Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Evolution of Knowledge

The Evolution of Knowledge
Kenny A. Chaffin
All Rights Reserved © 2012 Kenny A. Chaffin

It's only words, and words are all
I have to take your heart away.
  - Bee Gees

There are no Individuals

            You may think of yourself as a separate and unique individual organism but you rely on many other organisms and certainly your environment to exist. You rely on the bacteria in your gut to digest your food; you rely on the mitochondria in your cells to produce the energy needed for life itself, and to fuel movement, growth and metabolism. At a more fundamental level you rely on your environment; the oxygen in the air, water from the Earth to exist. And much of the environment you rely on is produced by other organisms and their processes. At another level you rely on everything that has gone before you. Because you are here, because you are alive, you are a survivor. Your body, your abilities, your resistance to disease, your very existence itself is a result of your genetic heritage. You survived; your parents and their parents survived all the way back to the single celled organisms of the ancient Earth and even prior to that to the primitive DNA/RNA and their precursors of living organisms.
            Not only that, but the pieces and parts of your body are constantly changing and being replaced. Cells die and are replaced by new ones, hair falls out and other hair grows to replace it. With a few exceptions (neurons being one) most of the cells in your body are replaced every ten years or so. At any given moment your body is only a snapshot in time that is constantly changing.  The you that is here now is not the same you that was here 10 years ago or even 10 minutes ago. It’s not that life is in a constant state of flux but that life is a constant state of flux.

Yeah, so?

            Just as your body is composed of a collection of cells and precursors and loose confederations of living things, so is your mind, your consciousness. You may feel as though you are an individual, separate and unique to all others and in a sense you are, but just as your body is separate and different from other human individuals while still being composed of and reliant on other living organisms, so is your mind.  It too is comprised of and relies on both internal and external information, sensory input from the environment, memories, collaboration of ideas and thoughts. And not just in the same manner as your physical body, but truly in exactly the same manner. Your self, your mind, your consciousness is a collection of interrelated information, memories, sensory input, and knowledge of self and environment that is a single entity yet constantly changing within and as part of its environment.


So if our biology and our minds work in the same manner, even though with different piece-parts is that where the similarity ends or is there more?  Oh, there’s more, definitely more. Part of this may be evident. Our DNA which is the key to all living organisms is itself nothing more than a sequence of information used to store, manage and drive biological growth, evolution, and procreation. So certainly in this manner information in the form of DNA sequences is used for biological purposes. The information and knowledge stored in and used by our minds is of course is a bit different and is used in a different manner, but certainly with the same goal in mind -- survival of the individual and the species.

The Structure of Knowledge

Memes, bits, words, books, theories, history, information – all these things make up knowledge, that unseen, non-corporeal (in some cases) collection of information, data, memories, books and more that we think of as knowledge. Knowledge itself is a spectrum of information, information that is structured at various and multiple levels, something like this writing itself which is composed of many piece-parts at various levels – a title, headings, paragraphs, sentences, words, letters all combining in an attempt to convey knowledge to the reader. This concept of knowledge as a loose confederation of information, memories, senses, and even other knowledge makes defining it difficult -- a bit like catching a greased pig, but allows us to better examine it.


            Confusion, roadblocks, false leads and non-sequiturs come from a number of the areas listed in the previous section, but the two biggest that have thrown the proverbial monkey wrench in the search for knowledge are Richard Dawkins’ memes and Claude Shannon’s information science.
            Dawkins’ meme concept was brilliant at the time and while it still has usefulness what has happened is that its proponents have constrained the field by mimicking genetic concepts a bit too strictly. Genes and DNA are well defined physical objects that are reasonably well understood.  Memes on the other hand are non-physical, very loosely defined and difficult to specify precisely.  This makes the meme concept much more unwieldy and difficult to work with in the same manner as genetics and has put many on the wrong track in searching for a scientific means of understanding information and knowledge.
            Shannon’s information science is nothing of the sort. It is actually communication science. It focuses on reliably transferring coded messages from one point to another point. Now certainly this is important and much of significance has come from it. It even defined the ‘bit’ which is used extensively in computer science and digital communications systems.  The problem is that it has distracted and derailed the true search and research into information and knowledge. Over and over significant work has been waved aside with the claim that Shannon’s information science already explained all that when in fact the only thing it explained was how to reliably communicate that information from point A to point B.

