Q & A With Jeremy Lent, Author of “The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning”

What do worldviews, ideas about human nature and the Scientific Revolution have to do with today’s environmental and social crises? Everything, says Jeremy Lent, author of the groundbreaking new book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. He reveals how our future will depend on what happens, not just in the streets, but in our minds.

Peter Handel: What is the “patterning instinct?” Why is it so important?

Jeremy Lent: It’s the instinct that makes us uniquely human. It’s the part of the human mind — centered in the prefrontal cortex — that looks for meaning in what goes on around us. As a result of the patterning instinct, humans developed language, tool use, culture — everything that enabled us to dominate the world and create civilization.

As newborn babies, it’s the instinct that drives us to listen for patterns in the sounds we hear from others until we begin to make sense out of them and learn our native language. And since the dawn of human history, it has driven cultures to try to make sense out of the universe, to find a pattern of meaning in whatever happens, leading every culture to develop its own distinctive worldview, replete with its mythology, ritual and value system.

You talk about “root metaphors” that shape how we view and act in the world. What is a “root metaphor”? What are the root metaphors operating today and what impact do they have?

We use root metaphors unconsciously as a foundation for building structures of meaning in the world around us. These underlying metaphors arise ultimately from our embodied existence. For example, “high” is better than “low,” “light” is better than “dark,” and “warm” is better than “cold.”

When these root metaphors are used to make sense of humanity’s place in the cosmos, they form the underlying structure of a culture’s worldview. Hunter-gatherers viewed the natural world through the root metaphor of nature as “a giving parent.” With the rise of agriculture, nature seemed less benevolent, and began to be viewed as a “hierarchy of the gods.” These metaphors are hidden in plain sight, since they are used so extensively that people begin to accept them as the fundamental structures of reality. We forget they are metaphors and begin to believe them as fact, along with thelogical entailments that arise from them.

Many of the modern root metaphors that pervade our global civilization can be traced back Judeo-Christian roots. In the Bible, for example, God is seen as a “divine lawgiver” who assigns humankind “dominion over nature,” which provided a theological and moral justification for humanity to exploit the natural world ceaselessly without concern for any intrinsic value it might otherwise have. The pioneers of the 17th century Scientific Revolution promulgated two new root metaphors which have since been woven into the fabric of modern thought: the view of “nature as a machine” and the vision of “conquering nature,” both of which became foundational to the modern mainstream scientific worldview.

You suggest that the human patterning instinct is responsible for all the benefits of civilization. At the same time, you point out that it has also brought our civilization to the brink of collapse. Is our situation, then, an inevitable result of human nature?

This is one of the most important questions facing humanity. If our current situation is an inevitable result of human nature, then a fatalistic approach to the future seems fitting: We may as well just learn to accept what is in store. But I wrote The Patterning Instincton the premise that our present situation is culturally driven: a product of particular structures of thought that could conceivably be re-patterned.

A basic thesis of the book is that culture shapes values, and those values shape history. In the 15th century, China was far more advanced technologically than Europe, but it never occurred to the Chinese to use their power for global domination. The traditional Chinese worldview prized harmony and stability, and while they sailed to India, Arabia and Africa, their primary interest was establishing a broad geographic network for prestige and trade.

In contrast, when Europeans began sailing to distant lands, they saw it as an opportunity to conquer and enslave the Indigenous people and plunder their raw materials. At the core of the European value system was a thirst for power that justified disrupting any equilibrium. These values have since become the basis for the global norms of our modern world that are driving our civilization to the precipice.

It’s easy to romanticize hunter-gather societies as a way of life in which humans lived in harmony with nature, but you show that even hunter-gatherer societies caused environmental destruction. How so and what we can learn from this?

As the patterning instinct evolved, it enabled hominids to develop technologies that empowered them beyond their natural strength. When early humans left Africa to colonize other continents, the large animals there had no instinctive fear of humans, and thus became easy pickings for the colonizers. As far as the hunter-gatherers were concerned, nature was a generous “giving parent.” However, without realizing it, they caused mass extinctions of megafauna everywhere they went: in Australia, 23 out of 24 megafauna disappeared within a few thousand years of human habitation; in North America, 33 out of 45 genera; and in South America, 46 out of 58 went extinct.

