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THEY DID THE BEST THEY KNEW HOW
Copyright (c) 1991, 1993 by David G. Hays
(c) 1995 by Janet Hays
8.1. THE HISTORY OF TECHNOLOGY: A REPRISE
8.2. THE EVOLUTION OF TECHNOLOGY: A THEORY
8.3. TRANSCENDANT COGNITION
8.4. THE RISE AND FALL OF CIVILIZATIONS
Sapient progress has occurred in the midst of suffer-
ing, but seems to be neither its cause nor its result.
Technological advance depends on prior work, on commu-
nication, and on happy accident. Our ancestors, nei-
ther heroic nor evil in general, did as we do: They
managed as best they could in hard times.
8.1. THE HISTORY OF TECHNOLOGY: A REPRISE
8.1.1. Revolution 8_1_1*
8.1.2. Coherence 8_1_2*
8.1.3. Qualitative Steps 8_1_3*
8.1.4. Triggers 8_1_4*
Each rankshift is a coherent revolution that brings a
qualitative change in process of cognition. Coherence
is apparent in networks of positive feedback. Rank-
shifts are not instantaneous, but they are relatively
quick. How rankshifts are initiated is debatable.
Is a rankshift a revolution? A revolution should be a rapid
Looked at from our present standpoint ...
the rankshifts took a long time: The rank 2-3 shift
ended just a century ago, after going on for 500 years.
Looked at from the past ...
they were quick: From the origin of humanity about
50,000 years ago, almost nothing happened until at most
10,000 years ago; the rankshift then took about 7000
years, but most of the change occurred between 5500 and
2500 years ago. The agricultural-urban revolution
lasted 3000 years, after a flat period of 40,000 years.
The others are comparable--the change takes about a tenth as long
as the flat period preceding it. So I am inclined to hold on to
the word 'revolution'.
Is a rankshift a coherent change? That depends. If you
look closely into any rankshift, you can analyze the one long
growth curve into a large number of little growth curves, stacked
and overlapping: Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution,
Enlightenment, an Industrial Revolution, another. Yet we can see
the whole rankshift as the application of seeing and calculating
in one area after another.
Each aspect of technology has its own history, its own
growth curve. Rank 2 has agriculture including domesticated
animals, the wheel, pottery, weaving, metalworking, and writing.
Each supports the rest: Without metals, the wheel is only useful
in limited ways, since carts need metal parts. What makes the
rankshift coherent is the system of _positive_ feedback relations
among the many aspects of change, as advances in each aspect
facilitate advances in others.
8.1.3. Qualitative Steps
Is rankshift a qualitative change, or only a change in
degree? We see so much difficulty in technology transfer, from
the West to cultures still living in rank 1 or rank 2, that the
sense of qualitative difference is strong. My position is that
at a crucial moment during a rankshift the cognitive theme of a
culture changes. In the West, the change from essence and
ultimacy to materiality and causality occurred in the scientific
revolution, at the moment when science was born. The difference
between thinking about substances as manifestations of the
godhead and thinking about them as susceptible of reactions that
can be measured and controlled is a great difference. The
difference between asking what was revealed to Aristotle about
the hidden reality of nature and looking for oneself to see what
nature is like is a great difference. I cannot understand those
differences as differences of degree.
Is technology a leading component of rankshift? To put it
differently, does change in technology trigger or initiate change
in other aspects of culture? If not, then what kind of change
triggers change in technology? The evidence, as I read it, puts
agriculture very early in the rank 1-2 shift. The rank 2-3 shift
seems to me to begin with increase of commerce, or perhaps art,
but the development of mechanisms starts early also. The rank 3-
4 shift appears to begin with Darwin, Roentgen, Freud, and
metamathematics, but organic chemistry, systems of industrial
control, and radio started in the same period, and expressive
culture also changed.
Was there a discovery in the agricultural revolution that we
could compare with the discovery that uranium exposes film
through paper? Perhaps, but I have not heard of it. The case
for slow, gradual introduction of agriculture to meet local need
for food seems strong to me.
The point may be that discovery is not possible until rank
2. Getting from rank 1 to rank 2 had to begin with minute,
unconscious steps, whereas the later rankshifts could be made
with larger steps consciously planned or at least recognized.
The evidence being mixed and in part not yet available to me, I
am left with the feeling that technological change is an essen-
tial part of rankshift but not necessarily the trigger or stimu-
lus. Nor do I see that any particular trigger is needed to start
technological change. The only absolute prerequisite to rank-
shift is the cognitive system, the way of thinking, generated by
the previous rankshift.
