By Rochelle Forrester


© All Rights Reserved


Publication Date 2006


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It is proposed that the ultimate cause of much historical change is the gradual accumulation of human knowledge of the environment. Human beings use the materials in their environment to meet their needs and increased human knowledge of the environment enables human needs to be meet in a more efficient manner. Human needs direct human research into particular areas and this provides a direction for human historical development. The human environment has a particular structure and human beings have a particular place in it so that human knowledge of the environment is acquired in a particular order. The simplest knowledge, or the knowledge closest to us, is acquired first and more complex knowledge, or knowledge further from us is acquired later. The order of discovery determines the course of human history as knowledge of new and more efficient means of meeting human needs, results in new technology, which results in the development of new social and ideological systems. This means human history, or a major part of human history, had to follow a particular course, a course that is determined by the structure of the human environment. An examination of the structure of the human environment will reveal the particular order in which our discoveries had to be made. Given that a certain level of knowledge will result in a particular type of society, it is possible to ascertain the types of societies that were inevitable in human history. While it is not possible to make predictions about the future course of human history, it is possible to explain and understand why human history has followed a particular path and why it had to follow that particular path.



This book is about the long-term changes that have occurred in human society. It is a macrohistory, or a speculative or substantive theory of history and a theory of social change and cultural evolution that proposes a linear progression in human knowledge and technology as the underlying cause of much social, cultural and historical change. It attempts to explain the cause of the progression and the consequences of the progression. It attempts to show how and why humans in many environments have changed from being hunter-gatherers to being citizens of modern industrial states. It deals with the facts of scientific and technological discoveries and not with unsubstantiated or unsubstantiable speculations. It is not about events such as wars and the rise and fall of empires or dynasties, which are political events; rather it is about the intellectual and material conditions of humankind. It deals with the social and cultural history of humankind and not with political and diplomatic history.

            The causes of social, cultural and historical change proposed involve a mixture of ideological, social and material factors. Ideological factors are involved in that new ideas will often be the driving force for change. Ideas such as that of systematic experimentation and the application of quantitative methods form the basis of modern science and are the ultimate causes of much of the scientific and technological change that has occurred since the seventeenth century. Social factors are involved in that change requires openness to new ideas and technology and the absence of institutions, which may try to suppress new ideas and technology. Material factors are involved in that the particular technology available to a given society will have a powerful effect on the way in which its people live. However behind the ideology, social system and technology of any particular society is the level of knowledge of that society. A change in the level of knowledge of a society may change the state of a societies ideology, technology and social systems.

            The theory proposed is based upon five concepts. These concepts concern human needs and desires; the level of knowledge of the environment, available in particular societies; the order in which discoveries concerning the environment take place; the properties of matter that constitute the environment and the structure of the universe in which we live. These five concepts are explained in detail later in this paper but a brief explanation is appropriate here. It will be suggested that all societies have certain needs or desires and that they meet these needs by utilising the resources in their environments. The ability to utilise those resources changes as their knowledge of their environment changes. In particular they develop knowledge of the properties of the resources in their environment and how the resources in their environment can be used to meet human needs and desires. Human knowledge of the resources is dynamic; it changes over time. Greater knowledge of the properties of the resources in the environment allows new ways in which human needs can be meet by exploiting the resources in the environment. Our knowledge of our environment grows in a particular order; certain knowledge will inevitably be discovered before other knowledge. The order of our discoveries about nature determines the order of technological change and scientific discoveries in human society. The order of our discoveries of both the properties and structure of nature depend upon the relationship between nature and us. We discover these things in an order from that which is closest to us, to that which is further away, or perhaps in an order from the simplest to the more complex. It is the structure of the universe and our place in it, which determines the order in which our knowledge of nature will grow and this determines what technological and scientific options are available to meet our needs and desires.

            The theory proposed is a multi-lateral theory of human development. It recognises that different cultures and societies live in different environments and so will develop in different ways. Societies in the artic, mountainous, coastal and desert environments will develop different cultures. Societies in areas of mineral deposits may develop differently from those without such mineral deposits. Societies in areas where large domesticable animals are present may develop differently from those without large domesticable animals. A societies religious beliefs may be quite arbitrarily chosen by the society and be quite uninfluenced by the particular environment within which the society lives.

This paper deals only with that part of human history, that changes due to changes in human knowledge. I have called that part of history, human social and cultural history, which is perhaps an imprecise description. When I refer to human social and cultural history, I mean that part of human history, that changes due to changes in human knowledge of the human environment. This necessarily leaves out significant parts of human history, but it enables us to put what I call social and cultural history on a more rational and scientific basis.

            Human history obviously does change in a major way due to changes in human knowledge. The domestication of plants and animals, the invention of writing, the discovery of mathematics, the development of metallurgy, the scientific revolution, the invention of the steam engine and other technologies during the industrial revolution, ideas such as evolution and cultural relativity, motor vehicles, aircraft, television, telephones and computers are all derived from increasing knowledge of the human environment. These ideas and technologies were all based upon the acquisition of new knowledge, whether scientific or empirical, and those ideas and technologies have caused enormous changes in human history.

            This is not to say that all changes in human history are caused by changes in human knowledge. There are other causes of change in history notably decisions made by people in power that can cause great historical events. However this paper will only deal with changes in human society derived from changes in human knowledge of the human environment. Such changes tend to be cumulative and usually lead to linear changes in human history. Such change is not usually reversible as once knowledge is part of human culture it seldom seems to be lost. When it is lost it is usually due to changes in the human environment and such changes are rare because the behaviour of materials in the natural world is usually consistent over time. There are a few example of cumulative change being reversed such as soil exhaustion or climate change which could lead to an abandonment of agriculture or mineral exhaustion leading to an end of metallurgy.Knowledge may also be lost when societies become culturally isolated especially when the isolation is accompanied by low population as happened to the Australian aborigines  living in Tasmania. While such occasions may have occurred in human history they are comparatively rare and are vastly disproportionate to the tendency for knowledge to accumulate in human societies.

Cumulative change can be contrasted with reversible change which can be defined as changes caused by human will and decision making. Such changes are easily reversible, they can swing as easily one way as another, like a pendulum, as they are subject to human whim and decision making. Since the discovery of agriculture there has been a great area of civilization running from China and South East Asia, through India and the Middle East, North Africa and Europe which has been based on agriculture. During the thousands of years these societies have practised agriculture they have not shown any indication of changing back to hunting and gathering. Yet during those thousands of years there has been a constant rising and falling of empires, dynasties and change in religious beliefs. The discovery of agriculture is a cumulative change that is not easily reversed, whereas the rise and fall of empires, dynasties and religions is a matter subject to human decision making and can go one way or another depending upon human decisions and abilities. On the other hand cumulative changes tend to be based on matter such as efficiency or what is the best solution to a problem and those matters are given and are not subject to human decision making or whims. We can of course choose to adopt the least efficient answer to a problem,but we do not normally do so. Cyclical theories of history will usually be based on and seek to explain reversible change in human history. This paper however deals only with cumulative change and does not attempt to explain reversible change.




            The starting point in this development is the human being itself. Human beings have the ability to learn and they have this ability above and beyond that of any other living species. This capacity is used to meet various human needs or desires. A consideration of human needs is necessary for two reasons. First, human needs direct human interests and research into particular directions or areas. This direction in combination with the opportunities our environment allows us for meeting our needs sets the course of human historical development. Secondly, human needs are a requirement for the adoption of new inventions or ideas. They will not be adopted unless a need for them exists.

Human needs can be described in various ways. One such description is that of Abraham Maslow with his hierarchy of human needs. Maslow's needs ascended from basic physiological needs (food, warmth, shelter) to safety needs (to be secure, safe, out of danger), to belongingness and love needs (to be accepted, to belong), to esteem needs (achievement, competence, respect from others), cognitive needs (to know, understand, explain) aesthetic needs (beauty, symmetry, elegance) to self actualisation (to develop and explore oneself to the full). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are somewhat controversial. Nevertheless while individual exceptions can always be shown to Maslow's hierarchy and the exact order of the needs at the top level may be arguable there would seem to be considerable truth in his theory. Just about all human beings in all cultures appear to desire food, warmth, shelter and safety and security. A sense of belongingness to groups and for the respect of others would also appear to be common to all societies. Equally all societies appear to have cognitive needs (all societies have creation stories) and aesthetic needs (art).

            We are not however restricted to Maslow’s description of human needs. An alternative set of needs could be the basic human needs such as for light, warmth, oxygen, food, moisture, sleep, and physical safety and such needs as for love and affection, the respect of others, self respect, power (either as a means of satisfying other needs or as an end in itself), material possessions and wealth (either as means or end), the satisfaction of intellectual curiosity, peace of mind, aesthetic satisfaction, new experience or variability of experience and for creative opportunities. The list is not necessarily exhaustive and the needs are not necessarily found in every society or individual[1]. Nevertheless such needs are found in nearly all societies and they provide a useful explanation for human exploitation of the environment.

            A further set of needs, arising from the human inclination to live in societies, are for systems of communication, production, distribution, defence, member replacement and social control. These needs are often called the functional requisites of societies and are universal needs existing in all human societies.

            The needs expressed above are mainly universal needs present in all, or almost all, human cultures. However there are many needs that relate only to particular cultures. These needs however are usually derived from the universal needs. An example of this would be the need of mine owners in Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to pump water out of mines. This may have been a need for a particular country at a particular time but this need related to a need for the goods that would be produced by the use of the coal and other minerals. Those goods would have meet a universal need that would have been common to all cultures such as the production of food, shelter or warmth. Coal obviously can be used for warmth but it may also be used for the smelting of metals that may be used for the making of agricultural implements or the production of hammers and nails for the erection of buildings that would provide shelter from the elements. The fact that derived or relative needs can usually be related back to universal needs, suggests that the direction the universal needs provide to human knowledge and research will exist in all societies.

            Human needs direct human attention in particular directions. Hunter-gatherers are well known as having a very considerable knowledge of the plants and animals in their environment. They know which plants are safe to eat, where they are likely to be found and when they are best to eat. They know the behaviour of the animals in their environment, where they are most likely to be found and how to trap and kill them. They would know where water is to be found in arid environments. Yet they would know little about the soils they walk on, the geology of the earth and have only a minimal knowledge of the seasons. Hunter–gatherers developed their knowledge of the plants, animals and water sources in their environments because they had a need for that knowledge.

