How might one summarize the main ideas of Rebecca Costa's book The Watchman's Rattle?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way out of Extinction, is a book first published in 2010 and written by Rebecca Costa. It uses the theories of Charles Darwin (and such latter-day Darwinians as Edward O. Wilson) to try to explain “the biological reasons for the ascension and decline of civilizations.”

In his foreword to the book, Wilson summarizes Costa’s argument by writing that

The primary cause of all threatening trends is the complexity of civilization itself, which cannot be understood and managed by the cognitive tools we have thus far chosen to use.

Wilson continues by offering a lucid analogy:

There is great truth in the oft-quoted riddle of the lily pads. A pond (a lake, an ocean, all apply) starts with a single lily pad. Each pad doubles per day; the pond will be full in thirty days. When is the pond only half full? On the twenty-ninth day. On the next day, the thirtieth, further growth is so fast it will overwhelm the pond and everything in it in a matter of hours.

Costa believes that current civilization on the earth, in many ways, has reached the twenty-ninth day, when growth in various destructive tendencies is primed to grow out of control. In addition, the human brain is at present insufficiently evolved to cope with such overwhelming complexity or to use reason to think of solutions to extremely complex problems.  Quick solutions can only come from what Costa calls “insight,” or sudden new ways or perceiving problems and imagining solutions to them. She believes not only that all humans are capable of having insights but that the capacity to have insights can in fact be encouraged and developed.  As she puts it in an interview in the Harvard Crimson about the book (see link below), there is hope in

brain fitness and neurological tools . . . .We have discovered by looking at images of the brain that every now and again, a little portion of the brain called the ACC [anterior cingulate cortex] lights up like a Christmas tree, and we suddenly have what scientists are calling an “insight.” It turns out all human beings—this is not nurture, this is nature—have these spontaneous ‘a-ha!’ moments where they make connections of data in their head and they solve an elegant and really complicated problem. This seems to be a method of problem-solving that is suited to high levels of complexity that exceed left and right problem-solving abilities that we have evolved.

In short, by encouraging the brain to develop “insights,” we can achieve solutions to massive problems – problems that cannot be solved by traditional reasoning alone.




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