The nature of inherited wisdom

Defining the “Chronicle”

Before writing was invented, the only way that information could be passed on from one generation to the next was by word of mouth. This process, presumably, was the business of the extended family, or tribe, and has been going on for at least a million years. This body of information, let us refer to it as a “Chronicle”, would have been like having a single reference book containing lots of useful things that made a significant contribution to the survival of the tribe, such as how to prepare certain foods, how to cure certain diseases, directions of where to find useful resources, how to make tools and weapons and so on.

If the Chronicle helps the tribe to survive, it itself will survive. A tribe with a useful Chronicle is fitter, in the evolutionary sense, than a tribe with a useless Chronicle. Thus we can expect it to fit Darwinian principles.

The Chronicle is not tied to a specific family genome, for example a tribe might adopt unrelated children following the death of their own and their Chronicle would be passed on unchanged.

The genome of the extended family and their Chronicle form a symbiosis, that is two entities that can evolve separately but are totally dependent on each other.

As with other examples of symbiosis in nature, each partner has evolved to suit the other.

At a guess, the Human/Chronicle symbiosis has been evolving for at least a million years. There are observations of great apes teaching their young ones how to perform useful actions like how to crack nuts with a stone. The pupils seem to struggle to learn how to do this, so I would suggest that the start of the symbiosis would have been with ancestors at this level of teaching and learning ability, and this would have been in the region of one to two million years ago.

Passing on knowledge must have been a major preoccupation for pre-literate people. They would have spent a lot of their time and energy on teaching the next generation by means of stories, rituals and dances. These activities are essential to survival, not just fun and games. Our minds evolved a capacity for music, poetry and consciousness to be fitter.

The amount of information that an individual can learn and pass on faithfully is limited. Also, to be safe from chance deaths or forgetting, important information would need to be spread over a sufficiently large group of individuals. On the other hand more information can be passed on if there is specialisation. Until very recently in evolutionary terms, the only safe demarcation would be between women’s knowledge and men’s knowledge, because a family or tribe can only survive if some of both sexes survive. The successful tribe would tend to partition large areas of knowledge strictly and dissuade men from wasting learning potential on women’s knowledge and vice versa. I am not suggesting that there is a deliberate plan but just that various customs and institutions gradually emerge. Incidentally, it seems likely that the knowledge that is most vital to immediate survival will be in the minds of women. It seems likely that the reason that humans, and particularly women, live well beyond child rearing age is to do with the importance of propagating the Chronicle.

To be human is to have a Chronicle.

  • altruism? The Chronicle belongs to the whole tribe. It probably makes even more sense for survival to sacrifice oneself for ones Chronicle than for one genes.
  • what distinguishes humans from other animals? We are unique in that our brains have evolved to carry a Chronicle.
  • the motivation of suicide attacks as being in the defense of a Chronicle that is felt to be under threat? An important ingredient is that the attacker have a strong sense of tribal loyalty, that is a coherent Chronicle. Taking the examples of the Tamil Tigers, some Islamic groups and the Japanese kamakasi pilots, we see a common factor of a strong uniform culture that is threatened by an alien one.
  • the nature of xenophobia? Your Chronicle defines your culture, which in turn, defines how you see the world. We all judge alien Chronicles from the standpoint of our own and sometimes want to exterminate them, for example, Mafia families pass on a Chronicle defining a powerful set of loyalties, rules of conduct and mythology. Non-members might think the world would be a better place if they did not.
  • the nature of class divisions? The whole mythology of royalty, of a tribe destined to rule, who, despite all evidence to the contrary, are superior, set apart from commonors who are inferior and must be excluded from the aristocratic tribe.
  • the passion in conflicts? That the two sides in a conflict feel that there own Chronicle is under threat. Often the sides are identified by differences of religion or race, for example in Northern Ireland the two tribes have different interpretations of history, different songs, different myths. To blame the Troubles on religion is to trivialise the situation.
  • the role of education. Do faith schools make their Chronicles more insular and therefore tend towards conflict? How can a comprehensive school system avoid the influence of a majority of students with Chronicles that some parents see as non-achieving, dumbed-down, amoral etc?

How much data is in a Chronicle?

  • A language, equivalent to a dictionary/thesaurus with a relatively small number of words but very extensive definitions.
  • Several illustrated instruction manuals.
  • Stories and histories, equivalent to several novels

Efficiently encoded I would guess that this would amount to more than 0.1 to 1 Gb. Actual encoding in the brain, if we understood it, is likely to have a high level of redundancy and be many times this.

Another estimate is from the Cyc artificial intellegence project which currently holds over a million items of human defined assertion rules or common sense ideas. This is believed to be only a fraction of what constitutes normal common sense, so, assuming that this is ten times as much and that each item needs 100 bytes, this indicates a figure in the order of a few Gb. A lot of this must be things learnt from individual experience and only a fraction handed down. However it is a seamless whole and it is probably not possible or sensible to separate out the part that is strictly Chronicle.

How does the size of this data-set compare with the genome?

The human genome contains 3.5 pg which, at 978 Mb per pg,[1] translates to about 3.5 Gb. There is known to be a degree of redundancy and “junk” with an unknown content of significant information.

For the purposes of this discussion we could assume that they are similar in size, within a factor of ten or so.


It seems that everyone, myself included, tends to discount the extent, the importance, or even the existance of our own Chronicle and even more, of foreign Chronicles. This is the foundation of oppression, intolerance, and philosopical confusion. I will label this Chronicle blindness and follow this up sometime.

The Chronicle today

The development of writing, which provides an alternative and mostly more efficient means of passing on knowledge, results in a profound change in the the nature of human existence. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for us to fully appreciate just how different pre-literate culture is to what we have today:

  • The emphasis would have been on faithful promulgation of the Chronicle. Departures from the accepted version would be seen as a corruption of the tribe’s being and discouraged.
  • Attributions to gods, other mythical entities and the ancestors are a way of saying “learn this, it is important, don’t question it and pass it on to your descendents” This is a necessary function in keeping the Chronicle unchanged.
  • The first written records must have seemed magical and sacred at the time, so the term “it is written” would carry a similar sort of authority.
  • Ideas that were accepted in mediaeval times like dogma, the condemnation of “invention” and unquestioned acceptance of what the elders say, are shocking today but essential in pre-literate societies.
  • Early writings such as prehistoric cave paintings, the Bible, the Koran, ancient Egyptian inscriptions and the writings of Homer etc. were probably a sort of download of what was seen as the most important parts of a tribe’s Chronicle using the then new-fangled technology of writing.

Today we each have a Chronicle but they have got increasingly variable and fragmented as civilisation has got more sophisticated. It is not so clear how this concept can increase our wisdom.