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article imageReview: ‘Global Insanity’ by James A. Coffman and Donald C. Mikulecky Special

By Victoria N. Alexander     Mar 15, 2013 in Politics
'Sanitas' is Latin for health, note the authors of ‘Global Insanity: How Homo sapiens Lost Touch with Reality while Transforming the World.’ Like health, sanity entails balance. As a society with severe power imbalances, we may be literally insane.
How did we get to be so crazy? Coffman and Mikulecky contend that the primary blame should go to our inappropriate use of mechanistic models of nature. Ever since Sir Francis Bacon banished the study of purposes from science, we have become less inclined to view
“the world and its inhabitants sympathetically as subjects in their own right, i.e., agents with ends of their own, and more inclined to view them as mere objects to be studied and manipulated for selfish purposes.”
Considering the needs and purposes of creatures and eco-systems is a way of overcoming the nihilism that the authors claim attends a mechanistic view of the world.
Global Insanity is a recent contribution to a growing number of books (by e.g. Jesper Hoffmeyer, Alicia Juarrero, Evan Thompson, Terrence Deacon, and Thomas Nagel) dedicated to understanding teleology, the study of purposes, in a secular sense. Although Christian philosophers have linked the idea of “purpose” to divine purpose, the authors point out that the purpose of something is simply the function it serves for some agent. This modern secular version of teleology is related to evolutionary theory, according to which organisms have certain structures and behaviors because these have been selected for in the past. Coffman and Mikulecky argue that organisms are purposeful in the sense that they can affect the probability of favorable outcomes occurring for them.
No purposeful society would depend on non-renewable resources. No purposeful society would fail to recycle all its waste. From nature’s perspective, human behavior makes no sense. Moreover, with our one-world solutions, mono-species crops, homogenized environments, and simultaneous isomorphic communication, we are rapidly destroying our diversity, which we will soon need to find new solutions to the problem of survival.
The prognosis is not good. Offering a theory, based on readings of Julian Jaynes and Iain McGilchrist, the authors argue that humans have developed a kind of schizophrenia due to an inability to integrate the left hemisphere of the brain, which manipulates the world—in our case through language—and the right hemisphere, which is more grounded in immediate experience of the world. Our left brain appears to be dominant, and we are overdue for a good reality check. Our mechanistic models of the world are not congruent with the way that nature maintains balance, and our future as a successful species will depend upon our learning, probably the hard way, how to contend with limited resources.
The authors write their somewhat pessimistic analysis with some humor and plenty of good will, accommodating readers from across a wide spectrum of interests. Coffman and Mikulecky have advanced degrees in biology and related experience in developmental and mathematical biology respectively. Readers will be well armed with a new philosophical perspective with which to argue for deep political and economic change. The goals are clear: more diversity, less disparity, more self-organization, less top-down control, more local governance, less centralization.
In the last few pages, the authors praise the Occupy Wall Street movement for having the clearest grasp of the problem. However, unlike the OWS groups, in the end the authors advocate working with the current political system to affect change. I was a little disappointed with this advice, but upon reconsideration I realize this is probably wise. We do not want to go the way of Bradley Manning. What worked in Daniel Ellsberg's case does not work in the current system.
But Coffman and Mikulecky reassure us that throwing the bad guys out of power probably won't even be necessary. Drawing on the work of Stanley Salthe, they note that complex systems, like societies, tend to have life spans, much in the same way that individual organisms do. Initially they are comprised of much diversity and grow quickly, if inefficiently. As they reach maturity, they become much more efficient, but this usually leads to limiting behavior. Eventually, when confronted with stressful situations, the mature, efficient system will react mechanically rather than respond purposefully to situations. It will be unable to find a new and more appropriate solution to new problems, and it will be its own undoing.
Meanwhile, Coffman and Mikulecky suggest, we might want to learn how to grow vegetables.
Global Insanity is a solid, helpful analysis of what went wrong and why. It is highly recommended reading. It is available at Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, direct from Emergent Publications at a 20%-50% discount or at any book store. US $24.95, 160 pages. ebook US $17.95
Personal bias alert: Coffman and Mikulecky's book is published by Emergent Publications, which also published my work, on a related topic, The Biologist’s Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature and Nature.
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