            An agrarian people would tend to lose the knowledge that hunter-gatherers have of wild animals and plants. However they would develop a considerable knowledge of what plants grow best in what soils, and if they have domesticated animals, how to care for and breed domestic animals. They would also have a considerable knowledge of the seasons and what is the best time to plant crops. The development of a calendar and the beginnings of a science of astronomy would be needed by an agrarian society to assist decisions as to when crops should be planted. An agrarian society will produce a surplus and need to record the amount and the whereabouts of the surplus. This will result in a need for writing or some other record keeping system. The need to calculate the amount of the surplus, tax owed and areas of land lead to the development of mathematics. The need to protect the surplus and to maintain law and order lead to the development of governments, bureaucracy and armies. The need for trade lead to the development of improved sea and land transport such as sailing ships and wheeled transport. Agrarian peoples developed their knowledge of agriculture and pastrolism, of calendars, astronomy, writing, mathematics and invented governments, bureaucracy, armies, sailing ships and wheeled transport because they had a need for such knowledge and inventions.

            Industrial societies have their own set of needs. The agrarian farmers knowledge of agriculture and pastrolism would be replaced by a more scientific knowledge of agriculture involving analysis of soils and selective breeding of animals. Scientific and engineering knowledge would replace the empirical building and engineering knowledge of agrarian societies. Better observations of nature with improved instruments and techniques allowed accurate and rational (whether true or not) explanations of nature to replace the mythical and religious explanations of agrarian societies. Industrial societies develop their knowledge of science and engineering, as they are the means used in industrial societies to meet human needs.

            This shows how human needs, whether they be universal needs, or needs that exist in only one or some societies, focus human attention into certain areas, which involve the meeting of human needs. We see little attempt to meet the needs of other species, we are profoundly human-centric. We do not attempt to feed or tend other animals unless we have an interest in the survival of those animals. We do not tend to engage in conduct that does not meet our needs. Conduct such as standing on our heads, sleeping 20 hours a day, praying to gods we do not believe exist, (as opposed to those we do believe exist), eating food with no taste or nutritional value, betting on non-existent races, do not meet any human needs and so are not normally engaged in by human beings. There is probably an infinite range of behaviour that does not meet human needs and is consequently not engaged in by humans.

The question of human needs was raised by George Bassalla [2](1988,212) when he repeats a question raised by V Gordon Childe "Did a reindeer hunter in 30,000 BC or an Ancient Egyptian in 3,000BC or an ancient Briton in 30BC really need or want to travel a couple of hundred miles at 60mph?" Childe and Brassalla considered the answer was no and Bassalla considered "the speed of land travel appropriate to one time and culture are not necessarily appropriate to another." Childe and Bassalla are wrong. Reindeer hunters, ancient Egyptians and Britons would have found such a vehicle enormously useful and if it were available they would certainly have used it. A reindeer hunter would have found his hunting much more successful if he was hunting from such a vehicle as he could easily out run his prey and the vehicle would be extremely useful for carrying the dead reindeer back to his camp. Ancient Egyptians and Britons would use such a vehicle for the transport of agricultural produce or goods, for hunting, for communication purposes and for military purposes. Any society that has draught animals and the cart would find the vehicle referred to by Childe and Basalla as simply an improved version of the animal and cart. Such a vehicle would have a valuable role in helping to meet the ultimate need of the provision of food.

That technology “appropriate” to one culture can meet the needs of another culture can be seen by the modern "real life" examples of modern hunter gatherers hunting with rifles and shot guns, the desire of groups such as Maoris in New Zealand in the nineteeth century to obtain goods such as metal axes and muskets and modern reindeer herding (the animals are now domesticated) involving the use of snow mobiles. The way in which the Native Americans in North America took advantage of horses as soon as they became available shows how a hunter-gatherer society was able to make use of much enhanced speed and mobility. Such a vehicle would simply be an example of technological diffusion, which often takes place. The use by third world countries of western technology, such as telephones and computers, is a further example of this. The question is not whether the technology is "appropriate" but whether it is useful and a vehicle travelling at 60 mph over hundreds of miles would be useful in all cultures other than those that have better vehicles. The vehicle referred to by Childe and Bassalla would not of itself be a universal need, even though it would be a need in all cultures, but would assist in the meeting of universal needs such as assisting in the provision of food by hunting or the trading of goods, which could meet some universal need. The point is that many human needs are the same in all cultures. A major difference between cultures lies in the extent to which they are able to meet those needs.

            It is not however the case that just because a need exists, that it will be meet. It is also necessary that a means by which the need can be meet be known. If a new idea or invention is to be adopted then usually three conditions must be met. The first is that the knowledge as to how to create the idea or make the invention must be present; the second is that the idea or invention must meet a need; and the third is that the idea or invention must be the best way available to meet the need. The particular idea or invention must be the most economic or the most efficient way of meeting the need.

            The desire that needs be meet in the most efficient manner possible shows consistently throughout history. Efficiency gains can take the form of increased output, or better quality output, or the same output for fewer inputs. If one examines particular areas of economic activity such as energy production, transport, communications or the production of goods and services, it is possible to see the adoption of improvements, which continually increase the efficiency of humankind’s technology. In relation to ideas, the simplest explanation consistent with the known facts, is the most efficient and is the explanation usually adopted.

            The importance of a need existing before an invention or idea is adopted is shown by those inventions and ideas that could have taken place at earlier times due to their being relatively simple developments, but did not take place until later times. Such ideas or inventions could have been made without great difficulty, due to all necessary prior inventions having already been made, and yet those ideas or inventions were not immediately made. The reason for their discovery, when they were discovered, was that the need for the inventions before discovery was insufficient to justify the risk and expense of abandoning the existing practices and adopting the new invention or idea. In this situation the main determinate for when the discovery will be made is most likely to be when the need for the invention reaches a critical state, so that it becomes worthwhile to change the existing practices to adopt the new idea or invention.

            There are a number of examples in history of inventions or ideas not being developed until a need arose. Prior to the development of double entry bookkeeping in Renaissance Italy, existing bookkeeping methods were adequate to record business activity. A considerable increase in trade meant that the existing bookkeeping methods were no longer adequate to cope with the increased business activity. The more sophisticated method of double-entry bookkeeping was then adopted to deal with the increasing level of business activity.

            A similar situation existed with the technological improvements carried out in the textile industry in Britain in the early industrial revolution. Technological innovations such as Kay’s flying shuttle, Hargreves spinning jenny, Arkwright’s water frame and Crompton’s mule were largely made by connecting together parts of previous inventions that had been around for centuries. They were relatively easy inventions and could be made by inventors with no special qualifications or training. [3]. This suggests the timing of the inventions has more to do with market demand or a newly developed need that had not previously existed. It may be that increased demand, caused by increasing population and lower agricultural prices due to the agricultural revolution of eighteenth century Britian, required greater production than the cottage industry textile production of pre-industrial Britian could provide. Improved transport from canals and better roads may have allowed textiles to be sold over a larger area, thus allowing a larger scale of production.

            The theory that it was population pressures that lead to the development of agriculture is a needs based theory. This theory assumes that the knowledge required for agriculture was known to hunter-gatherers before the development of agriculture around 10,000 years ago. Before that time hunting and gathering was preferred to agriculture as it was a better life style and agriculture was only adopted when the population pressure forced humankind to adopt agriculture which was a more productive food acquiring system than hunting and gathering.

            Human scientific and technological change requires the presence of both the knowledge as to how to make the change and the need for the change. If either of these factors is absent then the change will not take place. However throughout the course of human history it can be observed that the factor most commonly lacking is the knowledge. This is because humans began with a full set of needs but with only a limited amount of knowledge, as knowledge, apart from that immediately available to our senses, is something that accumulates over time. In comparison, we are born with a full set of needs, the universal needs found in all cultures and only relative needs have developed over time. This means that it is knowledge that is usually the missing factor in our attempts to find better and better means of meeting our needs. It is the discovery of knowledge, which is the ultimate cause of human technological and scientific change, and such change is at the roots of all fundamental historical change, social change and cultural evolution.




            Many human societies have changed from hunting and gathering to farming and/or pastrolism and then to being industrial societies. What was necessary for this to happen? Obviously a knowledge of agricultural and pastoral practices and of the technology required for industrial society. Without this, the change from hunter gathering to farming and pastoralism and then to industrial society could not have taken place. The knowledge came from the capacity of humans to learn and from the human desire to meet certain needs in a better and more efficient manner.

            However the human capacity to learn has existed for the many tens of thousands of years that homo sapien-sapiens has been on this planet and the needs have always been there even though previous societies have been less able to meet the needs than industrial societies. The difference is that the knowledge of how to meet the needs in a better and more efficient manner has not always existed. It has gradually accumulated over time. It is the increasing knowledge that is present in the change from hunter gathering to farming and pastoralism and then to industrial societies, that is absent from the preceding society. The knowledge required for industrial societies was not available in agrarian and pastoralist societies and the knowledge of how to domesticate plants and animals was not known to pre-historic hunter-gatherers. Yet many of the needs of hunter gathers are the same as for modern humans. Only the knowledge of how to meet those needs is different between the various types of societies and this can be used to explain many of the differences between those different types of societies.

            However the knowledge differences between those societies are not limited to knowledge of how to grow crops and herd animals and of various industrial processes. Agrarian societies usually have a knowledge of writing, metallurgy, transport (e.g. sailed and wheeled), and mathematics and in many other areas that does not exist amongst hunter-gatherers. Equally industrial societies have a knowledge of scientific matters that do not normally exist in agrarian societies, except by diffusion, and in the one agrarian society modern science existed in, it was an agrarian society on the verge of turning into an industrial society. Indeed, it was the growth in the knowledge of science in Europe from the time of Galileo to the beginnings of the industrial revolution in late eighteenth century Britain that was the necessary precursor to the industrial revolution.

            The changes from hunter gathering to agrarian/pastoralist to industrial societies were caused by changes in the methods used by humans to produce the goods and services that meet human needs. These were changes in the technology used by humans but behind the changes in technology were changes in knowledge. It was the changes in knowledge that caused changes in technology, which caused the historical development from hunter gathering to agarian/pastoralist and then to industrial societies. The idea that increasing human knowledge is a major cause of social, cultural and historical change can be traced back to Comte and J. S. Mill.

            Changes in human knowledge resulted from the basic nature of human beings. The human ability to learn, to understand, to remember and human curiosity plus a desire to meet human needs resulted in humans gradually learning more and more about their environment. This ever increasing knowledge of humankinds environment was the ultimate reason for the changing nature of human society, of human historical, social and cultural development and the replacement of hunter gathering by agrarian/pastoral societies and in many cases of those societies by industrial societies.

            While human beings have certain needs, those needs can only be meet to the extent allowed by the knowledge available in the particular society. Originally human beings were hunter gatherers, the same as our close relatives the great apes and many other animals. In common with many other animals humans have made tools to assist in their hunting and gathering. However such human beings were limited in their tool making capacity by their knowledge being restricted to the use of stone, bone and wood. Such wooden tools as may have been used in Palaeolithic times have long since decayed. However the stone and bone tools do survive and provide a record of increasing sophistication and efficiency. However not only did tools get more and more efficient as humans learnt to make better and better tools, but the range of tools available to humans also expanded considerably as human knowledge of the properties of the materials in the environment increased.

