NEW WORLD, NEW MIND: Moving Toward Conscious Evolution

NEW WORLD, NEW MIND: Moving Toward Conscious Evolution

Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich
Doubleday, New York, 1989.

Have you ever wondered why it is that we humans spend more than a million dollars on an international effort to save three gray whales trapped in the ice, while we pay little or no attention to the fact that thousands of people die annually on our highways? Or that we spend millions trying to apprehend a small group of terrorists who highjack a cruise ship and kill a single passenger while paying little attention to the fact that more people die each day with handguns in this country than have ever been killed by terrorists?

If these and similar anomalies puzzle you, you will find some possible explanations in New World, New Mind by Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich. In exploring the origins of such cultural contradictions, these two eminent scientists have concluded that “The human mental system is failing to comprehend the modern world . . . because our nervous system evolved to select only a small extract of reality and to ignore the rest.”

Because of the “evolutionary mismatch” between our “mental machinery” and the modern world, “many of the predicaments of our society come about from the way people respond to, simplify, and ultimately 'caricature' reality in their minds.” Pointing out that the human brain has evolved to respond to the immediate, the sudden, the different, and the obvious, the authors argue that it is not prepared to deal with the long-range, the subtle, and the similar. They claim “our brain is wired to respond to the bear in the entrance to the cave but not to the more subtle, long-range changes that could lead to nuclear war.” They compare our situation to the “boiled frog” syndrome-where a frog placed in a pan of cold water that is slowly heated will be unable to detect ,me increasing heat so that it will sit still until it dies.

This mismatch is not limited to biological evolution. In their view, “Cultural evolution has not compensated for the baggage of an outdated human perceptual system.” Indeed, they argue that “Most of us fail to realize how the human outlook, designed by our heritage, actually obstructs understanding of humanity's increasingly precarious situation . . . there is no longer sufficient time to rely on the normal pace of cultural evolution to deal with today's dilemmas” (their emphasis).

One of the authors' purposes is to help us understand the origins of our present limitations because only by recognizing “the fundamental roots of our many problems” can we resolve the “paradox that our minds are both bur curse and our potential salvation.” Almost three quarters of the book focuses on these limitations, with particular emphasis given to the limitations of what they refer to as the “old mind”-our brain, our nervous system and our senses. Highlighting the similarities between our brains and those of other primates, between human perceptions and those of the bee, butterfly, frog, and chimp, and between our nervous system and those of tasiers, frogs, chimps, an' cats, the authors conclude that our brain, like the brain of other animals, is primarily responsive to those things that we see or hear first hand rather than to evidence reported by others.

A second purpose of the book is to propose a solution to the dilemmas which have resulted from these limitations. Pointing out that the rate of change has outpaced the ability of even cultural evolution to respond appropriately, they suggest that “The time has come to take our own evolution into our hands and create a new evolutionary process, a process of conscious evolution” (their emphasis). In spite of their belief “that the world is changing faster than people can adapt to it,” they conclude that “if we learn how we think, how our mind is structured, and how to overcome the innate limitations and biases of mind, we can to a significant degree, learn how to act on that knowledge.” They propose that we “reprogram” our mental routines to “create a new mind suited to the demands of the new world.” They call this new process “newmindedness.”

Recognizing the influence that education has on the way people think, they propose a “curriculum about humanity.” Four themes seem to run throughout their proposed curriculum: “Adaptation to change must be the center of any new kind of teaching” (their emphasis); a need for the integration of all the knowledge that is being produced,” training in a “long-view, long-term understanding,” and finally, a need to “learn to depend on our instruments more than our gut feelings.”

I must confess my ambivalence about this book. On the one hand, I was fascinated by the research studies on the brain and human perception which they describe. I also found their brief overview of biological and cultural evolution useful. Their perspective gives a sharp focus to our human tendency to caricature reality by responding to the immediate, the obvious and the personal, rather than recognizing the more subtle, long-range trends which, in the end could destroy us. As an educator, I appreciated their curriculum recommendations, finding them to be both provocative and appropriate.

On the other hand, I have a fundamental problem with the narrow frame of reference from which the authors view the dilemmas which they address. Although they acknowledge that “Scientists’ penchant for simplicity. . .can lead the unwary old mind to inappropriate caricatures.. .” they have created highly selective and simplistic caricatures of both biological and cultural evolution. In short, they have reduced the vast, complex, multidimensional panorama of evolutionary history to the single dimensional caricature defined by a materialistic, empirical science.

Although they call for a new way of thinking which incorporates the “integration of all knowledge that is being produced,” they have ignored substantial bodies of knowledge which would broaden their context, strengthen their argument and enrich their conclusions. For example, there is no evidence that they are even acquainted with the literature of the so-called “paradigm shift” which seems to be occurring in our culture. The work of thinkers and writers such as Alvin Toffler, Marilyn Ferguson, Fritjof Capra, and Willis Harman are not even mentioned in their rather extensive bibliography. There is no reference to the body of knowledge which has grown out of the human potential movement which focuses on the rediscovery of intuition, peak performance, creativity, higher consciousness, and the evolution of consciousness. I don't think the word “intuition” appears in their book. It certainly is not important enough to be listed in the index.

The obviously relevant work of scientists like Karl Pribram, Rupert Sheldrake, Ilya Prigogine, John Eccles, and David Bohm is totally ignored. Finally, there seems to be no awareness of what Joseph Campbell called “the literature of the spirit,” those spiritual traditions whose perspectives reflect precisely the kind of newminded thinking which Ornstein and Ehrlich call for. While they recognize the potential of “the rational and the spiritual to support each other,” they are critical of those who use spiritual disciplines to “come to grips with the nature of their minds.”

Unfortunately, their limited perspective precludes any comprehension of the multidimensional nature of the human mind or the potential depths of the human spirit. When they call for a “new” kind of conscious evolution, they seem to be unaware of the possibility that there may be deep and fundamental intuitive processes at work in the evolution of the human mind and spirit which, having brought us to this point in time, also have prepared us with precisely those cognitive, psychic, intuitive, and spiritual capacities required to address the global dilemmas which confront us.

One consequence of the authors' limited perspective is that the reader is presented with many “half-truths” in the guise of THE truth. For example, in typical reductionist fashion, they often use the two terms “brain” and “mind” interchangeably. While they cite evidence which points to the limitations of the physical brain, they ignore equally substantive evidence which suggests that the potential of the conscious mind may be virtually unlimited. In short, they ignore the possibility that what the brain may not be “hard wired” to know, we nevertheless know intuitively. Preferring to rely on what they call “instrument flying” the authors apparently find it impossible to accept anything as scientifically unsound as “gut feelings.” Although they acknowledge that “the scientific method produces. . .an even more extreme caricature of the world than our normal one,” they seem unaware that by reducing reality to that which can be empirically measured, the extreme caricature of logical positivism may have done more to create our cultural dilemmas than the inherent limitations of the brain. There is ample evidence to support the view that both the wholistic, integrated, long-range, intuitive way of thinking and the short-range, fragmented, pragmatic way of thinking are equally intrinsic to our human mental equipment.

In spite of what I perceive to be its shortcomings, I think New World, New Mind is important reading -especially for the skeptic who prefers “hard” evidence. Writing in the empirical tradition, these two scientists open up new vistas of possibility and thinking which are both necessary and useful. I think their case would be strengthened immeasurably if they were able to recognize that “newmindedness” may well be an evolutionary way of thinking whose time has come and that what Willis Harman calls a “global mind change” may already be well advanced. What they and we need to remember is that things are seldom “either/or,” but are usually if not always “both/and.”


Summer 1989