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  • Daniel Woolf

How Do Humans Make Progress?

Daniel Woolf reviews World of Patterns by Rens Bod

It’s difficult to dispute that the human species has done, and continues to do, unintelligent things. Not only individually but collectively, and at times to the point of potential extinction. But we’ve made advances that our ancient ancestors would marvel at.

How did humans make such progress? That’s the question addressed by one of the fastest growing subfields of history, the “history of knowledge,” which moves beyond traditional “history of ideas” or “intellectual history” to examine how knowledge is acquired, developed, used, and disseminated globally. Rens Bod is the latest contributor to the genre, a polymathic and prolific Dutch scholar with an early background in the hard sciences. He has already written a well-regarded and synoptic New History of the Humanities (2014) and, with his newest book, (first published in Dutch in 2019), broadens his reach beyond the humanities, while maintaining global coverage. If the earlier book focused on the rise, growth and settling of the modern disciplinary divisions of knowledge, World of Patterns has even bolder aspirations, namely to understand at a higher level how human beings have come to develop something called “knowledge” in the first place, expand and refine it, and develop intellectual instruments for its evaluation.

Bod’s title isn’t just a catchy bit of publisher marketing; it accurately captures the design and purpose of the author. Words such as “World” and “global” are increasingly common in book titles as academics and publishing houses have enthusiastically, if belatedly, embraced the notion that not all knowledge began in the West and that Asia, Africa, and the world’s indigenous cultures have contributed largely along the way. But truly global surveys are hard to pull off in practice.

Leaving aside the fact that we all have our limitations in terms of language capacity (not to mention time), methodological and compositional hazards await those who embark on such ambitious odysseys. What to put in and what to leave out? To mention every single culture or civilization makes for a comprehensive but not necessarily comprehensible work, encyclopedic but hardly readable. It runs the risk of tokenism (“we can tick a box here by mentioning this person”). And it’s fraught with the risks of both anachronism and analogy, two important concepts that turn up in Bod’s chapters. We almost inevitably see other cultures and their achievements through ethnocentric eyes—to what degree can and should the knowledge products (for instance history, astronomy, physics) of, say, Han dynasty China, or pre-Columbian Mesoamerica be compared with their contemporaries in the West, never mind modernity? In fact, these are problems that Bod is deeply aware of and for the most part avoids getting trapped within.

The key word in the title, however, isn’t “world,” but “patterns,” for it is precisely in the human capacity to recognize patterns--whether in the stars, in the course of events, in the behaviour of animals, plants and materials--that knowledge can be conceived, ordered, and advanced beyond the mere recording of observation and information.

World of Patterns: a Global History of Knowledge. Rens Bod. Translated by Leston Buell

Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022. (hardcover). Pp. 381.

Bod’s narrative begins with perhaps the earliest sign of Homo Sapiens taking note of resemblances, the cave paintings at Altamira: for its prehistoric artists to have even had the idea of sketching bison on the wall, in different positions, required recognition not merely of the fact that bison behave in some predictable ways, but that they could be represented visually as an icon of the real animal. We don’t know precisely what patterns the artists saw, but that they saw patterns seems likely. There are other forms of prehistoric evidence of pattern recognition, such as the moon observations found inscribed on a 15000-year-old mammoth tusk in Ukraine, or the arrangement of megaliths such as Stonehenge. So, “patterns” have been with us from well before recorded history.

But, Bod insists, patterns are not, in and of themselves, knowledge. Humanity had to take a second crucial step, which he locates during the Bronze Age, of making the patterns explicit and thus communicable, rather than merely implicit and recognized by their immediate makers alone. The key development that made patterns generalizable is the induction from them to the higher stage of principles. As Bod remarks near the book’s end, summing up his argument, “no generalizations over patterns can be made until we first have some patterns. And relationships between patterns and principles cannot be established until we have both patterns and principles.” Principles are generalizations made from patterns, and it is important to note that they are not confined to the natural world; they can be found in such very human situations as early legal codes: consider for instance, the “principle of retaliation” (“eye for an eye”) in the code of Hammurabi, and the fact that it is required in that code to interact with other principles, such as those of “replacement” (an injured party is made whole at least materially) or “satisfaction” (alternatives to punishment are used).

From prehistory and early antiquity, Bod moves quickly to classical antiquity: 600 BCE to 500 CE, thus including the first few centuries of Christianity in the west but not the arrival of Islam. Apart from the usual Greek figures for whom much of their work has survived (Plato, Aristotle), Bod examines two intellects whose thoughts are known only through the work of later thinkers or in copied texts long postdating their originals. From the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales of Miletus came the first “basic principle for nature—that it is composed entirely of water”; meanwhile in India the early linguist Panini (not the inventor of a popular sandwich) recognized that all language is recursive. Thales’ insight seems weird in the light of modern chemistry, but it was defensible at the time; Panini’s has enjoyed greater longevity, not merely because it has never been disproved, but because, unlike Thales’ principle, it offered a bonus: predictability, the capacity to move from observed pattern through to generalized principle and then to the application of that principle to forecast future events.

