—one that makes sense of the current unraveling, one that offers them a future they can believe in. People who lived through the Industrial Revolution had no name for the changes they were undergoing—it was a century before it received its title. Perhaps the Great Transition to an ecological civilization is already under way, but we can’t see it because we’re in the middle of it.

Waves of young people coming of age will increasingly reject what their parents’ generation told them

As you weigh these issues, there is no need to decide whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. Ultimately, it’s a moot point. As author Rebecca Solnit observes, both positions merely become excuses for inaction: optimists believe things will work out fine without them; pessimists believe nothing they do can make things better. There is, however, every reason for hope—hope, not as a prognostication, but as an attitude of active engagement in co-creating that future. Hope, in the resounding words of dissident statesman Václav Havel, is “a state of mind, not a state of the world.” It is a “deep orientation of the human soul that can be held at the darkest times . . . an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

This points to the most important characteristic of the future: it is something that we are all co-creating as part of the interconnected web of our collective thoughts, ideas, and actions. The future is not a spectator sport. It’s not something constructed by others, but by the collective choices each of us makes every day: choices of what to ignore, what to notice, and what to do about it.

Coming back to life

We live in a world designed to keep us numb—a culture spiked with innumerable doses of spiritual anesthesia concocted to bind us to the hedonic treadmill, to shuffle along with everyone else in a “consensus trance.” We are conditioned from early infancy to become zombie agents of our growth-based capitalist system—to find our appropriate role as consumer, enforcer, or sacrificial victim, as the case may be, and exhaust our energy to expedite its goal of sucking the life out of our humanity and nature’s abundance.

But, powerful as its hold is, we have the potential to shed our cultural conditioning. As we learn to open our eyes that have been sealed shut by our dominant culture, we can discern the meaning that was always there waiting for us. We can awaken to our true nature as humans on this Earth, feel the life within ourselves that we share with all other beings, and recognize our common identity as a moral community asserting the primacy of core human values. As we open awareness to our interbeing, our ecological self, we can experience ourselves as “life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live”—and realize the deep purpose of our existence on Earth to tend Gaia and participate fully in its ancient, sacred insurgence against the forces of entropy.

There are many effective methods to shed the layers of conditioning. Each person’s pathway is unique. Some choose extended time in nature; others may utilize psychedelic insights, learn from Indigenous groups, engage in meditation or embodied practices, or simply open up to the deep animate nature within themselves. The trail has already been blazed by those who have assumed their sacred responsibilities and developed on-ramps for others in their wake. Ecophilosopher Joanna Macy, for example, has developed a set of transformative practices, called The Work that Reconnects, offered in communities worldwide, that helps people navigate the steps of what she calls “coming back to life.” Beginning with gratitude, it spirals into a full acceptance of the Earth’s heartbreak—the willingness, in Thích Nhât Hanh’s words, “to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.”

In Thích Nhât Hanh’s words, we have the power to shed our layers of conditioning and “hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying”

Absorbing this pain, however, doesn’t mean wallowing in it. Rather than giving way to despair, it instead becomes a springboard to action. As such, The Work that Reconnects leads its participants to experience the deep interconnectedness of all things, and continue the spiral into conscious, active engagement. As Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming noted: “There have never been people who know but do not act. Those who are supposed to know but do not act simply do not yet know.” You know when you’ve reached the place of fully experiencing the Earth’s heartbreak, because you suddenly realize you are drawn to action—not because you think you should do something, but because you are impelled to do it.


Explore The Web of Meaning further on Jeremy Lent’s website. The book is now available for purchase in the UK and in the USA/Canada.

Introduction to The Web of Meaning

As our civilization careens toward a precipice of climate breakdown, ecological destruction, and gaping inequality, people are losing their existential moorings. Our dominant worldview has passed its expiration date: it’s based on a series of flawed assumptions that have been superseded by modern scientific findings.

The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe (published this week in the UK, next month in the US), offers a coherent and intellectually solid foundation for an alternative worldview based on deep interconnectedness, showing how modern scientific knowledge echoes the ancient wisdom of earlier cultures.

Here is the Introduction.

Tea with Uncle Bob

We could call it The Speech. You’ve probably heard it many times. Maybe you’ve even given it. Every day around the world, innumerable versions of it are delivered by Someone Who Seems to Know what they’re talking about.

It doesn’t seem like much. Just another part of life’s daily conversations. But every Speech, linked together, helps to lock our entire society up in a mental cage. It might occur anywhere in the world, from a construction site in Kansas to a market stall in Delhi. It can be given by anyone old enough to have learned a thing or two about how it all works. But it’s usually delivered by someone who feels they’ve been around the block a few times and they want to give you the benefit of their wisdom.

Because I grew up in London, I’ll zoom in there to a particular version of The Speech that reverberates with me. It’s an occasional family gathering—one of those events where toddlers take center stage and aunties serve second helpings of cake. It’s tea-time, and a few of us are gathered around, talking about the state of the world. Someone comments on what’s wrong with our system and how things could be so much better—but Uncle Bob happens to be in the group, and before you know it, it’s too late. The Speech is about to begin.

“Let’s face it,” Uncle Bob declares to the group, “it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Every man for himself. For all your ideas about making the world a better place, when it comes down to it, everyone’s just interested in their own skin. It’s a rat race. That’s the way all of nature works. That’s how we’ve been programmed. The survival of the fittest.”

Does any of this sound familiar to you? It’s only too familiar to those of us at the tea party. Uncle Bob sees some glazed faces looking back at him, so he feels the need to add a few more pointers to his oration.

“Look,” he leans forward conspiratorially, “it’s like this. People like you want to change the world. But when you’ve had the experience I’ve had, you’ll know better. Our society is structured this way simply because that’s what works best. They tried communism—and you know what happened to that. For all the complaining people do, they’ve never had it so good. Look at our amazing technology, look at all the progress we’ve made in the past few hundred years. You can thank capitalism for that. The fact is, it works so well, because at the end of the day people are selfish—they look out for themselves. Capitalism takes that selfishness and turns it into progress—it lets people become entrepreneurs, which makes all of us better off. That’s what they call . . . the invisible hand, isn’t it?”

Game over. Whatever ideas were being floated about improving society just wafted out the window. Uncle Bob pauses. The conversation comes to a halt, until someone pipes up: “How’s little Penny doing with her dancing lessons?”—and the tea party rolls on.

This type of conversation takes place with regularity around the world because it channels the themes we hear every day from those in a position of authority—from talking heads on TV, from successful businesspeople, from teachers, from school textbooks. Even when the Speech is not given explicitly, its ideas seep into our daily thoughts. Every time a newscaster reports on prospects for economic growth; every time a TV commercial hypes the latest consumer product; every time an exciting new technology is touted as the solution to climate change, the underlying themes of the Speech insidiously tighten their grip on our collective consciousness.

Talking heads collectively reinforce our dominant worldview

The flaws in our dominant worldview

Distilled to their essence, these themes come down to a few basic building blocks: Humans are selfish individuals. All creatures are selfish—in fact, selfish genes are the driving force of evolution. Nature is just a very complex machine, and human ingenuity has, for the most part, figured out how it works. The modern world is the spectacular result of technology enabled by the market forces of capitalism, and in spite of occasional setbacks, it’s continually improving. There may be problems, such as global poverty or climate change, but technology, powered by the market, will solve them—just as it always has in the past.

These basic elements, give or take a few, form the foundation of the predominant worldview. They infuse much of what is accepted as indisputably true in most conversations that take place about world affairs. They are so pervasive that most of us never question them. We feel they must be based on solid facts—why else would all those people in positions of authority rely on them? That’s the characteristic that makes a worldview so powerful. Like fish that don’t realize they’re swimming in water because it’s all they know, we tend to assume that our worldview simply describes the world the way it is—rather than recognizing it’s a constructed lens that shapes our thoughts and ideas into certain preconditioned patterns.

This book investigates the dominant worldview and shows that, in fact, every one of those building blocks is flawed. They were formed, in their modern version, mostly by a small group of men in seventeenth-century Europe, and further developed in the centuries that followed by other mostly European men. This worldview has accomplished a lot. It wrested intellectual control from the hidebound superstitions of traditional Christian theology, and laid the foundation for modern science—one of humanity’s greatest achievements. But it has also been an underlying cause of the horrendous devastation suffered by non-European peoples and cultures, and boundless destruction of the natural world. And the fundamental flaws in its construction have now become so gaping that they threaten the very survival of our civilization—and much of the living Earth.

Many people across the globe are realizing that there is something terribly wrong with the direction our world is headed. The inequities are so extreme that a couple of dozen billionaires own as much wealth as half the world’s population. Our civilization is devastating the Earth at an ever-increasing pace. There has been a 68 percent decline in animal populations since 1970. Greenhouse gas emissions have caused the climate to lurch out of control, creating conditions that haven’t existed on Earth for millions of years. Fires, storms, droughts, and floods that used to be called “once in a century” have become a regular staple of our daily news.

Look ahead a few decades, and things become downright terrifying. We’re on track, by the middle of this century, to see the annihilation of coral reefs worldwide, 95 percent of arable land degraded, and five billion people facing water shortages—and at the current rate, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Without drastic changes, as we approach the later part of the century, the Amazon rainforest will have become a searing desert, the Sixth Great Extinction of species will be well under way, and as a result of climate breakdown, civilization as we know it will likely be tottering on its last legs.

A new foundation for our civilization

At our current trajectory, humanity is headed for catastrophe. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we want to steer our civilization on another course, though, it’s not enough to make a few incremental improvements here and there. We need to take a long, hard look at the faulty ideas that have brought us to this place, and reimagine them. We need a new worldview—one that is based on sturdy foundations.

Imagine someone laying foundations for a single story house. If there are a few cracks, they will probably get away with it. But suppose generations of people keep adding new stories until they’ve built a skyscraper on the faulty foundation. As the building begins teetering, engineers might frantically attach extra girders and struts, but it will eventually collapse unless they pay attention to fixing the flaws in the foundation. That’s the situation our civilization faces right now.

