Collective learning | Life on earth and in the universe | Cosmology & Astronomy | Khan Academy

There are many things that
differentiate human beings from other species. But the one thing that probably
differentiates humans even from our closest relatives in
the animal kingdom in a really big way is the notion that
humans are collective learners. And to understand
that, let’s think about how even our closest
relative in the animal kingdom, the chimpanzee,
might communicate. So you might have
one chimpanzee, and over the course of
his or her lifetime, they’re able to learn a
bunch of cool experiences. And they’re even able to learn
to use tools, manipulate tools, and– who knows–
maybe even make tools. Maybe even get a twig some
place and take off the leaves and then use that to go get ants
out of a hole or whatever else. So they’re able to learn all
this stuff over a lifetime. Now unfortunate
for chimpanzees– well, what is fortunate
for chimpanzees is they do teach some of these
things that they’ve learned to other members
of their group, often their offspring. But what’s unfortunate
for chimpanzees is they don’t have a great way to
communicate with each other. So for most chimpanzees, the
way that they’re able to teach is essentially by showing–
not showing and telling, just showing. And so because this is such
a un-precise or not exact and such an inefficient
way of communication, really all of the nuances of
what this chimpanzee might be able accumulate over
his or her lifetime aren’t able to be conveyed
to the next generation or to the other
chimpanzees around. So you have tremendous
energy loss. And in particular, all
that can be conveyed are maybe the to
specific movements or what you might be able
to observe in the present. All of the other things
that maybe the chimpanzee is learning about– the times of
year where this is appropriate, and maybe they can
convey some of that by showing them at the
right times of year– but other nuanced aspects
of it, or particular ways to hold something, or twist
something, can only be shown. It can’t be described
in a very precise way. So you have all of this
loss of experience, this loss of information. And then over the course
of these animals’ life, they may be able to learn
the same amount again. But then when they
need to communicate it, they have the
exact same problem. It’s hard to
communicate with what they have at their disposal,
which is really just showing the other chimpanzees
what they’ve done. And so once again, you
have a loss of information. And what you have in this
type of circumstance is, generation after generation,
even though there is learning over the course of an
individual chimpanzee’s life, and even though they can
communicate some of that to each other, that
form of communication loses so much
information and so much nuance that you never have
an overall accumulation of knowledge and wisdom in
this chimpanzee population. Now humans, on the
other hand, have something called a
symbolic language. And I’ll talk about
this in a second. But for now, it’s safe to say
that human language is far more precise and far more
efficient than just being able to show someone something. Imagine if you had to
learn how to do something without being able to
communicate verbally, if you just had to look
at someone else’s actions. And then you’d have a good
idea of how difficult it is for chimpanzees
to teach each other. But in the case of
human beings, we have this thing called
symbolic language. That’s a very precise, very
efficient way of communicating. So from one human
being to another, you can actually
communicate a good deal. Maybe not every single nuance
and every single experience, but a good chunk of it. So right here, I’m drawing
about that much of it to some other human being. Maybe it is the offspring. Maybe it is another member
of the tribe or the group or whatever it is. And then this human
being might come up with some other innovations. They’re able to build off
of all of this learning from that previous generation
or from that other human being that’s around. And they’re able to come
up with their own nuances and their own innovations. And this one right
over here might come up with his or her own the
nuances and innovations. And because they have a good
communication mechanism, this one could even communicate
to that one what he’s learned or what she’s learned
and communicate a good chunk of that. Maybe not all of it, but
maybe a reasonable bit. They can describe exactly
how they do something, the times of years,
when it’s good to do it, and when it’s not
good to do it, how to plan for the future,
what’s the history of this new learning. And so what you
have going on here is because of this strong
communication mechanism, precise, efficient
communication, what you have is a human
group, or eventually a human civilization, is able
to have a collective memory. In the case of the chimpanzees,
they’re every generation. Every chimpanzee is having
to relearn the things that the other chimpanzees
might have already done in previous generations. They’re not able to really
move forward or build on those in significant ways. In humans, as information is
learned and experience gained, a good bit of that is able to
be passed on to other humans. And so this might be passed on. So all of this might be passed
on or good chunk of this could be passed on to
the next generation. And I’m not even talking
about written language yet. This could still just be oral
communication, which is still a very strong, precise,
efficient means of communication. Written communication
takes it to another level. But then this person
over here, maybe she comes up with other innovations. And at some point,
you might say, well, look if everyone keeps
having innovations and they keep learning
what everyone learned in previous
generations, maybe this will tap out the
total amount of memory that a human being even has. And there’s actually
a case that maybe this is one of the reasons
why humans even have larger memories,
because there is all of this
collective knowledge to gain from one generation to
another, from one human being to another. But there are some
limits to this. And this is the other element
where this collective aspect of collective memory
and collective learning becomes really powerful. A human being, because of the
strong communication mechanism, is not just limited to the
knowledge and the experience in their memory. They are able to tap
into– So this human being right over here does
not have this skill set. And that skill set
