The Web of Meaning feels like a book our time has been waiting for. Those who protest in Black Lives Matter gatherings, who feel at one with the everyday suffering they witness on TV, who are deeply worried about our planet Earth as well as the pandemic, are all reminded every day that we are connected to each other and part of the natural world, and that ‘we are only safe when all of us are safe’. We cannot live if the Earth dies.
But, Jeremy Lent points out, the prevailing ‘worldview’ contradicts these deeply felt sympathies and most of our lives are underpinned by that worldview. We have been conditioned to feel like separate units up against the rest of the world. We have ‘conquered’ nature, as we will conquer the pandemic. The exigencies of a world dominated by this worldview make us machine-like, tied to our grinding routines of making money – often just to subsist, or else to buy more than we need, in some cases thousands of times more.
Our time is confronting us with a choice. Our planet is wearing out – and we, the people, have caused it. Greed and self-aggrandizement stalk the land as surely as the pandemic we can’t shake off. We see the rich countries hoarding the means to live and to defeat the coronavirus. We have seen the sacrifice countless ordinary people have made in caring for the sick at the cost of their lives. But most of us are afraid, with seemingly little choice but to continue with our lives driven by our need to survive and to avoid discomfort.
The timeliness of this book is in its exploration of how to change the long-held Western worldview that urges us not to notice that we are all interconnected. It traces the history of this mindset, based on scientific reductionism, that we are separate from each other and even within ourselves. It encompasses Christianity and the Enlightenment scientists who separate the soul, or mind, from the body, and the modern, influential idea of the ‘selfish gene’ that entrenches the thoughtform that we are genetically programmed to look out for ourselves. The Web of Meaning speaks to those brought up and caught up by this dominant worldview, but who are beginning to realise how it doesn’t fit with their deepest feelings about themselves and others.
Jeremy Lent gives us a thorough and carefully researched account to counter the idea of the ‘selfish’ and separative gene, drawing on a wide range of sources, including science, philosophy, literature, anthropology, poetry. He integrates ancient philosophies, particularly Taoism, Buddhism and Indigenous beliefs, with contemporary systems theory and neuroscience, that demonstrate ‘connectedness’ on all levels – from the tiniest particle and individual cell to whole natural systems, indeed to cosmos. For instance, in the ways that trees and insects ‘think’ and co-operate to mutually survive, and how neurologically we are intricately connected within ourselves, with no separation between our mind and body. Our thinking identity (that Lent terms for the sake of argument our ‘I’) needs to be at one with our deeper, embodied identity that he terms the ‘self’. He explores how the ancient oriental wisdom posited that everything is energy, and the only way to find a deep and lasting well-being is to be in tune with the whole, both inner and outer. The ancient Chinese philosophies and Indigenous peoples have a wisdom about how to live meaningfully that our modern society denies. Lent also suggests that psychedelic and mystic states may reveal a reality beyond the everyday. He urges us to be true to our deepest sense of ourselves and to cultivate the inner harmony that comes from fully embracing all of life experience.
The Web of Meaning, while dealing in detail with difficult subjects, is an engaging and endearing read. It is often addressed as if to an individual reader – and it is designed with a pedagogic, even a crusading intent. It includes an informative glossary and further reading, and most usefully gives a summary at the end of each section. The book is also a beautifully produced object. The style of the writing is direct, and uses analogy, anecdote and story-making. It begins with ‘Uncle Bob’s speech’ (“which you’ve probably all heard”) expounding on how humans have always looked out for themselves (and Uncle Bob also features in the final chapter, more forgivingly) and it ends with an analogy of the Native America legend of Windigo – a monster that is driven by insatiable greed to devour all it encounters, and worse, transforms them into replicas of itself.
The first five sections of the book are mainly expository/explanatory and didactic. But in the final section, ‘Where are we going?’, in just this one chapter ‘Weaving a New story of Meaning’, it is as if the author takes on a new role – he becomes a visionary activist, the passionate advocate on behalf of nature, for every individual to find their own sense of purpose and act to repair the ravages done to our planet Earth by the forces of greed and commercialization in which we are all implicated. It is as though he assumes that the previous 300 pages have done their work of quiet persuasion and the reader is now ready to respond in a new way (or possibly because some readers, from different vantage points –have hardly needed persuading of our Oneness).