            There are two types of human knowledge that can be used to meet human needs. The first, which has been around as long as homo sapien-sapiens, is that of empirical experience, where humans have observed the results of certain behaviour or processes. When certain behaviour has produced a certain result in many cases in the past people have learnt that it will usually do so in the future. Stone tool manufacturers learnt that certain stones, especially flint, when chipped a certain way would produce a sharp edge, without any knowledge of the chemical structure of the material they were dealing with. Equally early metal workers found they could shape metals and produce alloys, such as bronze, with no knowledge of why the metals behaved as they did.

            The other way in which knowledge can be used to meet human needs is by logical reasoning from scientific laws or knowledge. This is a recent phenomena existing only since science itself has existed. Modern inventions such as the internal combustion engine, television, radio, nuclear power and bombs arose partially or wholly from reasoning from scientific knowledge. This use of human knowledge would now be the primary means of technological development in industrial societies, but empirical observation still retains a role in modern technology and perhaps an important role.[4].

            Our knowledge of the environment does not include unsubstantiated speculations. Good guesses as to how our world is such as the atomic theory of the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus, the heliocentric astronomy of Aristarchus of Samos and the suggestion by Giordano Bruno that the sun was a star did not constitute knowledge. At the time these ideas were made, the evidence was against them, and they were not accepted at that time. Only ideas that are accepted constitute part of the knowledge of any given society.


Properties and structure of the environment


            Human knowledge is of course knowledge of the human environment. It can scarcely be of anything else. The objects in our environment, including ourselves, have certain properties which determine whether those objects are able to meet human needs or may be processed in such a way that they will meet human needs. The nature of human biology determines where we live and what our needs are. We cannot fly or breathe under water, so we live on the surface of the earth. We have a need for fresh water and as water is a heavy item, relative to human strength, we have spent most of our history living close to supplies of fresh water. We have a need for food and as this need is not as easily meet as other human needs, such as for oxygen, humans have spent a great deal of time and effort in searching for or growing food. It is only since the industrial revolution, in some societies, that the production of food has become a lesser part of human activity.

            However it is not just human biology that determines how we live. The biological nature of the plants and animals in our environment determines which we live on and which we do not. Some plants are poisonous to us and some animals are to fast for us to catch. However the wide range of food humans can consume has allowed humans to spread over the entire planet. Some plants and animals may be relatively easy to domesticate, others cannot be domesticated at all. It is the property of some plants that they are capable of domestication that enabled the development of agriculture. Plants ideal for human consumption may be sown, fertilised, watered, protected from competing plants by weeding and will grow and provide the food necessary to feed human populations. Some animals may be domesticated and may serve as draught animals as well as their meat, hides and milk being utilised to meet human needs. If plants and animals were incapable of domestication or, if domesticated, they were not able to meet human needs, then they would not have been domesticated and human history would be quite different.

            A further determinant of how humans live is the properties of non-living matter that makes up the human environment. It is because wood and flint can be easily manipulated and altered, by chipping in the case of flint and breaking or cutting in the case of wood and because they can be made hard and sharp that they have been important materials for tools and weapons. Materials such as bone and ivory have similar properties and have also been used for such purposes. It is the properties of some metals, such as hardness, malleability and that they can be mixed together to produce alloys, such as bronze and steel, that allowed them to supersede wood, flint, bone and ivory as the principal material for tools and weapons. If these materials did not have the appropriate properties they would never have been used to make tools or weapons.

            It is the property of clay that it occurs naturally as a sticky but plastic lump and as a lumpy liquid. The structure of clay is that the particles of clay are flat and plate like and the addition of water enables them to slide overreach other without breaking apart. This enables clay to be formed into almost any shape, making it ideal for the creation of pottery.

            It is the properties of sand, soda and lime, when melted together that they will form an opaque or transparent substance, as desired, which we call glass. It is the properties of glass, that it can be transparent or coloured and can be moulded in different shapes that makes it useful to meet human needs as windows, ornaments and vessels of various kinds.

            It is also the particular properties of hides, wool, fur and cotton and other products that enable them to be fashioned into clothes capable of keeping people warm. If these products did not have those properties they would not have been used for the purpose for which they were used. If there were no products with the properties required for clothing then the area of human habitation of the planet would have been severely restricted to the warmer and temperate areas of the planet.

            Certain products in the natural world are also used for the construction of buildings, most particularly, wood, stone, mud and bricks. It is because these materials are the most suitable materials available to create buildings and structures that they were used for those purposes. They have the right properties for use as building materials. If these materials had not existed, then either other less suitable materials would have been used with less satisfactory buildings being created or if there were no suitable materials, then no "permanent" buildings would have been built.

            The objects in our environment will be in a state of being a gas, a liquid or a solid. Gases have the property of being able to expand and fill any available space. Gas molecules are only loosely connected. They assert pressure on the wall of anything they are held in. If the container of the gas is reduced in size, the pressure of the gas on the container's walls will increase. If the size of the container is increased the gas pressure on the container walls will reduce. If the gas is heated, the gas pressure will also increase and the gas will expand if it can. If it cools the gas pressure will fall. Hot expanding gas has been used to drive steam engines, to fire bullets, cannon balls and accelerate rockets.

            It is the property of gases that when heated, their pressure increases. This is what caused the piston to rise in the early steam engines. It is also the property of gases that when their volume increases their pressure reduces so that as the piston rose the pressure of gas beneath the piston would fall. When the atmospheric pressure on the top of the piston is greater than the pressure beneath the piston, the piston will fall causing the gases beneath the piston to compress. This will cause the pressure underneath the piston to increase, which will cause the piston to rise again and so on. It is this property of gases that they expand when heated and that their pressure falls when their volume rises and the pressure rises when their volume falls that made the early steam engines possible.

            Liquids have no fixed shape but do have a fixed volume. Liquid molecules slide over each other so as to fill any available space but they do not move as freely as gas molecules. Solids have a fixed space and are more strongly bound together than liquids. Different solids tend to have different properties depending on their composition and structure. Solids such as metals, bones, computer chips and gemstones are crystals and have a regular array of atoms tightly packed together. Plastics are formed from long chains of molecules linked by carbon atoms while glass has a largely random structure.

            Whether matter is solid, liquid or a gas affects their properties, but each mixture, compound and element in nature has its own individual properties. Metals tend to have certain properties in common. They conduct heat well; they have high electrical conductivity that increases with falling temperature; they have high reflectivity and a shiny metallic luster; they are malleable and ductile; other than mercury they are solid at room temperatures and they emit electrons when exposed to high energy and heat. Non metals tend to be poor conducts of heat and electricity; they may be gas, liquids or solids at room temperature; when solid they tend to be brittle and fracture under stress. Different metals of course have different properties. Iron has a melting point of 1535°C, coppers melting point is 1083°C, aluminium's is 660°C and lead's is 327°C. The density in g cm-3 of aluminium is 2.71, iron is 7.86, copper is 8.97 and lead is 11.4. It is the low density or weight of aluminium that is the reason it is used in aircraft and space vehicles. It is the third most abundant element on the earth's surface so it is relatively inexpensive, and it is used for beer and soft drink cans and household utensils. Iron is also fairly common and its alloy steel, which is much stronger and harder than iron, is used in buildings, bridges, cars, machinery and in many other areas. Copper was one of the first metals to be used by humans, as, with gold and silver, it exists on earth in its pure state so no smelting is required to release it from its ore. Furthermore when smelting was developed the low melting temperature of copper meant it was the first extensively used metal. Copper has a very high electrical conductivity and is soft and ductile so it can be drawn into thin wires and is widely used for electrical wiring. Lead has a low melting point and so is easily extracted from its ore. Due to this it has been used for a long time. It was used by the Romans for lead pipes for the supply of water. These days lead is used for making batteries and in type metal and solder.

            Our environment has a particular structure as is revealed by the laws and facts of physics, chemistry and biology. Curved space time, gravity, the laws of motion, the structure of atoms, electro-magnetism, the chemical bonds between atoms, our biological and non-biological needs and our physical and mental capabilities all go to make up the structure of our environment.


Order of discovery


            Human knowledge of the properties and structure of nature is acquired in a particular order. Certain things will necessarily be discovered before other things. Fire had to be discovered before metallurgy, as it is a necessary part of the metallurgical process. Copper was inevitably the first metal to be extensively used by human beings as it has a relatively low melting point. This meant it could be more easily released from its ores and shaped and reshaped than other metals. However the working of copper requires a furnace and moulds so that inevitably it could only be done by a sedentary people. It is obviously not practicable for hunter-gatherers to carry round furnaces and moulds. This meant that metallurgy could only develop after the domestication of plants and animals. The occasional example of sedentary hunter gatherers such as those on the north west coast of America seem not to have developed metallurgy. Copper is a soft metal which limits its uses; a much stronger metal, bronze, can be made by mixing copper with another metal such as tin. Inevitably bronze was discovered after copper, as the use of copper is a necessary part of the manufacture of bronze. Bronze could not be made without the earlier discovery of how to produce copper and tin. The next metal to come into common use was iron. Iron has a melting point of 1535°C, about 500°C higher than copper. This means a bellows is required to produce the necessary heat for the smelting and working of iron. Inevitably the metals that cannot be worked without a bellows only came into common use after the invention of the bellows. They would also only come into common use at a later time than the use of such metals as copper and bronze, which did not require the use of bellows. Iron came into use after bronze, as the process of creating an alloy is a relatively simpler process than the creation of heat of 1535°C required to work iron. Iron was followed by steel an alloy of iron and carbon. Obviously steel could not be made until after it had been discovered how to work iron, as iron is a necessary part of the production of steel.

            The process of one thing necessarily being followed by another, either because the earlier thing is a necessary ingredient in the later thing, or because the earlier thing requires a simpler technology, such as fire with a lesser heat, can be seen throughout the history of science and technology. Inevitably, the steam engine had to be invented before it could be given rotary motion, and it had to be given rotary motion before it could drive the new machinery being developed in the industrial revolution and steam locomotives and ships. The sedentary lifestyles produced by the agricultural revolution were a necessary part of a great host of scientific and technological discoveries. Permanent buildings, metallurgy and writing are just three of the more important developments that would not have happened without the prior development of sedentism. The domestication of animals was a necessary pre-condition to developments such as wheeled transport and plough agriculture. The discovery that the earth and other planets orbit the sun could not be made, or at least confirmed, without the prior invention of the telescope. Without the telescope there would have been insufficient information about the movement of extra-terrestrial bodies to support the helio-centric theory. The development of more complex mathematics such as calculus and differential equations was necessarily dependent upon the earlier development of number systems and simple operations such as addition, multiplication, subtraction and division. The discovery of electricity had to take place before electrical heating and lighting and computers. The splitting of the atom by Rutherford had to take place before the development of nuclear power and nuclear bombs. These are just a few of the more obvious examples of the way in which certain discoveries or inventions could not have been made without prior discoveries or inventions being made.

