j. The Evolution of Knowledge

The Evolution of Knowledge


In this article, I describe the evolutionary stages in the development of human knowledge. Many of these stages took place in our ancestor species. The first almost certainly began in relatively simple animals, and subsequent stages followed on as complexity increased. At each stage, an increase in the sophistication of the ancestor’s brain would have been necessary to accommodate the new ability.

The process is summarised in the diagram below.

The recognition of holons or meaningful entities

The term “holon” was coined by Arthur Koestler in his 1967 book, The Ghost in The Machine. Another term for “holon” is “meaningful entity”. Both terms refer to any entity that can be recognised as a whole in itself and which constitutes part of a larger whole. We recognise such entities by virtue of the static or dynamic structure that forms them, and by the recurrence of instances of the same structure at different times, in different places, and in different circumstances. This recurrence enables us to draw a boundary around each instance which distinguishes it from its surroundings.

The recognition of holons requires memory. We must be capable of encoding in a mental form what we perceive with our senses. This is so that we can compare what we have experienced with what we may experience in the future. It is notable that the repetition of a meaningful entity or event reinforces our memory of it, whilst a lack of recurrence causes the memory to fade.

The recognition of equilibrium states

The next stage in the evolution of knowledge was the recognition of equilibrium states. That is states that persist for a period, and which also recur. For example, traffic lights have several static equilibrium states: red, red and amber, green, amber, and back to red. As most motorists know to their frustration, traffic lights also have dynamic equilibrium states: not operating, operating slowly, or operating quickly.

The recognition of causal relationships between holons in equilibrium states.

There can be recurring relationships between holons in a particular state, and these form the basis of causality. For example, traffic flows through green traffic lights, but is static at red ones. The ability to recognise recurring relationships is of great benefit to an animal’s ongoing survival. It enables it to predict events from experience, seize opportunities, and avoid threats.

However, with this ability also comes the ability to imagine and speculate. Thus, not all knowledge and beliefs are empirical and derived from the environment. When empirical information is absent knowledge can also be a consequence of the speculative juxtaposition of holons.

The development of language

In the case of humans, and to a limited extent some higher animals, experience can be passed on via language. This involves encoding, as speech, items of information held in memory. We are a social species and natural language has evolved alongside our cognitive abilities. Language enables us to share information and co-ordinate our activities, and this conveys an evolutionary advantage. Unsurprisingly, natural language reflects holons, their equilibrium states, and the causal relationships between them. This structure is represented in the form of sentences containing a subject, i.e., a holon, and a predicate, i.e., an equilibrium state. Causality is reflected in compound sentences, such as “If sentence A then sentence B”.

With this ability also came the ability to communicate not only speculative information but also deliberate misinformation. Unfortunately, unless the speaker explains its source, it is difficult for the recipient to know whether the information communicated is true.

The development of writing

However, spoken language is transient. Speech does not linger and is gone as soon as it has been spoken. The brain is still necessary to store information, therefore. During our early development we relied on aural tradition. Individuals would remember knowledge and pass it to others through speech, stories, or songs. In so doing they would reinforce their own memory and prevent it from fading. However, we then developed writing. This is another form of encoded information, and it is notable that many alphabets are, in part at least, phonetic. Thus, written language encodes spoken language, which in turn encodes memorised information. The development of writing enabled us to store information externally and refer to it when necessary. Furthermore, written memory does not fade, and so, we became able to recognise holons and causal relationships that recur less frequently.

The development of formal languages

The next stage comprised the comparatively recent development of formal languages such as mathematics, chemical formulae, Feynman diagrams, etc. These present written information in a condensed form and enable predictions to be made by manipulating it with formal rules that always apply.

Paradigm changes

Human knowledge has evolved through a series of paradigm changes. The development of present day rational, scientific knowledge began in ancient times, in particular with ancient Greek civilisation. The ancient Greeks produced knowledge of major importance including the works of Archimedes, the great mathematician, inventor, and experimenter. An example of Archimedes work is the case of the crown of King Hiero. Archimedes was able to determine the volume of the crown by immersing it in water and measuring the volume displaced. From this and the weight of the crown, he was able to determine its density, and thus, show that the goldsmith had cheated the king by mixing gold with silver.

However, metaphysics, i.e., speculative knowledge with no empirical basis and often in the form of religion, superstition or mysticism, has hampered progress. The methodology of the Middle Ages was to give equal, and sometimes greater weight to speculative theological knowledge over that gained from observation and experiment. This resulted in, for example, the so-called sciences of alchemy and astrology. To a limited extent this brake on progress still exists today, and metaphysical explanations are often proffered for physical events. For example, the World Values Survey found that in 2017, 33.6% of the United States population agreed or strongly agreed that “whenever science and religion conflict, religion is always right.” In other countries this can be as high as 98.8% (Egypt) or as low as 2.8% (Japan).

A significant paradigm change occurred in the Renaissance era. It required that any knowledge produced by imagination must be confirmed by empirical data and that any predictions should be testable. Thus, the scientific method was invented, and this change resulted in the modern disciplines of physics, chemistry, geology, geography, etc.

The present-day situation

These disciplines first began their development in an era when our scientific knowledge was still very limited, and specialisation was unnecessary. Thus, at their foundations they are relatively consistent with one another. However, in the present day, our scientific knowledge is extensive, and it is impossible for any individual to know it all in detail. Specialisation has become necessary. This has brought with it problems of communication, consistency between specialist fields, and reduced ability to recognise the inconsistencies necessary for paradigm shifts.