The time will come when diligent research over long periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden. A single lifetime, even though entirely devoted to the sky, would not be enough for the investigation of so vast a subject … And so this knowledge will be unfolded only through long successive ages. There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them … Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come, when memory of us will have been effaced. Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has in it something for every age to investigate … Nature does not reveal her mysteries once and for all.
This passage was written by the Roman philosopher Seneca in the first century AD, but you’d be perfectly justified for having thought that it was written by someone today looking into the future. The statement is universal, atemporal and ahistoric. No matter where you’re from, or at what point in history, you can safely say that people in the future generally know a hell of a lot more than you. This is because our knowledge evolves as we evolve.
But why is this the case?
We take it for granted how intelligent we are as a species and how well we have been able to retain the amount of information we have gathered over the years. We literally build upon our knowledge base with every generation – and it’s reached the point that we are experiencing an accelerating growth of knowledge as time progresses.
Take Robert Anton Wilson’s idea of the “Jumping Jesus” phenomenon:
The rate of growth in the amount of accumulated information humans are picking up is increasing, and it’s thought to be due to the correlating evolution of our technology. The significant advancements in our technologies have allowed us to document every bit of information we discover, disseminate it through mass media and communications technologies, and store it all on computers and other machines.
But our technological growth has occurred as a result of the evolution of our knowledge base though (technology develops as a result of improved understanding of the world around us). So it can’t be said that our evolving knowledge is due to our improved technologies because it is in fact the former that has allowed for the latter. This raises two questions: when did we begin to experience an accelerated growth of information accumulation (our knowledge base) and how have we achieved it?
Well a good way to think about it is to view the accumulation of information as integral to the process of evolution. The more information we have about ourselves and the world around us, the better chance we have of using that information to our advantage when facing the challenges thrown at us by our environment. And the better our system of storing and retaining this information, the better able we are to wield it.
DNA – the first information storage system
Over billions of years, genes have been undergoing a process of learning. This process, which we call evolution, involves discovering the best way to survive given external environmental pressures applied on these genes. Human beings are the result of this billions-of-years old process of experimentation; of trying out new mutations and working at developing the ones which work best at aiding our survival.
As a result, in our very genes, we have inherited this monumental accumulation of evolutionary knowledge. This encyclopedia of life, located in the nucleus of each of our cells, contains something like five billion bits of information about how to make every part of the body. If written out, this would be enough to complete a thousand volumes, which is enough to fill a library.
So in every nucleus, we have the equivalent of a library’s worth of information dedicated to building all of the architecture of our bodies. That means we have one trillion cells equipped with the knowledge of how to make every part of us. Given that knowledge, it’s not so difficult to comprehend how those cells are able to organise themselves to manufacture such complex organisms as us humans.
Take, for example, the task of eating an apple. It sounds like a pretty easy task – you simply pick an apple up, put it to your mouth and bite it. Then you chew it, swallow it and, voila, you’re eating an apple. In actual fact, the act of eating an apple is an extremely complicated task if you had to synthesise your own enzymes and consciously remember and direct every chemical step required to get energy out of the apple. The technologies we’ve developed can only perform a very small fraction of the intricate biochemistry that our bodies effortlessly do every moment. Evolution, as Carl Sagan put it, has had billions of years of practice, though. DNA knows.
The Brain – the biological hard drive
But nature, our environment, is an extremely testy task-master. It makes sure only the evolutionarily fittest beings stand the tests it throws at them. These are the variations in nature that require organisms to adapt. Everything is flux, as ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus mused, and the fittest organisms are those that can best adapt to deal with this flux.
It would therefore become inadequate even for a gene library of a thousand volumes to deal with these changes. Organisms needed to think on their feet and learn as they went. Cue the evolution of the brain.
The brain served to store more information than our genes could and to be able to readily respond to the new challenges thrown at us by our environment. The evolution of the brain is fascinating to say the least. Deep inside lies the brainstem, the oldest part, where the basic biological functions – such as heartbeat and respiration – are conducted.