            There are lines of development through which the increases in human knowledge inevitably move. Many discoveries could not be made, without a succession of prior discoveries having been made. The line of development would be the simplest way in which any given discovery could be made. It may be there are more difficult ways in which a discovery could be made, but in fact discoveries are most likely to be made in the simplest way possible, along the simplest line of development.

            A line of development does not mean the continual improvement of a particular invention or idea such as the improvements in the steam engine during the Industrial Revolution or the change from the Ptolemaic theory of the universe to Newton’s theory and then to general relativity. Rather it involves a series of discoveries that had to be made before an idea or invention is adopted by a society. It will for example include ideas and inventions that are not directly a part of the invention or idea that is being developed. The line of development of the steam engine for example included the invention of the air pump and the subsequent discovery of some of the properties of gases. These discoveries were necessary before a steam engine could be developed. The line of development of humankind’s view of the universe included such inventions as the telescope and the prior discoveries of how to make glass and that glass could be shaped in such a way as to magnify objects seen through the glass. Further discoveries that were part of the development of the human view of the universe were mathematical ideas such as calculus, an important part of Newtonian physics, and non-Euclidean geometry, which provided support for general relativity.

            Lines of development grow much as the branches of a tree. Inventions and ideas will often be developed due to prior developments in a wide range of areas, totally unrelated to the invention or idea that is subsequently developed.

            The following table[5] shows the approximate dates for the development of various new technologies in six different areas. Some of the dates are controversial and are a simplification of complex events about which little detail is known. Dates for animal domestication concern food producing animals, rather than dogs, which were domesticated before food producing animals.



Fertile Crescent





Eastern U.S.

Plant domestication

8500 bc

by 7500 bc

By 3000 bc

3000 bc

By 3000 bc

2500 bc

Animal domestication

8000 bc

by 7500 bc

3500 bc


500 bc



7000 bc

by 7500 bc

3100- 1800 bc

6000 bc

1500 bc

2500 bc


9000 bc

by 7500 bc

3100- 1800 bc

6000 bc

1500 bc

500 bc


5500 bc

4000 bc

By 1500 bc

ad 1

1500 bc

200 bc

Widespread use of copper bronze tools

4000 bc

2000 bc

ad 1000





3700 bc

2000 bc

ad 1


300 bc



3200 bc

By 1300 bc



600 bc


Widespread iron tools

900 bc

500 bc






The table shows a more or less consistent pattern, with plant and animal domestication, villages and pottery occurring around the same time, with chiefdoms and non-iron metal tools occurring later and states, iron tools and writing being developed still later. Insofar as the order varies such as in Amazonia where pottery and villages occurred substantially before agriculture it could be due to local conditions such as unusually abundant wild plants and animals, which allows the existence of sedentary hunter-gatherer communities.

            The question needs to be asked, Why is it that certain discoveries are made before other discoveries and certain discoveries could not happen without prior discoveries being made? The answer is that the universe has a particular structure and particular properties. The structure of the universe and its properties becomes known to us in a particular order. This order could be described as either from the simpler to the more complex or perhaps from that which is closest to us to that which is further from us. We learn about the world in a particular order and that order is due to the relationship between ourselves and the world. Our usual way of observing our world is with our naked senses and this gives us certain information about the world. We learn additional information by means of practical empirical, trial and error experiments, such as when we learnt that if flint were chipped in a particular way, it would produce a useful tool. We gain increased knowledge about the world either through changing the method of observation, such as using telescopes or microscopes or by making empirical experiments that show the relationship of one thing to another.




            A lot can be learnt about the order of discovery of things in our environment by a study of the phenomena of "multiples". Multiples concern the multiple and independent discovery of the same scientific idea or invention. Considerable work was done on multiplies by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas who established a list of 148 independently duplicated scientific and technological discoveries. They suggested these discoveries became virtually inevitable as knowledge accumulated within any given society and the needs of that society caused attention to be directed towards problems associated with meeting those needs.[6]

            The history of science and technology provides many examples of multiples. Some of the better known examples are:


1. Agriculture and the domestication of animals were invented independently in the old world and the new world. It may be there were a number of independent inventions of agriculture and the domestication of animals in both the new and old worlds. It has been suggested that agriculture was an almost simultaneous yet completely independent development in South West Asia, China, Southeast Asia, Mesoamerica, South America and the Eastern United States.[7].


2. Calculus may have been invented independently by both Newton and Leibnitz leading to conflicting claims as to who was first. However it may have been the case that Leibnitz had seen Newton's work before it was published.


3. The theory of evolution was invented separately by both Darwin and Wallace. Both had read Malthus's Essay on Population and had been studying flora and fauna in Darwin's case in the Galapagos Islands and in Wallace's case in Burma.


4. The periodic table was proposed by Mendeleev in 1869 and a year later a similar idea, developed independently was put forward by Lothar Meyer.


5. The discovery of oxygen was made by Carle Scheele in 1771, but his work was not published until 1777. Joseph Priestly independently discovered the gas in 1774 and informed Antoine Lavoisier and both Priestly and Lavoisier continued to work on the gas until Lavoisier concluded the gas was a separate component of air.


6. The discovery of Neptune was made by Adams and Leverrier in 1846.


7. Genetics was discovered by Mendel in the 19th century and then independently by Hugo Marie de Vries, Erich von TSchermak and Carl Correns in 1900.


8. Non- Euclidean geometry was independently invented by Carl Gauss, who did not publish his work and the Russian Niolai Lobachevsky in 1829 and by a Hungarian Janos Bolyai.


9. The wave theory of light was developed independently by Thomas Young in England and Augustin Fresnel in France.


10. Visual pigments were independently discovered by German physiologists Franz Boll and Wilhelm Kuhe.


There are many more examples of multiples; Robert Merton came up with 264.[8]

            Merton considered that the pattern of independent multiple discoveries in science is the dominant pattern of scientific discovery and that discoveries made only once in science, known as singletons, are the more unusual case. More particularly he considered that all scientific discoveries were, in principle, multiplies. Merton's gives ten reasons for that belief.

            The first is that many discoveries considered to be singletons turn out to be rediscoveries of previous unpublished work. He gives the example of the physicist and chemist Cavendish and the mathematician Gauss both of whom were reluctant to publish their work and their discoveries were made later by others with the discoveries being considered to be singletons. When Cavendish and Gauss's work was later discovered and published it was realised that the cases were multiples rather than singletons. Merton's second reason for believing all scientific discoveries are potential multiples is that there are many examples of scientists discontinuing inquires when they become aware that someone else has published the same work. Merton’s third reason is that even when scientists are beaten to publication by others they still report their own work. His fourth reasons involved cases of unnecessary duplication of scientific work. When such duplication is discovered one set of work is stopped, so the work is eventually considered to be a singleton. Merton's fifth reason concerns scientists often believing their work is original until being informed that another had already written on the subject. His sixth reason is where scientists, he gives the example of Lord Kelvin, give lectures only to be informed by the audience that his work had already been discovered and published by others. Merton's seventh reason is where a scientist with a clearly developed program of investigation gives up the investigation due to interference by others. All these cases involve situations which are singletons, but would have been multiples but for the scientists discovering others had done the same work.

            Merton's last three reasons for suggesting all singletons are potential multiples, concern the behaviour of the scientists themselves. Merton's considers that this behaviour shows that the scientists themselves believe that all scientific discoveries are potential multiples. His eighth reason is the race scientists engage in to get published. Their assumption is that they must publish quickly or someone else will publish and get the credit for the discovery. The ninth reason is that scientists are known to advise each other to publish quickly or someone else will publish earlier and gain credit for the discovery. Merton's last reason is the practices used by scientific institutions to protect scientists priority for discoveries. Practises such as the depositing of sealed and dated manuscripts, containing an outline of an idea, with scientific societies and academies show that scientists believe that their discoveries will usually be under threat of being discovered by others. Mertons considers that all singletons are singletons only because one discoverer published his or her work before others were able to complete their work. If publication were delayed long enough someone else would eventually make the same discovery. Scientists own behaviour confirms they also believe this to be the case.

            The consequences of the occurrence of multiples in the history of science is expressed by Mertons as:


“Such occurrences suggest that discoveries become virtually inevitable when prerequisite kinds of knowledge and tools accumulate in mans cultural store and when the attention of an appreciable number of investigators become focussed on a problem by emerging social needs, by developments internal to the science, or by both.”[9].


Multiples suggest that discoveries are inevitable because if one scientist does not make the discovery, another one will. This was also the view of Ogburn and Thomas and has become the standard interpretation of multiples. This suggests there is an inevitable element in the progress of science and technology, so long as it is not interfered with by external forces such as governments and religious authorities.

            Multiples also suggest that discoveries are not only inevitable, but that they must take place in a particular order. Thousands of years of human history may go by without something being discovered, and then several scientists or inventors make the same discovery at the same time. This suggests that certain prior developments were necessary before a discovery can be made. This is what Mertons was referring to in the above quote when he mentioned "prerequisite kinds of knowledge and tools [must] accumulate in mans cultural store" before a discovery could take place. Only when that knowledge and those tools have been discovered is it possible for certain later discoveries to be made.

            The existence of multiples is exactly what would be expected if there were a specific order of discovery for science and technology. A particular scientific fact or technological achievement may remain uncovered for thousands of years and then be discovered separately by two or more individuals suggests it could not have been discovered until certain other scientific facts or technological achievements had been discovered. It also suggests that when those other facts and achievements have been uncovered then the discovery of further scientific facts and technological achievements will be almost inevitable. This however is conditional upon the state of society being conducive to scientific and technological discovery. In particular there should be no institutions, such as church or state interfering with the process or communication of the discovery.


The rate of historical change


            A study of history reveals that the rate of change varies from one period to another. Before the domestication of plants and animals there were many tens of thousands of years when the rate of change, in the way humans lived, was very slow. Improvements in the technology employed by human beings were made, but only very slowly. After the domestication of plants and animals there was a period of rapid change as sedentism allowed the development of many new technologies and the beginnings of science and mathematics. This was followed by a period of slow change, sped up somewhat by the achievements of the classical Greeks. The golden age of classical Greece was followed by a period of slow intellectual and technological change. A period of more rapid change began with the development of modern science in late Renaissance Europe and was accelerated by the industrial revolution beginning in the late eighteenth century. This period of rapid change has continued to the present day. The picture is one of both science and technology growing unevenly, with periods of rapid change giving way to periods of slow change or even stagnation.

