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A Sourcebook for the Worldwide Discovery of a Creative Organic Universe
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VII. Our Earthuman Ascent: A Major Evolutionary Transition in Individuality

4. A Complementarity of Civilizations: East and West is Best

Mazama, Ama, ed. The Afrocentric Paradigm. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2003. Drawing much on the work of Molefi Kete Asante, chair of African Studies at Temple University, a distinct worldview is articulated which emphasizes the innate interconnected, animate, rhythmic, maternal essence of Africa, in contrast to an Eurocentric opposite of male dominance, positivist logic, and particulate conflict. In brief, African culture admits and is open to nature’s creative life forces, while reductionist, moribund North and West deny they exist.

McGilchrist, Iain. Tending to the World. Robinson, Sarah Robinson and Juhani Pallasmaa, eds. Mind in Architecture: Neuroscience, Embodiment, and the Future of Design. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015. The chapter is a good capsule of the British psychiatrist’s wise insights from his 2009 opus The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (search). Again, the character, or lack thereof, of our extant reality can be most attributed to which bicameral hemisphere governs. The presence of opposite yet reciprocal cerebral halves is a primary arbiter of our daily, public, and national lives. In regard, as the quotes say, an historic left, dots only, dominance is a root cause of a machine, insensate, violent, uninhabitable world. The right integrative brain receives new experience first, which once it is assimilated is relegated to left side routine affairs. But a salient right quality is reference to a holistic contextual field of which myriad pieces are a phenomenon. Without an encompassing milieu, there is no innate guidance, discordant, senseless things rule. Such an integral, whole brain is vital for mindful, organic, sustainable abodes and abidance.

This (bicameral animal) adaptation naturally persisted in human beings. Neurologists conventionally distinguish five different types of attention, three and a half are served by the right hemisphere and one and a half by the left. The essential difference is that focused, narrow attention is the prerogative of the left hemisphere and broad, sustained attention is that of the right. Since attention changes the world, this means that the two hemispheres underwrite two kinds of being in the world. In ordinary daily living we alternate between or merge these different kinds of attention at a level below consciousness. (102) The left hemisphere, because it isolates things in a very narrow attentional field, tends to see them out of context. The right hemisphere sees a broader field in which things are connected, so it sees things in context, the way they are actually situated in the world. (102)

The left hemisphere operates according to a mechanistic model – its world is an assemblage of bits and pieces. (105) One can see all these progressions as progressions from the left hemisphere’s mechanical, rationalistic model of the world to a more complex, nuanced, subtle interactive model of the world. (105) So these two minds, these two worlds, that the hemispheres underwrite, have quite different qualities. One, that of the left hemisphere, is made up of disembodied, abstract, fixed, static, discrete entities that are familiar, and general in nature. They can be put together to form a world we think we understand and can control. But this world is self-enclosed, and lifeless, compared with the world of the right hemisphere, where everything is new, interconnected, incarnate, flowing, evolving, and unique. (105)

Mesoudi, Alex, et al. Higher Frequency of Social Learning in China than in the West Shows Cultural Variation in the Dynamics of Cultural Evolution. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Online November, 2014. British and Chinese anthropologists add another nuance to these opposite yet complementary global, and indeed neural, hemispheres. In the east, more attention is paid to societal mores and context, while westerners are prone to “asocial” actions that are unaware of or ignore any circumstantial evidence.

Mesquita, Batja. Emotions in Collectivist and Individualist Contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 80/1, 2001. The bicameral phases here occur between Dutch subjects seen as separate selves out of context and Surinamese or Turkish respondents who abide in a network of integral relationships.

Mourey, James, et al. One Without the Other: Seeing Relationships in Everyday Objects. Psychological Science. Online July, 2013. With coauthors Daphna Oyserman and Carolyn Yoon, University of Michigan psychologists continue to illustrate and confirm how “cultural mind-sets” around the world in fact do take on these characteristic cognitive identities, which often form as polar halves. Search Oyserman 2011 for a summary review of this hemispheric behavior.

Cultural mind-sets are tacit metatheories about what is important and valued (content), how to think (procedures), and why to act (goals). The tacit metatheory of individualism is that institutions and relationships are just backdrops to individual striving; what matters are one’s own goals. The tacit metatheory of collectivism is that individuals take on value through their engagement with social institutions and within their relationships with others. (1)

Culture-as-situated-cognition theory assumes that cultural mind-sets, though rooted in metatheories about social structures and human relationships, spill over from human relationships to influence cognitive processes that facilitate meaning making more generally The cultural mind-set that is accessible at the moment of judgment influences which mental procedures are brought to bear on the judgment task. The procedures cued by an individualist mind-set are segmenting and parsing out a central point; the procedures cued by a collectivist mind-set are connecting and integrating across elements. (2)

Na, Jinkyung, et al. When a New Tool is Introduced in Different Cultural Contexts: Individualism-Collectivism and Social Network on Facebook. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. 46/3, 2015. After noting how distinct and prevalent these complementary modes of independent self and interdependent group are, a view now widely accepted, UT Dallas and Cambridge University psychologists show that they are similarly manifest even in online media activities. “Me” people tend to emphasize themselves while “We” folks blend more into an extended community.

