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.

e. Knowledge, Language and Organisational Culture

Knowledge, Language and Organisational Culture

Organisations, in the general sense, include individuals, clubs, nations, and what are referred to in anthropology as “cultures”.

We gain knowledge from both the natural and social environment. However, mistakes are possible, all organisations are capable of concealing information from others, and of supplying misinformation to them.

Culture comprises norms, values, knowledge or beliefs, and symbols. Thus, knowledge is part of an organisation’s culture. It is held in schemata which include not only an understanding of the environment and an operating schema, but also a schema for worldview or purpose, a social systems schema, an internal ethical schema, an external ethical schema, a self-image, and so on.

The American anthropologist, Roland B Dixon, in his 1928 book, “The Building of Cultures”, explained that the natural environment has greatest influence on formation of culture. The main factors are topography, climate, and the availability of raw materials and other resources, all of which vary from time to time and from place to place. Thus, our knowledge of these factors varies in the same way, and so too does the culture of which it is a part. Religion has a significant but lesser effect, and it too may be influenced by the natural environment.

This anthropological explanation is relevant for “cultures”, i.e., tribes and nations whose main external interactions are with their natural environment. For organisations and individuals within a “culture”, the environment must also include society.

There are two important points to note about knowledge and its influence on culture. Firstly, as knowledge of society is gained, this can alter both culture and social theory. Secondly, progress is not inevitable, shocks can occur, and knowledge can be lost. For example, the collapse of the Roman Empire and the subsequent Dark Ages. Such losses can cause an organisation or society to revert to a culture and behaviours similar to those of earlier years.

Culture, in turn, is a part of what in a very general sense can be called “the mind” of an organisation. An individual’s mind is his brain. In larger organisations, it is the brains of its members linked via language. In both cases, however, the mind comprises schemata which, as Bartlett explained, are resistant to change. Existing knowledge effects the ability of both individuals and organisations to correctly absorb new knowledge. It also effects the relative priorities of their needs, what they regard as satisfiers, their motivators, their attitudes towards social interactions, and whether they behave in a co-operative, positively competitive, or negatively competitive manner.

Language and the individual mind are very closely interrelated. Vyvyan Evans, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University, Wales, UK, in his article at, explains that recent research has shown that language is processed everywhere in the brain. There is no distinct processing centre. He suggests, therefore, that language and our co-operative minds have co-evolved. This, in turn, suggests that they are reflections of one another. Language has evolved, and may still be evolving, to link minds into a single system, albeit rather unsatisfactorily at present. This provides a control system for organisations that is equivalent to the way in which an individual’s mind controls his body.

Evans describes a “Golden Triangle” comprising mind, language, and culture (of which knowledge is a part). This concept differs from the unidirectional Saphir-Whorf hypothesis that language influences the way that we think about reality. Rather, it includes the possibility that how we think about reality also influences our language.

The behaviour of an organisation, including communication, is directed by its multi-mind and language based control system, and this behaviour affects the environment. Thus, there is a feedback process in which:

  • the environment affects knowledge,
  • knowledge affects culture,
  • culture affects the multi-mind and language based control system,
  • the multi-mind and language based control system affects organisational behaviour, and
  • organisational behaviour affects the environment.

During this process, knowledge is continually updated and sometimes lost.

Anthropology reveals other ways in which cultural change can occur. Roland B Dixon, noted that ethnic migration can also result in cultural change, i.e., the introduction of those with a different culture, into an organisation or its environment. Whilst this has an anthropological basis, it can also be applied, more generally, to organisations of all sizes and might better be described as cultural, rather than ethnic, migration.

The concepts described in this article are summarised in the diagram below.

d. The Acquisition of Knowledge

The Acquisition of Knowledge

The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) remarked on our inability to find a satisfactory criterion for knowledge. I will, therefore, define it as information held in peoples’ minds, which may be considered true or false, and which includes our beliefs and attitudes. “Knowledge”, “beliefs” and “attitudes” are essentially different words used to describe mental information in different contexts. This information, in combination with our reasoning processes and our needs, determines our behaviour.


The knowledge of an individual is acquired in two main ways: from observation of the world around us and by receipt from others. All children are born with inherited predispositions but no knowledge. If a child had to work out for itself how to survive in its environment, then it would frequently make mistakes and might come to an unhappy end. Parents and other members of a child’s community will therefore provide an initial education which gives the child a working understanding of its environment.

Our early schemata are established in this way. However, as explained in the previous blog, information provided by others may have been distorted by their “effort after meaning”, contain errors of reasoning, and may even be lies. We accept as true any information which does not contradict our existing schemata. Failing that, we would acquire no new knowledge. Much of the information that young children receive from others falls into that category. Once established, the early schemata of the child will be resistant to change. As Aristotle famously said, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man”. Change can occur, however, if sufficient contradictions accumulate. Thus, our schemata alter in fits and starts. There is a period of rapid change followed by a period of quiescence in which the schema is resistant to change. In cases involving a significant change of worldview, this can be accompanied by an emotional crisis similar to grief at the loss of a loved one. Such crises can last for several years while the young adult goes through the stages of denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. The importance of providing children with reliable knowledge cannot be understated, therefore.

Socialisation or Social Learning

Social rules are necessary if society is to co-operate successfully for the benefit of its members. If we follow them then we will function successfully in our society, contribute to its success and, thus, prosper personally. Again, it is difficult for the child to work out these social rules for itself and, thus, parents and other teachers will provide an initial working education based on the culture of the society, i.e., its norms, values, beliefs and symbols.

During the 1950s psychologists developed the theory that we now know as Social Learning Theory. In summary, this theory states that some beliefs and strategies are formed in the following way:

  1. Identification with role models. Role models are usually parents, teachers, peers or people like oneself, and people seen as having advantages such as popularity, wealth, or fame.
  2. This identification leads to imitation behaviour and/or learning through observation. In the latter, behaviours may not necessarily be imitated immediately but may simply be remembered as strategies which can be used in later life. Seeing that a strategy adopted by another person successfully satisfies their needs will provide what is known as vicarious reinforcement and will condition a strategy even when it is not being performed by the person learning it. For example, if a colleague at the office always works through their lunch break and ultimately receives a promotion, then you may unconsciously adopt the same strategy in your next job.
  3. Imitation behaviour is either positively or negatively reinforced by other members of society depending on their beliefs about what is acceptable or unacceptable. These beliefs about social behaviour are referred to as norms. It may, for example, be the norm in your office to work through the lunch break. Through conditioning, norms become internalised or accepted as one’s own, and can be held unconsciously. Thus, the strategies underlying behaviour become conditioned or extinguished through social reinforcement. Highly conditioned beliefs about social behaviour form the conscience, a set of beliefs governing behaviour which cause psychological distress when our behaviour is contrary to them. For example, a socialised person will feel guilty if he steals.

In my next post, I will return to schemata, paradigms, and memes and describe the features that they have in common.