            In technology a distinction is sometimes made between macro and micro inventions. Macro-inventions involve radical new ideas, without clear precedent and emerge more or less ab ninito. Micro-inventions are small incremental steps that improve, adapt and streamline existing techniques, reduce costs, improve form and function, increase durability and reduce energy and raw material requirements.[10] In practice macro and micro inventions are on a continuum and there are many inventions that are somewhere in the middle between macro and micro inventions.

            The development of macro inventions are difficult and are comparatively rare. They require a considerable leap in human imagination, they involve a major new discovery of how nature can be utilised to meet human needs. Micro-inventions are relatively easier to develop and more or less inevitably follow the development of macro-inventions.

            It is this situation that explains the uneven growth in technology. Where a major macro-invention has been made it will often stimulate or allow the development of many other inventions producing periods of rapid technological change. When the inventions stimulated or allowed by the macro-invention have run their course and all been made, then this will lead to a period of slow or no technological change. Major macro-inventions such as the domestication of plants and animals allowed sedentism and this allowed the development of metallurgy, permanent buildings and writing. Writing and other forms of record keeping allowed the development of government and bureaucracy. The steam engine had a similar effect, allowing the driving of the machinery invented in the industrial revolution and new transport systems such as the steam ships and railways.

            However other periods such as those of classical Greece and Rome were periods of little technological development. It was certainly not the nature of Greek and Roman society that caused their poor record for producing new technology. Both societies were wealthy, had considerable trade that produced large amounts of capital; they had relatively large numbers of educated, literate people, they had reasonably secure property rights and substantial legal systems and religions that were generally tolerant and open to new ideas. Their failure to produce substantial technological developments was, not because of slavery as is sometimes suggested, but because the macro-inventions, their society used had been improved as much as possible by micro-inventions and they were unable to produce more macro-inventions as that would have involved a leap that was beyond their societies. They produced no macro-inventions and little in the way of micro-inventions so their societies were comparatively limited in producing new technology.

            It is sometimes suggested that the classical world failed to reach some fairly obvious solutions to technical problems that they faced.[11] However what is an obvious solution in hindsight is not necessarily obvious to those without the benefit of hindsight. If a generally intelligent, literate people such as the Greeks and Romans were unable to come up with answers to problems, then it seems likely that the solution to the problems were difficult rather than easy. There may have been problems such as poor workmanship or materials that would have made solutions, which are obvious to us, impossible in classical times. Alternatively technological solutions available in classical times may not have been used for economic reasons, as there were cheaper solutions to the problems than the use of the particular technology.

            The same situation that applies to technology and macro-inventions applies to more intellectual developments. Science has its own macro-discoveries, perhaps the most important being the development of the modern methodology of science. The development of the practice of systematic experimentation and the application of quantitative approaches to science were macro-inventions that have lead to a dramatic growth in scientific progress since the seventeenth century. In mathematics, the Greek discovery of abstract theoretical mathematics was a macro-discovery that lead to considerable progress in geometry. Similarly, the discovery of the zero and Hindu-Arabic numerals was a macro-discovery that resulted in considerable improvements in mathematics since the Renaissance. The scientific revolutions described by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions could also be considered to be macro-discoveries. Newton’s revolution in physics and Lavoisier’s in chemistry produced radical changes within those sciences and lead to periods of what Kuhn called normal science. Normal science involves problem solving within the context of a particular view of science called a paradigm and is broadly similar to the idea of micro-discoveries.

            The concepts of macro and micro discoveries in both science and technology explain the varying rate of historical change. Periods of macro-discoveries are periods of rapid change, periods of micro-discoveries are periods of steady change and periods when the micro-discoveries derived from particular macro-discoveries have run their course are periods of stagnation. Macro discoveries occur when there has been a great leap in human knowledge, which is able to be built on and expanded by the acquisition of more easily acquired knowledge



A Map of the facts of the universe


            A map shows the location in space of different places, such as countries, cities, streets and other geographic entities. If a person knows where they are located on the map they are then able to work out where they are in relation to other places and through what places they would have to pass to arrive at any other place. It should be equally possible to produce a “map” showing where the facts of the human environment are in relationship to human beings and to all the other facts of the human environment. This is a direct consequence of the human environment having a particular structure and that human knowledge of the environment grows in a particular order with certain discoveries inevitably being made before certain other discoveries. Such a map will not show the location of facts in space, rather it will show their location in relation to each other and to humankind.

            The basis of such a map is that some facts (say facts B) will not be obtainable without the prior discovery of other facts (say facts A). This means that facts B will lie beyond or are further away from us than facts A. Obviously the discovery of planets such as Neptune, Uranus and Pluto would not have been made without the prior discovery of some means of observing them, such as the telescope. This is because they cannot be seen by unaided sensory observation. Equally metallurgy, pottery and glass making could not have been discovered without the prior discovery of fire, as fire is a necessary ingredient in metallurgy, pottery and glass making. The discovery of Neptune, Uranus and Pluto lie beyond the discovery of the telescope or some other means of extending human sense perception and the discovery of metallurgy, pottery and glass making lies beyond the discovery of fire.

            A further way of locating facts on such a map is where certain facts are relatively easily acquired such as how to make fire and certain other facts such as how to do calculus, are less easily acquired. This is because the discovery of calculus is more complex than the discovery of fire. Calculus requires a number of prior discoveries to be made before it could be discovered. The knowledge of fire is not a pre-condition to the discovery of calculus, but calculus was always going to be discovered after the discovery of fire and so could be located on a map as being much further from human beings than the discovery of fire. Calculus would be located on a different line of development from fire, being on a line of development requiring the invention of a number system and the ability to do simple mathematics such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

            Certain facts are obvious to the naked senses. The four elements of classical Greece, air, fire, water and earth are obvious to the naked senses and are widespread in nature and so were the first explanation of the constituents of matter. Indian science had the same four elements of classical Greece. The Chinese had five elements being water, fire, earth, metal and wood. The difference between the Chinese elements and the Greek and Indian elements can be put down to neither theory being correct, the correct understanding of the constituents of matter being beyond classical Greek, Indian and Chinese science. Naked sense observation of matter were always going to produce theories like the Greeks, Indians and Chinese held but as there was no way they could produce a conclusive answer to the constituents of matter, the theories could always be a little different.

A further Greek explanation of the nature of matter were the mathematical theories of Pythagoras and Plato. Such theories could not be developed until a society had reached a certain level of mathematical knowledge, so they will lie further away from human kind than the facts immediately available to the naked senses. The classical Chinese never had such geometric theories of matter as their geometry was never as sophisticated as that of the Greeks.

            The traditional Greek view of fire, air, water and earth as the basic elements of matter continued to be at least partially accepted in Europe until the revolution in chemistry that occurred in the late eighteenth century. The decomposition of air and water brought about by the use of new scientific instruments and techniques lead to the modern concept of elements as matter that could not be broken down into constituent parts. Lavoisier’s list of 33 elements, despite some mistakes was the first modern list of elements. The list of elements was subsequently corrected and added to when new elements were discovered. Dalton’s atomic theory suggested different elements were made up of different atoms and this explained the different properties of the elements. The eighteenth and nineteenth century concepts of elements and atoms could not have been developed without the prior decomposition of air and water which showed they were not elements but were made up of other substances. The discovery of the elements was necessary before the atomic theory, which explained the different elements as being made up of different atoms.

            Atoms remained the basic constituents of nature until 1897 when J J Thompson discovered the electron. The nucleus of the atom was then discovered by Ernest Rutherford, which made a negatively charged electron and the positively charged nucleus the basic constituents of matter. The neutron was added in 1932 with its discovery by James Chadwick, so the basic constituents of matter were the proton, neutron and electron. In the 1960’s protons and neutrons were discovered to be made up of quarks, so the smallest constituent parts of matter could be considered to be electrons and quarks. There is considerable current debate as to whether quarks and electrons are made up of tiny vibrating strings called superstrings.

            There was an order of discovery running from the elements of ancient Greece, India and China to the mathematical theories of the Greeks, to the elements as discovered in the late eighteenth century, to Dalton’s atoms, to the nucleus of the atom and electrons, to protons, neutrons and electrons, to quarks and electrons and possibly to strings. The particular order in which these discoveries were made was inevitable. This enables us to say that in some sense that those things we can see with unaided sense perception are closer to us and that successively the mathematical ideas for the constitution of matter by Pythagoras and Plato, the idea of the elements, atoms, the nucleus and electrons, protons, neutrons and electrons and quarks and then strings are located further from us.

            A similar situation applies in astronomy. The unaided sense view is that the earth is not moving and the sun orbits the earth. When more sophisticated observations were made of the heavens the Greeks created the Ptolemaic system with a stationary Earth being the centre of the universe and being orbited by the sun and the planets in circular orbits with epicycles being used to further describe the planets movements.

            The classical Chinese cosmology also considered the earth to be motionless centre of the universe with various theories of the sun and the planets orbiting the earth. The Chinese theory however differed from the Greek by not having the Greek geometric schemes of planetary motion. Indian cosmology also involved a stationary earth orbited by sun and planets and seems to have been as geometric as the Greek cosmology.

            The Ptolemaic system survived in Europe, until Copernicus published his helio-centric theory and Kepler showed the Earth and other planets orbited the sun in elliptical orbits. Kepler had the benefit of improved observations of planetary movements from Tycho Bathe and his theory could be confirmed with observations made using the newly invented telescope. The work of Copernicus and Kepler was ultimately completed by Newton with his laws of gravity and motion with the help of new mathematical tools such as calculus.

            Observations of planetary motions continued to improve and it was observed that Mercury did not move in accordance with the Newtonian system. Eventually the Newtonian system was replaced by Einstein’s law of general relativity, which had the planets orbiting the sun in circular orbits in curved space-time. Improved mathematical tools such as non-Euclidean geometry helped the establishment of general relativity.

            The order of discovery from a motionless Earth orbited by the Sun, to the Ptolemaic and classical Chinese and Indian systems, to the Newtonian system to Einstein’s system was fixed. Each system gave way to its successor due to improved observations and/or mathematical tools. Each successive system can be considered to be further away from humankind than its predecessor so that the closest to humankind is the sun orbiting the earth, followed by the Ptolemaic and classical Chinese and Indian systems, the Newtonian system with Einstein’s system being the furtherest away.

            It should be possible to create a “map” that shows where every fact of the universe lies in relation to human beings and in relation to every other fact. Such maps would show the various lines of development through which human knowledge of the universe grew and had to grow. They would show the order in which human knowledge of the universe developed which has a great effect on the type of society available to human beings


Effect of scientific and technological change on society


            The development of science and technology obviously has a substantial effect on human society. However it does not effect all elements of human society equally. Leslie White in The Science of Culture proposes a three way sub-division of culture into the technological, the sociological and the ideological. The technological consists of the material, mechanical, physical and chemical instruments and the techniques for their use by which human beings live in their environment. It includes the tools of production, the means of subsistence, the materials of shelter and the instruments of hunting and war. The sociological system consists of the interpersonal relationships expressed in individual and collective patterns of behaviour. This includes the social, kinship, economic, ethical, political, military, religious, occupational and recreational systems of a culture. The ideological system consists of the ideas, beliefs and knowledge of a culture. This includes the mythologies, theologies, literature, philosophy, science and common sense knowledge of a culture.

