The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent (book review)

May 19, 2017 | By | Reply More

Jeremy Lent’s book title, ‘The Patterning Instinct’, sounds like a book on knitting but makes more sense from its sub-title, ‘A Cultural History Of Humanity’s Search For Meaning’. Lent’s perspective is to look at humanity from a historical point of view and what it all means. Also, if you’re looking for the meaning of life, then you also need to know how you sit within your society as well and this plays a large part in Lent’s book.

An interesting note made at the end of the introduction is the note numbers with an asterisk are the pertinent notes to look up than the text source. That might be seen as a means to not wade through the 87 pages of notes but it does bring an argument back that pertinent notes should be either be properly incorporated into the main text in the multiple drafts in preparation or put on the relevant page instead. More so, as there are so few real notes made. This book definitely could have done with having an index although as I’m reading an advance copy I can only hope it might be in the final copy. There’s a lot in this book that you would want to reference later.

His discussion on how mankind developed social skills is interesting and especially the development of speech and language. One thing I think he does neglect is that as man’s jaw changed and he loses his fangs, the articulation means more sideways movement which enhances both chewing and developing refined words. It’s rather interesting that Lent uses the beginning of the film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ as an example of man’s development but at the end of the book, points out that Kubrick/Clarke hadn’t foreseen mobile telephones and Heywood Floyd on the space station could have contacted his wife directly had they thought of it. Looking objectively, across the genre, very few SF films and books leading up to the 1990s have shown any dependency on mobile phones, not even in the future.

You do get a wide selection of cultures and how they started in this book. Probably the most significant is the change from hunter-gatherers to farmers. The comparison here was far more striking because the hunter-gatherers were actually better off as they preferred no possessions or territory and, being nomadic, moved on when food was scarce. Their diet was more varied, too. When our culture became farmers, we lost a few inches in height and grew (sic) a dependency on few vegetable choices. For those seeking thought for storywriting, you are going to find a lot of useful information here. Objectively, if you compare to the few existing nomadic Amazonian tribes today, one of the benefits of turning to a farming culture was how quickly our desire for scientific knowledge grew because we had more idle time but I guess something has to benefit.

China still holds the record for the continuity of a single culture and we’re all upstart cultures in comparison. Later in the book, Lent also points out how the Chinese preferred manpower to using machines as well, even today.

From the Greeks and, specifically, Pythagoras, the belief in reincarnation into animals is what inspired vegetarianism. Me, just speculating, wonders what the outcome would have been had he met those with Zen beliefs that Man’s spirit would go up to a superior species than to animals. Would eating the animals mean a faster progress up the evolutionary chain?

I’ve also finally got it sunken into my head that ‘Tao’ is pronounced ‘Dao’ as well with not a ‘T’ in sight.

That neatly brings us to language and Lent explore the Aboriginal Guugu Yimithire that describes movement by cardinal direction so they have an innate feeling for north, south, east and west. In contrast, an Amazonian tribe, the Pirahă, can only count up to three and more a dependency on what you need to get on in life. Don’t think this just belongs to these people alone. It was interesting to discover that the Spanish don’t combine cause with effect in their language. The Chinese, who can change the meaning of words by changing the tone have problems with science word which need continual preciseness. I wish Lent had explored this more. I mean, do the Chinese learn another language, like English perhaps, to better their understanding of science or do they rely on translation where it could be misinterpreted now?

It’s inevitable that Lent would look at religions and their intolerance to other religions. He uses the example from the Ten Commandments and the Old Testament God being a jealous god wanting to obliterate other ‘gods’. That’s true of any religion that subjugates and supersedes another religion or more.

He makes a good case of Samuel instructing King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites and then pushed for their king to be killed when Saul spared him. Likewise with the apostle Paul seeing women as second class citizens through his own inadequacies. That’s something to raise at doorstop religious folk. I should point out that Lent doesn’t spare other religions neither. Most religions have a desire to wipe each other out over their time. One has to wonder at our tolerances today or, thankfully, religious leaders not wishing to see their own religions shrinking any further.

On the conquering front, the European people lacked the living with nature of the Native Americans and the Orient and we all saw the result of that. Reading this will make a useful reminder to those who write SF out there on how we reflect societies in our genre and worth paying attention to. Clearly, they weren’t prepared for the nature of exploitation, often led by religion as well. The South American Incas being told what would happen if they didn’t conform by the Spanish but didn’t understand the language should leave you with disgust and how one-sided morality was when combined with superior military forces.

Lent does explore the science of the Muslims which was going well for a time before religion and the desire to halt innovation sunk in. When you consider how much we shared science at the time was slowed by this to what we have today, it demonstrates how religion gets in the way of progress.

This neatly brings us to religion and science in the west, although I was surprised that Lent didn’t explore how Aristotle’s scientific beliefs held back on scientific development for many centuries. Catholic religion was sluggish also in adapting scientific thought although Lent makes a good argument that it was Galileo’s manner that got him in far worse trouble than his predecessor, Kepler, although he didn’t exactly get off scot-free himself. I’m less sure on his assertion that the Church was so readily happy to change their beliefs when science was showing it increasingly wrong. You only have to look at the torture and death of scientific heretics who didn’t conform. The changeover was never that simplistic depending on just two Italian scientists.

Today’s society is led far too much by capitalism than ecology needs. Lent’s description of how American laws are supervised by corporate lawyers ensuring their companies get the best deals should make you think about political control being non-existent in the USA.

I might contest the example of the QUERTY keyboard design. It wasn’t to slow the typist down but to prevent the keys sticking together. Its continual success is helped by the fact that the vowels are all on the left hand allowing the right hand to roam over the keyboard for the other keys.

In his final chapter, Lent explores the future of current societies and how far they’ve divided and continual to change. There are still too many simplistically based nations or rather not up-to-date as the rest of us. I think we like to think that the rest of the world is like ourselves but it clearly isn’t. Even with the Internet, we only see news about nations like our own which does out a question over ‘world-wide’. If we want to be truly progressive, it is getting these poorer countries developed that should bring more meaning into what we do.

There are a few places where I might quibble with Jeremy Lent but, overall, there is much to learn from this book and allow you to think abolut what it all means.

GF Willmetts

May 2017

(pub: Prometheus Books. 537 page small hardback. Price: $26.00 (US), $27.50 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-63388-293-5. Ebook: Price: $12.99 (US), $14.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-63388-294-2)

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Category: Books, Culture, Science


About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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