Patterning Instinct

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* Book: The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. By Jeremy Lent. Prometheus Books,2017

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"Taking the reader on an archaeological exploration of the mind, The 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." (


Joe Brewer:

"He offers three scenarios for how to frame the future trajectory of Earth:

(A) One where we have massive ecological collapse and are never able to recover to present levels of knowledge or complexity again;

(B) Another like the movie Elysium where techo-elites gain the ability to "upgrade" themselves with their massive wealth, effectively creating two separate species of human with the rest of humanity living in squalor;

(C) The transformation of cultural values and worldview needed to enact the Declaration of Universal Human Rights alongside a parallel Declaration for the Rights of Nature that leads us toward planetary sustainability.

I anticipate that all three scenarios will play out in partial expression... that collapse of the present hyper-consumption system based on exploitation of nature and wealth hoarding is inevitable. And yet there will be lingering islands of massive wealth for some elites to explore their own "ego porn" of self-improvement.

At the same time -- and this is where the Culture Design Labs come into the picture -- there will be "seeds of transformation" in small and medium-sized communities around the world that manage to stay connected as a global network to work toward ecological restoration and planetary healing. Eventually, if we work really hard, there is a chance that the network of ecological healers grows to the planetary scale. This is something that may require several centuries as we'll need to undo extreme climate change (if that is possible) and restore ecosystem health through active stewardship and restoration for entire bioregions of the Earth.

My forecast is for surviving through collapse, where a new emergent system eventually takes hold and has a glimmer of hope (but merely a glimmer!) of preserving or restoring societal complexity over the span of several centuries." (Facebook, August 2017)

The Western Pattern that split the cosmos from the human

Pat Kane:

"Lent provides a useful and massively referenced road map of the most enduring structures of meaning in human history.

Humanity’s first world-encompassing idea, says Lent, was the hunter-gatherer belief that “everything is connected”. There followed an agricultural era during which humanity lived under the “hierarchy of the gods”. He then charts what he calls “the divergence”.

Lent’s shorthand for this pattern is “split cosmos, split human”: the assumption that our physical reality, personal or objective, can be controlled by transcendent powers. Whether we call those powers “divine” or “rational” is, to Lent, neither here nor there. The two developed in lockstep: you couldn’t have conceived one without the other.

Articulated first by the philosophers of Ancient Greece, this “Western pattern” of meaning gathered force under the rise of Christianity and the innovations of the Enlightenment and continues to hold sway under today’s scientific industrialism.

Lent traces his splitting thesis all the way to the thrumming fortresses of Silicon Valley. Here, Plato’s fantasy – a rational soul subjecting the animalistic body to its will – is not just a moral compass, it’s become techno-scientific mission.

Are you extending our cognitive abilities by creating devices that mimic and mesh with our thinking? Are you influencing people’s emotions through mood-altering drugs? Are you engineering our bodies to the optimum with gene editing? Then you are in the grip of an ancient idea: that pure rationality stands sovereign over the biological world.

This idea has the potential, already half-realised, Lent says, to produce a split humanity, “one species, genetically and technologically enhanced, exploring entirely new ways of being human; the other species, genetically akin to us, barely surviving within its collapsed infrastructure.”

Similar to Yuval Noah Harari’s recent, and equally expansive, Homo Deus, Lent’s book seeks some perspective on our modern juggernaut of radical innovation and global polarisation. To do so, it reaches towards Asian wisdom traditions – an “Eastern pattern” that Lent calls “the harmonic web of life”.

But while Harari’s no-self Buddhism comes close to exulting in the way humankind will be overtaken by intelligent algorithms, Lent finds a place for connecting, meaning-seeking humans in this complex future.

To carve out this space for ourselves, Lent says we must recast the deep metaphors structuring our attitudes to nature and other humans." (

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Review by Pat Kane at