This took many generations, and nobody would have known it was happening at the time. But on a geological timeframe, these extinctions happened almost instantaneously, which is why they have been called “one of the swiftest and most profound biological catastrophes in the history of the Earth.” There’s an important lesson from this: The unique powers of the human patterning instinct can easily lead to an imbalance between humans and the natural environment, which can cause massive destruction.

You claim that the rise of agriculture was responsible for the development of land ownership, hierarchies and patriarchy. How did that happen?

For nomadic hunter-gatherers, material possessions have little value; when you’re always on the move, you don’t want to have to carry around heavy stuff. But with agriculture, people settled in one place and began accumulating more. Land itself, previously free, became a valuable asset, permitting those who owned it to become even wealthier by growing more crops. Wealth became an intrinsic value, and those who didn’t have any were seen as worthless.

Someone who has spent his life building up wealth and prestige doesn’t want to see it all evaporate on his death. So the idea of inheritance emerged, requiring rules for how possessions got passed from one generation to the next. With that, the authority of the patriarch became paramount. Women began to be perceived as commodities, like land and food sources, that males could utilize to further enhance their wealth into the distant future, even beyond their own lifespan.

Your central claim is that our prevailing worldview is inherited from previous generations and has a direct impact on our day-to-day world. Let’s look at a present-day challenge like climate change. How is this linked to ideas from the past, and why does this linkage matter now?

It helps to separate the issue into two questions: How did climate change come about? And why is it so difficult to halt?

The first question has to do with the same imbalance between human power and the natural world that caused hunter-gatherers to drive megafauna to extinction. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, our expanding use of fossil fuels caused an imbalance in the chemistry of the atmosphere through the greenhouse effect. Just like the hunter-gatherers, until fairly recently, we were unaware of what we were doing.

But it’s now been 25 years since more than 170 nations agreed in what became the Kyoto Protocol that humanity faced a global crisis. Why have we let it get so out of control? The reason ultimately has to do with the underlying values of our global civilization: the insatiable demand for economic growth, the frenzy of material consumption and the enormous power wielded by corporations driven by short-term profits. These forces are so pervasive that we tend to take them for granted, but the value system they arose from is unique to a Western mindset that emerged only in the past couple of hundred years. By recognizing the underlying values that engender these forces, we’re better positioned to change them.

The scientific consensus is clear that climate change is driving us toward a global crisis. You argue in The Patterning Instinct that even if we succeeded in dealing with climate change, without a major shift in our thinking, it would only be replaced by another existential threat. What do you mean?

While climate change is probably the direst threat facing our world right now, it’s not the only one. There’s a rapidly accumulating list of equally daunting crises, such as deforestation, desertification, loss of biodiversity and a massive extinction of species. We’re overshooting our planetary boundaries as a result of the rampant growth obsession of the modern global economy, dominated by mega-corporations that enrich their billionaire owners by consuming the Earth.

Some of the most promising fixes for climate change, such as a worldwide carbon tax and massive investment in renewables, may partially halt climate change, but won’t check the destructive forces of the global capitalist economy. As long as a country’s success is measured by GDP, as long as corporations have the sole objective of maximizing financial return, as long as the natural world is seen as nothing more than a resource for human consumption, the devastation of our world will continue.

Ultimately, to turn around our civilization’s trajectory, we need nothing less than a Great Transformation in values. In place of the root metaphors that drive our civilization such as “nature as a machine” and “conquering nature,” we need a worldview that recognizes the intrinsic interconnectedness between all forms of life on Earth, and sees humanity as embedded integrally within the natural world.

We face crises that require immediate action. Do we really have time to shift our worldview on a global scale? Shouldn’t our focus be on action?

We need to do both. There are urgent political, environmental and economic crises facing us right now that need immediate action. But they are symptoms of a deep underlying malaise in our civilization. Imagine a factory that continually pollutes a river: people downstream have to constantly purify their water to avoid getting sick — but ultimately a change has to happen to that factory upstream. Similarly, without a shift in our worldview, the problems will just continue piling on and will keep getting worse.

The primary message of The Patterning Instinct is that culture shapes values, and those values shape history. By understanding the implicit values driving our own civilization to a precipice, we gain the power to redirect our future towards a path of sustainable flourishing.