0707-History of Human Knowledge

Lecture by Professor Omar Hasan Kasule Sr. MB ChB (MUK), MPH (Harvard), DrPH (Harvard) for postgraduate students at the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine Universiti Malaya on Friday 13th July, 2007



Adam was the first human in recorded history to have acquired knowledge through an active process. He learned the names of things so that he might classify and identify them; most knowledge however complex starts with naming and classification.



Throughout human history knowledge has been acquired by revelation, through the agency of prophets, or by empirical observation and experimentation. Prophets were basically teachers who transmitted knowledge. Knowledge of the unseen is through revelation. Knowledge of the seen is acquired by direct interaction with the physical environment. Both methods of acquiring knowledge require the use of human intellect. It is a mistake to try getting a particular type of knowledge from the wrong source.



Science is study and understanding of nature with 2 ultimate objectives: satisfaction of human curiosity and material benefits for humans. It is based on the fact that there are regularities in nature that reflect underlying physical laws of the Creator. Science does not stop at description of regularities but extends beyond to understand underlying causes. Since science studies nature by use of senses that are not perfect, it can never claim absolute certainty in its assertions. 


The historical record is silent about what happened in terms of knowledge and scientific development after Adam. The archeological record however shows that humans in various habitats made progress in learning scientific concepts as well as developing simple technology such as use of fire, making and using tools, building durable homes, animal husbandry, and agriculture. Progress was slow and was mostly by trial and error. Ancients were keen observers of nature with the focus on movements of celestial bodies and variation of seasons. Astronomy was mixed with astrology and was closely bound with religious beliefs.


Growth of science and technology based on systematic and methodological investigation is recent in human history. Technological development was fastest when humans lived together in large communities where they could interact, learn from one another, and share their creative endeavors. Big spurts in the growth of human technological knowledge always coincided with discovery of new forms of energy in the following succession: fire, animal muscles, wind, hydro, explosives, steam, internal combustion engine, electricity, and nuclear energy. Technology has led and determined the growth of all other disciplines of human knowledge by bringing about major changes of social organization. Social and human sciences have developed in response to challenges posed by technology.




The history of modern science disciplines is very brief. Europeans and their descendants in the Americas, Australasia, and other parts of the world dominate science and technology today because of the head-start that their forefathers gave them during the European renaissance. This domination may make some people forget that modern science and technology is a common heritage of all humans and that all people contributed to its growth.



Mesopotamians developed mathematics, astronomy, and a number system. The Babylonians observed stars with no attempt at analyzing and synthesizing the phenomena they saw. The ancient Egyptians also had many developments in astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. They developed a calendar mainly to help them predict the annual flooding of the Nile The ancient Chinese developed a calendar using astronomical observations. Practical knowledge of alchemy, medicine, geology, geography, and technology was encouraged. Indians studied movements of the sun, the moon, and the stars. They developed advanced mathematics including geometry and algebra. They also developed the Hindu-Arabic numerals that are used widely today. The Mayans of Central America studied astronomy and astrology and developed a calendar. All these ancient civilizations described nature but did not make attempts to understand it.



The Greeks studied Egyptian and Babylonian mathematics and medicine. They tried to find theoretical explanations for phenomena but loathed experimentation. Romans used some of the Greek science and made additions but mostly practical ones. With the decline of the Greek and Roman civilizations science was forgotten in Europe but it had a new beginning in the then ascendant Muslim world. Muslims used knowledge from the Greeks, improved it, and made new discoveries of their own.


Greeks seem to have started the tradition of inquiring about causes thus developing the discipline that was later to become philosophy. Science thus became natural philosophy. Aristotle and Archimedes were the most influential Greek scientists. Aristotle was a keen observer of nature but like later Greek scientists was not inclined to experimentation. Archimedes applied mathematical principles to description of nature. Hippocrates in the 5th century BC under the influence of natural philosophy introduced the concept that disease was a natural and not a supernatural phenomenon. Later Greek physicians such as Galen made contributions to anatomy and physiology. When Romans conquered Greek lands, they did not encourage further growth of science. With the fall of Rome, science in Europe entered the middle ages of no growth but as mentioned above flourished in the Muslim lands.