Let me note, however, that rank 1 was too thinly dispersed
for much interchange of ideas until agriculture appeared; that
rank 2 preferred reliance on the observations of the ancients to
seeing for themselves until art appeared; and that science was
content with its simple idea of a simple universe until the ether
vanished and X-rays appeared.
8.2. THE EVOLUTION OF TECHNOLOGY: A THEORY
8.2.1. Genomes, Organisms, and Populations
8.2.2. Clusters or Cycles
Each rank calls on new principles to account for the exer-
cize of power by some sapients over others. Restrictions on
procedure arise, as the size and effectiveness of govern-
8.2.1. Genomes, Organisms, and Populations
Darwin's theory of natural selection was received with
acclaim, but when Mendel's paper on genetic inheritance was
rediscovered in 1900 it seemed to undercut Darwin--how could
Mendelian inheritance lead to diversity and new species? Only in
the 1930s did Fisher, Dobzhansky, Mayr, and Haldane build what
Huxley (1942) named _The Modern Synthesis_. Recognition of DNA
has changed biology, but the formation of species is still
perplexing; Mayr, Simpson, and Rensch have struggled with it. A
new level of analysis began with Prigogine; Kauffman and Goertzel
are only two of many who are trying to achieve clarity.
(All references in THEOBIBL* )
We need not follow the biologists any further than is good
for us, but we may as well take note of their theory. For them,
the mechanism of evolution is genetic change. A genome, let us
say, is all of the genetic material in a living organism, such as
a bacterium or a person. Two bacteria of the same species need
not have identical genomes; there is much variation with a
population of organisms of any one species. Evolution can
consist in a change of frequency, or in mutation of the genome.
In a multicellular organism, every cell contains a copy of the
genome--every one is a descendant of the fertilized egg (in a
sexual species). The gametes (eggs or sperm) are also descen-
dants of the fertilized egg, not affected in any systematic way
by the life experience of the organism: _Information flows from
the genome to the organism, but not back to the genome._ The
genome may be altered by chemicals ingested, or by radiation
received, but these are unsystematic--random, so to say.
In thinking about the evolution of technology, I see four
categories on which we might build a theory: Concepts, minds,
devices, and overt manifestations of knowledge. Mokyr chooses
concepts and techniques:
The idea or conceptualizaiton of how to produce a
commodity may be thought of as the genotype, whereas
the actual technique utilized by the firm in producing
the commodity may be thought of as the phenotype of the
member of a species. (p. 275 BIBLNOTE* )
Concepts today are as abstract as genes were before the identifi-
cation of DNA as the genetic material. If our theory must be
built on this category, it will be altogether abstract; before
accepting this outcome, I choose to explore other possibilities.
Devices, of course, are entirely concrete: They can be touched,
counted, inspected in detail. But as I said in the beginning, I
am not satisfied with devices as the basis of a theory, because
we could lose all of the devices and still have the technology.
Let us see, then, what we can do with minds and overt
manifestations of knowledge. Minds are abstract, but the overt
manifestations are not. In rank 1, knowledge is manifest in the
movements of a skilled adult performing a routine task, and also
in the speech of adults. The child, watching and listening,
comes to have a mind much like the minds of the adults nearby.
In rank 2, knowledge is further manifest in written texts, which
a new generation can read. Rank 3 has algorithms; they are
manifest in calculations and in oral or written descriptions of
procedure. Rank 4 has computation, that is to say, it has
algorithms for the execution of algorithms. These are manifest
in the action of computers and in lectures and texts on the art
of computation and programming.
These manifestations are accessible to the young in every
rank, as they are to external observers who wish to construct
theories. Beginning with rank 2, pedagogy appears to ensure
orderly access. Rank 3 introduces laboratories for apprentice
engineers and scientists. Rank 4 teaches computation in various
ways, perhaps not yet in the right ones.
Can we say, with the biologists, that minds do not alter the
manifestations of knowledge that they receive? Or if they do
make alterations, that they make them unsystematically--randomly-
-as bodies modify genomes by exposing them to radiation or
chemicals? Does an adult pass on to a new generation the same
manifestations he or she received, unmodified by life experience?
For the nonce, I submit that the parallel holds, at least in rank
1. Genomes mutate, and cultures change, but the persons involved
cannot know the significance of changes they make--if they are
even aware of making changes.
