The Patterning Instinct

The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning will be published by Prometheus Books in May 2017. Here’s what it’s about:


In 1405, Admiral Zheng set off from China with the greatest armada in history, leading three hundred magnificent ships on a thirty year odyssey to distant lands as far afield as Africa. Later that century, Columbus landed in the New World with three barely seaworthy boats. Zheng’s armada, for all its grandeur, left virtually no imprint on the world while Columbus changed the entire course of history. Why?

The Patterning Instinct provides a new answer to this question with a simple but compelling theme: Culture shapes values, and those values shape history. So even if Zheng had discovered America, the Chinese would never have conquered the New World because they were driven by a fundamentally different set of motivations from European explorers.

Pioneering the new field of cognitive history, The Patterning Instinct provides a fresh perspective on other crucial questions of history:

  • Is it our true nature to be selfish and competitive, or empathic and community-minded?
  • How did the rise of agriculture set the stage for our current ecological crisis?
  • Why did the scientific revolution take place in Europe, and not in Chinese or Islamic civilization?
  • What are the root causes of our modern culture of rampant consumerism and is there a way we can change it?
The Patterning Instinct takes the reader on an archaeology of the mind
The Patterning Instinct takes the reader on an archaeology of the mind

These questions have never mattered more than now. As we peer into the headlights of climate change and ever-accelerating technology we ask ourselves: where are we headed? This book frames an answer by recognizing that our current crisis of unsustainability is not an inevitable result of human nature, but is culturally driven: a product of particular mental patterns that could conceivably be reshaped.

Taking the reader on an archaeological exploration of the mind, The Patterning Instinct uses recent findings in cognitive science and systems theory to reveal the hidden layers of values that form today’s cultural norms.

By shining a light on our possible futures, the book foresees a coming struggle between two contrasting views of humanity: one driving us to the technological endgame of artificially enhanced humans, the other emerging from our intrinsic connectedness with each other and the natural world. This struggle, it concludes, is one in which each of us will play a role through the meaning we choose to forge from the lives we lead.

Read the Introduction

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