Lent shows powerfully the harm caused by our continuing insatiable greed, to the planet and to a society entrenched within inequality. He singles out for particular blame and excoriating criticism the transnational corporations, which have become more powerful than societies and politicians, for their ‘Windigo’ voracious destructiveness: “strengthened by the overpowering corporate compulsion to convert human needs into profit opportunities” (p.357). He vividly details the terrifying state of our planet caused by the climate emergency.
But Lent also makes the case for a new dispensation; for ‘an ecological civilization’ which could “create the conditions for all humans to flourish as part of a thriving living Earth” (p.365). He writes hopefully of the movements that are countering the emergency and makes the case for ‘an ecological worldview’ and for ‘revolutionary love’: “Instead of responding to our oppression with animosity, which merely exacerbates the divisions in our society we can choose what activist Rabbi Michael Lerner calls revolutionary love” (p.379) – both words are important. Above all, Lent urges us to ‘hope’, quoting Vlacev Havel: “Hope is a state of mind not a state of the world, 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 and not because it stands a chance to succeed.” (p.375) Lent urges us to believe this and take it as the basis for our lives, knowing that every move we make will play its part in the whole.
For, although “we have all grown up in the culture of separateness”, on the basis of our interconnectedness that has now been established, we are asked to find and weave our own thread of the cosmic web: our unique sense of purpose and meaning, which now also – inevitably – has a moral purpose. “As we learn to open eyes that have been sealed by our dominant culture we can discern the rainbow that was always there waiting for us. We can waken to our true nature as humans on this Earth, feel the life within us that we share with all other beings … realize the deep purpose of our Existence on Earth”. (p.376)
Finally, then, we have the responsibility, to ourselves as well as to all others, to contribute, however little it may seem, whatever each of us is uniquely able to do. The book ends with the question that brings us back to the title, The Web of Meaning: “What is the sacred and precious strand that you will weave?”
From genetic engineering to geoengineering, we treat nature as though it’s a machine. This view of nature is deeply embedded in Western thought, but it’s a fundamental misconception with potentially disastrous consequences.
Climate change, avers Rex Tillerson, ex-CEO of ExxonMobil and erstwhile US Secretary of State, “is an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.” This brief statement encapsulates how the metaphor of the machine underlies the way our mainstream culture views the natural world. It also hints at the grievous dangers involved in perceiving nature in this way.
This mechanistic worldview has deep roots in Western thought. The great pioneers of the Scientific Revolution, such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, believed they were decoding “God’s book,” which was written in the language of mathematics. God was conceived as a great clockmaker, the “artificer” who constructed the intricate machine of nature so flawlessly that, once it was set in motion, there was nothing more to do (bar the occasional miracle) than let it run its course. “What is the heart, but a spring,” wrote Thomas Hobbes, “and the nerves but so many strings?” Descartes flatly declared: “I do not recognize any difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.”
In recent decades, the mechanistic conception of nature has been updated for the computer age, with popularizers of science such as Richard Dawkins arguing that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information” and as a result, an animal such as a bat “is a machine, whose internal electronics are so wired up that its wing muscles cause it to home in on insects, as an unconscious guided missile homes in on an aeroplane.” This digital metaphor of nature pervades our culture and is used unreflectively by those in a position to direct our society’s future. According to Larry Page, co-founder of Google, for example, human DNA is just “600 megabytes compressed, so it’s smaller than any modern operating system . . . So your program algorithms probably aren’t that complicated.”
But nature is not in fact a machine nor a computer—and it can’t be engineered or programmed like one. Thinking of it as such is a category error with ramifications that are both deluded and dangerous.
A four-billion-year reversal of entropy
Ultimately, this machine metaphor is based on a simplifying assumption, known as reductionism, which approaches nature as a collection of tiny parts to investigate. This methodology has been resoundingly effective in many fields of inquiry, leading to some of our greatest advances in science and technology. Without it, most of the benefits of our modern world would not exist—no electrical grids, no airplanes, no antibiotics, no internet. However, over the centuries, many scientists and engineers have been so swept up by the success of their enterprise that they have frequently mistaken this assumption for reality—even when advances in scientific research uncover its limitations.