Our worldview is like the foundation of a house: if it’s faulty, everything might collapse

This book lays out an entirely different foundation for a civilization that could lead us sustainably through this century and beyond. It reveals the flaws hidden within the current worldview, showing how certain erroneous ideas became so entrenched in popular thinking that they simply got taken for granted—and how that has led to our current predicament. Most importantly, it shows how the combined insights of traditional wisdom and modern scientific thinking offer a solid, integrated foundation for a different worldview—one that could redirect human civilization onto a very different trajectory, and offer future generations a flourishing world in which to thrive.

Why worldviews matter

The reason a worldview is so important is that it imbues virtually every aspect of the way people think, what they value, and how they act—without them even realizing it. Worldviews lead different cultures to respond to their reality in fundamentally different ways. If you believe that all living beings are family, you will treat them in a different way than if you think the natural world is a resource to be exploited. If you think other humans are inherently cooperative, you’ll approach a person differently than if you think that, ultimately, everyone is selfish and competitive. If you presume that technology can fix our biggest problems, you won’t feel the need to consider the underlying systems that caused those problems to arise in the first place.

In my earlier book, The Patterning Instinct, I looked at major worldviews through history, investigating how different cultures structured patterns of meaning into the universe from humanity’s earliest days in nomadic hunter-gatherer bands to modern times. One overarching theme emerged from The Patterning Instinct: a culture’s worldview shapes its values—and those values shape history. By the same token, the values according to which we conduct our lives today will shape the future. Ultimately, the direction of history is determined by the dominant culture’s worldview.

An integrated worldview

The Web of Meaning takes up where The Patterning Instinct left off, by laying out a framework for a worldview that could foster humanity’s long-term flourishing on a healthy planet. It is a worldview of integration: one that identifies the unifying principles that flow through all things, while celebrating the differences that lead to the richness of our lived experience. It’s a worldview that links together scientific findings in recent decades from such diverse fields as evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, and complexity theory, showing how they affirm profound insights from the world’s great wisdom traditions, such as Buddhism, Taoism, and traditional knowledge from Indigenous peoples around the world.

This integrated worldview breaks down many of the barriers that tend to separate different forms of knowledge and activity in modern society. We’re accustomed to thinking of science as existing in a different domain than spirituality. We generally view the intellect as distinct from emotion; the mind as separate from the body; humans as separate from nature; and spiritual insight as separate from political engagement. In the integrated worldview laid out here, each one of these domains is intricately connected with the others in an extended web of meaning.

An integrated worldview shows how everything relates within an intricate web of meaning

There are certain existential questions virtually every person asks at some time in their lives: Who am I? Where am I? What am I? How should I live?, and ultimately Why am I? The book is organized into sections according to these questions. For each one, we’ll investigate underlying flaws in the typical explanations provided by the dominant worldview, then explore the richly resonant answers offered by the intertwining of current scientific understanding with the deep insights of traditional wisdom. Finally, we’ll tackle the question many of us are anxiously asking right now: Where are we going?

Uncle Bob and me

These are all questions that I pondered during a period in my life when the structures of meaning I’d constructed for myself seemed to crash around me. For much of my own life, Uncle Bob’s statements had seemed irrefutably true. In fact, like many others, I built my life on their basis. I received my M.B.A at the University of Chicago where the precepts of free market capitalism were drummed into me. Finding myself in the San Francisco Bay Area at the onset of the dot com era, I founded the world’s first online credit card issuer, which I took public as its chief executive officer.

However, shortly after my company’s IPO, my wife developed early symptoms of the serious illness that would eventually lead to her untimely death. I left my executive role to care for her full-time—but the company was not yet firmly established, and within a couple of years it had become another casualty of the dot com bust. With my wife suffering cognitive decline from her illness, I found myself isolated—bereft of companionship, friends, and the prestige of success.

At that time, I made a solemn promise to myself that whatever path I chose for the rest of my life would be one that was truly meaningful. But where did meaning arise? Having traversed a road that seemed like a dead end, I was determined not to rely on someone else’s determination of what was meaningful. I thus began my own deep investigation into the sources of meaning, which launched a comprehensive research project lasting over ten years, resulting in both The Patterning Instinct and this book.

Something I learned on that journey, and which will become clear through the book, is that one’s personal search for meaning cannot be isolated from all that is going on in the world around us. In the pages that follow, as we trace the intimate connections that link our lives to those in our community, to all of humanity, and to the entire living Earth, we’ll discover how inextricably we are all interrelated—and explore some of the profound implications arising from that relatedness.

We’ll encounter many fascinating and unexpected revelations along the way. We’ll come across slime molds with the intelligence to solve mazes and design sophisticated road networks. We’ll discover how Chinese sages from a thousand years ago provided a framework that elucidates the radical findings of modern systems theorists. We’ll explore the stunning virtuosity of a single cell, and identify how the deep purpose of life reveals itself all around us—and within us. We’ll learn what ant colonies and flocks of starlings can teach us about our own consciousness. We’ll find out what Joni Mitchell got wrong in her environmental anthem “Big Yellow Taxi”—and what Michael Jackson got right when he sang “We Are the World.” We’ll see how our modern society has been consciously designed to sabotage our well-being, and how, by learning and applying life’s own principles, we can build an alternative civilization that could allow future generations to prosper on a flourishing Earth.


Explore The Web of Meaning further on Jeremy Lent’s website. The book is available for purchase now in the UK and preorder in the USA/Canada.


Upcoming UK Book Launch Events

Please find the date that works best for you and register online in advance.

Wed 16 June, 18:30 BST (10:30 am Pacific) | 1 hour 
Jeremy in conversation with Anna Murray, co-founder of Patternity followed by Q&A. Register here.

Thu 17 June, 18:00 BST (10:00 am Pacific) | 1 hour
Jeremy in conversation with Indra Adnan and Pat Kane, co-founders of Alternative UK, followed by Q&A. Register here.

Wed 30 June, 20:00 BST (12:00 pm Pacific) | 1 hour
Earth Talk: Weaving a New Story of Meaning hosted by Schumacher College.
Jeremy will give a presentation followed by Q&A. Register here.

Announcing the launch of The Web of Meaning

I’m excited to share with you news about the upcoming launch of my new book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe.

As our civilization careens toward climate breakdown, ecological destruction, and gaping inequality, the dominant worldview of disconnection has passed its expiration date. It’s not just dangerous—it’s based on a series of flawed assumptions that have been superseded by modern scientific findings.

The Web of Meaning—which may be considered a “sequel” to The Patterning Instinct—offers a coherent and intellectually solid foundation for an alternative worldview based on deep interconnectedness, showing how modern scientific knowledge echoes the ancient wisdom of earlier cultures.
 
Weaving together findings from modern systems thinking, evolutionary biology, and cognitive neuroscience with insights from Buddhism, Taoism, and Indigenous wisdom, it offers a rigorous and integrated way of understanding our place in the cosmos that can serve as a philosophical foundation for a life-affirming future.

The book has received a number of enthusiastic early endorsements from luminaries such as Gabor Maté, Bill McKibben, Joanna Macy, Fritjof Capra, Dan Siegel, Frans de Waal, and Satish Kumar, among others. You can read them all here

The book will be released on June 17 in the UK and July 13 in the USA/Canada. It’s already available to preorder: Amazon UK | Amazon USA. If you’d rather avoid buying on Amazon, here are other options: Bookshop.orgNew Society PublishersProfile Books (multiple UK choices).

You can read more about the book on my website where you can explore its themes and download the Introduction.

WATCH THE TRAILER


SELECTED ADVANCE PRAISE 

“One of the most essential and compelling books of our time. It invites us to rethink at the deepest level who we are as a species and what we might become.”
— David Korten, author, When Corporations Rule the World 

“A profound personal meditation on human existence and a tour-de-force weaving together of historic and contemporary thought on the deepest question of all: why are we here?” 
— Gabor Maté M.D., author, In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction

“We need, now more than ever, to figure out how to make all kinds of connections. This book can help-—and therefore it can help with a lot of the urgent tasks we face.”
— Bill McKibben, author, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

“The opportunity to plunge into this book will change my life. My gratitude, like spirit, is endless.”
— Joanna Macy, author, World As Lover, World As Self

“Lent is one of today’s most eloquent cultural observers. I highly recommend this inspiring book to anyone concerned about the future of humanity.”
— Fritjof Capra, author, The Web of Life, coauthor, The Systems View of Life

 “Moving from the ancient Tao to modern neuroscience and everything in between, Lent boldly weaves deep insights together to envision a better world.”
— Frans de Waal, author, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves

“This thoughtful and passionate work is an important contribution to the urgently needed cultural shift from domination to partnership.”
— Riane Eisler, author, The Chalice and the Blade, The Real Wealth of Nations, and Nurturing Our Humanity.

 “An important and rationally argued primer for universal flourishing.”
— Douglas Rushkoff, author, Team Human

 “A beautiful synthesis of wisdom and empirical knowledge, this erudite journey offers an important way to construct a new narrative of our shared lives.”
 — Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., author, Mind, Aware, and IntraConnected

“A good place to sit for anybody interested in binding the wounds of thoughtless progress and allowing the emergence of new patterns of being.”
— Tyson Yunkaporta, author, Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World

READ WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING ABOUT THE BOOK 

Culture Shift: Redirecting Humanity’s Path to a Flourishing Future

Published in Open Democracy | Transformation, March 20, 2018.

It’s time to build a new worldview around a deeper sense of connectedness.

What do all these ideas have in common—a tax on carbon, big investments in renewable energy, a livable minimum wage, and freely accessible healthcare? The answer is that we need all of them, but even taken together they’re utterly insufficient to redirect humanity away from impending catastrophe and toward a truly flourishing future.

That’s because the problems these ideas are designed to solve, critical as they are, are symptoms of an even more profound problem: the implicit values of a global economic and political system that is driving civilization toward a precipice.

Even with the best of intentions, those actively working to reform the current system are a bit like software engineers valiantly trying to fix multiple bugs in a faulty software program: each fix complicates the code, leading inevitably to a new set of bugs that require even more heroic workarounds. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the problem isn’t just the software: an entirely new operating system is required to get where we need to go.

Searching for a foundation of meaning

This realization dawned on me gradually over the years I spent researching my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. My research began as a personal search for meaning. I’d been through a personal crisis when the certainties on which I’d built my early life came crashing down around me. I wanted my life going forward to be truly meaningful—but based on what foundation? I was determined to sort through the received narratives of meaning until I came across a foundation I could really believe in.