            These three aspects make up the culture of a society. They are inter-related, each effects the others and is effected by the others. However the effect they have on each other is not equal. The technological plays a primary role, as human beings must first obtain food and protection from the elements and enemies. The technological represents the lower needs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These are the most basic of human needs, the ones that must be satisfied before all other needs.

            The sociological system is secondary and subsidiary to the technological system. It is a function of the technological system, the technology is the independent variable, the sociological is the dependent variable. The sociological is determined by the technological system. If the technology changes so will the sociological system.

            The ideological system is also powerfully conditioned by the technological system. There is a type of ideological system appropriate to each type of technological system. However it is not just the technological system that effects the ideological system, it is also effected by the sociological system.

            White sums up his system as follows:


“We may view a cultural system as a series of three horizontal strata: the technological layer on the bottom, the philosophical on the top, the sociological stratum in between. These positions reflect their respective roles in the cultural process. The technological system is basic and primary. Social systems are functions of technologies; and philosophies express technological forces and reflect social systems. The technological factor is therefore the determinant of the cultural system as a whole. It determines the form of social systems, and technology and society together determine the content and orientation of philosophy. This is not to say, of course that social systems do not condition the operation of technologies, or that social systems and technological systems are not effected by philosophies. They do and are. But to condition is one thing; to determine, quite another.”[12].


White's system is hardly new and has certain obvious similarities to Marx's ideas concerning the infrastructure and superstructure of societies. It is also very similar to what Marvin Harris calls a universal pattern within cultures consisting of an infrastructure (White's technological system), a structure (White's sociological system), and a superstructure (White's ideological system).[13] It is possible to quibble about the exact extent to which the various elements in White's system effect each other, but it seems quite clear that technological systems have a major determining effect on sociological and ideological systems.

            Given that the technology available to a society will determine its sociological and ideological states, then societies with similar technologies will tend to have similar sociological and ideological states. This situation is referred to by J H Plumb in Encounter for June 1971 when he said:


“... the present world ... is witnessing the close of an epoch that began roughly ten thousand years ago: the end indeed of societies based primarily on agriculture and craftsmanship, in which towns were rarely more than centres for the organising and servicing of these activities, or of religion or government. ... Of course within these millennia societies differed greatly in complexity, in extent of power, in achievement and in sophistication. And yet there are basic similarities, whether we compare Tang China with the France of Louis XIV or the Peru of the Incas. In general the same social institutions are common to them all - family, organised religion, warrior castes, an elite of bureaucrats, more often than not a semi-divine authority. And between the literate societies there are many resemblances in ideology; a symbolisation of natural forces that clearly links the rituals of the agrarian year or reflects the family structure; often this is combined with a religion of personal salvation and hope. Often the presence is sanctified by an interpretation of the past. Men of authority possess the genealogies which confirm their power; and the history of their societies is theirs.”


The situation that Plumb describes, that a given technology will tend to produce a particular social and ideological system applies for all technological systems, so that it is possible to produce a table such as that below which shows various technological systems and the social and ideological systems that tend to accompany the particular technological system. The four technological systems described are hunter-gathering, pastoralism, agriculture and industrial technology.






Industrial technology






Settlement pattern



sedentary-mainly rural

sedentary-mainly urban

Number of



thousands to

hunreds of




Basis of



kin based clans

class and


class and


Ethnicity and




one or more

one or more




centralised and


centralised and





many levels

many levels

Monopoly of






Conflict resolution









secular &


Food production


Yes-principle area of


Yes-principle area of


Yes-minor area

of economy

Food surplus


yes-but occasional shortages

Yes-but occasional shortages

yes-generally no shortages

Division of


limited to

gender and age

wider than for

hunter gatherers but

still limited

yes-extensive with large

farming population

highest level of

division of


Control of land

band-but limited due to


horde-but limited due to


ruler &


spread amongst population, but


Society stratified


to some extent

by kin

to a great

extent by kin

yes by class






Luxury goods

for the elite


only to a minor




Public Architecture








yes-but usually

not widespread



            The above table shows the social consequences of the technological states referred to in the top line. It is designed to give a general overview of the sorts of social and ideological situations that will exist for any given technological state. There are the occasional exceptions to what is mentioned in the table, for example the agrarian Incas did not have writing, although they did have other forms of record keeping. It is also true that there are many different types of hunter-gathering, pastoralist, agrarian and industrial societies and not all can be included in a relatively simple table. The societies practising shifting agriculture are obviously not included in the agriculture column of the table. The agricultural column is concerned with the civilisations that existed in China, South East Asia, India, the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, Meso-America and South America. There are also a variety of industrial societies, for example not all industrial societies are democratic. It is however considered that democracy will be the typical form of government of industrial societies, much like absolute monarchy was the typical form of government for agrarian societies. However with agrarian societies we have many thousands of years of experience with these societies, so we know a lot about them. We have only a brief experience of industrial societies so the type of social and ideological states that may exist in such societies may be arguable.

            There is only a limited range of cultural forms available, so it is hardly unlikely that the same types will evolve independently. Yet of the forms available it is quite clear that certain institutions are much more clearly associated with certain technological states than others. There is no reason in principle why hunter-gatherer bands should not be ruled by hereditary monarchs, but they never are. Equally there is no reason why agrarian states, especially if they are not excessively large, could not be democratic, but they hardly ever are. Rather hunter-gatherers usually have informal egalitarian leadership and agrarian states are usually ruled by a hereditary monarch. There is a disproportionate co-relation between certain technological states and the type of social institutions and ideological beliefs that accompany those technological states.

            The important point is that changes in human knowledge cause changes in technology and through the effect that technology has on the sociological and ideological systems of a society, the change in human knowledge will effect all elements in that society. Changes in human knowledge may also directly effect the sociological and ideological elements in human society. Ideas such as biological evolution and cultural relativity have effected human society, without producing any technological innovations. Human history in all its elements will be effected by the increases in knowledge that gradually accumulates in human culture.

            It is necessary to describe not only why societies and cultures have certain similarities, but also why they differ one from the other. Many of the differences are a direct result of differences in the physical environments occupied by the various societies or cultures. Societies or cultures located in the artic or in temperate zones or in the tropics will all be different from each other, as will inland groups and coastal groups and groups in areas of good rainfall will differ from those in deserts. Such differences will be much greater among agrarian and hunter-gatherer societies located in different environments, than between industrial societies located in different environments. This is because hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies are much more dependant on the immediate physical environment than industrial societies.

            The range and type of crops and animals capable of domestication will also cause variations among agrarian societies. The lack of any large domesticable animal in the new world ensured that it never developed the plough agriculture and wheeled transport that existed through large parts of the old world.

            The level of knowledge and technology available to different cultures will also be a reason for the variations that exist between cultures. This is very much the theme of this paper. Such variations tend to be used (for example in this paper) to categorise various cultures rather than to explain the differences between the same types of cultures. Nevertheless within any category of culture (such as hunter-gatherer, pastoralist, agrarian, or industrial) there will always be variations in the knowledge and technology available to different societies and this will explain some of the variations that exist within a particular category of culture.

            There are also certain aspects of a culture where the knowledge and technology does not influence or determine that aspect of the culture or does not particularly favour one outcome over another. This is where chance, the activities of great men and women and differences in traditions may determine aspects of a culture. An aspect of culture such as religion in agrarian societies can vary from the tolerant pluralism of pre-Christian Rome and the Chinese Empire to the severe attitude to dissent displayed in ancient Israel, Christian Europe and some Islamic societies. The power of priestly classes could vary from very strong in medieval Europe and pre-British India to relatively weak in pre-Christian Rome and in China. Whether a society drives on the left or right hand side of the road is a matter which is not likely to be influenced by the rest of the societies culture. The choice is purely arbitrary.

            The important point is that the variations can all be explained in ways that do not contradict the model of social, cultural and historical change being driven by increases in human knowledge and that this model can apply to all human cultures and societies. Environmental differences, prior cultural traditions and chance will explain cultural variations, and similar knowledge of the human environment will explain the similarities between cultures.



A Law of Social, Cultural and Historical Change


            The course of human social and cultural history is determined by our increasing knowledge of our environment. As our knowledge grows we are able to make better and better use of our environment to meet our needs. Our increasing knowledge results in technology that produce changes in the overall state of society. Our increasing knowledge of the environment may also produce changes in the state of society without involving technological change. The discovery of the idea of biological evolution, resulted in changes in society without involving technological change.

            The growth in our knowledge of our environment takes place in a particular order. Some things in our environment will inevitably be discovered before other things. This is because the prior discovery is necessary before the later discovery can be made. It also may be because the prior discovery is a simpler matter involving a limited number of previous discoveries, while a later discovery may require a much larger number of more difficult discoveries to precede it. Our knowledge of our environment grows from the simple to the more complex or from that which is closer to us to that which is further from us. The phenomena of multiples shows both that discoveries are inevitable, so long as social conditions allow them, and that they had to take place in a particular order.

            Given that the human discovery of the environment is inevitable and takes place in a particular order, and that the discoveries produce new technologies to better meet human needs and that new technologies produce new social and ideological systems, then it can be said the course of human social and cultural history was inevitable. That history and social change and cultural evolution could take only one course is because humans can only discover that which is there. We cannot discover things that do not exist; all knowledge must be about that which exists. This means that the nature of reality, or what we can find out about, is the determining factor in human history. The consequence is that human history could only take one broad course. That course is from hunter-gathering to agriculture or pastoralism to industrial society. Some societies, of course, did not take this course due to local environmental conditions, such as artic conditions, deserts or lack of domesticable plants and animals. But all societies that could, did undertake the progression, and no society was able to miss out a step, except where there were cases of diffusion of knowledge and technology.

            This means that it is possible to produce a law of historical, social and cultural development that will apply to all human societies and cultures. Such a law might be as follows:


If you have a being that is:


(a) intelligent


            The requirement that the being be intelligent refers to its ability to learn and also its ability to remember what it has learnt. This is the capacity to retain knowledge, so that knowledge will accumulate in the culture of that being.


(b) rational

(c) exists in a situation where new ideas may be freely communicated to others

(d) desires to meet its needs

(e) that meets its needs by using the resources in its environment

(f) all aspects of its environment are not immediately obvious to that being

(g) there exists in the environment the means by which the being is better able to meet its needs


then the greater its knowledge of the environment the better it is able to meet its needs. Such a being will attempt to learn about its environment in order to meet its needs in an improved manner. As the being learns more about its environment, new means of meeting its needs become available to it and the adoption of improved means of meeting its needs, results in changes throughout the beings society and is the ultimate cause of social and cultural change.

