The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction by Rebecca D. Costa, Vanguard Press, $26.95 Hardcover, 384 Pages, October 2010, ISBN 9781593156053
“This book is the sound of the watchman’s rattle in the dead of night. A summons for help. A plea to change the course of humankind by calling on the greatest weapon of mass instruction ever known: the human brain.”
This book is a fascinating study on how the brain works and how, in the face of complex challenges, our society can survive despite our intelligence being outpaced by our problems. Like Jared Diamond and Malcolm Gladwell, Rebecca Costa attacks her subject from multiple angles, using research from unexpected sources to present a compelling argument with memorable examples.
Studying civilizations like the ancient Mayan, Khmer and Egyptian, and why they so rapidly spiraled into oblivion, the author comes up with two telltale signs that happened before their collapse:
The first sign is gridlock.
Gridlock occurs when civilizations become unable to comprehend or resolve large, complex problems, despite acknowledging beforehand that these issues may lead to their demise.
The second sign is “the substitution of beliefs for knowledge and fact.”
When we are trapped in an undertow, we believe that if we simply step up our efforts and swim harder toward the shore, we will prevail against the current. Despite empirical evidence that this isn’t working, we refuse to abandon our belief and persist in swimming in a direct path towards land as we grow increasingly exhausted and panic ensues.
Perhaps the issue of global warming is a good example of these two things happening currently. Costa attributes these developments in society to memes:
A meme … is any widely accepted information, thought, feeling, or behavior. Memes can be common sense, traditions, theories, biases, even slogans.
Not all memes are bad. Some are true and some are false, but as they get passed down to new generations and spread, they sometimes morph and become what the author calls supermemes:
A supermeme is any belief, thought, or behavior that becomes so pervasive, so stubbornly embedded, that it contaminates or suppresses all other beliefs or behaviors.
It is when supermemes become dominant that a society stops its search for answers and relies on beliefs instead of knowledge or facts. This reminded me of our society’s stubbornness in not seriously pursuing sources of energy beyond oil.
The Watchman’s Rattle might make your brain hurt, as it challenges your thinking on every page. Surprisingly, it also entertains (a hilarious story of how butter production in Bangladesh can predict the Dow Jones come to mind). Costa’s recommendations for how to circumvent our hegemonic tendencies aren’t going to be easy to implement, but her assertion that it is possible for us to adapt our brains to a better process of problem-solving is a dose of optimism during tough times.