My drive to answer these questions led me to explore the patterns of meaning that different cultures throughout history have constructed. Just like peeling an onion, I realized that one layer of meaning frequently covered deeper layers that structure the daily thoughts and values that most people take for granted. It was a journey of nearly ten years, during which I dedicated myself to deep research in disciplines such as neuroscience, history and anthropology.

terrace_field_yunnan_china_denoised.jpg
Throughout history, cultures have created different patterns of meaning. | Honghe Hani Rice Terraces in Yunnan Province, China.. Credit: By Jialiang Gao, http://www.peace-on-earth.org | Original Photograph via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Finally, I discovered that what makes humans unique is that we—to a greater extent than any other species—have what I call a ‘patterning instinct:’ we are driven to pattern meaning into our world. That drive is what led humans to develop language, myth, and culture. It enabled us to invent tools and develop science, giving us tremendous benefits but also putting us on a collision course with the natural world.

Root metaphors underlie cultural frames of meaning

Each culture tends to construct its worldview on a root metaphor of the universe, which in turn defines people’s relationship to nature and each other, ultimately leading to a set of values that directs how that culture behaves. It’s those culturally derived values that have shaped history.

Early hunter-gatherers, for example, understood nature as a ‘giving parent,’ seeing themselves as part of a large extended family, intrinsically connected with the spirits of the natural world around them. When agriculture first emerged about twelve thousand years ago, new values such as property, hierarchy and wealth appeared, leading early civilizations to view the universe as dominated by a hierarchy of gods who required propitiation through worship, ritual and sacrifice.

Beginning with the ancient Greeks, a radically new, dualistic way of thinking about the universe emerged, conceiving a split cosmos divided between a heavenly domain of eternal abstraction and a worldly domain polluted with imperfection. This cosmological split was paralleled by the conception of a split human being composed of an eternal soul temporarily imprisoned in a physical body that is destined to die. Christianity, the world’s first systematic dualistic cosmology, built on the Greek model by placing the source of meaning in an external God in the heavens, while the natural world became merely a desacralized theater for the human drama to be enacted.

The Christian cosmos set the stage for the modern worldview that emerged in seventeenth century Europe with the Scientific Revolution. The belief in the divinity of reason, inherited from the ancient Greeks, served as an inspiration for the scientific discoveries of pioneers such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, who all believed that they were glimpsing ‘the mind of God.’

The flawed operating system underlying modern culture

But the worldview that inspired these breakthroughs had a darker side. The Scientific Revolution was built on metaphors such as ‘nature as a machine’ and ‘conquering nature’ which have shaped the values and behaviors of the modern age. The entailments of a dualistic cosmos inherited from the Greeks have defined our received beliefs, many of which we accept implicitly even though they are based on flawed assumptions.

We are told that humans are fundamentally selfish—indeed even our genes are selfish—and that an efficiently functioning society is one where everyone rationally pursues their own self-interest. We accept technocratic fixes to problems that require more integrated, systemic solutions on the premise that nature is just a very complicated machine—one that is entirely separate from humanity.

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The “selfish gene” is just one of the pervasive—and deeply flawed—metaphors of our modern age

Continued growth in Gross Domestic Product is seen as the basis for economic and political success, even though GDP measures nothing more than the rate at which we are transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, no matter how beneficial or harmful it may be. And the world’s financial markets are based on the belief that the global economy will keep growing indefinitely even though that is impossible on a finite planet. ‘No problem,’ we are told, since technology will always find a new solution.

These underlying flaws in our global operating system stem ultimately from a sense of disconnection. Our minds and bodies, reason and emotion are seen as split parts within ourselves. Human beings are understood as individuals separated from each other, and humanity as a whole is perceived as separate from nature. At the deepest level, it is this sense of separation that is inexorably leading human civilization to potential disaster.

Connectedness as a foundation for human flourishing

However, the same human patterning instinct that has brought us to this precipice is also capable of turning us around and onto a path of sustainable flourishing. We have the capacity to build an alternative worldview around a sense of connectedness within the web of life—a sense shared by indigenous cultures around the world from the earliest times.

I’ve seen this idea disparaged as a New Agey, kumbaya-style mentality even by otherwise progressive thinkers. However, modern scientific findings validate the underlying connectedness of all living beings. Insights from complexity theory and systems biology show that the connections between things are frequently more important than the things themselves. Life itself is now understood as a self-organizing, self-regenerating complex that extends like a fractal at ever-increasing scale, from a single cell to the global system of life on Earth.

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Nature as fractal: river in Malaysia | Paul Bourke | Google Earth Fractals

Human beings, too, are best understood not by their selfish drives for power but by cooperation, group identity, and a sense of fair play. In contrast to chimpanzees, who are obsessed with competing against each other, human beings evolved to become the most cooperative of primates, working collaboratively on complex tasks and creating communities with shared values and practices that became the basis for culture and civilization. In the view of prominent evolutionary psychologists, it was our intrinsic sense of fairness that led to the evolutionary success of our species and created the cognitive foundation for crucial values of the modern world such as freedom, equality and representative government.

Just as the values of previous generations shaped history, so the values we collectively choose to live by today will shape our future. The cognitive patterns instilled in us by the dominant culture are the results of a particular worldview that arose at a specific time and place in human history. This worldview has now passed its expiration date. It is causing enormous unnecessary suffering throughout the globe and driving our civilization toward collapse.

Rather than trying to transcend what we are, our most important task is to peel away this received worldview, reach within ourselves to feel our deepest motivations as living beings embedded in the web of life, and act on them.

Stepping Back from the Brink


George Monbiot, acclaimed Guardian columnist and environmental thought leader, wrote this piece today about The Patterning Instinct. I’m republishing it here verbatim.



An astonishing new field of enquiry explores the deep changes that could avert a planetary disaster

By George Monbiot, published on monbiot.com, 31st January 2018

George_Monbiot___The_Guardian

We know where we’re going. For many years, scientists have warned that we are crashing through the Earth’s ecological limits. We know we are in the midst of climate breakdown and ecological collapse. Yet we seem constitutionally incapable of acting on this knowledge.

The United States has elected a man who promised to unleash a gigantic ecological tantrum, and has, unfortunately, delivered. The UK government has produced 150 pages of greenwash it calls the 25 Year Environment Plan: the same gutless twaddle governments have been publishing for the past 25 years. As always, it was described in some quarters as “a good start”. No policy, anywhere, is commensurate with the scale of the challenge we face.

So what stops us from responding? For years, I’ve suspected that the cause runs even deeper than the power of big business and the official obsession with economic growth, potent as these forces are. Now, thanks to the most profound and far-reaching book I have ever read, I feel I’m beginning to understand what it might be.

Jeremy Lent’s The Patterning Instinct was published a few months ago, but it has taken me this long to process, as almost every page caused me to rethink what I held to be true. Bringing together cultural history with neuroscience, Lent develops a new discipline he calls cognitive history.

From infancy, our minds are shaped by the culture we grow into, which lays trails we learn to follow, like paths through a field of tall grass. Helping us to construct these patterns of meaning are powerful root metaphors embedded in our language. Without our conscious knowledge, they guide the choices we make.

Lent argues that the peculiar character of Western religious and scientific thought, that has come to dominate the rest of the world, has pushed both human civilisation and the rest of the living world to the brink of collapse. But he also shows how, through comprehending its metaphors and patterns, we can step off our path and develop new trails through the field of grass, leading us away from the precipice at its edge.

There are many points at which we could begin, but perhaps a crucial one is to understand the influence of Plato’s thought on early Christian theology. He proposed an ideal world perceived by the soul, existing in a separate sphere from the material world experienced by the body. To arrive at pure knowledge, which exists above the material world, the soul must be detached from the body’s senses and desires. He helped to establish a deep frame in Western cognition, associating the capacity for abstract thought with the soul, the soul with truth, and truth with immortality.

Some early Christian thinkers, in particular Augustine, took these metaphors further, until not only the human body but the entire natural world came to be seen as anathema, distracting and corrupting the soul. We should hate our life in this world, to secure life in the next.

Christianity, in turn, exerted a powerful influence over modern scientific cognition. Far from breaking with previous patterns of thought, Rene Descartes’s famous belief that he consisted of “a substance whose whole essence or nature is to think and whose being requires no place and depends on no material thing” was an extension of Platonic and Christian cosmologies, with a crucial difference: he substituted mind for soul.

If our identity is established only in the mind, then, as the Christians insisted, our body and the rest of nature, being incapable of reason, has no intrinsic value. Descartes was explicit about this: he insisted that there is no difference “between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.” The mind or soul was sacred, while the natural world possessed neither innate worth nor meaning. It existed to be remorselessly dissected and exploited.

This worldview underpinned the scientific revolution, which brought us the astonishing marvels and benefits that have transformed our lives. But it also embedded in our minds some catastrophic root metaphors, that help to explain our current relationship to the living world. Among them are the notions of human detachment from nature, our dominion over nature, nature as a machine and, more recently, the mind as software and the body as hardware.

These root metaphors continue to inform public discourse. Richard Dawkins, for example, has argued that “a bat is a machine, whose internal electronics are so wired up that its wing muscles cause it to home in on insects”. If a machine with the complexity, self-organisation and self-perpetuation of a bat has been developed, Professor Dawkins should tell us where to find it.

In a world that is supposed to lack inherent value, but in which many of us have lost our belief in either the immortal soul or the sanctity of pure reason, we face a void of meaning. We seek to fill it with a frenzy of consumerism. To change our behaviour, Lent contends, we need to change our root metaphors.

This doesn’t mean we should abandon science: far from it. The study of complex systems reveals nature as a series of self-organised, self-regenerating systems whose components are connected to each other in ways that were, until recently, scarcely imaginable. It shows that, as the great conservationist John Muir proposed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Far from standing aside from nature or being able to dominate it, we are embedded in it, intimately connected to processes we can never fully control. It allows us, potentially, to see the universe itself as a web of meaning: a powerful new root metaphor that could, perhaps, change the way we live.

There is plenty of work to do, to translate these insights into a practical politics. But it seems to me that Lent has explained why, despite our knowledge and even our intentions, we continue to follow our path to the precipice. To solve a problem, we need first to understand it: this is what “a good start” looks like. We cannot change the destination until we change the path.