Medieval Europeans were trying to explain observed natural phenomena from a religious stand point. They saw no conflict between religion and science. The medieval thinkers saw God as the creator of the book of scripture and the book of nature. Scientific ideas woven around religious themes could therefore not be challenged easily because any challenge was treated as an affront to religion.



Islam encouraged the search for knowledge. Muslims translated ancient Greek texts. They absorbed Greek medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. They criticized Greek science and made innovations of their own. They were interested in numbers and they created the discipline of algebra. During military conflicts between Christian medieval Europe and the Muslim world in Andalusia and Palestine, Europe came to discover treasures of scientific knowledge that Muslims had. Muslims expelled from Andalusia left behind many manuscripts that were translated by monks into Latin.




Starting with the renaissance Europeans rediscovered Greek science largely by learning from Muslims who had preserved and developed this knowledge. This led to a knowledge revival in Europe and the rise of Western Europe to being a world power. Roger Bacon (1220 - 1292 M) was an English Fransiscan philosopher who advocated experimental science. Many theoretical and conceptual break-throughs were realized during and after the renaissance. These were stimulated by practical observations and experimentation. Leonardo da Vinci, Corpenicus, Tycho, Kepler, and Galileo made observations that contradicted scientific concepts propagated by the Christian Church. Andreas Vesalius published ‘De humani corporis fabrica’ based on anatomical dissection that corrected many prevalent ideas about human anatomy. In 1628 William Harvey published ‘An anatomical exercise concerning the motion of the heart and blood in animals’ in which he described blood circulation that had been described centuries earlier by a Muslim physician in Damascus, Ibn al Nafees. In 1687 Newton published his ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’ in which he enunciated three laws of motion and the force of gravity. He thus was able to provide theoretical explanation for the observations of Corpenicus, Galileo and others who had studied planetary motion. Newton also made methodological contributions in his ‘Optiks’ published in 1704 by showing how hypotheses could be used in scientific investigations whose results could lead to scientific theories. Newtonian mechanics later wholly mathematized was dominant in the next three centuries. Scientific societies were established to study the new knowledge that was accumulating. The Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge was set up in 1662. The Academie des Sciences was set up in Paris in 1666.


3.2 THE 18th and 19th CENTURIES

The new spirit of scientific inquiry and experimentation in Europe also triggered the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries was not a direct application of the newly discovered scientific knowledge. The revolution was in the textile, metallurgical, and transport industries whose scientific basis was already known.  It was not until the end of the 19th century that science made direct contributions to industry especially in metallurgy, dyes, and the electric motor.


In 1820 Hans Christian Orsted showed that electric and magnetic forces were related. Michael Faraday extended this observation by studying the transformation of one form of energy into another one. This and later observations led to the principle of conservation of energy. By the end of the 19th century all force transformations could be described mathematically.


Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier explained the role of oxygen in combustion and triggered a revolution in chemistry. John Dalton’s discovery that elements differed in atomic weight led to discovery of many new elements. These were arranged according to their properties in a periodic table first devised by a Russian chemist called Dimitri Mendeleyev.


In the 18th century Carl von Linne described a rational system for classifying and naming organisms. Jean-Baptiste Chevalier de Lamark proposed the idea that organisms could change into others a position contrary to the teachings of the Bible. The idea was picked up by Charles Darwin who proposed evolution and natural selection in 1859. Theodor Schwann and Matthias Schleiden in 1838 proposed the cell theory. Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch pioneered the germ theory of disease that led immediately to practical methods of disease control.


3.3 20th CENTURY

 The 20th century also witnessed many theoretical break-throughs. Albert Eistein showed that mass and energy were interchangeable and that time and distance were relative. Werner Eisenberg proposed the uncertainty principle ie that you can not know both the location and speed of an object accurately at the same time.