When James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the shape of the DNA molecule in 1953, they used metaphors from the burgeoning information revolution to describe their findings. The genotype was a “program” that determined the exact specifications of an organism, just like a computer program. DNA sequences formed the “master code” of a “blueprint” that contained a detailed set of “instructions” for building an individual. Prominent geneticist Walter Gilbert would begin his public lectures by pulling out a compact disk and proclaiming “This is you!”
Since then, however, further scientific research has revealed fundamental defects in this model. The “central dogma” of molecular biology, as coined by Crick and Watson, was that information could only flow one way: from the gene to the rest of the cell. Biologists now know that proteins act directly on the DNA of the cell, specifying which genes in the DNA should be activated. DNA can’t do anything by itself—it only functions when certain parts of it get switched on or off by the activities of different combinations of proteins, which were themselves formed by the instructions of DNA. This process is a vibrant, dynamic circular flow of interactivity.
This leads to a classic chicken-and-egg problem: if a cell is not determined solely by its genes, what ultimately causes it to “decide” what to do? Biologists who have researched this issue generally agree that the emergence of life on Earth was most likely a self-organized process known as autopoiesis—from the Greek words meaning self-generation—performed originally by non-living molecular structures.
These protocells essentially staged a temporary, local reversal of the Second Law of Thermodynamics which describes how the universe is undergoing an irreversible process of entropy: order inevitably becomes disordered and heat always flows from hot regions to colder regions. We see entropy in our daily lives every time we stir cream into our coffee, or break an egg for an omelet. Once the egg is scrambled, no amount of work will ever get the yolk back together again. It’s a depressing law, especially when applied to the entire universe which, according to most physicists, will eventually dissipate into a bleak expanse of cold, dark nothingness. Those first protocells, however, learned to turn entropy into order by ingesting it in the form of energy and matter, breaking it apart, and reorganizing it into forms beneficial for their continued existence—the process we know as metabolism.
Ever since then, for roughly four billion years, the defining quality of life has been its purposive self-organization. There is no programmer writing a program; no architect drawing up a blueprint. The organism is the weaver of its own fabric, using DNA as an instrument of transmission. It sculpts itself according to its own inner sense of purpose, which it inherited ultimately—like all of us—from those first autocatalytic cells: the drive to resist entropy and generate a temporary vortex of self-created order in the universe. In the words of philosopher of biology Andreas Weber, “Everything that lives wants more of life. Organisms are beings whose own existence means something to them.”
This implies that, rather than being an aggregation of unconscious machines, life is intrinsically purposive. In recent decades, carefully designed scientific studies have revealed the deep intelligence throughout the natural world employed by organisms as they fulfil their purpose of self-generation. The inner life of a plant, biologists have discovered, is a rich plethora of complex experience. Plants have their own versions of our five senses, as well as up to fifteen other ways of sensing their environment for which we don’t have analogues. Plants act intentionally and purposefully: they have memories and learn, they communicate with each other, and can even allocate resources as a community through what biologist Suzanne Simard calls the “wood-wide web” of mycorrhizal fungi linking their roots together underground.
Extensive studies now point to the profound realization that every animal with a nervous system is likely to have some sort of subjective experience driven by feelings that, at the deepest level, are shared by all of us. Bees have been shown to feel anxious when their hives are shaken. Fish will make trade-offs between hunger and pain, avoiding part of an aquarium where they’re likely to get an electric shock, even if that’s where the food is—until they get so hungry that they’re willing to take a risk. Octopuses, one of the earliest groups to evolve separately from other animals about 600 million years ago, live predominantly solitary lives, but just like humans, get cozy with others when given a dose of the “love-drug” MDMA.
The ideology of human supremacy
As we confront the existential crises of the twenty-first century, the mechanistic thinking that brought us to this place may be driving us headlong toward catastrophe. As each new global problem appears, attention gets focused on short-term, mechanistic solutions, rather than probing deeper systemic causation. In response to the worldwide collapse of butterfly and bee populations, for example, some researchers have designed tiny airborne drones to pollinate trees as artificial substitutes for their disappearing natural pollinators.
As the stakes get higher through this century, the dangers arising from this mechanistic metaphor of nature will only become more harrowing. Already, in response to the acceleration of climate breakdown, the techno-dystopian idea of geoengineering is becoming increasingly acceptable. Following Tillerson’s misconceived logic, rather than disrupt the fossil fuel-based growth economy, policymakers are beginning to seriously countenance treating the Earth as a gigantic machine that needs fixing, and developing massive engineering projects to tinker with the global climate.
