For What It's Worth

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Review: The Watchman's Rattle Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction by Rebecca D. Costa

(Review by Kevin - the DH)

The Watchman's Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of ExtinctionWhy can’t we solve our problems anymore? Why do threats such as the Gulf oil spill, worldwide recession, terrorism, and global warming suddenly seem unstoppable? Are there limits to the kinds of problems humans can solve?
Rebecca Costa confronts- and offers a solution to-these questions in her highly anticipated and game-changing book, The Watchman’s Rattle.
Costa pulls headlines from today’s news to demonstrate how accelerating complexity quickly outpaces that rate at which the human brain can develop new capabilities. With compelling evidenced based on research in the rise and fall of Mayan, Khmer, and Roman empires, Costa shows how the  tendency to find  quick solutions- leads to frightening long term consequence: Society’s ability to solve its most challenging, intractable problems becomes gridlocked, progress slows, and collapse ensues.
A provocative new voice in the tradition of thought leaders Thomas Friedman, Jared Diamond and Malcolm Gladwell, Costa reveals how we can reverse the downward spiral. Part history, part social science, part biology, The Watchman’s Rattle is sure to provoke, engage and incite change. (Non Fiction)


“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”

Rebecca Costa, The Watchman’s Rattle

I received an ARC of The Watchman’s Rattle while at BEA and it has been sitting on the shelf since May. I’ve been looking for something a little different to read since I tend to stick with my zombie novels and tech manuals – I know exciting stuff. Since The Watchman’s Rattle touches on pandemic viruses, terrorism and how to solve mankind’s most pressing problems, it seemed to cover both of my reading interests albeit in a roundabout way.
Rebecca Costa, a sociobiologist, explains how humans think and react to complex issues based on studies in evolution, neuroscience, sociobiology, genetics and evolution. First thing first, it took a while for me to read this, not because it was dry and boring, although, some may experience that, but because the issues and solutions that the author brings to light make you stop and think and sometimes have that “aha” moment. I read about a chapter a day pondering what she had said in between. I enjoyed the book and her method of delivery. Some of the terminology can seem a little complex but she does her best at bringing it down a notch.
My friend and I like to discuss history, politics, economics, books, music, etc. at work and one thing we often do is compare our current civilization to that of the Roman Empire. You can see many parallels and you wonder if our future is going to be the same. Maybe the old adage is true;

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
~George Santayana

But as Costa’s points out, remembering is fine but we still need concrete solutions to avoid the same result.
The Watchman’s Rattle is warning us that things like climate change, terrorism, depression, etc… are complex problems without simple solutions but if we refuse to deal with them we may go the way of the Mayans, Khmer, Romans or maybe even the Dodo bird. Ok, the Dodo may be the extreme but we do need to face the issues and think our way out and not fall into gridlock. Costa’s describes this moment in our thought process as “the cognitive threshold” or as I like to think of it - brain lock. Do you ever have a problem that stresses you so much that it keeps you up at night? That's brain lock. This is what I find interesting as we watch what is going on in our world today. Do we turn to our basic instincts, do we panic? This is what she tries to explain; the process of how humans deal with problems and what the results can be. As she points out; cognitive threshold can lead to gridlock which leads to memes then to supermemes. The point being, we begin to panic when we can’t solve something easily and reach for any belief, thought, or behavior that becomes so pervasive, so stubbornly embedded that it contaminates or suppresses all other beliefs and behaviors (aka supermemes).
She goes on to breakdown the types of supermemes. One of my favorites is counterfeit correlation or as she calls it “Clavinism,” after Cliff Clavin from Cheers. This is one of the most pervasive problems we have today. How many times have you heard someone spew a bunch of random facts and then say that proves their theory? It happens every day…………especially on the news channels. You may also know it as the term - spin. You take your belief/theory then find facts/statements/polls that appear to support you. Four other supermemes exist as well but are not as blatantly used as “Clavinism”, and it’s actually kind of scary.
All is not lost - we have something that is on our side……….our brains. Our brains are wired for certain basic instincts but we also have the ability to rewire our brain at any time. Costa explains how we are wired and why we react the way we do. She also tells us that we can overcome the cognitive threshold (or brain lock) by thinking. It sounds simple but we need to work our brain in order to overcome that moment. And believe it or not, one of simplest ways to exercise your brain is to go for a walk.
One of the hardest things to get a robot to do is walk over uneven surfaces. Think about it, every step you take your brain has to compute in milliseconds where to place your foot without causing you to fall….sometimes this is harder for some people…LOL. This involves complex computations using information from your sight, inner ear for balance, feedback from your nerves, etc. It’s quite amazing. So if you walk on an uneven surface at a quick pace your brain is always re-computing for every step and by doing so you are exercising your brain. Actually, if you do anything different than what you normally do it exercises your brain. If you’re left handed; use your right hand or vice versa. Drive to work a different way to work and you’ll be exercising your brain.
There is so much information to process in this book I feel my review is not doing it justice. I will say that if watching governments, businesses and people deal with the issues we face today gives you “brain lock” then read the book. It might help you understand why we seem stuck in a never ending cycle of problems and debates without solutions.
I’m done rambling so I think I’ll go exercise my brain and go for walk. I'll leave you with this quote ........

“The real problem with humanity is the following: We have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology”
~Dr. E.O Wilson

Rating: 3.5 out of 4
Author's Website:
Buy the book! The Watchman's Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction

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