Language is use of symbols, written or spoken, to communicate ideas and information. Language is found only in humans. Languages differ due to differences in how sounds are produced. Some languages are more similar to one another. The same language can have mutually intelligible dialects. Non-verbal languages like gestures supplement verbal languages for complete communication. Para-lingual sounds such as laughter and exclamations may have no verbal meaning but play a role in communication. Computer or machine languages are an extension of the meaning of language in the modern era. Language is primarily spoken. Written language is recent in human history. Writing has helped transmit language and also to standardize it over a time and space dimension than was possible in the past. Literacy also does modify the spoken language a good example being the acronyms that are accepted as words. Many human languages are still unwritten.



The majority of humans are monolingual. They learn a mother tongue when young. Humans can learn a second or third language to various degrees of competence. Humans use language in a very creative way to express a wide diversity of ideas and information. A language can be understood in a specific social context.


Language is acquired from the environment and not by inheritance. Infants learn the language of those who bring them up whether parents of other child minders. A human infant can learn any human language exposed to early in life. There is no racial bias in language acquisition. The exposure of children to language is not systematic but they seem to have an innate ability to work out and learn the rules of grammar besides developing a vocabulary from random exposure to language. Children language learning is not stereotyping sentences. They have the creative ability to construct their own sentences. Literacy has to be taught.



There is a close interaction between language and thought. Advanced thinking is essentially manipulation of verbal symbols. It is also possible to think by manipulating pictorial symbols. Words sand for abstract concepts used in thinking. Language also conveys culture. You can know a lot about a people’s culture by analyzing their language use. The cultural context of languages makes translation a difficult task. Languages can also be used to define nationalism or to whip up nationalistic fervor.



Development of language was also closely related to growth and sophistication of human knowledge. Language provided verbal symbols that could represent concepts or objects. The human intellect could then manipulate these symbols in description, analysis, or synthesis. Natural language developed incrementally over time with its words changing meaning and significance as well as picking up more than one meaning. It is thus not very exact and has been an impediment to scientific thought and communication. Mathematical language on the other hand is exact and precise. Mathematics starting in its simplest form, counting and use of numerals, enabled humans to understand magnitudes and to put objects or concepts in some form of logical order. Mathematics has propelled scientific growth by providing an exact communication medium. It has enabled scientists advance their conceptual and abstract thinking to very high levels of sophistication.



There are rival theories about the origin of human languages. Monogenesis assumes one original language for all humans whereas polygenesis assumes several original languages. These theories cannot be proved because we have no evidence about language in the pre-historical era.


Languages change because of population movement or through imposition of a language on conquered people. In some cases people voluntarily give up their own language to learn a new language for commercial, political, or religious purposes. Modern travel and communication are spreading languages or helping standardize language within an area with dialects being forcing dialects to disappear instead of persisting and with time developing into new languages. For all these various reasons language does not correspond to race or ethnicity. Official action to preserve or purify a language have been made in several countries but are rarely successful.


Linguistic change occurs in all languages. These changes involve vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, syntax, and semantics. The changes are gradual and are noticed after time. In science and technology the growth of vocabulary is very rapid because of rapid growth of knowledge. Over a period of time, slangs of a language may end up being separate languages. For example Latin gave birth to the so-called Romance languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian. The original language is not known for the Germanic languages: English, German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish.



Language families can be recognized and indicate that there was a proto-language that has now disappeared. The Indo-European language group includes modern European languages (Germanic and Romance sub-families), Sanskrit, the languages of Northern South Asia. The Altaic language family covers Turkish and the languages of Central Asia. The Bantu language family includes languages of Central and Southern Africa.


Based on their grammar, modern languages can be classified into three types. Analytic languages have no word-form change and their sentence structures are expressed by word order and word grouping. Agglutinative languages combine several grammatical forms in one word. Inflectional languages have changes at the end of words to indicate specific grammatical forms. Many languages are a mixture of the three types of structure.