            Such a law would apply to all intelligent, rational beings, meeting their needs from their environment, but lacking a complete knowledge of their environment. The reason cultures have evolved in similar fashion is because their environments are similar; to the extent they have evolved differently, it is because their environments are different.

            Human beings cannot know now, what they will only discover in the future. This means to some extent the above law cannot be used to make predictions about the future of human society. It should really be seen as an explanatory law, explaining why and how human societies have developed throughout history.

            There is however an exception to this. While future scientific discoveries cannot be known, human needs are known. Of course, just because needs exist, does not guarantee they will be meet. But it is predictable humans will attempt to meet there needs and if they are meet it is possible to predict in theory at least, what their effects on society or culture may be. This is the basis of the more sound attempts, to predict the future that have been made. Predictions of faster computers with larger memories and hard disks could safely be made in the 1990's. Developments in nanotechnology would also fit into this category.

            A further exception to the rule that the above law can not be used to predict the future is where you have a God like view of a being and its environment. Such a view will provide full information on a being, and its environment, including that part of its environment that is unknown to the being. We obviously do not have such a God like view of our own selves and our own environment. However there is no reason in principle why human beings could not have such a God like view of other societies, or other beings could not have a God like view of human society. It is theoretically possible that human astronauts visiting a distant planet could find a society whose future we could predict if we knew enough about the beings in the society and the environment they live in. Equally, sufficiently knowledgeable space travellers, visiting earth, could predict our future.

            There would be nothing to stop human astronauts or non-human space travellers from revealing their knowledge to our intelligent, rational, but not all knowing beings. This would simply be a case of the diffusion of knowledge and is similar to the diffusion of knowledge that has occurred on earth, when western science and technology has been spread around the world. This has had the predicted result of the development of urbanised, industrial and democratic societies, most clearly shown in some East Asian countries. It can be predicted that in time other non-western societies will eventually become democratic, industrial and urbanised.

            A final point is that if our intelligent, rational being was to know everything that can be known about its environment, or everything about its environment that enables it to meet its needs, so that its needs are met in the best way that they can ever be met, then in some sense at least that will amount to the end of history. Cultures will cease to evolve, societies will no longer change in any fundamental way. Rulers may come and go, laws can continue to be changed and rechanged, wars may possibly be fought, but the fundamental nature and structure of society will cease to change.


Popper’s criticisms of historicism


                        One critic of theories of history and social and cultural change, such as is offered in this book, is Karl Popper. He calls the making of such philosophies "historicism" and in The Poverty of Historicism he claims that it is not possible to produce "laws of historical development". This is because the evolution of human society is a unique historical process. Laws make assertions about all processes of a particular kind. If I heat a particular metal it will always melt at the same temperature, and this can be predicted by a law. Popper says we are hardly likely to be able to formulate such laws with just one instance available of what the law deals with. Nor is it possible to test the law with future examples and we cannot foresee the future of human society so as to be sure the future will not proceed in a manner inconsistent with the law.

            Popper suggests there are two arguments that can be made against his argument. It could be argued that the process of social, cultural and historical change is not unique, but that such change is cyclical in that civilizations, cultures and states rise and fall in a repetitive process. The second argument is that even if human social, cultural and historical development is unique we can discern a trend and formulate a hypothesis that states the trend and can be tested against future experience.[14] Popper rejects the argument that the historical process is cyclical. He considered the claimed instances of repetition are quite dissimilar and are based on a selective use of facts.[15]

            Popper deals with the second argument by claiming that while trends exist, trends do not amount to laws. Trends may exist at a certain place or time, but they are singular statements not laws from which predictions may be made. We cannot base predictions on trends, as trends (Popper gives the example of population growth) which might have existed for thousands of years may rapidly change. Popper considers the confusion of trends for laws, together with the intuitive observation of trends, such as technical progress, is the basis of historicism. Trends Popper notes are dependant on initial conditions and this point is usually overlooked by historicists. If the initial conditions change than the trends may alter or disappear. If the historicists were to find and explicitly state the conditions the trend is dependant on there would be no problem, but they seldom, if ever, do this. Such conditions are easily overlooked and may be quite numerous and difficult to state completely.[16]

            A statement of the form "whenever there are conditions of the kind c, there will be a trend of the kind t" would be acceptable to Popper. It would however be necessary to test such a law by trying to produce conditions under which it does not hold. We may for example try to show conditions of the kind c are insufficient and that even when they exist, the trend t will not always occur.[17]

            Popper provides an example of an historicist theory to illustrate his concerns. It is a theory of scientific and industrial process advocated by Comte and Mill in which they claim such progress is reducible to laws of human nature. Comte believed there was a tendency in human beings that impels them to perfect their nature to an ever increasing degree. Mill considered the impelling force to be the desire for ever increasing comforts. This enables us to deduce the phases of history without observation or data. In principle, though probably not in practice, the whole course of history would be deducible.

            Popper claims that even if Comte and Mills premises and deductions are correct, it will not mean that progress will necessarily result. Difficult natural environments or certain elements of human nature such as forgetfulness or indolence could destroy the prospect of progress. Popper also claims that progress depends on conditions such as freedom of thought and expression. An epidemic of mysticism might also hinder or eliminate the progress Comte and Mill would expect. Popper considers that it is the human element in historicist theories that ensures their unreliability. Humans cannot be relied on to act rationally and any attempt to reduce historical theory to theories of human nature or psychology may have quite unpredictable results.

            In the preface to the second edition of The Poverty of Historicism Popper suggests that while he shows historicism is unreliable he does not actually refute it. In the preface, however he does produce a refutation of historicism, which he considers shows for strictly logical reasons it is impossible to predict the future course of history. The refutation is as follows:


“(1) The course of human history is strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge.

(2) We cannot predict, by rational or scientific methods, the future growth of our scientific knowledge.

(3) We cannot, therefore, predict the future course of human history.

(4) This means we must reject the possibility of a theoretical history; that is to say, of an historical social science that would correspond to theoretical physics. There can be no scientific theory of historical development serving as a basis for historical prediction.

(5) The fundamental aim of historicist methods is therefore misconceived; and historicism collapses.”


Popper states the above argument only refutes the possibility of making predictions of historical developments to the extent to which they are influenced by the growth of our knowledge. Other predictions such as those claiming certain things will happen under certain conditions are still possible. The most important part of the argument is (2) which Popper justifies by stating, “if there is such a thing as growing human knowledge, then we cannot anticipate today what we shall know only tomorrow.” He claims “no scientific predictor... can possibly predict by scientific methods its own future results.” No society can predict its own future knowledge.

            The first of Popper’s criticisms of historicism is that human history, social change and cultural evolution is a unique process and we have just a single instance of this process before us. This is not necessarily the case if we can see the same situations occurring time after time in history in a variety of societies. If we could see many examples of scientific and technological progress occurring throughout history such as the development of agriculture, of the steam engine, Newtonian physics, automobiles, aircraft, the theory of evolution, the structure of DNA and genetics we would have many examples of scientific and technological progress. If all these and other examples reveal the same conditions under which the progress was achieved, then we may be able to formulate a law of scientific and technological progress. Human history, social change and cultural evolution does not have to be seen as a single event; it can be divided up into parts that can be studied separately.

Popper is quite right to distinguish between trends and laws. In order to constitute a law the conditions under which it operates must be stated, otherwise we will only be dealing with a trend. The law stated in the previous part of this paper does state the conditions listed (a) to (g) for the operation of the law.

            Popper, when considering Comte and Mills theory of scientific and technological progress, gives a number of examples where their theories may fail. Comte and Mills theories on the philosophy of history are in many ways similar to those suggested in this paper, so Popper’s objections to their theories could apply to the theory suggested in this paper.

            Popper cites difficult natural environments as possibly destroying the prospects of progress. However people live in a variety of environments, some difficult, some easier and if progress fails to occur in difficult environment such as deserts or artic conditions, it may well happen in other environments and by a process of diffusion reach the more difficult environments. Some might also suggest that difficult environments may stimulate progress. More particularly, condition (g) requires that there exists in the environment the means by which the being may meet its needs in a more efficient manner. Popper’s objection seems to suggest that the environment may not allow new knowledge to be obtained, but this is already dealt with in the proposed law.

            Popper also claims forgetfulness, indolence, mysticism, human irrationality and a lack of freedom of expression and thought may destroy the possibility of progress. The law stated earlier in this paper requires that the beings to which it applies be rational, intelligent, must desire to meet their needs and be able to freely communicate to others. These are the conditions for the law to operate and if they exist then Popper’s objections cannot apply to the theory. The objections he states are already ruled out by the law.

            However while the law may be true, given its conditions of intelligent, rational, free beings, desiring to meet their needs, the question arises, do such beings exist. In particular do human beings meet the conditions stated in the law, so the law could be used to explain human scientific and technological progress? The answer is that humans come in a great variety, some are intelligent and rational, and others are less intelligent or rational. But in all societies there will be some people who are intelligent so progress will be possible. There have of course been some societies where freedom of thought and expression have not existed. However there have been other societies where it does exist and in those societies scientific and technological progress will often take place. In short the conditions stated in the law will sometimes exist and when they do there is a possibility of scientific and industrial progress taking place. In particular where progress has occurred it has been under the conditions stated in the law. The law also states the situation where progress will not take place, most particularly the requirement for ideas being able to be freely communicatable to others. If this requirement is not there progress will be impossible. The law not only states under what conditions progress can be achieved, but also under what conditions it will not be achieved.

            Popper’s final criticism of historicism is the refutation contained in the preface to the second edition of The Poverty of Historicism. This refutation is certainly correct as regards predictions of future events with one significant exception. While we cannot know scientific knowledge that will only be discovered in the future, we do know what the ultimate human needs are. These needs transcend cultures and are the same for all times even though quite different methods may be used to meet the needs. This provides an element of predictability as to the future in that we can predict that humans will use the best means available, as is culturally acceptable to them, to meet those ultimate needs.

            A further point concerning Popper’s refutation of historicism is that it is limited to denying the viability of scientific theories that predict the future. Prediction is not the only role of scientific theories. Scientific theories may also serve the purpose of explaining events and facts. A theory such as evolution by natural selection does not predict the future development of species. This is because species evolve by adapting to changes in the natural environment and the future changes in the natural environment are unknown and unpredictable. This means the theory of evolution is limited to explaining, rather than predicting, the evolution of species.

