Reading Journal 2023: The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search For Meaning by Jeremy Lent
Reading this book actually took me back to last year and delving in to The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber. Slight difference in focus, thesis and scope, but a definite shared concern for reimagining humanities history in light of the evidence and allowing that to shape how it is that we see our place in this world, or better yet, our place in relationship to it.
Lents interest, as the title suggests, is in exploring how it is that humans have arrived at the idea of a meaningful existence. This question, as he will go on to flesh out, has much importance when it comes to how it is that we exist meaningfully in this world. The ebb and flow of history certainly demonstrates the possibility of negative and positive potentials when it comes to the how. Thus Lent posits that it’s not only important to locate how humanity distinguishes itself as a functioning creature, but also how humanity remains connected to the larger world it exists within.
For Lent, the journey begins with overwriting popular histories of man in contest with nature with current theories regarding humanities complex relationship to its environment and to the human, socially bred systems that guide us. Here he borrows from Graeber in pushing back against assumptions which want to draw humanity’s history along linear lines from less civilized to civilized, or premodern to modern, or Neanderthals to intelligent species. Lent spends just as much time as Graeber in dismantling some of the prominent thinkers writing on a popular level, which includes the likes of Pinker and Dawkins. Not that these thinkers are entirely wrong or uninformed, simply that that they fundamentally misunderstand the evidence of history and science regarding how it is that humanity came to be and how early hominids held the very same markings of what we might call civilized society today.
If Graeber takes a big picture view, Lent dials things down concerning the question of what makes us human to something he describes as the patterning instinct, the key marker of our cognitive history, which is what distinguishes humanity from all other species. It is within these patterns that we find humanities penchant for both cooperation, communication, and perhaps most importantly metaphor/symbolism which help us make sense of reciprocal relationships around us. It is perhaps more true to say that we create meaning through our ability to both think and speak cooperatively it in proper relationship to our environment than it is to say that such meaning is sought.
Now, here is a point of disagreement I have with Lent, and it is a pretty strong one. There is a sense in which he appeals to metaphor to help us see how humans can be defined as human because of our need to think in necessary binaries- light and dark, good and evil. And yet as he unfolds the larger narrative of humanity’s mythic consciousness he caters to an all too common portrait of religious development and consciousness. While attempting to place religious thought as the natural outcome of our need for metaphor and symbolism in langauge and thought, he locates the problem with religion as a movement from polytheism to monotheism. His end goal is to uphold East and West as representing two different trajectories in this regard, with the West ultimately emerging as the colonizing force through its appeal to monotheism as a means of enacting binaries between us and them. Part of this movement then becomes a shift from humanity operating in relationship to nature (once upon a time seen to be either the resident of the gods or the gods themselves) to humanity operating within a split level world where nature is bad and the transcendent is good, be it by the divine images that reside in the heavens or by the later sciences that would come to define the worship of the enlightenment. There is actually a lot here that I share in terms of value, interest and concern. I do think there are problems inherent in the west and that the enlightenment has proved wanting, and I do think this has to do with no longer adhering to the simple value of living in relationship to our environment and the other. But I disagree with his analysis of religion and religious development, especially his heavy emphasis on christianity as one that upholds this split level view positing the spiritual body/kingdom in contest with the material world/self. It in fact pushes against such a view. He makes multiple references to christian texts for example that do not adhere to some of the better scholarship, and ironically falls into the very trappings he is looking to deconstruct by appealing to wrongly informed histories to locate a kind of linear movement from less enlightened to more enlightened.
The end result leaves him attempting to weave his thesis into concrete and practical assumptions concerning the truth of meaning in this world in ways that felt a bit dishonest and certainly unable to acknowledge it’s own appeal to irrationality. He wants to lay out meaning as created while also claiming the freedom to make multiple claims about meaning as given truths that should or must guide our actions. Its perhaps ultimately not the fact that he does this but rather that he doesn’t acknowledge these leaps in reason that felt most frustrating, especially when half the book is disguising itself as a wrongly placed critique of religion and religious development.
Lots still though to mull on, and overall offers a helpful push back on certain ways of thinking according to western paradigms and allegiances. I think one learning that really stuck out for me is how he unpacks the connection between our patterning instinct, honed as it is to find meaning in this world, and our being wired for metaphor and symbolism. It permeates everything, even if the langauge of the West has muddled it and polluted it, and reenchantment, or recovery of meaning, begins with a recovering the power of language and story as part of the essential human distinctive.