Literacy is a term used to refer to ability to read and write. When early humans settled down in communities they needed a means of efficient communication and record keeping. Various civilizations experimented independently with various forms of writing. Writing was invented independently in the early human civilizations. It arose as a practical necessity to preserve information and to transmit messages. The Sumerians appear to have been the first people to write in the 4th millennium BC. At the beginning a picture told the whole story in what is called cuneiform writing. Then a picture was used to depict just one word or part of a word in what is called logographic writing. A later development was syllabic writing in which a symbol was used to represent a symbol represented a sequence of consonants and vowels. The final stage in the evolution of writing was alphabetical writing in which specific letters represented specific sounds. Use of a combination of consonants and vowels provided an infinite permutation of words and sounds. Writing is a transcription of language and is not a representation of thoughts. Writing using pictures and logos is meaning-based. Alphabet-based writing representing sounds is easier to handle because an innumerable number of sounds can be read correctly for the first time. On the other hand picture-based writing requires memorization of so many characters order to read. Alphabetical writing may use a combination of consonants and vowels as in English. It may also be based on consonants without vowels as in Arabic and Hebrew. Some writing systems like Chinese combine both pictures and sounds. It seems that the earliest writing systems were pictorial.



Alphabetic writing was a later development. Alphabetical writing was an improvement on pictorial writing. Pictorial writing required mastery of many characters. A writing system has two characteristics that are inversely related: learnability and expressivity. Writing that is easy to learn is not very efficient in expressing complex meanings.


Alphabetical writing can be read accurately by people who already know the language because there are sounds that are not fully represented by the letters. To indicate exactly how each letter will be pronounced, phonetic writing is used in teaching people foreign languages. Once the literary form is fixed, the pronunciation may change that making the writing appear illogical. However efforts to solve the problem of disharmony between writing and pronunciation are expensive because so much printed material exists and it would not be intelligible to later generations if orthographic reforms were made frequently. Once the literary form is fixed, the pronunciation may change that making the writing appear illogical. However efforts to solve the problem of disharmony between writing and pronunciation are expensive because so much printed material exists and it would not be intelligible to later generations if orthographic reforms were made frequently.



Development of writing was a major step in the growth of knowledge because it enabled preservation and transmission of knowledge. Over most of recorded human history only a very tiny proportion of the population could read or write. Elites of societies have always wanted to control access to knowledge and information by limiting reading and writing to a few people. The elite that monopolized literacy could thus easily control the ignorant masses. The modern industrialized nation-states are doing the opposite with the same aim. Literacy is encouraged and  schooling is made compulsory because the operation of the industrial economy requires a literate worker and consumer able to get the information that the elite want him to get. That information is a means of control.


Writing serves various functions. It allows accurate communication without face-to-face encounter. It helps keep records. It also forces writers to think in a more logical and systematic way. Readers can also read forward or backward and reflect on the terms they are reading. Literacy unlike oral language has to be taught formally. Democratization of literacy has transformed societies by spreading knowledge among many people. However still elites have higher competence in literacy than the general public. The elites have a bigger vocabulary and more advanced grammar. They can read specialized texts not available to the general masses.




The first books were written on clay, papyrus, bamboo, or leather. Early books were either in the form a roll or a codex.  The Chinese also discovered paper and knew how to make inks. The Chinese had invented paper in 105 AD. Chinese taken as prisoners at the battle of Talas near Samarkand in 751 M gave the secrets of paper making to Arabs. Paper manufacture then spread in West Asia and Andalusia. By the 13th century paper manufacturing technology had reached Europe from the Muslim world. Muslims did not however learn printing technology from the Chinese.



Writing could not have a big impact without printing because the written word could only reach a dew people if it was copied by hand. Printing has been responsible for dissemination of knowledge in the period before development of electronic media. Printing was discovered in China by the end of the second century M but developed in Europe because the Latin alphabet with less than 30 characters was more amenable to typesetting than the 80,000 symbols of Chinese writing. In the 6th century AD the Chinese invented block printing. They invented movable type in the 11th century AD. The printing press was rediscovered in Europe by Johannes Gutenberg in c. 1450 M. Johannes Gutenberg in 1440-50 started the printing industry in Europe. It responded to the thirst for knowledge among the increasingly literate European population. Printing was mechanized in the 19th century AD. Over the centuries improvements were made on the printing press. In the 19th century printing was mechanized. Mechanizing type setting was another significant invention because assembling letters by hand was a very laborious process. Modern computers have taken over the composition and typesetting. Printing technology has undergone considerable change enabling faster printing of text as well as image and using various colors.



