History and the Mechanism of Collective Learning


Historical Evolution and the Mechanism of Collective Learning


  1. http://www.bighistoryproject.com/Big-History/Themes
  2. http://worldhistoryforusall.sdsu.edu/units/two/landscape/02_landscape1.pdf
  3. http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/whc/3.1/christian.html
  4. http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/6.3/benjamin.html
  5. http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/6.3/christian.html


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.

This entry was posted in Historical Dynamics, Sketches in Historical Theory, What's New. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to History and the Mechanism of Collective Learning

  1. Pingback: Darwiniana » Luke on David Christian, and ‘big histories’/’universal histories’

  2. Thanks for your remarks, John. Let me be clear, though. While I’m somewhat critical of the Big History/Collective Learning model, it isn’t because I think the idea’s bad or flawed. On the contrary, I like David’s work. I think it’s excellent and I hope it develops some more and catches on with more people. Where I think it needs building on it is the roots of the “symbolic language” concept and in the scales and mechanisms of big historical change.

    Case in point: ‘Language’ and ‘Learning’ didn’t just emerge in an evolutionary vacuum. Some trigger (or triggers) had to set it off in order to facilitate the spread of “collective learning” among human beings. My own candidate for that is in ancient and prehistoric storytelling. We all know the claim that ancient and prehistoric people were supposed to have had an almost unassailable memory (and that’s how in an oral language culture, news, information, and art was passed on before writing)(not ‘infallible’ as anthropologists would make clear, but much more developed than more sedentary peoples in a literary-based world). What I’m suggesting here is that it was through verse and song, the vessels of an oral, preliterate culture, that “symbolic language” and “collective learning” took hold in human communities and experience. In fact, this drive to express things in song can be traced to a feature of the human psyche and behavior that uniquely selected our primate ancestors for not only “symbolic” expression, but for our very sense of pattern and rhythm to begin with … That’s my idea, and why I believe, David’s concepts needs to be drawn out in that kind-of-a-way.

    On the scale issue, I’ve said it seems like science is straight-jacketing the rest of macrohistory and the cosmos … that human events and the history of life are being made to fit a space where they don’t set- in-well. But, that can be handled by reference to the critique of standard model empiricism amongst physical scientists, the psychological disciplines, and complexity theorists. The job is simple: revisit ‘natural history’ through reference to the ’emergentism’ of ‘life’ and ‘human experience.’ This gives you, then, the ‘ground’ from which these later processes and dynamics arose.

    With that done, Big History moves forward as an inquiry.

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