From such developments flowed the great knowledge revolutions of subsequent history—Karl Jaspers’ Achsenzeit (“Axial Age”) of the eighth to third centuries BCE, the Scientific Revolution ca 1550-1700, and modern developments from vaccines to quantum computing. The post-classical period (500-1500, roughly coincidental with Europe’s Middle Ages, an obviously Eurocentric term that Bod eschews) saw a necessary culling and integration of principles—essentially an integrative process to reduce them to a smaller number of systems, or to lowest common denominators. A good example is the work of the late Roman jurist Tribonian, who in the sixth century CE reduced the messy heritage of ancient Roman legal scholarship and several earlier attempts at their codification into a digestible form. In fact, his work was literally called the Digests, taking 3 million rules down to a still gargantuan but relatively manageable 150,000. Islamic thinkers had a similar task, approached differently: they developed analogic reasoning in order to apply the wisdom of Muhammad to situations that neither the Prophet nor the Quran had foreseen.

Among the most interesting and useful features of World of Patterns is Bod’s ability to make cross-cultural and trans-temporal comparisons. On the subject of reduction of principles, the “isnad” method developed by Islam as method of historical verification is comparable with earlier Greek developments in historiography, especially Herodotus’s principle of reliance on the most probably source among many, and Thucydides’ principle of privileging eyewitness accounts. Isnad (whereby a chain of transmission of Prophetic sayings was continuously maintained and studied to ensure a pure tradition), essentially unified the Herodotean and Thucydidean approaches into a single principle, though it failed to provide either a method of reconstructing an original text, something that awaited philologists of the Renaissance, or a way of disproving an outright but continuously transmitted falsehood. Other incisive connections are made in later chapters, such as that between Karl Lachmann’s (1793-1851) development of the family tree or stemma in linguistics, an organizational principle used in current DNA analysis.

Over the course of 300 densely packed pages and subsequent notes Bod deftly juggles his key concepts and their transitions up to recent times, with frequent stops around the world in Asia, Africa and even the South Pacific (see the treatment of Polynesian genealogies). Bod is careful to avoid giving any impression of straightforward, linear, continuous development, pointing out gaps, paths not taken, and threads lost along the way. Hawking’s history-as-stupidity, in the forms of ignorance, prejudice and social distinction, has certainly had an impeding effect, one which Bod acknowledges but also challenges in crediting some of the earliest pattern-recognizers, such as the unknown cave-painters, and in giving notice of contributions (for instance the Tang Chinese legal system) to knowledge that have had little public profile in western-focused standard histories. Both the global reach and the lack of linearity in Bod’s account makes this a breathtaking tour, sometimes with stops that seem a little too quick, comparisons not fully explored, suggestions left untested, but it also accurately reflects the untidiness, uneven pace, and transcultural quality of intellectual change.

Why is it, I wondered, that books such as this seem to be appearing at a great rate, works of synthesis aimed at telling “biggest possible picture” stories? Apart from long-span global histories of this or that discipline or group of disciplines, the “Big” and “Deep” history genres associated with the likes of David Christian and Daniel Lord Smail have struck a chord with readers, as have popular best-sellers such as Yuval Harari’s Sapiens (2014). Bod’s book is obviously a significant contribution to this macro-historical approach, and it operates at a higher level than many. In fact, the closest comparator I’ve come across recently is the equally brave, if more Eurocentric, work of a father and son team, Ricardo and David Nirenberg, Uncountable, which takes an even more reductive approach (and I do not intend that term invidiously but in Bod’s sense of “simplifying and ordering”), envisioning the progress of human knowledge as straightforward, multi-millenial dialectic between “sameness” and “difference”, apathia (unchangeability) and pathia (mutability)—what if we were to adopt Bod’s language, one might call meta-patterns that determine lesser patterns. Another such work (though one this reader found less compelling), would be The Dawn of Everything: a New History of Humanity by the late David Graeber and David Wengrow. Perhaps, like the post-ancients who sought to reduce the number of patterns and principles, our Zeitgeist now favours synthesis and integration, a reasonable reaction to the narrowness and general inaccessibility of a good deal of scholarship emerging in ever greater volume from academic presses and increasingly sub-specialized journals.

On the whole, this is a welcome trend; although I would argue we need to maintain a place for highly specialized and studies as well, academics, especially in the humanities, need to take the public-facing and translational aspects of their calling seriously—otherwise we risk increased marginalization and irrelevance. Of course, with great ambition and scope come, naturally the risk of error, over-generalization, and judgments that may be questioned. World of Patterns, despite its author’s admirable erudition, is no exception. So far as outright slips, there are very few, but there are some odd absences—the great Neapolitan Giambattista Vico gets little more than a mention. Some subsections are very brief (a paragraph or two), leaving one wanting more—the concept of “modeling,” so important to modern social science, is left to the very end. But one can’t have everything in a readable book, and in an age when tradition-breaking and disruptive change appear to be valued above all else, it’s helpful to be reminded that these would never have been possible without the ancient patterns and principles that have brought humanity this far.


Daniel Woolf’s research has focused on two areas, early modern British intellectual and cultural history, and the global history and theory of historical writing. He is the author of five books and co-editor of several others, including the two-volume A Global Encyclopedia of Historical Writing (2 vols 1998). His 2003 monograph, The Social Circulation of the Past, won the John Ben Snow Prize of the North American Conference on British Studies in 2004 for the best book on British history pre-1800. His most recent book, published by Cambridge University Press in 2019, is A Concise History of History. He is a contributing editor for Marginalia, and his articles have appeared in journals such as Past and Present, The American Historical Review, History and Theory, Renaissance Quarterly, and The Journal of the History of Ideas.


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