Resisting Trump? Five Tips from the Hunter-Gatherer Playbook

[Article published in Common Dreams, AlterNet, Resilience, and CounterPunch]


Our egalitarian hunter-gatherer ancestors developed sophisticated social technologies for keeping upstarts in check. What can the popular resistance movement learn from them in confronting the worst excesses of Donald Trump?


The recent election results in Virginia and elsewhere suggest that the tide may be turning away from the egregious behavior exhibited by Donald Trump, and back toward a sense of decency in American politics. How can we keep that momentum going over the next three years?

In researching my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, I realized that a greater understanding of hunter-gatherer values and practices offers a valuable perspective on our own social and political interactions, including some hints on how our contemporary industrialized society can rein in the behavior of a rogue leader such as Donald Trump.

Nomadic hunter-gatherers do things very differently from modern societies, yet their way of life was the ubiquitous human experience until approximately the past ten thousand years when agriculture emerged. During that time, humans evolved some of the key characteristics that make us unique among primates: a sense of fair play, shared intentions, and community-based ethics.

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Hunter-gatherers used sophisticated social technologies to keep upstarts in place

Hunter-gatherer communities were invariably egalitarian. There was no “big chief” who lorded it over everyone else. Yet they had to work hard to maintain their egalitarian values in the face of upstarts who demonstrated bullying, arrogance, and narcissism. In doing so, they developed a set of sophisticated and powerful group dynamics. Is there anything we can learn from their playbook that can apply to the popular resistance movement confronting those same characteristics that Donald Trump exudes on a daily basis?

Consider the story of anthropologist Richard Lee, who gave the tribe of !Kung foragers, with whom he’d been living, the best Christmas gift he could procure: a fat, meaty ox for their feast. But instead of gratitude, he received nothing but insults: it was the skinniest “sack of guts and bones,” they told him, that they had ever seen. Even while they spent two days feasting on it, they kept complaining: “It gives us pain to be served such a scrawny thing.”

Only later did Lee discover that this was the !Kung’s normal response to a hunter who returns with a big kill. Instead of praising him, the group ridicules his achievements and speaks of his meat as worthless, even while they’re enjoying it. This way, Lee discovered, they prevent a hunter from swelling up with pride and thinking of himself as a “big man” or a chief.

Around the world, hunter-gatherer bands viewed Trump-like attributes as a serious threat to the smooth functioning of their communities, and they worked hard to keep them in check before they got out of control. As a !Kung elder explained to Richard Lee, “When a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”

Another common practice was for hunters to exchange their uniquely identifiable arrows with each other before a hunt. After a kill, the person who portioned out the meat to the band—thus temporarily holding power in the group—was the one whose arrow killed the prey, not the one who shot it. Through this ingenious method, power remained dispersed and randomized instead of becoming concentrated with the most skillful hunter.

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Hunters would frequently exchange uniquely identifiable arrows before the hunt

How different from today’s society with its mega-billionaires and celebrity worship! But even among hunter-gatherers, dominant upstarts (almost invariably men) would sometimes get out of hand. Here are five methods they used, in order of increasing severity, to keep them from taking over.

Ridicule. The first response would be for community members to ridicule his behavior among themselves. This was a valuable indirect way of signaling to others that his arrogance wouldn’t be tolerated, without resorting to direct confrontation. It was also a powerful way to build group consensus against him, in case further resistance were needed. We see an updated version of this response to Trump every day, in the late-night comic offerings of shows such as Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Direct criticism. If the upstart didn’t respond to the subtler message of ridicule, the next step would be to confront him directly. This might take courage, and would best be done as a group. It would be most effective if the criticism came from those who were friends rather than those already known to disagree with him. This is why a critique of Trump from prominent Republicans such as John McCain, Bob Corker, or Jeff Flake has far more impact than the daily barrage of criticism from Democrats.

Group disobedience. If the upstart continued his wayward behavior, the group might then resort to disobedience. The arrogant hunter might, for example, set out in one direction, but the other hunters would refuse to follow him. In modern society, with strict rules guiding permissible behavior, group disobedience looks different. The Women’s March, the spontaneous demonstrations at airports in response to Trump’s initial racist rulings, and court injunctions against his directives, are all examples of people stepping up in moral outrage to violations of norms in an attempt to prevent some of the worst excesses.

Ostracism. If all these responses failed to have their desired effect, in rare cases a band might ostracize the miscreant. A milder form of this would be to withhold the norms of social etiquette, with more severe forms such as expulsion from the group applied in extreme cases. In some hunter-gatherer societies, such as Eskimos in the Arctic, this could effectively be a death sentence. We have seen important examples of ostracism occurring in the Beltway, such as when the Golden State Warriors refused to visit the White House, or when the White House Arts Committee resigned en masse to protest Trump’s defense of white nationalists following Charlottesville.

Extreme sanction. As a last resort, when every other attempt to check an upstart has failed, the group may come to a consensus decision to execute him. This would be done very rarely and with heavy hearts, because in spite of common misperceptions, hunter-gatherers generally had great fear and distaste for physical violence. In our modern society, with its strict ethical and legal restrictions, the extreme sanction applicable to Donald Trump would be impeachment—a process that has recently been energized by a multi-million-dollar campaign initiated by billionaire activist Tom Steyer.

Is there anything we can learn from the hunter-gatherer playbook? One takeaway is to reflect on how our 21st-century society is not so different from hunter-gatherer society after all. Each of the tactics employed by our nomadic ancestors is being implemented by those who share the common outrage at someone who so clearly thinks of himself as a “big man” and “the rest of us as his servants or inferiors.” Another lesson may be to recognize that each tactic of resistance is a crucial one: rather than arguing about taking one approach instead of another, it’s important to realize that all flavors of resistance are needed to counter a threat as grave as what Trump represents.

The most important lesson of all, however, may be to recognize what undergirded the hunter-gatherers’ resistance to an upstart in the first place: a shared set of values based in a deep sense of fairness and human dignity. Throughout the world and throughout history, hunter-gatherers showed a strong commitment to what has been called “altruistic punishment”: the willingness to punish those who flagrantly break social norms even at potentially significant cost to themselves.

If we are to be successful in the national resistance to the takeover of our society by authoritarianism, we need to emphasize the core values that the vast majority of us share, such as common decency, respect for human dignity, and caring for our community. When we act on the basis of our shared humanity, and when we’re willing to venture outside our comfort zone—even taking personal risks—to fight for what we know is right, we can rest assured that our struggle is in the great tradition of our hunter-gatherer past, and that our evolved human nature itself is on our side.

The Great Columbus Day Debate

There’s probably no more contentious Federal holiday than Columbus Day.

Increasingly, municipalities across the country are renaming it to Indigenous Peoples Day, to honor those who were decimated by the European conquest. Meanwhile, every year, apologists for the dominant neoliberal worldview publish op-ed pieces to defend the status quo. Their arguments, unfortunately, only demonstrate the moral vacuity of their position.

I’ve attempted to raise the level of conversation with this piece published today in Salon, which goes beyond the question of Columbus’s own character flaws, to investigate the mindset of the Europeans who followed him. Most importantly, the same mindset that—half a millennium later—now celebrates Columbus Day as a Federal holiday, is the one that is driving our civilization toward environmental catastrophe. This mindset is what we need to understand, and transform, is we’re to shift humanity’s trajectory toward one of sustainable flourishing.

What do you think? Please share in the Comments below.


What celebrating Columbus Day portends for our civilization

The mindset Columbus and his followers brought with them is the same one that is driving our global civilization toward environmental catastrophe.

[Originally published in Salon, October 9, 2017]

What does it tell us about our civilization that Columbus Day is celebrated as a federal holiday, with parades, barbecues, and football games, instead of a somber recognition of genocide, such as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day that commemorates the atrocities of the Nazis? The answer might offer a key to a sustainable future for our civilization.

When Christopher Columbus first made landfall with his crew on the island of Hispaniola in 1492, he was taken aback by the generosity and benevolence of the Taino people he encountered. He wrote in his journal how, if the Europeans asked them for something, they would freely share anything they owned “and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts.”

It didn’t take long, though, for his mind to wander off in a different direction. Columbus quickly realized how easily he could take advantage of them, writing to the King and Queen of Spain how the Taino were so naïve that they cut themselves out of ignorance when they held a sword. “Should your Majesties command it,” he wrote, “all the inhabitants could be taken away to Spain or made slaves on the island. With fifty men, we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

Columbus arrival
Columbus’s reaction to the Taino quickly turned to thoughts of exploitation

Columbus was obsessed with recklessly exploiting whatever he discovered in the New World, regardless of the consequences. He wasn’t alone in this. In fact, the entire European conquest was based on the premise of ruthless exploitation in order to enrich the explorers and those who had financed them.

The result was the greatest genocidal catastrophe that has occurred yet in human history. In every region European explorers discovered, a decimation of the local population ensued of almost unimaginable proportions. The population of central Mexico was twenty million in 1500, four times greater than Britain. Within a century, there were fewer than one million people alive there. Similarly, the population of the Inca empire collapsed from eleven million in 1500 to less than a million in 1600. It’s been estimated that in the 16th century alone, close to one hundred million indigenous people died in the Americas through slaughter, starvation, or disease.

Many historians have pointed the finger to the new diseases the Europeans brought with them that ravaged the local populations, some even going so far as to suggest that this catastrophe was inadvertent: a sad but inevitable consequence of human progress. However, as historians such as David Stannard and Eduardo Galleano have excruciatingly documented, the Europeans approached the new territories with a systematic compulsion to exploit remorselessly every last resource—human and mineral—they could ransack from the land. The havoc caused by European diseases just made their job that much easier.

In fact, as I discovered in researching my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, this obsession with exploiting resources without regard to consequences was unique to the European mindset—which has now become the predominant global mindset as a result of the European conquest of the rest of the world. Even though the facts of history make its direction seem inevitable, it didn’t have to be that way. Our modern world, and the values on which it’s founded, are the consequence of a particular way of thinking that arose only in Europe.