Ng, Aik Kwang, et al. In Search of the Good Life: A Cultural Odyssey in the East and West. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs. 129/4, 2003. Scholars from universities in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Sydney, Australia review many recent studies to affirm Individualist-Collectivist, Independent-Interdependent propensities for the global hemispheres, but argue that rather than in opposition these attributes ought to be seen as a complementary, yin/yang balance. In each case, each national setting, the alternative option is present but in a primary/secondary way. Agency and communion are proposed as the best conceptions for these archetypes, and “dialectical synthesis” for their salutary union. We quote at length because as these qualities receive scientific verification, they can be newly rooted in a universal complimentarity and at the heart of traditional wisdom. Rather than a right vs. left gridlock in so many countries, or an individual vs. group nuclear standoff such as the Cold War, an integral balance and reciprocity of conservative and liberal, and so on, could recreate a much more peaceful, humane, sustainable world.

Whereas East Asians tend to perceive themselves in relational terms, European Americans tend to perceive themselves in autonomous terms. This difference can be traced to the social philosophies of Confucianism and liberal individualism, respectively. In Confucianism, society is the primary reality, and the individual is part of society. In liberal individualism, the person is the primary reality, and society is a collection of individuals. (338)

Agency is an autonomous mode of being whose focus is the self or individual; it is manifested in agentive behaviors such as self-protection, self-assertion, self-expansion, self-control and self-direction. Communion is a relational mode of being whose focus is the other or society; it is manifested in communal behaviors such as group participation, group cooperation, group attachment, and group union. (338) But in unison, both agency and communion offer a new vision of the good life in which freedom and security are included. Agency may be achieved through communion, when the individual chooses to surrender a portion of personal freedom for the collective good and to become more selfless in relating and maintaining solidarity with others. Communion may be realized via agency in an open and tolerant society that encourages plurality and diversity rather than in a face-conscious society that imposes conformity and uniformity. (352-353)

This scientific pointer on how to live the good life is compatible with the received wisdom of venerated thinkers in the East and West. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ exhorted his audience to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Confucius said the same thing to his disciples, but in a different way: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” Buddha preached the middle path to enlightenment, which involves not causing hurt to oneself or others (broadly defined to include all living things, not just human beings). (355)

Nisbett, Richard. Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2015. The University of Michigan social psychologist draws on many years of disparate studies about how peoples learn, consider, judge, err, and gain knowledge to inform this lucid, practical guide. As the pioneer researcher of complementary Eastern and Western cultures since the 1990s (search), along with many colleagues and students, we cite its Dialectical Reasoning chapter as a good summary of their holistic and analytical emphasis. Again while the West has an exact, objects alone, logic focus the East attends more to elements or entities in their holistic, relational context. With a recent emphasis on dual fast and slow systems (Kahneman, Csermely, Scheffer) an evidential notice of these reciprocal archetypes is growing in breadth, importance, and advantage.

Nisbett, Richard. The Geography of Thought. New York: Free Press, 2003. The University of Michigan cultural psychologist is one of the leading proponents of this comparative field. He summarizes a decade of research projects with East Asian colleagues and students which finds a general but real emphasis for individualism for Northern Europe and the United States and communal, group preferences for Chinese, Korean and Japanese societies.

The collective or interdependent nature of Asian society is consistent with Asians’ broad, contextual view of the world and their belief that events are highly complex and determined by many factors. The individualistic or independent nature of Western society seems consistent with the Western focus on particular objects in isolation from their context and with Westerners’ belief that they can know the rules governing objects and therefore can control the objects’ behavior. (xvii)

Nisbett, Richard and Takahiro Masuda. Culture and Point of View. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 100/11163, 2003. An increasing number of studies are quantifying reciprocal differences between East Asian societies (China, Japan, Korea) where persons attend more to a conceptual field of relationships and Western (European, American) mindsets which prefer autonomous individuals concerned with focal objects without a contextual setting.

Nisbett, Richard and Yuri Miyamoto. The Influence of Culture: Holistic Versus Analytic Perception. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 9/10, 2005. An update on the significant work of University of Michigan psychologist and many colleagues over a decade which has now quantified a true bicameral complementarity between Eastern and Western hemispheres.

There is recent evidence that perceptual processes are influenced by culture. Westerners tend to engage in context-independent and analytic perceptual processes by focusing on a salient object independently of its context, whereas Asians tend to engage in context-dependent and holistic perceptual processes by attending to the relationship between the object and the context in which the object is located. (467)

Nisbett, Richard, et al. Culture and Systems of Thought: Holistic Versus Analytic Cognition. Psychological Review. 108/2, 2001. A summary article that attributes this duality to historic Chinese or Greek roots, whose societies emphasized relational, continuous fields or individual, discrete objects. Rather than a universal Western psychology, long the expected goal, it is vital to appreciate this innate worldwide complementarity.

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