In The Watchman's Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction, Rebecca D. Costa gives us the following premise: that as societies advance they invariably run up against a cognitive threshold, "the point at which a society can no longer think its way out of its problems." This seems bizarre on the face of it because how else can you solve problems but by thinking? But she offers an alternative: insight. In contrast to left- and right-brain thinking, which have us search through pre-existing solutions and problem solving techniques, insight seems to occur to us out of thin air (though usually after the correct mental preparation). Insight, Costa claims, is "evolution's gift to us."
Once Costa has introduced the idea of insight being the solution to our problems and points out that many people already do have answers, she asks, what stands in our way from acting on these solutions? Costa says that what stands in our way of acting on good, insightful solutions are supermemes. Supermemes are ideas that have such strong support or opposition that the mere mention of them clouds peoples' thinking or prevents people from even looking at alternatives.
(An example she uses of an insightful solution for global warming, for example, is that of releasing sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to form sulfate particles that would, in effect, shade the earth. The reason this solution is saved as a last resort, I've heard, is because there is much worry about whether we could tip the environment too much the wrong way and lose control of our planet's temperature.)
In a separate chapter for each, the five supermemes she sees as preventing us from solving our problems are:
Irrational Opposition - This is when people criticize vehemently, but without offering solutions of their own. This has led to, among other things, politicians basing entire careers on attacking their one main opponent (in a two-party system) rather than proposing their own ideas, because proposing their own ideas would leave them open to attack. With no one proposing ideas for fear of losing their seats in the house or senate, no progress can ever be made.
The Personalization of Blame - Costa argues that most of our problems today are systemic problems. Yet, most Americans were raised with the idea of rugged individualism. So we tend to find scapegoats rather than solve our problems systemically and permanently. One example she uses is obesity. We like to blame overweight people for being lazy hedonists without self-discipline. But we don't factor in our constant bombardment of advertisements designed by the best cognitive experts in the world, our unsafe neighborhoods, our environments that may have no place to play or ride bikes safely, our sedentary jobs and long commutes, or the comparative cheapness of processed and fast food over natural produce due to the way we subsidize farmers.
Counterfeit Correlation - Most people confuse correlation with cause and thus want to go off spending society's limited resources on the wrong things. An example might be blaming teachers for our nation's poor performance in education, when the real reasons might include both parents working, English as a second language, dysfunctions at home, inadequate diets, violent neighborhoods, lack of school supplies, etc.
Silo Thinking - This is where government agencies, departments within corporations, or scientific specialties either don't communicate with each other or deliberately hold onto information and power. This "separate territories" idea was what allowed 9/11 to happen when, together, if only they shared information, both the FBI and CIA had enough information to prevent it. Another example she gives is NASA's developing an extremely cheap satellite solar solution for energy that would beam energy down to every house in the country much the way TV is beamed by satellite. Yet, when NASA approached the Department of Energy they were accused of mission creep and told to stick to space exploration.
Extreme Economics - In this chapter she concisely shows how and why money came into being and the results of an experiment asking, what happens when chimps are exposed to money and inflation? (Answer: depression, aggression, hoarding, robbery, and prostitution.) Though the chapter's title might lead you to expect otherwise, she avoids the words capitalism and socialism. Instead, she says extreme economics occurs when "simple principles in business, such as risk/reward and profit/loss, become the litmus test for determining the value of people and priorities, initiatives and institutions." She is not totally against capitalism (one of her solutions will be to use venture capitalists), but she is when it interferes with the greater social good. In this chapter, she also explains why the West has such a difficult time in its dealings with countries in the Middle East: we use an economics supermeme in trying to deal with a region that lives by a religious supermeme. One example of differing beliefs is that many countries in the Middle East, Pakistan and Iran among them, have outlawed charging interest on loans. She says, "Can we in the West imagine outlawing something as fundamental as the right to charge interest on a loan? Ridiculous!"
In a chapter called "Surmounting the Supermemes," she gives an example of what can be achieved when one is not locked into the accepted memes of an industry. She tells us the story of Muhammad Yunus who, in 2006, won the Nobel Prize for perfecting and popularizing microfinance. Whereas normal banks operate under the beliefs/memes that it's a waste of time and money to make small loans; loans should only be made to individuals so they can be held accountable; and since poor people are so desperate they can be charged more interest and, therefore, should be; Yunus made loans as small as $1.50; charged very low rates of interest; and loaned, mostly, to groups of five or six people, recognizing that people might not feel bad about defaulting to a faceless banking institution, but wouldn't want to leave their friends and peers holding the bag. Using his own ideas rather than following banking memes without thinking, his Grameen Bank has loaned more than $6 billion (U.S.) and boasts a staggering 97% repayment rate.
And now, finally, Costa arrives at her solutions.
1. Implied in the entire book is the notion that we should monitor our memes and continually evaluate whether they're true or not.
2. Additionally, presidents should get independent, scientific counsel on a frequent basis in behind-closed-door meetings (so that the scientists can speak freely) as presidents Truman through Kennedy used to do, until Nixon ended the practice.
3. We should use the venture capital model where many ideas are invested in simultaneously to see what works or not.
4. Each of us should be developing our insight. In fact, she devotes her final two chapters to this topic--"Bridging the Gap: Building Better Brains," and "Invoking Insight: Conditions Conducive to Cognition."--which implies that she thinks developing insight is the most important solution of them all and, thus, the subtitle of the book: "Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction."
I actually agree with the majority of Costa's discussions on the supermemes. The problem comes in her main focus of insight as the solution. But lack of insight isn't the problem. As she herself shows, we have many people around the world who have and continue to come up with insightful solutions to problems. One of the real problems is one she never even addresses: that of vested interests, the issue of personal gain over public good. (It's only hinted at in the extreme economics chapter.) Take the NASA example mentioned above, for example. Is it possible that the heads of oil, coal, and nuclear energy wouldn't want this cheap energy made available to the public because their personal profits would decrease?
Additionally, if, as she claims earlier in the book that the evolution of the brain is slow and technological progress is fast and evolution can't keep up with it (which is what leads to the "cognitive threshold"), then it doesn't make sense to do insight workouts. Because either insight is something dependent upon evolution or it can be developed through effort, exercise, and diet, etc. The two arguments contradict each other.
I like her first solution, about the scientists, but we can see how that closed door policy was so easily corrupted when presidents began to take more meetings with corporate lobbyists than scientists. The "try lots of solutions simultaneously venture capital model" could work on some problems, but others are complex enough that a whole bunch of solutions at once could interact with each other in counterproductive ways.
In fact, this leads me to one of the main problems I have with the book: the supermemes chosen feel a tiny bit arbitrary. Huge problems that don't get mentioned in this format are 1) (as other reviewers have brought up) overpopulation, 2) vested interests and disinformation campaigns, 3) sheer ignorance (often religion-based) about the importance of keeping the planet healthy, and 4) the focus on principles rather than consequences. It wouldn't be difficult to think of the memes that lead to these conditions.
As much as her memes might be correct so far as they go, each of us individually developing insight is not going to solve the above problems. The only way this book can help is if the greedy and the ignorant read it and question and change their views. But as usually happens, the people who most need it would be the least likely to read it.
The book is highly readable and phrased in as non-partisan way as possible so I would recommend it even if I wish it offered a solution that was more guaranteed to work.