Publications may be periodical such as magazines or non-periodical such as books. Various forms of censorship were applied in various countries when political authorities realized the power of books in shaping people’s opinions. Where no formal censorship was established laws on obscenity, libel, and national security controlled publications. Protection of copyright gave authors and publishers an opportunity to benefit from their labor while at the same time allowing easy dissemination of knowledge. Trade in books and foundation of libraries grew as more people became literate and educated. Lending libraries did not limit the purchase of books.


The 19th century witnessed a revolution in publishing. Printing technology became more advanced enabling mass printing of books and thus lowering costs of printing per book. The cost of paper fell as paper producing technology developed. Binding also became more efficient and cheaper. By the 20th century book publishing had grown into a major industry. The expansion of school and university education created a demand for textbooks. Mass production of paperbacks made books comparatively cheaper. Expansion of knowledge in various fields also ensured that there was thirst for books. Universities and governments also set up publishing houses that competed with the commercial ones. Marketing techniques became more sophisticated with books being sold overseas and in translations.



When human knowledge expanded, it became necessary to have a brief summary that can provide a general overview for the general reader. Encyclopedia arose to answer this need. An encyclopedia is an attempt to collect all contemporary knowledge in a volume. Some encyclopedias are specialized in a branch of knowledge and they try to collect all what is known in that area. Encyclopedic dictionaries fulfill some of the roles of encyclopedias but are rather brief.


Most encyclopedias are arranged alphabetically or according to subject matter or both. Ibn Qutaybah (828-889 M) compiled the first Arabic encyclopedia titled Kitan ‘Uyuun al Akhbar in 10 books. Several scholars contribute articles to an encyclopedia. Political and ideological factors affect the selection of material included in encyclopedia. Encyclopedias are usually published in several volumes but single volume encyclopedias do exist. To facilitate using an encyclopedia as a reference there are indexes and cross references. Illustrations are used. The level of writing tends to be at the level of an average reader. An encyclopedia is kept up to date between editions by using supplementary materials, year books, appendices, etc. Editing an encyclopedia involves making sure that different articles are not repetitive and unnecessarily contradictory. Articles are very condensed in consideration of the limited space available. Updating an encyclopedia is a problem because by the time the editing and printing are completed new knowledge and new facts have appeared. It is not possible to issue new editions too frequently. Usually supplements have been used for updating between editions. Bias is a problem that is difficult to eliminate since article authors write from their vantage points.  Encyclopedia have traditionally been printed on paper. Electronic forms are now available and Encyclopedia Britannica is now available only in the electronic form. Searching is easier with electronic forms.



A library is a collection of books used in the past as storage for books. It evolved to become a place for reading books instead of buying them. A modern library is an information resource. Modern libraries keep information using several media other than books. They also enable access to information far way by means of telecommunication devices. Muawiyah organized a library in Damascus. It was expanded and was improved by al Walid (705-715 M) who appointed a librarian called sahib al masahif to be in charge. Public libraries were later established in Baghdad, Cairo, Cordova, Toledo, and Granada. The growth of universities encouraged setting up of libraries for student and teacher reference. Libraries are described as public, private, university, and school libraries. Archives keep special records for historical purposes. Besides books libraries keep photographs, audio-visuals, and other electronic forms of data storage. They have catalogues and data bases that are used to search for and retrieve needed material. Materials in libraries are catalogued by subject and by author. Systematic cataloguing and classification schemes are used the best known being the Dewey Decimal Cataloging System developed by Melvil Dewey in 1876 M. The Universal Decimal Classification was developed from that of Dewey and is used in many countries. Libraries have also used technology to preserve ancient material and protect it from deterioration. A special discipline called library science has developed to teach the principles and practices of library operation and administration.




Higher education is post-secondary education followed in most cases by award of a certificate, a degree, or a diploma. It is offered at universities, colleges, and other institutions. It may be academic or theoretical or may be practical and vocational. Modern industrialized societies have designed their higher education systems to respond to their economic manpower needs.



