Prometheus Books, 2017
Reviewed by Ian Mowll
This book is a truly wonderful exploration of the human search for meaning from the rise of human consciousness around 100,000 – 200,000 years ago through to today.
Science has progressed a great deal in recent years with the availability of brain scans, genetics, archaeological digs, the rise of complexity theory, research into language and more; all of this means that there is so much more evidence to apply to the question: why do societies have certain beliefs and how does this affect their response to the world?
I have one caveat about this book. There are many things that drive the behaviour of a society: examples include the material needs of the culture, population density, geography, eco-systems and more. The beliefs of a society is just one aspect of why people do what they do. The author acknowledges this in his discourse, but then focuses almost entirely on beliefs and ideas.
However, there is a human need to make sense of complex situations. The span of history is so vast that we need stories to help us navigate through this vast and complex territory. Inevitably, stories will pick out just one aspect of the terrain and so, in this sense, I understand the author’s need to look at history through the particular lens of beliefs and ideas.
I learnt so much through this book. The huge impact of the agricultural revolution where we moved from small groups of hunter/gatherers to a much more individualised society where competition became much more important. The ideas behind Neo-Confucianism and how they are so relevant to today. The rise of abstract thinking with the ancient Greeks and how this has had a profound impact on western societies. And how the idea of domination over Nature in western society came to be, and how this is impacting our world with such devastating consequences.
There is also a fascinating section about the impact of language. For instance, the language we use can affect our feelings. An example given in the book is that there is no Greek word for ‘frustration’ and so, one study suggests, that this emotion is felt less by people from this culture. However, there is another emotion that Greek speakers name that we do not have in English – again meaning that that emotion is experienced less in English speaking cultures.
All of this makes sense to me. I have often heard it said that when you speak another language, you see the world differently. Our cultural and language differences are deep and profound.
Another example of cultural differences was explored by this experiment. A group of children were given a picture of a cow, hen and grass and asked which is the odd one out? Children in the USA tended to say “grass” because they categorise cows and hens as animals. Children from China will tend to say “hen” because the cow eats the grass and so there is a relationship between the cow and the grass. Children from the USA see the world more through categories and abstract ideas, children from China see the world more through relationship.
The book ends with a criticism of the power of corporations in our global culture and how we are heading towards an ecological crisis. The author says that we need a change in mindset in our culture, to see ourselves as embedded in Nature rather than separate from it. This will give our culture the psychic energy to change our current course and stave off an ecological crisis.
To GreenSpirit readers, this idea of being embedded in Nature is in no way new, but the book gave me so much more depth and breadth of understanding of our human journey and our pathways to a sustainable world. It is a book I shall never forget.