Rank 2 cultures are aware of texts as manifestations of
knowledge, and give overt attention to transmission of culture.
The great examples are Classical Antiquity (Hellenistic), China,
Islam, Russia, and the late Medieval period in which Scholastic
philosophy flourished. It seems to me no coincidence that all of
these cultures are devoted to continuation without change. Their
success is an indication of the power of writing.
For rank 3, we have only one full-blown example, the West,
and here change and progress are slogans. What I propose is a
change in the rules of evolution, as Levinson ( BIBLNOTE* ) put
it. In growing up, the person is taught to learn. Adults, and
in particular pedagogues, pass on to a new generation the same
facility for learning that they acquired. No one is fully aware
of this capacity to learn, no theory of learning accounts well
for what goes on in schools, no program of educational reform has
been remarkably successful. In short, minds in rank 3 are not
capable of systematic alteration of the manifestations of knowl-
edge that they receive _at the level of learning to learn_. But
given the capacity to learn, rank 3 sapients collect additional
knowledge and work on it. At this level, they are capable of
systematic and deliberate modification.
In a larger sense, the systematic and deliberate modifica-
tion of knowledge by rank 3 minds is still blind variation, since
any sapient has limited ingenuity and limited capacity for
critical analysis of its products. The evolutionary epistemology
of Donald Campbell (1960; see also Mokyr, pp. 276-277) retains
its relevance in rank 3 progress.
8.2.2 Clusters or Cycles
The occasional "florescences" of creativity in history
attracted the attention of Alfred Kroeber. Subsequently Charles
E. Gray published quantitative data--but based on intuitive
assessments of creative events--in the West. Simonton, using
mathematical analysis of similar data, concluded that "creative
role-models in the previous two generations" raised production
above the expected level; political instability has a negative
effect, but the breakup of empires a positive effect--both on the
succeeding generation. But the long-term expectation was expo-
nential increase. ( THEOBIBL* )
Mokyr also identifies clusters of macroinventions, the kind
that provide a new basis for a series of improvements:
1150-1500 "the windmill, spectacles, the mechanical clock,
moveable type, and the casting of iron" (p. 294)
1750-1800 "gaslighting, the breastwheel, the Jacquard loom,
chlorine bleaching, and ballooning" (p. 294)
1830-1914 "chemical dyes, electrical appliances, the inter-
nal combustion, and steel" (Germany; p. 268)
Seeking an explanation of clustering, Mokyr notes that the West
has been characterized by "political and mental diversity",
"materialistic pragmatism", and political competition (p. 302).
He also allows for the necessity of a critical mass, and for
random good luck (p. 298).
Lynn White sees respect for individuals behind the inven-
tions of 1150-1500:
The labor-saving power-machines of the later Middle
Ages were produced by the implicit theological assump-
tion of the infinite worth of even the most degraded
human personality, by an instinctive repugnance towards
subjecting any man to a monotonous drudgery which seems
less than human in that it requires the exercise nei-
ther of intelligence nor of choice." ( MRTe* 22)
By 1150 Europe was recovering the literacy and the cognitive
capacities of rank 2. The inventors of windmills were perhaps
not literate, but I cannot imagine windmills in a place where the
weather is mysteriously controlled by spirits.
What I see in common across these clusters is that they come
when a cognitive rank is well developed, when the new higher-
order paradigm controls thought. Yet there is a difference
between the clusters of the First (1750-1800) and Second (1830-
1914) Industrial Revolutions. The First, as we have noted, was
conducted by craftworkers, the second by engineers. The craft-
workers were able to make their inventions because they had the
new paradigm and lived in the ambience of science; the engineers
were able to make theirs--of quite a different kind--because they
had the science in their own minds and could apply it.
8.3. TRANSCENDANT COGNITION
I believe that each of the four ranks has its own system of
thought, its own cognitive processes, I believe and that the
cognition of each rank transcends the one before. What reasons
do I have for my beliefs?
1. Wiora's rhythm, melody, harmony, texture. One could not
say that some cultures "need" melody but others do not, could
one? Changes in music must be attributed to changes in capacity
to think about musical material.
2. Speech, writing, calculation, and computation. Writing
transcends speech by setting the visual-manual channel in corre-
spondence with the vocal-auditory channel all over again. Calcu-
lation transcends writing by the algorithmic correspondence of
writing with enumeration. And computation transcends calcula-
tion because it is built on the algorithm of algorithms.
