Standing on the shoulders of giants: collective learning as a key concept in Big History

David Baker

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


One of the key concepts for the human part of the grand narrative is known as 'collective learning'. It is a very prominent broad trend that sweeps across all human history. Collective learning to a certain degree distinguishes us as a species; it got us out of Africa and the foraging lifestyle of the Palaeolithic, and underpinned demographic cycles and human progress for over 250,000 years. The present article looks at collective learning as a concept, its evolution within hominine species, as well as its role in human demography and the two great revolutions in human history: agriculture and industry. The paper then goes on to explain the connection of collective learning to Jared Diamond's 'Tasmanian Effect'. Collective learning also played a key role in the two 'Great Divergences' of the past two thousand years. One is industry and the rise of the West, described to great effect by Kenneth Pommeranz, the other is the less well known: the burst of demography and innovation in Song China at the turn of the second millennium AD. Finally, the paper concludes with insights into how collective learning forges a strong connection between human history and cosmology, geology, and biology, through what is widely recognized as one of the 'unifying themes' of Big History - the rise of complexity in the Universe.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationGlobalistics and globalization studies
Subtitle of host publicationbig history and global history
EditorsLeonid E. Grinin, Ilya V. Ilyin, Peter Hermann, Andrey V. Korotayev
Place of PublicationVolgograd
PublisherUchitel Publishing House
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)9785705745791
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Bibliographical note

First published in 2014 in 'Teaching and researching Big History: exploring a new scholarly field'. Grinin, L., Baker, D., Quaedackers, E. & Korotayev, A. (eds.). Volgograd, Russia: Uchitel Publishing House, p. 41-64.


  • complexity
  • collective learning
  • demographic cycles
  • evolution
  • accumulation


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