The History of Knowledge as a Case of Extended Evolution

We consider cultural evolution as a special case of extended evolution (Laubichler and Renn 2015). Here, the interaction between cognition and tradition as regulatory structures, as well as their external representations as part of the material culture form the niche that plays a key dynamical role (Damerow 1996, 2000). More precisely, from this perspective, cultural evolution deals with embedded networks of actors, actions and their results (see Fig. 9.1).

Networks of agents evolve, including their internal regulatory structures and niches

Fig. 9.1 Networks of agents evolve, including their internal regulatory structures and niches. The niche itself has a network structure induced by the primary network. Its nodes are those aspects of the environment that condition, mediate or become the target of actions, in short the environmental resources and conditions of the internal system. The extended network, including the environment, defines an action space that shapes possible innovations, canalizes the evolutionary process and delimits the structure of the inheritance system

A crucial aspect of such a network is its capability to learn: the actors are assumed to have an internal, cognitive structure that governs the coordination of their actions and that in turn can change as a result of a reflection on their actions. The encoded experience of the actors constitutes their knowledge. Actions are always embedded in a larger network that includes other actors and the environment, and also a material and social culture resulting from prior actions. Action networks can generate systemic structures that we designate as institutions, regulating the actions that preserve these structures. The material and social culture corresponds, in biological terms, to a niche that has been constructed by a species transforming its environment in such a way as to affect its own living conditions.

The material means are part of the context employed by the actor to reach the goal of an action. They comprise, in particular, the tools available to a given culture and the useful material resources found in the environment. They also constrain the range of actions that are possible in a given situation, thus defining a horizon of possibilities for actions. In dealing with challenges to the preservation of its actors and systemic structures, a network of actors can transform them into an enrichment and reorganization of its regulative structures. Such innovations are possible because the horizon of possibilities inherent in a given material context is larger than anticipated by any given set of actors, a principle that may be considered as a non-teleological version of Hegel’s cunning of reason or a phylogenetic version of Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” (Damerow 1996; Lock 2000; Vygotsky 1978).

Knowledge and institutions are two important regulative structures that govern actions within such a network (Renn 2014, 2015a). We will first discuss knowledge, then institutions. Knowledge is, as mentioned above, encoded experience. Based on experience, it is, at the same time, the capacity of an individual, a group or a society to solve problems and to anticipate appropriate actions. In short, knowledge is a problem-solving potential. But it is not just a mental structure. It also involves material and social dimensions that play a crucial role in determining which actions are possible and legitimate in a given historical situation. Knowledge may be shared within a group or a society. Material artifacts such as instruments or texts may be used in learning processes organized by societal institutions, allowing individuals to appropriate the shared knowledge.

The social and material dimensions of knowledge are therefore critical for understanding its transmission from one generation to the next. We designate the societal structures governing its production, dissemination and appropriation as the knowledge economy of a society. For most of human history, this knowledge economy was not supported by specialized institutions such as schools or universities. Knowledge was rather transmitted from generation to generation as part of a society’s self-reproduction by raising children and involving them in labor processes and various cultural activities (Renn 2012).

Institutions are here defined as a means of reproducing the social relations existing within a given group or society and, in particular, collaborative roles and the societal distribution of labor. The coordination of individual actions mediated by institutions often presupposes behavioral norms and belief systems such as habits, religion, law, morality or ideology. Institutions represent the potential of a society or a group to coordinate the actions of individuals and to interact with their environment. In the most general sense, institutions can be conceived as encoded, collective experience, which results in sets of shared behaviors connected by cognitive, social and material links.

With their “potential for action,” institutions therefore bear close relations to knowledge as we have defined it, but there are also important differences. While there is no knowledge without the mental anticipation of actions, institutions must largely regulate cooperative behavior without such direct mental anticipation of collective actions and their consequences. Nevertheless, institutions involve knowledge on various levels and must embody and transmit this knowledge in the sense of the capacity of individuals to anticipate actions that are compatible with the coordination regulated by institutions. In addition, institutions must also transmit knowledge on social control and on how to resolve conflicts. And finally, institutions form the basis for the knowledge economy of a society. The history of knowledge must therefore be studied in close conjunction with the history of institutions in this broader sense.

All contexts of action may serve as an external representation of the two key regulative structures we have been considering: knowledge and institutions. Such external representations can be used to share and transmit but also to transform these regulative structures. We have already seen that external representations such as artifacts, tools and texts play a key role in the societal transmission of knowledge; they may also serve as the means of actions performed in order to process and transform knowledge, such as tables or computers.

As for institutions, all kinds of material aspects—tools, machines, persons, symbols or rituals—can become part of their external, material representation. They then represent a normative social order, defining a field of actions that is compatible with the regulations of an institution. The coordination of individual interactions can be partly transfered onto the external representations of an institution, such as following a command chain, dealing with paperwork in an administration, exchanging goods for money on the market, or applying written law to a violation of norms.

We thus recognize two essential, complementary features of the model of cultural evolution we are proposing: the role of complex regulative network structures such as knowledge and institutions, and niche construction such as the creation and transmission of a material culture that includes the external representations of these regulative structures. The crucial point now for understanding the evolutionary dynamics of this system is the fact that this niche construction not only depends on complex regulative structures but also in turn shapes them. In the following, we will consider some important turning points in human cultural evolution to assess the current discussions on these turning points from the vantage point of our framework.

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