3. The spiritual religion and natural philosophy of rank 2
transcend the tabu, mana, animism, and practical lore of rank 1.
The humanism and science of rank 3 transcend these in turn.
4. Lore, practice, engineering, and systemics. Each offers
its critique on the methodology of its predecessor. Systemics
picks and chooses among criteria; engineering takes its criteria
for granted. Engineering picks and chooses among techniques for
accomplishing a purpose--materials and designs--while practice is
limited to the ones acquired in apprenticeship. Practice makes
perfect what lore does unthinkingly.
5. Family, monarchy, democracy, ... Charisma transcends
kinship in that it extends trust beyond personal acquaintance.
Consent of the governed transcends charisma in that it bases
trust on self-confidence.
6. Fire, ambient, fossil, free. To capture ambient energy
requires, first, the conception of prime movers and, second, a
range of structures and machines from saddles to windmills. To
extract fossil energy requires both a conception of inorganic
energy sources and a technology to penetrate the earth; not to
mention new machines. The freedom of rank 4 requires the concep-
tion of the earth as a system and, for that conception to have
consequences, both a host of technological possibilities and the
systemics to derive choices from values and facts.
7. Will, essence, causality, cybernetics. Essence is the
concept that emerges from self-analysis. Causality emerges on
distinguishing subjective from objective connections.
8. Skill, land, factory, information. Deliberate action to
improve the land requires thinking about agronomy; slash-and-burn
does not. Deliberate construction of productive facilities
requires anticipation of future gains; peasants* live in an
eternal present. Education and research require faith in the
human capacity to translate knowledge into welfare.
9. Evolution of language: Simple ways of expressing
10. Evolution of writing: Rank 2 writing sprawls; rank 3
gets organized. Rank 4 interweaves graphics.
11. Counting, arithmetic by insight, algorithms, summation
and other parametric operations.
12. Anxiety. Rank 1 controls anxiety by repetition and
magic. Rank 2 depends on religion and philosophy. Rank 3 has
strength of character. Rank 4 uses psychoanalysis to find and
modify the sources of anxiety.
13. Society. Kinship, institution, role, ...
14. Change. Chaos, inspiration, invention, investigation.
15. Evolution and development. Rank 1 evolves toward rank
2 without guidance or even awareness. Rank 2 develops toward
rank 3 with intent at some level. Rank 3 attempts to guide the
8.4. THE RISE AND FALL OF CIVILIZATIONS
My friend Naroll, whom I have quoted several times, planned
to write a book on the evolution of culture under the title
_Painful Progress_. Humanity has spent blood, sweat, and tears
on progress, mostly in vain as it sometimes seems. One after
another the civilizations of the past have risen and fallen to
rise no more. In Egypt, at least until quite recently, life in
farming villages was the same as it had been thousands of years
ago. Of ancient Mesopotamia, only archeologists can find any
trace. The Roman Empire that stretched from Spain to Palestine
and beyond is gone, and so are the several Chinese empires of the
past. So are the empires of America, and the kingdoms of Africa.
Spengler* wrote on _The Decline of the West_ in the late 20s, and
we may feel that World War II and the subsequent rise of Japan
only bear out his gloomy views. Each of the Great Powers* that
has arisen since the Renaissance has spent its substance on
military establishments and bankrupted itself.
Until 1939, humanity was confined to enclaves. The barriers
of oceans, deserts, high mountains, and thick forests were not
impenetrable, but expansion of empire across them was restricted.
The Romans crossed the Mediterranean, and the British encircled
the globe. Nevertheless, when Japan became strong enough it
easily took the remote British possessions. America sent troops
to Europe for World War I, where the war was fought. World War
II was almost a global war, and if World War III ever comes we
have to suppose that it will be fought on all continents at once.
Within each enclave, the parable of the tribes has been
enacted. Political expansion by force has occurred repeatedly
and, I think, inevitably. The horrors of constant fighting--
worse in early ranks than in later ones--have been accompanied by
culture contact, by enlargement of central communities where
specialists can flourish, by increase in the concentration of
wealth that can be tapped for philosophical and scientific study
of the universe and of ourselves.
Technological evolution enlarges the effective size of the
enclave. The higher the technology, the longer the reach of
military power, until it can span the whole earth as it now does.
If the parable of the tribes is still applicable, then all the
earth will be enwrapped by one empire.
For the fall of empires, there have been many explanations,
all too specific for me. Do I care whether it was disease,
depletion of the soil, restlessness of the proletarians, intru-
sion of barbarians, corruption of the elite? Not much. The
level of abstraction appropriate to this question seems to me to
be this: Every empire has grown too large for its cultural rank.