From there, the reptilian brain evolved in our reptilian ancestors. It is the seat of aggression, ritual, territoriality and social hierarchy, the most primitive ways organisms learned to deal with ecological stresses. As reptilians evolved into mammals tens of millions of years ago, the limbic system evolved from the reptilian brain. It became the major source for emotions and of concern for the well-being of the young.
Millions of years ago, the cerebral cortex evolved in our primate ancestors. It was in here where the capacity to think, communicate verbally and feel intuitions later formed.
Our capacity to store knowledge then grew immensely. Our cerebral cortexes were filled with up to as many as a hundred billion cells called neurons, microscopic electromagnetic switching elements, many of which formed thousands of connections with their neighbours. This made something like a hundred trillion neural pathways across the cerebral cortex, each carrying the potential to hold one bit of information. This is perhaps the number of bits of information that can be stored in a brain; the equivalent of twenty million books of knowledge.
As the amount of information storage that our species could handle grew, it needed an efficient way to process and filter all this information to use appropriately when dealing with environmental changes.
The most efficient way to do this would have been through the development of memory and cognition. As the brain’s ability to store bits of information developed, so did its ability to draw from these bits of information and use them to inform decisions it needed to make in the present.
This would result in the faculty of consciousness, the ability of the brain to command itself, perhaps one of the greatest evolutionary tools. If a brain could be compared to a computer, it would be as if the computer developed its own user profile and were able to consciously command itself using all the bits of information stored in its hard drive.
As information about the environment flowed into the brain from the body’s sensory organs, an entity would sit there ready to process the information in order to determine how to respond within seconds. It could also communicate with other entities and better disseminate information across groups of people. Now that’s efficiency.
The development of external storage systems
But how could we make use of the storage potential of the brain? As Seneca rightly pointed out, there is too much about the world around us to learn in one lifetime. To increase efficiency of information accumulation, humans needed to generate a massive external storage system to store all the information they picked up in their lifetimes, to span across generations and distances.
So, we documented our own shared histories through spoken word, cultural rituals and traditions. We developed cultures which would act as the societal equivalent of a cloud, and disseminate information through shared mythologies and cosmologies, passed down orally from generation to generation. We also drew pictures in caves to visually document these ideas.
But these were all inefficient ways to store information. It was easy to lose bits of information or misinterpret them. So we developed writing systems around 5,000 years ago, and began using written word to document all the bits of information we accumulated.
We then started writing books and built libraries to house them. Many oral traditions were translated into written words in books and stored in these libraries. The invention of the printing press then spurred a technological revolution and literature became readily available to the masses.
The great libraries of the world would grow to contain millions of volumes of work, the equivalent of 10^14 bits of information in words. That’s ten thousand times more information than in our genes and about ten times more than in our brains.
Then, we would develop computers and hard drives and create digitised storage spaces for all our accumulated bits of information. Today, we are able to store hundreds of gigabytes of information on our personal computers and hard drives. Each byte contains around eight bits of information, so we all have personal access to the storage space for the equivalent of at least 800 billion bits of information. This doesn’t even take into consideration the storage spaces of supercomputers, the internet in general, clouds and other forms of digital media.
This in itself is only a fraction of the external storage space we have created to hold the accumulation of information we’ve garnered over the millennia. Mass media and communications technologies would account for more still.
No wonder our knowledge base is exponentially growing. And no wonder we’ve been so successful as a species as a result. As our capacity to store information has increased rapidly, so has our ability to use that information to withstand the pressures presented by our environment. The Jumping Jesus phenomenon didn’t start in 1 A.D; it started when life began. And it continues on today due to technological innovation and the ability to store information externally from the body (which we are the only species to accomplish).
Of course, not every bit of information we generate serves an evolutionary purpose. But there does seem to be a direct correlation between the amount of information we’ve procured and retained, and the continued exponential development of the human race.