Given the innumerable nonlinear feedback loops that generate our planet’s complex living systems, the law of unintended consequences looms menacingly large. The eerily named field of “solar radiation management”, for example, which has received significant financing from Bill Gates, envisages spraying particles into the stratosphere to cool the Earth by reflecting the Sun’s rays back into space. The risks are enormous, such as causing extreme shifts in precipitation around the world and exacerbating damage we’ve already done to the ozone layer. Additionally, once begun, it could never be stopped without immediate catastrophic rebound heating; it would further increase ocean acidification; and would likely turn the blue sky into a perpetual white haze. These types of feedback effects, arising from the innumerable nonlinear dynamic interdependencies of Earth’s complex systems, get marginalized by a worldview that ultimately sees our planet as a machine requiring a quick fix.
Further, there are deep moral issues that arise from confronting the inherent subjectivity of the natural world. Ever since the Scientific Revolution, the root metaphor of nature as a machine has infiltrated Western culture, inducing people to view the living Earth as a resource for humans to exploit without regard for its intrinsic value. Ecological philosopher Eileen Crist describes this as human supremacy, pointing out that seeing nature as a “resource” permits anything to be done to the Earth with no moral misgivings. Fish get reclassified as “fisheries,” and farm animals as “livestock”—living creatures become mere assets to be exploited for profit. Ultimately, it is the ideology of human supremacy that allows us to blow up mountaintops for coal, turn vibrant rainforest into monocropped wastelands, and trawl millions of miles of ocean floor with nets that scoop up everything that moves.
Once we recognize that other animals with a nervous system are not machines, as Descartes proposed, but likely experience subjective feelings similar to humans, we must also reckon with the unsettling moral implications of factory farming. The stark reality is that around the world, cows, chicken, and pigs are enslaved, tortured, and mercilessly slaughtered merely for human convenience. This systematic torment administered in the name of humanity to over 70 billion animals a year—each one a sentient creature with a nervous system as capable of registering excruciating pain as you or I—quite possibly represents the greatest cataclysm of suffering that life on Earth has ever experienced.
The “quantum jazz” of life
What, then, are metaphors of life that more accurately reflect the findings of biology—and might have the adaptive consequence of influencing our civilization to behave with more reverence toward our nonliving relatives on this beleaguered planet which is our only home?
Frequently, when cell biologists describe the mind-boggling complexity of their subject, they turn to music as a core metaphor. Denis Noble entitled his book on cellular biology The Music of Life, depicting it as “a symphony.” Ursula Goodenough describes patterns of gene expression as “melodies and harmonies.” While this metaphor rings truer than nature as a machine, it has its own limitations: a symphony is, after all, a piece of music written by a composer, with a conductor directing how each note should be played. The awesome quality of nature’s music arises from the fact that it is self-organized. There is no outside agent telling each cell what to do.
Perhaps a more illustrative metaphor would be a dance. Cell biologists increasingly refer to their findings in terms of “choreography,” and philosopher of biology Evan Thompson writes vividly how an organism and its environment relate to each other “like two partners in a dance who bring forth each other’s movements.”
Another compelling metaphor is an improvisational jazz ensemble, where a self-organized group of musicians spontaneously creates fresh melodies from a core harmonic theme, riffing off each other’s creativity in a similar way to how evolution generates complex ecosystems. Geneticist Mae-Wan Ho captures this idea with her portrayal of life as “quantum jazz,” describing it as “an incredible hive of activity at every level of magnification in the organism . . . locally appearing as though completely chaotic, and yet perfectly coordinated as a whole.”
What might our world look if we saw ourselves as participating in a coherent ensemble with all sentient beings interweaving together to collectively reverse entropy on Earth? Perhaps we might begin to see humanity’s role, not to re-engineer a broken planet for further exploitation, but to attune with the rest of life’s abundance, and ensure that our own actions harmonize with the Earth’s ecological rhythms. In the profound words of 20th century humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, “I am life that wills to live, in the midst of life that wills to live.” How, we may ask, might our future trajectory change if we were to reconstruct our civilization on this basis?
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.
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.
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.
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.