To understand this better, consider the example of Admiral Zheng, the Chinese commander who set sail in 1405—nearly a century before Columbus—with the greatest armada in history: twenty-seven thousand men in over three hundred ships, each about ten times the size of one of Columbus’s boats. Over nearly three decades, they dominated the Indian Ocean, from Sumatra to Sri Lanka, from Arabia to East Africa. But instead of using their power to enslave the indigenous people and plunder their raw materials, they used it to enhance the prestige of the Chinese emperor, setting up embassies in Nanjing with emissaries from Japan, Malaya, Vietnam, and Egypt.

Zheng He's fleet 1
Admiral Zheng’s fleet was overwhelmingly more powerful than any other force of its time—yet he didn’t enslave local populations

The reason for this astonishing contrast with Columbus was the value system Admiral Zheng brought with him. It would have been as unthinkable for Zheng to have conquered and enslaved the societies he visited with his armada, as it would have been for Columbus to have set up embassies with the indigenous people he encountered in the New World. In China, the predominant aim of political power was to sustain society’s equilibrium. Military might was seen as a force to use only when necessary to maintain stability.

The same held true for the Chinese view of their natural resources, much to the bemusement of early European missionaries. One of them, Jean-Baptiste Du Halde, mystified why the Chinese failed to mine all the gold and silver in nearby mountains, wrote how their exploitation was hindered by “political views” that “the publick Tranquillity might not be disturbed by the too great abundance of these Metals, which would make the People haughty and negligent of Agriculture.”

Is it any coincidence that Chinese civilization, with its focus on maintaining stability, is the oldest in world history, surviving intact for millennia while every other early civilization collapsed into ruins? Modern China, of course, has taken to extractive global capitalism as avidly as any other nation on the planet, but that was only after a century of humiliation by Western powers caused traditional values to seem impotent by contrast.

At this point in the early twenty-first century, we are beginning to encounter the disastrous consequences of the mindset that Columbus, and those who followed him, brought with their voyages of conquest. The rapacious approach to mineral wealth that caused the Spaniards to extract every last grain from the world’s richest silver mine at Potosí, Bolivia, is the same mindset that drives today’s fossil fuel companies to rape the earth through fracking and tar sands extraction even while carbon emissions threaten the future of civilization. The moral ease with which Europeans drove millions of enslaved Native Americans and Africans to their deaths is the same grotesque mentality that today permits the wealthiest six men in the world to own as much as half the world’s population.

And that’s why how we choose to celebrate Columbus Day is a portent of our civilization’s future. As long as our predominant way of thinking rewards those who exploit others recklessly, and who view the earth as no more than a resource to plunder, we’re headed for environmental catastrophe. Even if we somehow manage to survive the climate breakdown, there are a slew of other existential crises waiting in the wings: topsoil degeneration, freshwater depletion, the Sixth Extinction of species, disappearance of fisheries, deforestation… the list goes on.

There’s a lot we can learn from Admiral Zheng and the traditional Chinese values that launched his expedition. But we don’t have to look that far. The indigenous people who stewarded the Americas for thousands of years before the Columbus cataclysm are themselves manifesting the vision our entire world needs to survive. At Standing Rock, water protectors fought the poisoning of their homeland with prayer and ceremony, declaring their love and respect for the natural world and the overriding importance of its responsible stewardship for future generations.

In South America, indigenous tribes are organizing to prevent the wanton destruction of their habitat by oil and mining corporations. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the buen vivir movement fosters a value system based on community and deep connection with the earth as a counterpoint to the Western drive for exploitation and extraction.

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Indigenous people of the Amazon are fighting against destruction of their land by fossil fuel and mining mega-corporations

Many municipalities throughout the United States, recognizing the outrage of commemorating Columbus Day, have officially changed its name to Indigenous Peoples Day, using it as an opportunity to honor those who have been decimated and yet continue to offer a vision of hope for humanity’s future. Maybe on some future date, that change will be made at the national level, and we will have a federal Indigenous Peoples Day. Might that day, perhaps, be the very day on which our civilization begins to shift course away from annihilation and toward a flourishing future?

 

Beyond Reductionism? An Open Letter in Response to Jerry Coyne

On Friday, August 4, I published an article in AlterNet entitled “The Dangerous Delusions of Richard Dawkins.” The response was flabbergasting. The article, which was quickly picked up by both Raw Story and Salon, has been shared on Facebook over ten thousand times in less than a week. It has also elicited a storm of over a thousand comments—mostly angry and vitriolic.

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Jerry Coyne

In response to the comments, I wrote a follow-up piece, “Reflections on ‘The Dangerous Delusions of Richard Dawkins,'” which was published in the same media. Meanwhile, the distinguished biologist Jerry Coyne wrote a blog post ferociously attacking what he called my “dreadful article.”

I respect Coyne’s writings, and I admire his tenacious efforts to disseminate the scientific truths of evolution in the face of fundamentalist Christian opposition. Because of this, I was saddened to see the tone of his response to my article. I decided to try to turn this into an opportunity for a more dignified dialogue on the bigger issues that my article—and his response—bring up.

The following is an open letter to Jerry. I hope he responds in a similarly respectful manner, and that we can establish some shared ground for generative dialogue.

If you prefer to read the letter as a pdf, download it here.


August 10, 2017

Dear Jerry,

I admire your writings and your decades long struggle to raise awareness about evolution among the American public. I was particularly impressed by your 2012 article in Evolution, “Science, Religion, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America,” in which you argue against the intellectual compromises of “accommodationism”: the practice of suggesting that religion and science exist in separate domains, and therefore neither should represent a threat to the other.

Perhaps because of my respect for you, I felt disappointed to read some of the vitriol in your recent blog post dismissing my critique of Dawkins’s conceptions of the “selfish gene” and “nature as machine” as “another dumb article holding Richard Dawkins responsible for all the world’s wrongs.” My respect for your own intellectual rigor was, quite frankly, called into question when you misstated my arguments in order to ridicule them, such as when you depict me as suggesting that “Dawkins is Satan or the anti-Christ” and dismiss my argument as “simply bullshit.”

Some of the more substantive arguments you made against my article are summed up and discussed in my own follow-up “Reflections on ‘The Dangerous Delusions of Richard Dawkins,” which I hope you’ve read. For example, in response to your claim that “[the selfish gene] is just a metaphor,” I’ve pointed out how core metaphors structure the ways in which a society thinks and acts. When you claim that my link to the extensive discrediting of Dawkins’s “selfish gene” theory “doesn’t go to any scientific discrediting,” I point to the bottom of the page which references works by Gould, Depew & Weber, Wilson & Wilson, Goodwin, Jablonka & Lamb, Winther, and Pigliucci. I’d be happy to share more references if you’re interested.

There are also specific statements and challenges you made in your article that require a direct response, which is what I will attempt here. A deeper question is why you—and others who hold a similar viewpoint—have responded so belligerently to my article, and what can be done to encourage a more dignified and generative dialogue. I’ll come to this topic further down, and invite a thoughtful and respectful response back from you.

In the meantime, I’ve tried to distil your criticisms into higher level questions. In each case, I’ll try to identify and respond to your assertions or challenges.

Is Dawkins’s “selfish gene” theory a valid basis for evolutionary biology?

I notice that you made a careful statement in defense of your friend’s theory: “In fact, the usefulness of the selfish-gene metaphor is alive and well, and has provided useful insights into how natural selection works.” If you rest your case on the idea that the metaphor has provided useful insights into how natural selection works, then we have no disagreement. The problem is, that’s not how Dawkins describes his theory in his own book. He makes a much bolder statement: “The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes.” The rest of his book goes on to demonstrate why the gene should be seen as the sole unit of selection, and its “selfish” drive to replicate as the fundamental explanatory driver of evolution.

As you are well aware, this approach to evolutionary theory has been challenged by findings in epigenetics, as well as by theories of niche construction, evolvability, and multilevel selection, and there have been repeated calls by increasing numbers of evolutionary biologists for an “extended evolutionary synthesis” integrating these and other approaches into the gene-centric modern synthesis that Dawkins used as a basis for his arguments.

In the lucid words of distinguished biologist Robert Sapolsky in his recently published Behave, “Different circumstances bring different levels of selection to the forefront. Sometimes the most informative level is the single gene, sometimes the genome, sometimes a single phenotypic trait, sometimes the collection of all the organism’s phenotypic traits. We’ve just arrived at the reasonable idea of multilevel selection.”[1]

You have gone on record opposing these new developments, claiming that “the idea of natural selection and mathematical population genetics” are sufficient theoretical tools for explaining everything about evolution, and have expressed your irritation at what you call “Big Idea Syndrome.” As a non-biologist, I can only watch from the sidelines and I certainly don’t expect to change your mind, but it seems you are doing a disservice to your field as well as to all who care about what biology tells us, by turning a blind eye to the new, more complex model of evolution that is emerging.[2]

Is there any linkage between Dawkins’s “selfish gene” theory and justifications of modern capitalism?

You correctly point out that “people are always looking for ways for science to justify their own bad acts” and that “ideas of self-interest as underlying economics go back to Adam Smith.” I agree with you that “it’s clearly and self-evidently wrong to blame ‘laissez-faire’ capitalism on Dawkins.”

However, this is not what I’m doing. I am accusing him of a playing a leading role in propagating a faulty worldview that is frequently used to justify the exploitation of laissez-faire capitalism. This worldview can be traced at least as far back as Hobbes, who is referred to approvingly by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he writes: “self-preservation, and the propagation of the species, are the great ends which nature seems to have proposed in the formation of all animals.”[3] Similarly, in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, leading robber barons frequently used flawed interpretations of Darwinism to justify their ruthless exploitation.[4]

Dawkins merely brought this unfortunate nexus of laissez-faire rationalization and pseudo-scientific views of nature up to date. Dawkins himself has made an explicit connection between biology and economics, writing: “Within any one species of animals or plants, the individuals that survive best are the ones that can exploit the other animals and plants, bacteria and fungi that are already flourishing in the environment. As Adam Smith understood long ago, an illusion of harmony and real efficiency will emerge in an economy dominated by self-interest at a lower level. A well balanced ecosystem is an economy, not an adaptation.” Here, Dawkins describes exploitation as the driver of survival, leading to a “well-balanced ecosystem” and linking this explicitly to an economy “dominated by self-interest.”[5]

You say that you’d “like to see Lent’s evidence that corporations have relied on Dawkins’s ideas to justify plundering the Earth.” Besides Dawkins’s own connection, the fact that Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling’s favorite book was The Selfish Gene (which I mentioned in “Reflections”) is only the most egregious example. Ruy Teixera describes how the timing of the publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976 along with the rise of modern neo-liberal economics led to a deep conceptual linkage between the two.[6] Milton Friedman’s polemic, Free to Choose, published in 1980, argued for self-interested individuals making “rational” decisions to create the most efficient economy. It is no coincidence that the widely-quoted speech by fictional character Gordon Gekko, in Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie The Wall Street, uses pseudo-evolutionary theory to justify his excesses:

The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. …

The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed—for lack of a better word—is good.