The Evolution of Knowledge

The process whereby knowledge is created and maintained does not work similarly to biological evolution; it works EXACTLY THE SAME, but in a less tangible medium. Knowledge evolves, it changes, it adapts to its environment and it survives or dies just like a biological organism. If particular facets of knowledge become outdated and non-applicable, they are discarded, lost and/or replaced. In biological evolution if a better elbow joint appears due to random mutation that works better for climbing trees or gathering berries then it eventually supplants the previous joint because it increases the odds of survival and is passed on to the individual’s descendants. In knowledge evolution if a hunter-gatherer finds a better way to track or trap prey and passes that knowledge along it will survive because it has increased the hunter-gatherer’s odds of survival. If a theory of gravity appears that is better suited to its environment, then it replaces the previous theory of gravity. This is exactly what science and the scientific method provide and is one aspect of the evolution of knowledge. Galileo’s work with gravity was replaced by Newton’s work which was in turn replaced by Einstein’s general theory of relativity.  Each was a change, an enhancement, a replacement for what came before. In a manner of speaking Galileo and Newton’s theories are fossils in the evolutionary trail of knowledge known as the theory of gravity. It should also be clear that knowledge is not something exclusive to the human mind but something independent of it. This is evident in bodies of knowledge such as the body of scientific knowledge, the amassed history of civilization, or mathematics which exist independent of the human mind.
Not only does knowledge evolve in the same manner as biological organisms, but by the same mechanisms. Knowledge evolves by mutating and changing and then surviving or dying in its environment. At any given time there may be thousands or millions of potentially competing memes, thoughts, ideas or suggestions in the world, some may be random thoughts thrown out in newspaper op-ed articles, some may be bills introduced into congress, and some may be novels or stories or poems. At some point some of these may come into competition for survival such as in congressional debates, in the public media or in scientific journals. When they do, one may survive while another fails, or both could potentially continue to exist. A book of poetry may be published while another is rejected or possibly both are published. Two competing pieces of knowledge could certainly co-exist as in the biological world where different types of wings, feet, limbs or other characteristics co-exist at any given time.
Just as there are many types of organisms that have evolved to meet a variety of environmental conditions, there are many types of knowledge that have evolved in a variety of environments. Some knowledge passes through the crucible of the scientific method other knowledge is evaluated in the light of history, experience, or evidence. Still other knowledge may survive strictly by force of will and may or may not survive long term evolutionary pressures, in the same manner as certain biological mutations may survive and be passed on but appear to have no survival value themselves. Those biological mutations may eventually disappear or they may at some point prove to be an evolutionary advantage in a new or changed environment. These same evolutionary mechanisms apply to knowledge and if we begin to examine and study it within that framework we will be much better positioned to further our understanding of knowledge in a scientific sense.

References, links, additional information:

Evolution, Genes, Memes:




Your Body is Younger than you Think:
Evolutionary Psychology:

About the Author

Kenny A. Chaffin writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction and has published poems and fiction in Vision Magazine, The Bay Review, Caney River Reader, WritersHood, Star*Line, MiPo, Melange and Ad Astra and has published nonfiction in The Writer, The Electron, Writers Journal and Today’s Family. He grew up in southern Oklahoma and now lives in Denver, CO where he works hard to make enough of a living to support two cats, numerous wild birds and a bevy of squirrels. His poetry collections No Longer Dressed in Black, The Poet of Utah Park, The Joy of Science, A Fleeting Existence, a collection of science essays How do we Know, and a memoir of growing up on an Oklahoma farm - Growing Up Stories are all available at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B007S3SMY8. He may be contacted through his website at http://www.kacweb.com