Levels of Knowledge

Life on this planet goes back a billion years or so, depending on how you define the point at which it started. The long saga of human social evolution only goes back a mere fifty thousand years, or at least it does according to my definition of when it started. But a lot has happened during that relatively short period. The evolution of human knowledge proceeds on a vastly faster time scale than biological evolution. In my lifetime, for example, I have seen an evolution in the knowledge of how to construct an airplane that would have taken millions of years for comparable adaptive change to occur at the biological level.

Perhaps I’d better explain my use of the term “knowledge.” As I shall use it, the term “knowledge” signifies data or information that has been processed and shaped by some selective process. Defined this way, you can see that the genetic data that is imprinted in each of us, and which determines not only our species but our individual characteristics, is a form of knowledge. The critical feature in the genes is the information this particular data conveys, not the physical structure of the DNA that holds those genes and passes them on to the next generation. Think of a computer document that is both printed onto paper and backed up as an electronic file. These two things contain quite different forms of data but both will be interpreted into the same information and it is the information that matters, not the medium into which it is coded. In each case, the information, the point of the whole thing, is the message, not the mechanism that sends it. But, whether the information is in printed form or encoded electronically, we select the information that will be passed on and, if that document is selected, then it will become knowledge.

New computer applications are selected every day, but DNA took hundreds of millions of years to evolve. But then, things moved slower in those days.

Every animal and plant, if you look at it this way, has a certain body of knowledge encoded in its genes, knowledge which determines what kind of creature it is and allows it to beget successors. But of course there are other, more familiar kinds of knowledge. Many of the more evolved creatures are capable of learning from experience. Their brains process an enormous amount of sensory information and distill out of them memories which help them survive. Their ability to gain this kind of knowledge is programmed into their genes but the knowledge thus gained is of a higher order, you might call it a second level of knowledge. Of course, when the creature dies, its knowledge dies with it, but evolution continues with its successors.

And then there is a third kind of knowledge, which is knowledge shared by a group or community of creatures. Some of the more evolved species have a limited ability to develop this kind of knowledge, but it is only our species, our human ancestors, who have fully exploited this way of acquiring and storing knowledge, and developed it to astounding levels.

Example: One of our remote ancestors is sitting in front of his cave. He chips a stone a different way and discovers a new tool. Soon several of the other members of his band are making similar tools and almost all of them are using them. What is the breakthrough, the tool itself or the knowledge of how to create it? The knowledge, of course. And does this knowledge die with the person who invented it? No, it stays on as part of the collective knowledge of the tribe.

Another example: Neolithic farmers are crowded together in what is now Iraq. There are seven good years and the population goes up. Then there are seven years of drought and people starve. A lot of them don’t survive. Never mind, that’s the way it has always been with other species. The population goes up and down with changes in the food supply. But wait! Some genius imagines granaries, a means of storing grain in good years to be used in times of drought. This increment of human knowledge spreads rapidly and soon changes everything. The population increases. Soon you have specialists, and then kings and priests and metals and so forth. What started this chain, was it the granaries themselves, or the knowledge of how to build and use them? And what preserved that knowledge once it started, an individual brain, or the collective knowledge of the whole society?

We are who we are and where we are because of the unique capability groups of humans have to form large social units held together by symbolic ties. These groups can and do store the contributions of individuals into a kind of collective memory that gets distilled into knowledge of techniques and rules of behavior that can be passed on from one generation to the next. If we define genetically transmitted information as first level knowledge, and knowledge acquired by individual animals as second level, then this collective knowledge shared by members of a group and passed on from generation to generation can be considered knowledge that exists at a third level.

For the last fifty thousand years, groups of people that coooperate and collectively accumulate third level knowledge have been increasing their collective fitness, both to cope with the vagaries of climatic and other natural challenges and, increasingly, to prevail in competition with other groups. Regardless of the mistaken doctrine embraced by many anthropologists, selection between culturally organized groups or societies is a central organizing principle of the evolutionary process that has brought us out of caves and into megacities.

We rule the planet because we have developed a unique capacity to retain, store, and recall third level knowledge. Now we are poised on the brink of a new era. The collective wisdoms of many third level groups have burst their bounds and are merging into one vast ocean of fourth level knowledge, This is nothing more or less than the collective knowledge and wisdom of our entire species. When we have learned to live in this new ocean of knowledge, and begun to tap into its enormous potential, a whole new world will lie before us.

Carl Coon 4/30/05

Note: I am indebted to Dr. John Hewitt, a British scholar, for this concept of levels of knowledge. His own argument is much more complex than the highly simplified version I have set forth here. He has a book, The Architecture of Thought, and a website,

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1 Response to Levels of Knowledge

  1. GENET ABEBE says:

    how can knowledge can be classified?

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