Book Review — The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out Of Extinction by Rebecca D. Costa
Every now and then, for a variety of reasons, a book stands out to me as either a major paradigm shift and therefore so important that everyone on earth should read it, or it contains as a such a grand and systemic review of what brings us to our present that everyone on earth should read it. Both type of books are so important to who we are and where we are going that I cannot over stress the effect they have on me. For the first category, books like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse shine forth. Now I read a lot and it’s a rare book that will show me the world in such a way that, in addition to ringing true, I will have never considered anything close to that viewpoint before. They both had completely new ideas on every page for me. I couldn’t put those two down, and in fact, I start reading Collapse to my son this afternoon.
In the category showing us how we all got to this point, the example that comes most firmly to mind is Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. People may laugh at this choice but I can recall few other books that even approach its ability to show the sheer humanity involved in science. With humor and an irreverent awe, Bryson shows us our world in a level of detail that thrills me. I’ve read this book three times and most strongly recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in a history of science.
Does The Watchman’s Rattle live up to these books? Could it possibly reach the bar set so high by it’s predecessors? Goddamn it! That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out these last few days. Thus far I just don’t know. At times, brilliant, at others, provoking, the book lunges through ideas like mega-churches through money, thrilling me with the scope and grandeur of the work and convincing me of its authenticity. Then I’ll stumble upon one little section, sometimes only a phrase that will cast the rest of it in doubt. Provoking, it is. Truths, both massive and new, are woven throughout.
But is it an accurate vision of our past and future? Well… Beats the hell out of me, and not just because I can’t see the future. It’s more because I can’t see that what she lays out as solutions aren’t just panaceas created out of a hope for humankind to survive. I just don’t know. More research will have to be done. At the very least, this is a book that I will be chewing through for a very long time. That alone should recommend it to many of you.
The Watchman’s Rattle thoroughly discusses the problems facing mankind but not the common problems we are all used to hearing about. Oh sure, climate change, overpopulation and dwindling natural resources are all mentioned, but these are not the root of the problem. According to Costa, the root of humankind’s problems and the reasons so many civilizations have fallen is that they have all reached a “cognitive limit” on what they could figure out. Every civilization reaches a point where the complexity of its troubles becomes too great for merely human brains to figure out. Once a people’s troubles become too complex for our brains using knowledge, they revert to beliefs or faith in what they cannot prove to help them. Any reader of this blog will understand my horror of that.
Is this true? Not being an expert, my opinion here must be taken appropriately, but this rings so true it hurts. As our own world grows in complexity and the problems we face today look too impossibly convoluted to solve, I see many people reverting to belief or faith only because it’s simpler and easier. The world has become so specialized that a mere human could never hope to understand everything even in their specialized field. Therefore, we must increasingly rely on experts and specialists to guide us, but there is growing resistance. The acrimonious debate over climate change is a prime example. Many are no longer willing to turn over complicated science to the experts but demand, without merit, that they can understand it too. But to truly understand it would take years of study that virtually none aren’t willing to put in. So they espouse a belief that it isn’t true and find erratic bits of evidence to support that belief… or just make shit up.
They haven’t expanded their knowledge to encompass the problem. They have dumbed down the problem to fit readily on a neat shelf within their own minds comfortably resting next to similar beliefs about pollution, abortion and God. If it’s too hard to understand the problem just believe you do. It won’t solve anything but will give you some smug satisfaction and superiority over the so-called experts.
In a nut shell, this is the root of the problems in The Watchman’s Rattle. Costa then breaks these down into separate “supermemes” that humanity tends to fall into that support belief over knowledge. I can’t get into the specifics here only because I couldn’t do them justice. Suffice it to say that people often prefer the simpler solution over the right one. And look around. Can anyone really argue with that assessment? Shit no!
It’s not her analysis of the problem that I find difficult. I think she is spot on there, one of the best I’ve read. My trouble lies with her optimism for overcoming the problem. This is very reliant on altering human behavior and cognition through a variety of ways, most of which would be considered speculative to say the least. She finds the most comfort in the studies of “insight”, the brain’s way of unconsciously arriving at conclusions without apparent effort. Now I admit, this area does fascinate me and perhaps we can study and control this mental ability better, but to hold on to it as tightly as she does makes me lose hope in our future rather than gain it. The study of insight is at it very beginning and I think that most of what we could infer here could safely be labeled unproven.
My opinion here is not helped by what I consider the weakest part of the book, that is its reliance on single very controversial demonstrations of how we are missing the boat. These go by with hardly a word of explanation, but raise the hackles on the back of my neck. Events like NASA research into spaced based power systems are brought forth as near perfect solutions to today’s problems that we are missing because of our inability to accept new things. Um… Maybe… Someday. Does she have any idea what it would take to get a system up and running, even a prototype? She falls victim to her own list of human frailties by grandly simplifying an unbelievably complex and unproven system into something to be taken for granted. There are other similar issues. I could have made this book three times as good by simply going through and editing out two pages of speculation as fact.
In all truth Costa’s book holds close to the fine edge between genius and fantasy. I just wish I could better judge which side of that line she is on. I am not into woo. I hate the stuff and my woo detectors are generally pretty effective at sniffing out bullshit, but here, I am just not sure. What do I rate it? Ask me tomorrow and again next week and I’ll likely have different answers for you. For making me think… A ten! For bringing forth an original statement of the problems facing us… a ten!
I wish I could stop there, but alas. The book is very thought provoking, very original. This I can say without a doubt. Is this an accurate roadmap to the future? Sigh! Rating that I’d have to give it somewhere between four and ten. Don’t like my wishy-washy analysis? I don’t either. It frustrates me that I can’t accept it or throw it out. I’ll tell you what. Why don’t some of you read it and we all could discuss what the book really means. At the very least, this book has provoked me to think and think hard, and that makes it worth reading right there.
So someone help me out here and tell me what you think. I need someone to talk to about this.