Beating the system - metaphorically

Taoist ritual

Taoist ritual at the Xiao ancestral temple of Chaoyang, Shantou, Guangdong.

BRENDAN MONTAGUE is impressed, but not entirely convinced, by an ambitious work with potentially far-reaching significance

A systems theory history of humanity – where material and immaterial systems are interdependent and coevolving – is still to be written.

The feeling of anticipation I experienced for Jeremy Lent’s The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning was palpable.

It was ignited by an extraordinarily positive summary by the envir­onmental journalist and campaigner George Monbiot. 

He exuberantly declared, “almost every page caused me to rethink what I held to be true,” and concluded that Lent has explained “why, despite our knowledge and even our intentions, we continue to follow our path to the precipice”, and how this might change.

Dominating nature

This excitement was further fanned when I discovered that the book’s foreword is by Fritjof Capra, author of the spellbinding book The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, which has fuelled my own interest in systems theory.

“Lent proposes new answers to some age-old questions,” Capra advances, and “the answers to these questions are more important than ever.”

The Patterning Instinct is extraordinarily ambitious. It opens with a dedication to “future generations”, and then sets out its claim to present a new practice of “cognitive history”, which is applied to the entire arc of human history.

Lent also claims in the introduction that his book “shows how the systems approach to understanding complexity can be usefully applied to the field of history”. Patterning comes to mean ‘collection of metaphors’ about how people relate to Nature and each other.

Why does this matter? Lent asserts that the meta­phor of dominating nature is the root cause of today’s ecological and social crises. Hence better metaphors are needed.

Blank slate

I became interested in ‘systems’ when reading John Bowlby’s paradigm-shifting trilogy, Attachment, Separation and Loss. These texts set out systems theory in a way that is thoroughgoing and compelling.

Bowlby succeeds in explaining how the same homeostatic process that controls central heating can be found in natural thought systems.

This ranges from the duckling, who follows the first shape it sees, to the human child, who over time learns attachment to an adult and then feels intense anxiety when experiencing separ­ation.

Reading Bowlby’s books was life-changing and I now find myself drawn to systems theories in their many guises.

More generally, I have come to believe that human beings are not born with the mind a blank slate adept at learning from culture and from its environment. This was quite a challenging process for me.

A systems theory history of humanity – where material and immaterial systems are interdependent and coevolving – is still to be written.

Irreparable damage

The claim that humans are ‘programmed’ from before birth has been largely colonised by reactionaries, who have distorted evolutionary psychology and other schools to justify racism and sexism, hierarchy and prejudice.

Bowlby’s systems-based attachment can provide a very different insight into how individuals, groups and societies function.

My interest in systems means I am no follower of René Descartes, of reductionism and linear thought, and am susceptible to theories that emphasise totality, interaction and change. I am, therefore, Lent’s target audience.

There is indeed much to celebrate and enjoy in The Patterning Instinct. Lent is clearly a person who cares passionately about the human species as a whole and about the natural environment in which we have evolved over the last million years.

He is driven by a deep concern that we are about to cause irreparable damage to our surroundings, our habitat and therefore ourselves. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to discover why this is the case, and has generously shared his findings.

Systems theory

I also agree with him that the work of George Lakoff, the American cognitive linguist and phil­osopher who argues that our lives are shaped by the metaphors we use to explain life’s phenomena, is important to political science.

This was also for me the first attempt at a unified field theory of history that I have read, and it takes in an extraordinary amount of research and knowledge from a wide number of academic sources.

The grand narrative had been cast aside by postmodernism, alongside the claims that we had in fact reached “the end of history” – but clearly it is now back in fashion.

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens – just as Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man a generation or more before – attempt to chart a long arc of human existence between two covers, with a unifying theory that can serve as a cover title.

The Patterning Instinct is a wonderfully readable and energetic romp through the history of ideas. In particular, I think the summary of systems theory that comes in the later chapters is very accessible and robust. All of this makes the book a good read.


Yet the single most important thing, surely, is whether a book succeeds or fails on its own terms, and here it must be said that Lent has set himself an enormous challenge.

The suggestion is that all of human history is about to be explained through an advanced understanding of “cognitive structures of the mind”. History is about to be told using systems theory.

All too often I found myself wading through tens of thousands of years of a narrative of human development, from ape to Edward Lorenz, only to reach the very end of the chapter and be told that this proved something in relation to “cognitive history”.

Lent spends almost the entire book describing a linear, chronological history where teleological progression is assumed. This feels like Cartesian rather than systems thinking. Ideas/metaphors get better, the world/living conditions get better.

My primary concern about the book is the divorce between the physical and the psychic.

Singular story

Capra states clearly in his foreword: “Instead of the traditional approach of assuming that the direction of history is determined, ultimately, by material causes – geography, economy, technology, and the like – [Lent] argues that … ‘metaphors forge the values that ultimately drive people’s actions’.”

Lent gives a lengthy and fascinating exposition of the Taoist worldview, which unites the interacting qi (energy and matter) and li (structure).

Yet he does not seem to reflect on the fact that his own argument is that cognitive structure (li) is determining rather than economies and geography (qi) .

He fails to convince me when attempting to explain why the Industrial Revolution happened within the cognitive framing of Descartes rather than, say, Neo-Confucianism.

Lent’s book stands in contrast to Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules – For Now, published in 2010, which is an earlier unified field theory of history in which geography, biology and sociology are brought together to provide a compelling and singular story of human history.

Interdependent and coevolving

The hypothesis – which is well supported by evidence throughout Morris’s book – is that humans in large numbers behave in the same way and it is geography (materiality) rather than ideas that determines regional differences.

This provides a simple but – for me, at least – satisfactory answer to the question of why modern science advanced at a particular moment in history in one region.

Morris is an archaeologist and puts forward a well-grounded and expansive history of the most advanced societies on Earth – and he gives a good account of what we might mean by ‘advanced’.

Lent’s book would need to unearth some incredible insight to challenge what Morris already “held to be true”.

And although tantalising in places, he does not quite succeed. A systems theory history of humanity – where material and immaterial systems are interdependent and coevolving – is still to be written.

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist, founder of Request Initiative and co-author of Impact of Market Forces on Addictive Substances and Behaviours: The web of influence of addictive industries (Oxford University Press)He tweets at @EcoMontague.

This article was first published in the current issue of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine, which is available now

The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning by Jeremy Lent is published by Prometheus Books, 2017. ISBN: 9781633882935.

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