The Patterning Instinct

My book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning will be published by Prometheus Books in May 2017, with a Foreword by Fritjof Capra. Here’s what it’s about:


In 1405, Admiral Zheng set off from China with the greatest armada in history, leading three hundred magnificent ships on a thirty year odyssey to distant lands as far afield as Africa. Later that century, Columbus landed in the New World with three barely seaworthy boats. Zheng’s armada, for all its grandeur, left virtually no imprint on the world while Columbus changed the entire course of history. Why?

The Patterning Instinct provides a new answer to this question with a simple but compelling theme: Culture shapes values, and those values shape history. So even if Zheng had discovered America, the Chinese would never have conquered the New World because they were driven by a fundamentally different set of motivations from European explorers.

Pioneering the new field of cognitive history, The Patterning Instinct provides a fresh perspective on other crucial questions of history:

  • Is it our true nature to be selfish and competitive, or empathic and community-minded?
  • How did the rise of agriculture set the stage for our current ecological crisis?
  • Why did the scientific revolution take place in Europe, and not in Chinese or Islamic civilization?
  • What are the root causes of our modern culture of rampant consumerism and is there a way we can change it?
The Patterning Instinct takes the reader on an archaeology of the mind
The Patterning Instinct takes the reader on an archaeology of the mind

These questions have never mattered more than now. As we peer into the headlights of climate change and ever-accelerating technology we ask ourselves: where are we headed? This book frames an answer by recognizing that our current crisis of unsustainability is not an inevitable result of human nature, but is culturally driven: a product of particular mental patterns that could conceivably be reshaped.

Taking the reader on an archaeological exploration of the mindThe Patterning Instinct offers a glimpse into the minds of a vast range of different peoples: early hunter-gatherers and farmers, ancient Egyptians, traditional Chinese sages, the founders of Christianity, trail-blazers of the Scientific Revolution, and those who constructed our modern consumer society.

The book identifies the root metaphors that cultures have used to construct meaning in their world from hunter-gatherer times to today’s global civilization, and demonstrates how these have affected the course of history. Uprooting the tired clichés of the science/religion debate, it shows how medieval Christian rationalism acted as an incubator for scientific thought, which in turn shaped our modern vision of the conquest of nature.

Shining a light on our possible futures, the book foresees a coming struggle between two contrasting views of humanity: one driving to a technological endgame of artificially enhanced humans, the other enabling a sustainable future arising from our intrinsic connectedness with each other and the natural world. This struggle, it concludes, is one in which each of us will play a role through the meaning we choose to forge from the lives we lead.


Advance praise for The Patterning Instinct

“A tour de force on the biological and psychological background of the human predicament. If you are concerned about our future you should know about our past. This amazing, well-documented book should be read by every college student, and every congressman.” – Paul R. Ehrlich, author of Human Natures.

“A brilliant deep dive into the history of human cultures that brings us to today’s cultural dysfunctions that threaten the planet. Insight, illumination, and potential ways out of the seeming dead-end that we’ve walked ourselves into. I would recommend it! – Thom Hartmann, author of The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight.

“This breathtaking book is already a classic. With its unique synthesis of thought history, actual historical events, and cultural patterns, it does what no other work has achieved since Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being. Lent explains in one sweeping argument why global civilization has separated from life. And he shows how we can find our way back into it.
“Lent narrates the history of humanity’s growing alienation from a shared biosphere and from our own feeling bodies with the suspense and art of a novelist. It is heart-wrenching to see to what degree thought patterns can form not only our worldview, but the actual world, handing it over to destruction. The good message though is: Lent proves that humanity’s destructiveness is not God-given; it is, as any cultural pattern, reversible. That is our chance.” – Andreas Weber, author of The Biology of Wonder.

“Eminently readable, entertaining, yet sophisticated and intellectually fascinating… Lent proposes new answers to some age-old questions of human history… In our time of global crisis, which desperately needs guidance through new and life-affirming metaphors, the answers to these questions are more important than ever.” – Fritjof Capra, author of The Systems View Of Life.


Limited Time Offer

Pre-order The Patterning Instinct and get a signed copy of Requiem of the Human Soul for free.


Explore the themes and content of The Patterning Instinct


Read the introduction.

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