The objectives of the university should be to produce leaders in various academic fields. It should extend the frontiers of knowledge by research. Universities must be active partners in societal development by researching and involvement in science and technology. Universities must have the following attributes in order to fulfill their responsibilities: academic freedom to teach and research without political interference or pressure, an integrated approach to research and knowledge that does not preclude deep specialization in the various disciplines, being part of the society and not an ivory tower, and teachers who are a model of Islamic behavior so that they can impart positive influences on the students.



Muslim universities: Universities were established in the Muslim world earlier than in Europe. Azhar University.


European universities: The first European university was a medical school at Salerno in Italy that thrived in the 9th century M and accepted students from all over Europe. It however never extended beyond medical education. A university in Bologna thrived in the 11th century and taught canon and civil law. The University of Paris was founded in 1150-1170 and taught theology. Oxford University was founded at the end of the 12th century. Cambridge university was founded in 1209 by dissatisfied students from Oxford. Starting in the 13th century universities were established in several European cities: Montpellier in 1220, Aix-en-Provence in 1409, Padua in 1222, Rome in 1303, Florence in 1321, Salamanca in 1218, Prague in 1348, Vienna in 1365, Heidelberg in 1386, Leipzig in 1409, Freuburg in 1457, Tubingen in 1477, Luvain in 1425, and St Andrews in 1451. These early universities were independent corporations operating under a royal charter and free to govern themselves. They however received no financial assistance from the state. They had to charge fees and to treat students well in order not to lose them to competitors. The basic curriculum of these early universities consisted of grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music. On completion students would choose one of the professional schools: medicine, law, and theology. During the protestant reformation universities took sides in the theological argument and defended or promoted Protestantism or Catholicism. All early universities taught in Latin. The University of Halle is considered the first modern university because it taught in a vernacular (German) and followed objective academic inquiry away from religious bias. In the 18th and 19th centuries European universities became secular and largely government financed. New disciplines especially scientific ones were added to the curriculum. Europeans established universities in their overseas colonies. Other countries followed the European model and established universities: Moscow in 1755, St Petersburg in 1819, Tokyo in 1877, Kyoto in 1897, and Peking in 1898.


American universities: Spaniards established universities in Santo Domingo in 1538 and Michoacan in Mexico in 1540. The earliest US universities started as 4-year colleges: Harvard in 1636, William and Mary in 1693, Yale in 1701, Princeton in 1746, and Columbia in 1754. They were established by religious denominations. The first Canadian university was established at Toronto in 1827.



Legal education: Legal education covers basic subjects such as constitutional law, the law of contract, the law of tort, the law of real property, and criminal law. Legal codes, court reports, and text books are used in instruction. Actual court procedure may be taught at the law school or at another institution after graduation. It may also be taught as apprenticeship. Instruction is by the case method, lectures, and seminars. To qualify for practice as a lawyer passing a professional examination is required. The examination is usually set by a professional body.


Medical education: The start of medical education is difficult to determine. Medicine historically was learned by apprenticeship. The first modern medical school in Europe was established at Salerno in Southern Italy in 9-11th centuries M. Medical education in the Muslim world had started much earlier and medical schools were flourishing in Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba. A medical course is divided into 2 stages. In the pre-clinical stage students focus on medical sciences. In the second phase called the clinical phase students learn medicine in the hospital by examining and watching the treatment of actual patients. Postgraduate medical education is specialization in a given branch of medicine. Working physicians have to attend continuing medical education courses to update knowledge since medicine is growing very rapidly. Graduation from a medical school does not automatically confer the right to practice medicine. A graduate must be licensed by a licensing body which may offer special examinations for this.



Mass school education: The movement is towards universal primary or secondary education. This will in time ensure that there is mass education.


Adult or continuing education is learning by adults after a period of interruption of the education that started in childhood. It therefore does not include postgraduate education of an adult who has been in the education system for a continuous basis. It may be for employment, general knowledge, or remedy of educational defects from earlier life.

ŠProfessor Omar Hasan Kasule, Sr. July 2007