            The same situation applies to the theory expressed in this paper. The theory is not able to predict the future, as the knowledge that we will obtain in the future is unknown to us in the present. This situation is similar to that existing in the theory of evolution where future changes in the natural environment are unknowable. However like evolutionary theory is able to explain how organisms evolve, the theory proposed is able to explain how historical change takes place, without being able to make predictions about the future. However just as evolutionary theory is unable to make predictions as to the future, but is certainly a scientific theory, the social, cultural and historical theory proposed would also be a scientific theory even though it is unable to make predictions as to the future.


The Challenge


            An interesting factor in the proposed theory is that it enables human historical development to be studied scientifically and objectively. The natural sciences are the same for all societies on earth, and they have an element of certainty or truth about them, which is not available in the social sciences. By tying human historical development to our discovery of the facts of the natural sciences, we are tying human historical development to the most well established facts we have available. This will provide a solid objective basis to any theory of human historical development based on the order of the discovery of the facts of the human environment.

            Given the scientific and objective nature of the physical sciences it should be possible to construct a theoretical map of the facts of the human environment, such as they are known to us. This map should show which facts are closer to us and which facts are further away from us. Such a map may require some means of measuring how far particular items of knowledge are from us. This would involve an analysis of the complexity of the facts and in particular what prior facts would need to be known before the particular fact could become known to us. If this were done, you would have a theoretical order of discovery of the facts of the universe. This theoretical order could then be compared to the actual order of discovery of the facts of the universe in order to test the theory expressed in this paper.

            In order to create a theoretical order of discovery and to compare it with the actual order of discovery it will be necessary to write a new type of history. Histories of science and technology are usually written in narrative form, copying the form of political and diplomatic history. If they were written so as to involve an analysis of the ingredients that went into the making of a particular scientific or technological discovery, then it would be possible to analyse the order of discovery, that lead to the discovery of any particular invention or scientific discovery. This would provide a new insight into scientific and technological discoveries; an insight that is not apparent from simple narrative describing how one invention or discovery followed another invention or discovery. This would enable a complete description of the order of discovery made by humankind and would show all the intellectual and technological states humankind passed through in order to reach any particular intellectual or technological state. Such empirical studies could then be compared with a theoretical map of the facts of the universe to see if the order of discovery, suggested by such a map, has in fact been followed in the actual course of human history. Local environmental factors, chance and the activities of great men and women, in so far as they may be applicable, would need to be taken into account, but once this was done, it should be possible to compare, a theoretical order of discovery, with the actual historical order of discovery. If they match up, or discrepancies may be explained by local conditions, chance or the activities of great individuals, then the theory proposed may be correct. Such a procedure would amount to a test of the proposed theory, making it potentially falsifiable.

            Local conditions, chance and the activities of great individuals may be seen as a bit of a cop out, in that they can be used to excuse any failure of the actual order of discovery, to fit in with the theoretical order of discovery. Yet such local environmental conditions, chance and great individual achievements plainly do exist. The lack of large domesticatable animals in Meso-America is the probable explanation for the lack of plough agriculture and wheelled transport in Meso-America. It may also explain the fragility of Meso-American civilisation, the Mayan civilisation disappearing with the people abandoning their cities, science and mathematics and returning to shifting agriculture. Many discoveries for example, penicillin, were discovered by chance while the activities of a Newton or Einstein will certainly have advanced their discoveries. If they had not existed their discoveries would have to have been made by others at a later time.

            Some puzzles are less easily explained. The Mayan discovery of the zero in mathematics in a civilization lacking the plough agriculture and sophisicated metalluurgy of the old world and which was so fragile it was soon to disappear seems odd. The zero was first clearly used in the old world in India around 600AD with some evidence of earlier use in India and South East Asia. The zero only reached Europe through diffusion through the Islamic world. Why did the, in many ways less advanced, Mayan culture develop the zero, while the old world cultures developed the zero at a much later stage of their cultural development. The probable answer to this is individual brillance by one or more Mayan priests.

            It is of course necessary to confirm that part of the theory that holds that increasing human knowledge will effect human technology, social institutions and beliefs. The very fact that certain levels of human knowledge, technology, social institutions and beliefs tend to co-exist is some evidence that human knowledge effects technology and both of these will effect social institutions and beliefs. However it is possible to do detailed analysis that will show that certain technology, social institutions and beliefs could not, or were unlikely to, exist without certain levels of human knowledge and that certain social institutions and beliefs could only exist or were likely to exist with certain prior technologies.

            Many examples of knowledge effecting technology and of one technology effecting other technologies can be offered, but probably the most obvious are those technologies that arose with the knowledge and practice of agriculture. Agriculture allowed sedentism and sedentism allowed the development of permanent buildings, pottery, writing and metallurgy. Permanent buildings meet an obvious human need for people to live in and for goods to be stored in. They were not however practical for nomadic hunter-gatherers who had to move away when the food supplies in the area were exhausted. So permanent buildings were practical only for sedentary societies and were never made by hunter-gatherers. Pottery was only developed by sedentary peoples, as it was not practical for hunter-gatherers to carry pottery around with them. Pottery is easily broken and its weight would discourage hunter-gatherers from carrying it around with them. More particularly pottery is often used to store food, a practise agrarian people engage in, but hunter gatherers do not. Writing, or a substitute like the Incas quipu, was a virtual necessitity for agrarian populations of a particular size, to enable record keeping of the storage of produce and the payment of taxes and dues. Hunter-gatherers did not have this need so they did not develop writing. Further, the carrying around of writing implements and written records would have been a significant burden for hunter-gatherers. Metallurgy was never developed by hunter gatherers as the furnaces and bellows required could not have been carried around by hunter-gatherers.

            There are a number of social institutions that may be shown to be possible for agrarian societies, but could not exist in hunter-gatherer societies. Slavery was not a good option for hunter-gatherers as slaves could easily run off and would have the same hunting and gathering skills required for survival as the rest of a hunting and gathering community. In agrarian societies running away is not so easy as where ever one runs, unless one is near a border area, there is continuous territory under the control of the slave owning class. Runaway slaves may also lack the skills to survive while on the run in an agrarian society. Slavery was a more practical solution for agrarian societies and it also provided a way to control labour in societies that lacked or had only a limited monetary system. Industrial societies almost totally lack slavery, even though slavery would be quite practical in industrial societies. The reason for the absence of slavery in industrial societies would possibly be due to beliefs about the equality and dignity of humankind and a monetary system that allows labor to be efficiently controlled and directed.

            Feminism arose in the twentieth century, in industrial societies, rather than during 5,000 years of agrarian civilization when women were in a substantially unequal position in relation to men. The reason feminism arose in industrial societies may be because of the invention of effective birth control and because of the much increased life expectancy in industrial societies. In agrarian societies a woman with little control over her fertility would be restricted to child bearing and rearing and other domestic activities and by the time menopause arrived, her life expectancy would be virtually at its end, leaving little opportunity for work outside the home. Since the development of modern birth control women have been able to control their fertility allowing work outside the home and the greater life expectancy of people in industrial societies has meant that women have a good twenty or thirty years of post menopausal working life outside the home available to them. Modern educational systems requiring children’s attendance at school and that heavy physical work was an important part of work in agrarian societies, but is only a minor part of work preformed in industrial societies would also have enabled greater female participation in work outside the home.

            Outlined above are various ways in which human knowledge and technology have determined or influenced human social and cultural history. It is possible to trace the development of social movements such as feminism through inventions such as birth control to scientific developments in biology and chemistry that allowed the invention of modern birth control. These scientific developments were dependant on earlier scientific discoveries, but ultimately the whole process is determined by the structure of the universe and its relationship to human beings. The increase in life expectancy since the industrial revolution has many causes such as increased and better food supplies, medical knowledge and sanitary practices in modern cities. All these ultimately were dependent upon increasing human knowledge, both scientific and non scientific, of the human environment. The same can be argued for the reduction of hard physical work since the industrial revolution and the development of modern educational systems. The result is that a social movement such as feminism is ultimately dependent upon increases in human knowledge and the increases in knowledge take place in a particular order as is determined by the structure of the universe and its relationship to human beings. The origins of feminism lie in the biological and chemical facts of the universe that enabled the production of modern birth control and in the facts of nature that enabled the creation of the technologies that constitute the industrial revolution.

            The same could be said about slavery which only became widespread with the development of agriculture. Slavery worked best after the discovery of agriculture which required certain prior discoveries, such that plants grow from seeds and that plants if tendered properly will produce a normally reliable food supply. These discoveries are not obvious to ordinary observation and would have required considerable observation, thought and experimentation. They represent a great leap in human knowledgeof how the environment can be utilised to meet human needs.

            It should be possible to trace the development of all elements of human technological, sociological and ideological systems through changes in human knowledge of the environment. At any given stage the state of a societies technological, sociological and ideological systems will depend upon that societies level of knowledge of the human environment. The state of human knowledge of the environment will depend upon the ease with which humans can discover the facts of the human environment. This is dependent upon the structure of the environment and its relationship to humankind. This means in principle all human technological, sociological and ideological systems are ultimately based on the conditions of the human environment and on our knowledge of the environment. We should be able to trace a casual chain from the structure of our environment to our knowledge of the environment to human technological, sociological and ideological systems. The effects should be able to be traced backwards from the human technological, sociological and ideological systems through to the state of human knowledge of the environment to the structure of the human environment and our relationship to it.


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[1] G & J Lenski, Human Societies (New York, 1970), 26-31.

[2] George Basalla The Evolution of Technology, (Cambridge 1988) 212


[3] S Lilley, “Technological Progress and the Industrial Revolution 1700-1914” in The Fontana Economic History of Europe ed C Cipolla (1973) 192-195

[4] [4] George Basalla The Evolution of Technology, (Cambridge 1988), 27-28

[5] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel (London, 1998) 362-363

[6] W. F. Ogburn & D. S. Thomas “Are inventions inevitable?” Political Science Quartly 37 (March 1922) 83-98; W. F. Ogburn, Social Change, (New York, 1922) 90-122.

[7]T. D Price & A. B. Gebauer, Last Hunters-First Farmers (Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1995), 3.


[8] R Mertons, The Socilogy of Science (Chicago, 1973), 364.

[9]R Mertons, The Socilogy of Science (Chicago, 1973), 371.


[10] Mokyr, Joel, The Lever of Riches: technological creativity and economic progress, (New York, 1990), 13.


[11] Mokyr, Joel The Lever of Riches: technological creativity and economic progress, (New York, 1990), 29-30.


[12] White, Leslie The Science of Culture,(Toronto 1970),366.


[13] Harris, M “Anthropology and the Study of Culture” in Cultural Anthropology (2 ed) (New York, 1987), 17.


[14] Popper, Karl The Poverty of Historicism: (London, 1957), 108-109


[15] Popper, Karl The Poverty of Historicism: (London, 1957), 110-111.


[16] Popper, Karl, The Poverty of Historicism, (London, 1957), 128-129.


[17] Popper, Karl, The Poverty of Historicism, (London, 1957), 129.