The Watchman’s Rattle: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: March 9th, 2012 by bobmorris

The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction
Rebecca D. Costa
Vanguard Press (2010)

How and why we must accept “the title of realists-in-search of- a-solution, not doomsayers….”

Frankly, I did not know quite what to expect as I began to read this book but soon realized that Rebecca Costa combines the defining characteristics of a pragmatic idealist with those of a visionary who possesses what Ernest Hemingway once described as a “built-in- shock-proof crap detector.” The title of this review is limited by format space but Edward O. Wilson’s remarks in the Foreword (on Page xii) continue as follows: “…not doomsayers – who say that because of exponentiation, humanity doesn’t gave a lot of time to figure things out. We have to solve our problems not be continuing to use emotions and responses that suited our primitive ancestors but now put us all in imminent danger. Instead, we need to use knowledge and reason and take an honest look at ourselves as a species.”

That is precisely what Costa does within a framework of inquiry and exploration that consists of 13 chapters. She sets out to assemble a “puzzle” that will, perhaps, suggest a solution to a global “gridlock” of serious problems that threaten human existence. She views her book as an alarm that calls for “citizens to wake from their sleep and quickly join forces against danger.” Her book, she explains, is “the sound of the watchman’s rattle in the dead of night. A summons for help. A plea to change the course of humankind by calling on the greatest weapon of mass destruction ever known: the human brain.”

As for the aforementioned “puzzle,” Costa identifies six pieces:

1859: Publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
1953: The discovery by James Watson and Francis Crick of the double helix in DNA
1975: Publication of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology
1976: Publication of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene
1970s: What Costa characterizes as “the accelerating complexity of the human condition”
2006: Publication of landmark research on how the human brain tackles complex problems

I presume to suggest two other “pieces” that have also had great impact and still possess almost unlimited potentialities: open source intelligence perhaps best exemplified by the Unix operating system (conceived and implemented in 1969 at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories) and the Linux kernel (developed by Linus Torvalds in the early-1990s), and, Tim Berners-Lee’s development (also in the 1990s) of what we now know as the World Wide Web.

In my opinion, Costa achieves several separate but interdependent objectives by the time her watchman’s rattle (the “clarion call”) sounding alarm gives way to a watchman’s torch whose light (“in the dead of night”) reveals “uncommon insights [and a course of action] to cure what ails humanity.” These objectives include:

o Identification and explanation of the major threats to the continuation of human life
o Identification and explanation of the resources needed to overcome those threats
o Provision of a wide variety of third-party perspectives on the key issues to be addressed and resolved
o Explanation of the nature and extent of leadership needed at all levels and in all areas under threat
o Explanation of how and why insight is “an elegant solution to our conundrum: an astonishing problem-solving capability buried deep in the human brain”

No brief commentary such as this can do full justice to the scope and depth of what Rebecca Costa examines in this volume with relentless vigor and uncommon eloquence. I agree with her that the challenges now facing the human race are unprecedented, to be sure, but they can be overcome by global collaboration that was also, until recently, unprecedented. In this context, natural selection is not a peril…it is an opportunity.


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