A number of books have been written recently with the aim of drawing attention to the apparent misconceptions that have directed Western civilisation since the first murmurings of agricultural and industrial revolution were heard in Britain and Europe over four hundred years ago.
We have read How to be Animal by Melanie Challenger, as well as This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. We have lingered over The Goodness Paradox by Richard Wrangham and cogitated Sapiens by Yuval Harari. We have also brandished Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond in the faces of the sceptical. Each of these books is different, but all of them have in common a pressing belief that things need to change and that a new vision of both the past and the future is desperately needed if society is going to survive into the next century and beyond. All of them believe that to build on the successes of the past (and there have been many, so let’s not feel too dismal), we need to re-evaluate the way we view the world and our place in it. These books have clearly been motivated by the current climate crisis, but many of them put forward the idea that we have had a tendency to see our role in the world as that of a dominant species with the superiority complex to match. And the warnings are insistent. We cannot expect to bring on mass extinctions and global warming with impunity. Something has to change.
In this current book, The Web of Meaning, Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, expounds his ideas about a new world view, one that might help us face the challenges ahead. Lent is not a scientist as such, but someone who has dedicated his life to research and philosophy, and the results are really quite astounding. The scientific detail is coherent and explicit. The writing is clear and inspirational. All in all, this is a really good read and a highly pertinent book.
The central idea is this, rather than thinking of ourselves as a species apart we should see ourselves as being far more integrated into life on Earth than we have previously understood. Science has, in the past, followed the principles of reductionism, a system of thinking that drove scientists to break down the elements of life into component parts, each one independent from the other. Reductionism was a product of the world that Isaac Newton conjured into life from his principles of mathematics, and it brought about the scientific revolution. But it has also brought us to where we are today, standing on the edge of a precipice, trying to save ourselves with the same set of rules. How can we expect to get it right?
In this book, Lent critically assesses the views of scientist Richard Dawkins, and takes issue with Darwinian ways of thinking. Competitiveness and selfishness, says Lent, have lain too long at the root of our thinking and have ‘reduced the complexities of evolution to a brutally elemental simplicity’. Drawing on Neo Confucianism and ancient Chinese philosophy, The Web of Meaning proposes that we see the world as a web of interconnected patterns, because ‘understanding our cosmos ultimately requires accepting that there are multiple levels of explanation interacting dramatically’.
This is not just a metaphysical exploration. There is real science underpinning the arguments, but just not the kind that we are all used to hearing.
‘An ecological civilisation will only emerge when the symbiotic linkages between people become a more powerful force than the competitive impulses engendered by the dominant culture.’ Easy enough to say, but unfortunately Western societies are built on the foundations of competitiveness. Do we have it in us to make the leap to something more sustainable? Lent is optimistic. ‘Each of us has a part to play in weaving the web of synergy’.
However, even China, which was where the core of Lent’s precepts first originated, has integrated some Western ideas and theories into its Communist systems model, for better or for worse, so the old Tao wisdom has been on the wane over there for some time. Interesting, then, if Western societies begin to draw more heavily on pre Communist Chinese wisdom and incorporate it into a new post Capitalist framework in a double baton-passing manoeuvre, and this is probably already happening.
Any Cop?: ‘Another world is possible’, claims the author. Yes, books do change the world and have been doing so since the days of the Bible and the Ancient Greeks, but as an American Admiral once said, if you want to change the world, start by making your own bed…