Greed is right.

Greed works.

Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.

Greed, in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind.

And greed—you mark my words—will not only save Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.[7]

This linkage continues unabated into the current era. Here, for example, is an excerpt from an interview conducted in 2016 with the bestselling author and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

So, when I was in college, I first read Richard Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene. And like many people, it just blew my mind. And Darwin’s ideas are so simple. From a few principles, you can explain all the diversity of life on earth, and that was a really transformative experience for me. And then when I started reading about the history of capitalism… I had the same experience that I had reading Richard Dawkins… And so capitalism is as powerful and important as Darwinian evolution. And in fact, it’s very much the same thing…  The point is everybody should learn about capitalism and evolution by the time they’re 18. And at present we don’t. And that means we have stupid discussions about policy.[8]

As I mentioned in “Reflections,” I appreciate that Dawkins himself has a more humane political outlook, and I expect he may be horrified to find his ideas used by countless neo-liberal zealots. Nevertheless, the underlying linkage seems irrefutable.

How do ethics relate to the “selfish gene” hypothesis?

You, along with many others, have pointed out that Dawkins clearly disavows a simple equivalency between “selfish genes” and selfish humans, stating that “Dawkins’s genetic reductionism does not come with any ethical implications.” Quite right. However, as I discussed in “Reflections,” Dawkins’s logic leads to an antediluvian model of a divided human where morality arises from our reason overcoming the selfish drives of our genes. “Our brains,” he writes, “have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes.” This split conception of humanity can be traced back to Plato and, ironically, is inherent to Christian soul/body dualism.

In fact, many evolutionary biologists have shown that a sense of fairness and compassion is an evolved human trait—something that is readily explained by multi-level selection theory.[9] We don’t need to overcome our inherent drives in order to develop these faculties. This is important because it leads to different modalities for enhancing compassionate behavior within society. Sapolsky does an outstanding job of summarizing decades of findings across sub-disciplines, focusing on the crucial distinction between in-group and out-group evolved moral predispositions, leading to different ways to develop skillful responses depending on the context. This is the kind of valuable interplay between biology and morality that Dawkins’s simplistic “selfish gene” model misses.[10]

What are the ontological implications of Dawkins’s reductionism?

You attempt to ridicule my critique of the implications of Dawkins’s reductionism by paraphrasing me as saying that “Dawkins’s reductionism and naturalism have taken the joy out of life” and that “people have actually become… depressive nihilists who have no meaning in their lives, because of what Richard Dawkins has written.” You continue: “I challenge Lent, or anyone, to find where in Dawkins’s work he’s said anything even remotely like this.” In fact, as you put it, “Dawkins has repeatedly argued that embracing reality and science rather than numinous illusions makes the world more enjoyable and meaningful.”

Ironically, Dawkins has himself given examples of precisely this kind of reaction to his ideas in his introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene. Among other readers disturbed by what they saw as his “cold, bleak message,” he quotes an Australian reader:

Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it… On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings-out of such complex processes…  But at the same time, I largely blame The Selfish Gene for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade…  Never sure of my spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper—trying to believe, but not quite being able to—I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further. This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.

Dawkins’s response to this is: “If something is true, no amount of wishful thinking can undo it.”

This is the classic reductionist refrain, as stated succinctly by Stephen Weinberg’s aphorism: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” The follow-on, as you, Dawkins, Weinberg, and others contend, is that we must create our own sense of meaning, and that the sheer wonder of observing the complexity of the universe should offer enough joy for anyone.

Your proposed path to joy, however, is one that doesn’t suffice for many. This is what I call the “cruel myth” that reductionists foist on thinking people everywhere: that reductionism is the only explanatory alternative to theism in making sense of the universe. While reductionism has proven to be a superbly powerful methodology for scientific investigation, it is a leap of faith to use it to make ontological claims about the universe.

Your own statement about reductionism in your rebuttal of my article shows some confusion that perhaps I can use as a starting point for clarification:

Scientific naturalism happens to be true, and everything comes down to the laws of physics, although we also see higher-order phenomena that are “emergent” in the sense that while we don’t know enough to predict them from the laws of physics, they must be consistent with the laws of physics. That is what reductionism means, and there is no “holism” completely independent of reductionism.

Here, you conflate scientific naturalism with reductionism, but I believe that is mistaken. Scientific naturalism holds that everything in the universe is part of nature and is in principle subject to scientific inquiry. This is a viewpoint I share with you, and is in contrast to transcendental claims of another “spiritual” dimension to the universe. I also agree with your statement that emergent phenomena must be “consistent with the laws of physics.” However, that is not what “reductionism means” in its common usage. Reductionism is the belief that everything in nature can ultimately be understood only by reducing it to its simplest components.

Biological reductionism is exemplified by Dawkins’s “selfish gene” hypothesis. The general statement of this view is summed up well by Francis Crick:

You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.[11]

The findings of systems theory show this view to be misguided. In self-organized systems, which includes all living systems, the complex interaction of many connected elements causes emergent behavior that could never be predicted by a study of each part alone, no matter how detailed. The reductionist view of “nothing but” is analogous to someone observing that Shakespeare’s entire opus is nothing but an assembly of twenty-six letters repeated in different configurations. Whether we are evaluating Shakespeare or life itself, the patterns that connect the parts frequently contain far more valuable information than the parts themselves.[12]

That is the starting point for my investigation of meaning through my Liology framework, which you peremptorily dismiss as “wooish,” saying you have “little idea of what this means except that it extols interconnectedness and holism.” I invite you to explore my description of key principles that Liology shares with dynamical systems theory, if you are interested in understanding it further.

You may be surprised by how much we agree with each other. In your article, “Science, Religion, and Society,” you contrast the scientific method with religious dogma:

Science’ s method of finding truth, which relies on reason, empirical investigation, criticism, doubt, predictive power, and repeatability of observations by different investigators, is incompatible with religion’s methods for understanding the universe—methods based on dogma, authority, and revelation. Scientific truth changes in response to new findings about the world, while religious “truth” … changes rarely, and most often in response to scientific advances… In science faith is a vice, in religion it is a virtue.

While not a scientist by profession, I am in full agreement with every aspect of your description of the scientific method, and I try to adhere to it in all my research and writings. As you say well, “scientific truth changes in response to new findings about the world.” I ask you to consider whether new findings in recent decades in the areas of systems biology and complexity theory could possibly have expanded our scientific conception of the universe from a dogmatic reductionism.

I believe we share a commitment to a world where policy decisions are based on ethical and scientifically valid findings. In my view, a recognition of our intrinsic connectedness with others and with the natural world is both scientifically valid and a solid foundation for an ethical and political framework that could promote sustainable flourishing into the future.

Jerry, I greatly admire your decades of work battling against faith-based dogmatism and the obfuscations of proponents of “intelligent design” and other manipulations designed to undermine true scientific investigation. I wonder, however, if your continuous battle against superstition has made it more difficult for you to discern when there are scientifically valid reasons for questioning previously held positions?

I invite you to share your reflections back in a respectful and dignified manner. Perhaps we could better identify areas of agreement and difference, and use this as an opportunity to initiate a more generative discourse on the possibilities of making sense of the universe through scientific naturalism?

Respectfully yours,

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Jeremy Lent


FOOTNOTES

[1] Sapolsky, Robert M. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Publishing Group, p. 362.

[2] Dobbs, David. “Die, selfish gene, die.” Aeon, December 3, 2013.

[3] Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Anthony Finley, Philadelphia, 1817, p. 123.

[4] Bergman, Jerry. “Darwin’s Influence on Ruthless Laissez-Faire Capitalism”, Impact, 333, March 2001

[5] Dawkins, Richard. A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science and Love. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2003, pp. 225–6.

[6] Teixeira, Ruy. “The Good News About Human Nature: Most People Aren’t Jerks.” Think Progress website. March 11, 2013

[7] Cited by Turchin, Peter. “Selfish Genes Made Me Do It! (Part I).” Social Evolution Forum website. December 4, 2013. Note: Turchin adds “I in no way blame Richard Dawkins for the fall of Enron or for the broader cultural shift that resulted in the proliferation of corporate malfeasance.” I don’t blame him either, but am merely pointing out the part his ideas played in this process.

[8]Capitalism and Moral Evolution: A Civil Provocation.” On Being with Krista Tippett, June 2, 2016.

[9] Wilson, David Sloan. Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. Yale University Press, 2015.

[10] Sapolsky, op. cit., p. 511.

[11] Crick, F. (1994). The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Touchstone, 3.

[12] Capra, Fritjof and Luisi, P.L.. The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014) 19–59; Kauffman, S. (2008). Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. New York: Basic Books, 15; Noble, D. (2006). The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 77; Sperry, R. W. (1980). “Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, Yes; Dualism, No.” Neuroscience, 5(1980), 195-206; Woese, C. R. (2004, June). “A New Biology for a New Century.” Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, 173-186; Lewontin, R. C. (1992). “The Dream of the Human Genome.” The New York Review of Books, 39(10).

Our Values Will Decide Our Destiny

It’s becoming widely accepted that, for the Democrats to regain political leadership, they have to do more than resist the Trump regime. Recognizing this, many are drawn to particular initiatives that draw popular support, such as universal health care or a $15 minimum wage. This, however, misses the fact that in recent decades the right wing has not won on the issues, but by repeatedly telling a grand story of America. It’s a story that is false on many counts and based on a set of values that are driving our civilization to a precipice. But it’s been successful because there has been no coherent counter-narrative to override it.

Ultimately the direction of history is decided by values. The years I spent working on my book The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, taught me that each unique culture shapes its values, and those values shape history. By the same token, the predominant values of our civilization are what will shape the future.

