Friday, December 14, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: "The Watchman's Rattle"

Have we humans confronted problems that have not yet learned to overcome? Have we exacerbated these problems? Can these problems lead to the demise of the race? According to trendist Rebecca D. Costa, the answers to these three questions are yes, yes, and yes.

With great authority and credibility along with exceptional writing style, Costa muses about the decline of three magnificent empires, the Mayan, the Roman, and the Khmer. They existed in three different eras and in three different continents, spoke different religions and languages, and had different climates. They all achieved remarkable architectural and engineering feats which sustained their civilizations for centuries. They experienced unprecedented cultural, commercial, and agricultural renaissances that enriched their cultural immeasurably. Then what made them collapse? Costa believes they shared a common human flaw: cognitive threshold, which occurs when a society cannot think its way out of its problems, be they foreign military threats, famine and drought, or cataclysmic geological events. People reach a gridlock preventing them from pooling their intellectual resources to ward off such problems when they substitute beliefs for knowledge, when faith trumps science.
The Watchman's Rattle does not maintain that religiosity is a human disease; she does believe that faith and knowledge can coexist harmoniously to benefit humanity. However, she insists that memes, or widely accepted ways of thinking, undermine creative problem solving based on empirical knowledge. Costa dedicates a chapter to each of the five supermemes she sees plaguing us today: irrational opposition, personalization of blame, counterfeit correlation, silo thinking, and extreme economics. Once any of these supermemes take hold, leading us to cognitive threshold, we tend to disregard data, reject viable solutions, and condemn insight. Opposition substitutes for advocacy and short-term, short-sighted mitigations abound.

Fortunately, Watchman's Rattle answers a fourth question with a resounding yes: Can we humans who contributed to these problems be agents in solving them? Costa pleads for a rebalancing of knowledge and beliefs and a restoration in trusting insight. While this may sound like a belief in disguise, it is not. She carefully details the link between insight and wisdom. After all, she is a disciple of biologist Edward O. Wilson and James D. Watson, who both overcame their own silo thinking to resolve their scientific differences.

If in this current political climate, not just in the United States but across the globe, there is a more readable, engaging book to show us where the human race now stands, I do not know of it.