maybe gets passed on to another human being. So let me copy and paste that. This other human being that’s
maybe living at the same time. And when that becomes
relevant, they could actually tap into it. And maybe they could learn
it from that human being. Or maybe it’s in a
different part of society and this human being
can build certain tools or build certain things
using this information, using that knowledge
right over there. And then this
human being doesn’t need to know that information. They can just leverage the
output of that information to then build on top of it. So what it allows
human beings to do is not only convey information,
and build on information, from generation to
generation, human to human, it allows all of
the human brains collectively at any
given point of time to be one collective
memory bank that can be used to
develop or innovate and for specific
domains and adapt to specific parts
of the ecosystem or to teach each other. So all of a sudden,
this is really unique, as far as we can tell,
in the animal kingdom. All of a sudden, it’s
not all about the brain or the memory of one
individual member of a species. It now becomes about
the brain or the memory of the entire civilization
or the entire group of the species. And just an example of
that, as far as I know, there’s no human being who
knows how to do everything that all human beings
know how to do. I could imagine that
there is a chimpanzee that knows how to do everything
that any other chimpanzee knows how to do. There are no humans that can
be a fighter pilot, a doctor, a gymnast, a lawyer, understands
philosophy, and speaks 20 different languages. As far as I know, that
human being does not exist. And that’s OK,
because they can tap into the experiences, the
abilities of other human beings to build up their civilization. None of us, as far
as we know, knows how to do everything
that we need to actually build
our civilization. But the information is
in our collective memory to actually do it. Now the next thing
you might say is, OK, I started with this premise
that we have a strong, precise, efficient means
of communication, and that other animals don’t. But don’t other animals actually
have some form of language? So for example, even monkeys. Wouldn’t they screech
when they are in danger? That’s a form of communication,
maybe a form of language. Maybe certain animals–
birds, monkeys– maybe they have a song that they sing
that can convey certain things. Maybe it’s when they
are looking for a mate. Isn’t that a form
of communication? And these are. These are a form
of communication and a form of language. But these don’t
really come in play in terms of the
teaching/learning. You don’t see one chimpanzee
making screeching sounds or learning sounds. They might do a little bit, just
to warn, maybe as a warning. But there’s no deep
nuance or deep precision that’s being able to convey by
these one-off sounds or even one-off gestures. And what’s particularly
powerful about human language is that it is a
symbolic language. And when I say it’s
a symbolic language, I’m even saying it
in a broader sense that even just written symbols. I’m talking about even
though the sounds themselves. So let’s go to a time where
we did not even have writings. And when we talk about
symbolic languages, let’s think about a
non-symbolic language. So in a non-symbolic language,
you might have some sound. Let’s call it Sound 1. And it has some meaning. Let’s call it Meaning 1. So this might be a
certain type of scream. It means that a
predator is approaching. Then you might have something
like a Sound 2 or Gesture 2. And then it has
some other meaning. It has Meaning 2. It might be a
certain type of song, which means that I’m in the mood
to reproduce or whatever else. You might have Gesture 3
that has some direct meaning. It might mean that I have found
food or something like that. So Meaning 3. What humans have,
they can do this, where particular sounds
have particular meanings. So for example, in humans,
you could have Sound 1. It refers to Meaning 1. I’ll just refer to
it as Meaning 1. You could have Sound 2
that refers to Meaning 2. You could have Sound 3
that refers to Meaning 3. So these are just
direct representations. But what is really powerful
about symbolic languages, is that these oral symbols
can be combined according to set rules or grammars to have
an infinite number of meanings. So this is what really makes
human language transcend other languages
and really makes it this robust, precise
communication mechanism, is you could have combinations. Sound 1, Sound 2,
Sound 3 will now have another meaning, Meaning 4. Then you could maybe
have a combination we have Sound 3, Sound 1, and
Sound 2 might have Meaning 5. And if you have tens
of thousands of sounds, and really our oral words
are those sounds in a given language, then all
of a sudden, you can have infinite
meanings by putting them in different combinations. And if you think this
is a little bit abstract imagine that Sound
1 is the sound of me saying the word “dog.” And I’m not even
going to write it down because I want to
imagine a world even before written communication. So Sound 1 is the sound “dog.” Sound 2 is a sound, “eats.” And Sound 3 is the sound “man.” So literally, Sound 1,
if you heard, “dog,” you’d think, OK, I’d
visualize a dog of some type. And even there, you’d have
some visualization of a dog. And we all have one maybe. Sound 2, if you heard
“eats,” you’d say, OK, I’d imagine
eating in some way. And Sound 3, “man,” you have
some visualization of it. And if it was a
non-symbolic language, that’s all you could get
out of those three sounds. But now, in a symbolic
language, we can combine those. We could say, “dog eats man.” So once again, we just reused
the three sounds, the three symbols. But now, they’re referring to
a whole new, much more complex, meaning than just referring
to certain objects or certain actions. Or you could have,
“man eats dog.” It’s not pleasant, but I guess
in a desperate situation. But once again, it
is another meaning that we can get out
of the same sounds. And what these
symbolic languages do, besides giving you an
infinite number of meanings, they’re allowed to
give you more nuance, and really refer to things that
are abstract, and including– and maybe most
importantly– things like the present,
the future, the past, kind of hypothetical things that
really are necessary in order to really communicate
or optimally communicate all of the experiences or
the learnings from one entity to another.


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