Specifically, every empire has grown until it created for itself
problems too complex for it to solve with the means of thought
available to it. The substance of the problems may be unique to
each empire, but the increasing complexity of problems with size
of political unit is universal.
The parable of the tribes says that growth is unstoppable;
the increase of complexity says that collapse is inevitable. Does
this argument lead to the conclusion that we live in vain?
No, that is not my conclusion. To begin with, empires span
millions of lifetimes; today, billions. Most of those lives may
be satisfying, and more satisfying when the empire is approaching
the point of collapse. Golden Ages seem to come shortly before
More importantly, each empire leaves behind a residue of
culture that provides part of the matrix from which the next rank
of thought crystallizes. Has any paideia gone without a contri-
bution? I think not. And we have to think of all these contri-
butions as essential. Western Europe moved from rank 1 to rank 3
in a long rush, without a pause to enjoy rank 2 life in the
middle. (From 1600 to 1800, roughly, there was a kind of pause,
with a few at rank 3 and more at rank 2.) Without the rediscov-
ery of old ideas, the residue of Greek and Indian cultures, I
think the rush could not have happened. So even in the broadest
perspective, the ancients did not live in vain.
Let me improve on that: The value of each life is in the
living; the material, intellectual, or spiritual legacy of a life
is not the primary measure of its value. The value of each
culture is in the lives it provides its members; progress within
a culture should be valued by enhancement of life chances for
them. Nevertheless, we have a heritage from the past. The
metaphor we need is seedcorn. Even that metaphor is inadequate.
Our culture is not just another generation of Greek culture; we
are a hybrid.
And as for the future, it all depends. We can see evidence
that we are coming to the limit of our way of thinking. Problems
that we may not be able to solve are all around us: Ethnic wars,
drugs, education, employment, pollution, global warming, popula-
tion size. Will we be swept away? Or will rank 4 or rank 5
crystalize and go on to ways of life that cope effectively with
all those problems?
Remember, the contagious diseases that were catastrophic in
the past are now trivial problems (AIDS is not quite trivial). We
can live comfortably in ethnically homogeneous cities of a
million, whereas our ancestors could scarcely manage a hundred
thousand. Unfortunately, we are trying to manage ethnically
_mixed_ cities of _ten_ million. Will our descendants do that
The theory of cognitive rankshift says that we cannot
predict. However, the theory gives no reason for despair. On
the contrary, it gives the only reasoned basis for hope that has
ever come to my attention. The theory does not set a limit on
rank; it may suggest a minimum of 20 to 50 years between rank-
shifts, but I am not sure of that. By working to increase know-
ledge, to diffuse it, to organize it, we are doing what we can to
improve the matrix in which the next rank can crystallize. We
can hope to get the ability to solve our problems before they
overwhelm us. The hope may fail, but it is not foolish.
I want to end with a look at the past. One strain of
stylish intellectual culture condemns the past and everyone in
it. Look at Thomas Jefferson, who exploited a poor black woman
while teaching democracy (for white males who owned land).
Disgusting! Not a true saint in the whole hagiography.
No, certainly not a single saint. The world is run, and
always has been run, by persons rather like ourselves. They were
imperfect, as we are. Nevertheless some of them deserve respect,
as we may earn respect, because they did the best they knew how
and it was good enough to serve. Not having our rank of thought,
they were incapable of the nicety of moral judgment that we can
and should apply to political decisions. Not having our rank of
thought, they were incapable of extending the protection of
"human like me" as widely as we can and should. Not having our
rank of thought, they could not calculate the long-term conse-
quences of their actions as well as we can and should. They
worked with the terrible restriction of an incapacity to think
that would make them ineligible for any responsible job in an
industrial country today. Hampered and hobbled as they were,
they initiated the trains of events that carried us to our
Some of our ancestors, some of us, are evil. Pathological
evil is not the same as cultural error. Evil takes satisfaction
from doing harm; error sees no harm in what it does. Curing the
sick, teaching the ignorant, and occasionally confining those who
accept neither one are such familiar points in our culture's
repertoire that I need not urge them on you.
We can well be aware that we, too, are hampered and
hobbled by inadequate systems of thought. We deserve to be
proud of ourselves if we do what we can to improve our
thinking within the limits of our culture, and if we think
as clearly as circumstances permit about the problems that
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