We need a new story of our civilization based on humane values. This story would incorporate initiatives like universal health care and a higher minimum wage, but it must look beyond those towards a grander scope: a future of sustainable flourishing for all.

Ever since the 17th century, the values of Western civilization—which have since become the predominant global civilization—have been the driving force of history. Many of these values, such as democracy, freedom, and individual rights, have become the bedrock for a more humane global society.

Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon issued a clarion call to “conquer nature” that resounds to this day

But there is a darker underside to the Western value system that has fueled the modern right-wing narrative. My research revealed certain unique characteristics in the underlying pattern of Western cognition that have been responsible for both its Scientific and Industrial revolutions, as well as its destruction of indigenous cultures around the world and our current global rush toward possible catastrophe in the form of climate change and overexploitation of natural resources.

Beginning with the ancient Greeks, and continuing through the rise of Christianity and the Scientific Revolution, the core characteristic of this uniquely Western mindset, which has since become a global phenomenon, is one of separation.

Seeing themselves as separate from nature, philosophers such as Francis Bacon led the clarion call for humankind to “conquer nature,” while Descartes and Hobbes introduced the view of “nature as a machine” that has dominated Western thought ever since. Europeans, driven by the credo that “knowledge is power,” applied their newfound power to conquering, not just nature, but the inhabitants of much of the rest of the world.

At the core of the European value system was a thirst for power that justified disrupting any equilibrium. As Europeans colonized other lands, they imposed their worldview on those who survived their onslaught, inculcating core values of power and exploitation that have formed the basis of today’s global capitalist ethos.

These values have led to a grand story shaping modern political and moral discourse that is based on flawed assumptions, such as the ideas that humans are fundamentally selfish and that the earth can support limitless growth. These, and other elements of the modern story, reflect the underlying theme of separation: people are separate from each other; humans are separate from nature; and we understand things by viewing them as separate parts like a machine. The value system built on this foundation is the cause of much that threatens to tear our society apart: the world’s gaping inequalities, our roller-coaster global financial system, our failure to respond appropriately to climate change, and our unsustainable frenzy of consumption.

It doesn’t have to be this way. By recognizing that our underlying values are inherited from previous generations, we can become more conscious of them. This, in turn, allows us to choose other values with the potential to lead to a flourishing future for humankind.

Rather than separation, these values tend to be based on the underlying theme of connectedness: seeing people as part of community, humans as an integral part of the natural world, and solutions to global problems as embedded within larger systems rather than independent techno-fixes. In this alternative narrative, the connections between things are frequently more important than the things themselves. It invites a worldview where the very interconnectedness of all life gives both meaning and resonance to our individual and collective behavior.

Three core values emerge from this interconnected worldview. The first is an emphasis on quality of life rather than material possessions. Instead of measuring progress by economic output, we could care about progress in the quality of our lives, both individually and in society at large. Secondly, we could base political, social, and economic choices on a sense of our shared humanity, emphasizing fairness and dignity for all rather than maximizing for ourselves and our parochially defined social group. Finally, we could build our civilization’s future on the basis of environmental sustainability, where the flourishing of the natural world is a foundational principle for humanity’s major decisions.

Values shape history, and the values we choose to live by will shape our future. If we are to truly counter the forces that wrenching our society apart, we must formulate a new story for civilization—one based on values that could create a sustainable future of shared human dignity and natural flourishing.

 

Jeremy Lent’s new book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (Prometheus Books, May 2017) investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history.

A House on Shaky Foundations

Published online in Tikkun, May 19, 2017

Imagine living in a home with structural flaws in the foundations. At first, you might not notice too much. Every now and then, some cracks might appear in the walls. If they got too bad, you might apply a new coat of paint, and things would seem fine again—for a while.

But suppose your house were in an earthquake zone? Some of us who live in California know what it’s like to call in a structural engineer and be told the foundations need to be retrofitted if the house is to survive the Big One. Sometimes foundation work is necessary if there are hidden flaws that our home is built on.

We can think of our civilization’s worldview as a cognitive home that we all live in—an edifice of ideas that’s arisen layer by layer over older constructions put together by generations past. Our global civilization is facing the threat of its own Big One in the form of climate change, resource depletion, and species extinction. If our worldview is built on shaky foundations, we need to know about it: we need to find the cracks and repair them before it’s too late.

Faulty foundations
Can we repair our civilization’s foundations before it’s too late?

Our worldview is the set of assumptions we hold about how things work: how society functions, its relationship with the natural world, what’s valuable and what’s possible. It often remains unquestioned and unstated but is deeply felt and underlies many of the choices we make in our lives.

We form our worldview implicitly as we grow up, from family, friends, and culture, and once it’s set, we’re barely aware of it unless we’re presented with a different worldview for comparison. The unconscious origin of our worldview makes it quite inflexible. That’s fine when it’s working for us. But suppose our worldview is causing us to act collectively in ways that could undermine humanity’s future? Then it would be valuable to become more conscious of it.

In researching my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, I excavated the hidden layers of our modern worldview and found that many of the ideas we hold sacrosanct are based on flawed foundations. They are myths that emerged from erroneous assumptions made at different times and places in history. They’ve been repeated so frequently that, for many people, it may never occur to question them. But we need to do so, because the foundations of our civilization’s worldview are structurally unsound.

The good news is that, for each structural flaw, there is an alternative principle that offers a solid basis for long-term, sustainable flourishing. Our best hope for civilization to survive the Big One is to recognize these underlying defects, and work together to reconstruct a worldview with more secure underpinnings. Here are eight deep flaws I found, along with alternative principles that, together, could create a foundation for a flourishing civilization for future generations.

 

Structural flaw #1: Humans are fundamentally selfish

Modern economics is based on an assumption—backed by outmoded biological theories—that human beings are motivated predominantly by their own self-interest, and their collective self-serving actions result in the best outcome for society. In the words of old-school biologist Richard Alexander, “ethics, morality, human conduct, and the human psyche are to be understood only if societies are seen as collections of individuals seeking their own self-interest.” The geopolitical history of the 20th century is demonstrated as proof of this philosophy: Communism failed, we are told, because it was founded on an unrealistic view of human nature, whereas capitalism succeeded because it’s based on harnessing the selfish nature of each individual for the ultimate good of society.

New foundation: Humans are fundamentally cooperative

In fact, modern anthropology and neuroscience show that cooperation, group identity, and a sense of fair play are defining features of humanity. In contrast to chimpanzees, who are obsessed with competing against each other, humans evolved to become the most cooperative of primates through our ability to share intentions with each other, while recognizing that others see the world from different perspectives. This enabled early humans to work collaboratively on complex tasks, creating communities with shared values and practices that became the basis for culture and civilization.

An essential element in the ability of humans to work together is an evolved sense of fairness. We feel this so strongly that we would rather walk away with nothing than permit someone else to take unfair advantage of us. This intrinsic sense of fairness is, in the view of prominent evolutionary psychologists, the extra ingredient that led to the evolutionary success of our species and created the cognitive foundation for crucial values of our modern world such as freedom, equality, and representative government.

For 99 per cent of human history, we lived together in bands of hunter-gatherers, where an egalitarian ethos predominated. If a successful hunter began getting too socially dominant, the rest of the band would join together to keep his ego under control. A sharing ethic pervaded all aspects of life. When a hunter-gatherer in the remote Amazon was asked by an anthropologist why his band didn’t smoke or dry their meat for storage, even though they knew how, he responded: “I store my meat in the belly of my brother.”

 

Structural flaw #2: Genes are fundamentally selfish

At a deeper level, the idea that genes themselves are selfish has permeated the collective consciousness. Since Richard Dawkins’s 1976 publication of The Selfish Gene, people have come to believe that evolution is the result of genes competing against other in a remorseless drive to replicate themselves. Ruthless competition is seen as the force that separates evolution’s winners from losers.

Even altruism is interpreted as a sophisticated form of selfish behavior used by an organism to propagate its own genes more effectively. Biologist Robert Trivers established a notion of what he called “reciprocal altruism” as an ancient evolutionary strategy that could be seen in the behavior of fish and birds, and interpreted human altruism in the same way. “Under certain circumstances,” he wrote, “natural selection favors these altruistic behaviors because in the long run they benefit the organism performing them.”

New foundation: Nature is a network

This has been extensively discredited as a simplistic interpretation of evolution. In its place, biologists are developing a more sophisticated view of evolution as a series of complex, interlocking systems, where the gene, organism, community, species, and environment all interact with each other, both competitively and cooperatively, in a network extending over both time and space. Ecosystems rely for their health on the tightly synchronized interaction of many different species. Trees in a forest have been discovered to communicate with each other in a complex network that maintains their collective health—sometimes referred to as the “wood wide web.”

Rather than a battleground of “selfish genes” competing to outperform one another, modern biologists offer a new view of nature as a web of networked systems, dynamically optimizing at different levels of evolutionary selection. This recognition that cooperative networking is an essential part of sustainable ecosystems can inspire new ways to structure human technology and social organization for future flourishing.

 

Structural flaw #3: Humans are separate from nature

Underlying these structural flaws is an even deeper one—the implicit belief that humans are separate from nature. The source of this idea can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Plato saw a human being as a split entity, comprised of an eternal soul locked in a mortal body. The ultimate goal of philosophy was to leave the body behind and identify only with the soul that linked us to divinity. Plato’s speculations became the foundation of Western thought. Two and half millennia later, Descartes updated Plato’s myth with his idea that a person’s true essence is their thoughts, while their bodies were mere matter with no intrinsic value.

The implication of this Cartesian split is that the rest of nature—animals, plants, and everything else—has no value because it doesn’t think like a human. With nothing sacred about nature, it became available for humans to use remorselessly for their own purposes. The Old Testament provided further theological justification to this myth, with God’s command to Adam and Eve that they should “subdue” the earth and “have dominion” over every living thing on it.

The scientific project, just getting off the ground in the 17th century, would henceforth view every aspect of the material world as free game for inquiry, investigation, and exploitation. Francis Bacon inspired generations of scientists with his call to “conquer nature.” He galvanized them to “unite forces against the nature of things, to storm and occupy her castles and strongholds and extend the bounds of human empire.”

