Historical Evolution and the Mechanism of Collective Learning
“Collective learning means sharing what you have learned with others so that the knowledge available to everyone increases over time … [It] explains why human technologies have become more and more powerful, and why only human beings seem to have a ‘history’.”
(Course Themes, Big History Project website)
David Christian’s “Collective Learning” principle and its correlate “symbolic language” are fascinating ideas. But there’s a puzzle to them. If, for one, “collective learning” was a major driver of human events, which led us a species to Civilizational Development & History, then why did this happen in the first place if the capacity for language (and the propensity for communication) is shared with other mammals, most notably other primates? … It appears there must have been other factors in play in the biological and social evolution of humans in order for “symbolic learning” to have emerged at all and for it to have produced the outcomes it did in human experience (i.e., through “collective learning”). Whatever the precursors for this – walking upright, use of the hands for articulation of signs, or some other such evolutionary mechanism which predisposed Homo Sapiens for its later advances – there would have to been some means by which “symbolic language” was transmitted to succeeding generations in order for “collective learning” to take place within the human condition. … What was it? … Well, that’s the obvious question … and while the answer to that question may be important in itself, even more important perhaps is the reason “WHY.” … Without, such a means, we’re left with a gaping hole, whence the rise of “symbolic language/collective learning” in the first place, towards the advance of humanity. Unless that question is answered, we have no way of effectively gauging this concept and we’re struck with a puzzle over humankind’s ascent.
No, “collective learning” is a great idea … and I congratulate Christian and the other big historians for advancing it … but it leaves some open questions. Why was it appropriated-when-it-was in earlier prehistory when it’s major effect was later on with the rise of Civilization? It’s fine to argue that this mechanism needed time to work its effect and inculcate itself in human behavior, re-wiring us as it were for later success; but this doesn’t really explain why it ‘took off’ when it did and brought about the distinct points in human history we know of as our “threshold moments” in ancient and far ancient times … If History-as-such (human history or history-proper) can be considered to have begun around 5,000-3,000 BCE (or sometime earlier during the Neolithic era), then why did these events take place in a fashion and on a timetable seemingly irrespective of the “collective learning” process? Why would it not usher-in technological development and social advance at an earlier date instead? Why later, and why in the manner it did in respect to the civilizational cultures of the Middle East and the Black Sea region?
For these reasons, I’m inclined to believe other key dynamics had to have been responsible for human ascendancy during this time, besides just this dynamic of “collective learning.” Not that it wouldn’t have played a part (and a major part at that) in the making of human history; but for it to have worked the way that it did, when it did and how, and then suddenly to trigger a set of social outcomes as it did after being latent for so long … This smacks not of causation, but of antecedence which conditioned human circumstance for the real agency of historical change and civilizational advance.
Again, “collective learning” is fine as an idea. And it goes a long way in helping us understand ‘how we got here’ in the world as it now stands. But it needs further refinement as an idea, better juxtaposing it within the framework of world historiography and its interconnected threads.