New foundation: Humans are an integral part of nature

These ideas are so ingrained in the modern psyche that it is easy to forget they are unique to the European worldview. Other cultures throughout history saw humans as sharing the world equally with all other creatures. The earth was their mother; the heavens their father. Those who wished to harmonize with nature, in the words of the Tao Te Ching, should be “reverent, like guests.”

The findings of modern biology and neuroscience validate the implicit wisdom of earlier traditions. Humans are in fact integrated mind-body organisms, containing ecosystems within them as well as participating in the broader ecosystems of nature. When we destroy the complexity of the natural world, we undermine the well-being of all organisms including ourselves. In the profound words of a slogan at COP21 in Paris, “We are not defending nature. We are nature defending itself.”

 

Structural flaw #4: Nature is a machine

Along with the separation of humans from nature, another uniquely European cultural myth proclaims that nature is a machine. Since the 17th century Scientific Revolution, the view of nature as a complicated machine has spread worldwide, leading even some of today’s most brilliant minds to lose sight of it as a metaphor and wrongly believe that nature actually is a machine.

Back in 1605, Kepler framed his life’s work on this idea, writing: “My aim is to show that the celestial machine is to be likened not to a divine organism but to a clockwork.” Likewise, Descartes declared: “I do not recognize any difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.”

In recent decades, Richard Dawkins has spread an updated version of that Cartesian myth, writing famously that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information,” adding: “That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy discs.” Open any science magazine, and you’ll see genes described like programmers that “code” for certain traits, while the mind is discussed as “software” for the “hardware” of the body that is “wired” in certain ways. This machine delusion is ubiquitous, beguiling techno-visionaries seeking immortality by downloading their minds, as well as technocrats hoping to solve climate change through geoengineering.

New foundation: Nature is a self-regenerating fractal

Biologists point out principles intrinsic to life that categorically differentiate it from even the most complicated machine. Living organisms cannot be split, like a computer, between hardware and software. A neuron’s biophysical makeup is intrinsically linked to its computations: the information doesn’t exist separately from its material construction.

In recent decades, systems thinkers have transformed our understanding of life, showing it to be a self-organized, self-regenerating complex that extends like a fractal at ever-increasing scale, from a single cell to the global system of life on Earth. Everything in the natural world is dynamic rather than static, and biological phenomena can’t be predicted with precision: instead of fixed laws, we need to search for the underlying organizing principles of nature.

This new conception of life leads us to recognize the intrinsic interdependency of all living systems, including humans. It offers us the underpinnings for a sustainable future where technology is used, not to conquer nature or re-engineer it, but to harmonize with it and thus make life more meaningful and flourishing.

 

Structural flaw #5: GDP is a good measure of prosperity

We continually hear Gross Domestic Product discussed as if it is a scorecard of a country’s success. Yet all GDP measures is the rate at which we are transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, no matter how beneficial or harmful. The basic fault with GDP as a measure of a country’s performance is that it fails to distinguish between activities that promote welfare and those that reduce it. Anything that causes economic activity of any kind, whether good or bad, adds to GDP.

When someone picks vegetables from their garden and cooks them for a friend, this has no impact on GDP; however, buying a similar meal from the frozen food section of a supermarket involves an exchange of money, and therefore adds to GDP. In this bizarre accounting system, toxic pollution can be triply beneficial for GDP: once when a chemical company produces hazardous byproducts; twice when the pollutants need to be cleaned up; and a third time if they cause harm to people requiring medical treatment.

The measure of GDP is not merely bizarre but dangerous for humanity’s future because metrics have a profound impact on what society tries to achieve. National leaders get voted in and out of office based on their country’s GDP growth. Recognizing this, various groups, including the UN and the European Union, are exploring alternative ways to measure society’s true performance. The state of Bhutan broke new ground by creating a “Gross National Happiness” index, incorporating values such as spiritual wellbeing, health, and biodiversity.

New foundation: Measure a country’s genuine progress

These alternative measures offer a very different story of the human experience over the last fifty years than the one presented by GDP. Researchers have developed a measure known as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) that factors negative aspects such as income inequality, environmental pollution, and crime, as well as positive aspects such as volunteer activities and household work, into national accounts. When they applied this to seventeen countries around the world, they discovered that, although GDP has continually increased since 1950, worldwide GPI reached its peak in 1978 and has been declining ever since.

Once we begin measuring our politicians’ success on GPI, rather than GDP, it becomes more feasible that the world can move toward a more sustainable way of life before it gets too late.

 

Structural flaw #6: The earth can support limitless growth

The world’s financial markets are based on the belief that the global economy will keep growing indefinitely, yet that is impossible. When modern economic theory was developed in the 18th century, it seemed reasonable to view natural resources as unlimited because, for all intents and purposes, they were. However, both the number of humans and the rate of our consumption has exploded so dramatically in the past fifty years that this assumption is now woefully wrong.

At the current growth rate of 77 million people per year—equivalent to a new city of a million inhabitants every five days—demographers forecast a world with nearly 10 billion human occupants by 2050. People around the globe, bombarded with images of living standards from affluent countries, understandably aspire to the same level of comfort for themselves. Bolstered by this unremitting appetite for growth, the world economy is projected to quadruple by 2050.

Scientists have calculated that humans now appropriate about 40% of the total energy available to sustain life on Earth—called net primary productivity—for our own consumption. Humans use more than half the world’s freshwater and have transformed 43% of the earth into agricultural or urban landscapes. To sustain our current rate of expansion, human appropriation of net primary productivity might need to double or triple by mid-century. Do the math—it can’t be done on one earth. In the words of systems theorist Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

New foundation: Grow quality, not consumption

The solution is to transform our underlying culture—to stop seeking growth in consumption and instead seek growth in the quality of our lives. We can choose to participate in a circular economy, where we borrow, share, reuse, and recycle—and when we do have to purchase something new, make sure it’s sourced from a sustainable process.

But just like changing lightbulbs won’t stop climate change, so going circular alone won’t prevent civilization from collapsing under its own weight. We need to engage actively at the source of this frenzied rush for perpetual growth: the domination of our economy by global corporations impelled by the mandate of maximizing shareholder returns above all other considerations. Raising public awareness of how these nonhuman forces are driving humanity to catastrophe is one of the most important tasks for anyone who cares about the flourishing of future generations.

 

Structural flaw #7: Technology has the solution

Techno-optimists frequently ridicule Thomas Malthus, an 18th century English cleric who was the first to warn of the dangers of exponential growth. For every problem that emerges, they claim, technology offers a solution. However, solutions based purely on technology tend to miss deeper structural issues, often creating even bigger problems down the road.

An example is the “Green Revolution” of the late 1960s, which is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation by exporting high-tech industrial agriculture to the developing world. Its unintended consequences now threaten humanity’s future. Ubiquitous use of artificial fertilizer has led to massive ocean “dead zones” from nitrogen runoff and severe reduction in topsoil across the world; indiscriminate application of chemical pesticides has disrupted ecosystems; and industrial agriculture now contributes one-third of the greenhouse gases causing climate change.

One reason we’re facing a worldwide crisis of sustainability is that our culture encourages destructive attitudes to the earth. While technology has brought a plethora of improvements to the human experience, it has also bolstered the underlying Western belief that “conquering nature” is the primary vehicle for progress. Nature, however, is not an enemy to conquer, and each step we take in that direction further destabilizes the intricate relationship between humans and our sole source of life and future flourishing—the earth.

New foundation: Systemic change, not techno-fix

Rather than relying purely on technology, truly effective solutions tackle the systemic underpinnings of our crises, transforming practices that caused the problem in the first place. Agroecology, for example, an approach to agriculture based on principles of ecology, views the earth as a deeply interconnected system, recognizing that the health of humans and nature are interdependent. Agroecology designs and manages food systems to be sustainable, enhancing soil fertility, recycling nutrients, and increasing energy and water efficiency.

Already widely practiced in Latin America, it is rapidly gaining acceptance in the US and Europe, and has the capacity to replace the agro-industrial complex. Agroecology could even help sequester excess carbon in the atmosphere. The Rodale Institute has calculated that regenerative organic practices of agroecology—such as composting, no-tillage, and use of cover crops—could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions if practiced worldwide.

 

Structural flaw #8: The universe is essentially meaningless

Most science works through a reductionist approach: viewing the world as an assemblage of parts that can each be analyzed separately. This method has led to enormous progress in many fields, but its very success has caused many scientists to see nature as nothing more than a collection of parts, a viewpoint that leads inevitably to spiritual nihilism. In the words of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, “the more we know of the universe, the more meaningless it appears.”  Ultimately, the modern mainstream worldview is based on disconnection: separation of mind from body, individual from community, and human from nature.

New foundation: The universe as a web of meaning

However, in recent decades, insights from complexity theory and systems biology point the way to a new conception of a connected universe that is both scientifically rigorous and spiritually meaningful. In this understanding, the connections between things are frequently more important than the things themselves. By emphasizing the underlying principles that apply to all living things, this understanding helps us realize our intrinsic interdependence with all of nature.

In place of the structural cognitive flaws that have led humanity to the precipice, the systems worldview invites a new understanding of nature as a “web of meaning,” where the very interconnectedness of all life gives both meaning and resonance to our individual and collective behavior. When we apply this framework to our lives, meaning arises from the way in which we’re related to everything around us. Meaning thus becomes a function of connectedness—and the meaning of life an emergent property of the network of connectivity that is the universe. Living with this deep realization, we are truly “at home in the universe.”

 

Setting the foundations for flourishing

It’s not necessarily easy work: restructuring foundations to prepare for the Big One, while so many others are blithely choosing new colors to paint over the cracks appearing in the walls. However, once we become aware of the structural flaws in the dominant culture, they can’t be ignored. We begin to see their manifestations all around us.

Not easy work, perhaps, but it can be deeply transformative. It’s an ongoing inquiry, a reconstruction of our value system, that can lead to the possibility of finding meaning ultimately through connectedness within ourselves, with each other, and with the natural world. These new foundations, based on seeing the cosmos ultimately as a web of meaning, have the potential to offer a sustainable future of shared human dignity and flourishing of the natural world.

Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (Prometheus Books | Foreword by Fritjof Capra) available May 23— a global history that uncovers the hidden foundations of our unsustainable worldview and offers a potential vision for a more harmonious future.