Jürgen Renn’s The Evolution of Knowledge: Rethinking Science for the Anthropocene is a book to read twice, or not at all. A global history of knowledge is a breathtakingly ambitious project, even more so when oriented toward our current global challenges. Renn argues that an expansive perspective is prerequisite for addressing those challenges. His sweeping account of knowledge throughout human history aims to show how the structure of knowledge today contributes to—and offers a platform for addressing—the potentially existential threats of the Anthropocene. Renn faces down the difficulties of crafting such an account with skill and resolve. The result is provocative and challenging and asks much of its readers.

A world map drawn by English mathematician Edward Wells circa 1700.

A world map drawn by English mathematician Edward Wells circa 1700.

Close modal

The book’s five sections are arranged according to scale, from individuals and communities to institutions to global networks of knowledge. In the book’s synoptic first section, “What Is Science? What Is Knowledge?,” Renn argues that knowledge is created by mental, material, and social factors. Our minds determine the categories we can easily apprehend and incline us to certain patterns of abstract thinking. We use mental abstractions to generate representations of ideas, which facilitate both the ideas’ manipulation and their dissemination. Human communities are then structured in ways guided by those representations. The interdependence of Renn’s three dimensions of knowledge—the mental, the material, and the social—is critical for understanding the book’s broader argument and vision.

In part 2, Renn turns to how knowledge changes at the scale of individuals and their local social environments, drawing on developmental psychology and biology. Key here is the insight that abstract reasoning is not a straightforward consequence of our mental architecture; it is shaped by the material and social resources available during cognitive development. That set of resources has distinctive “challenging objects”—phenomena that behave recalcitrantly with respect to contemporary knowledge systems. It also has “borderline problems”—questions that straddle knowledge systems and prompt their extension. Addressing challenging objects and borderline problems is the principal mechanism by which knowledge systems change. The history of knowledge is therefore, according to Renn, contingent, path dependent, and layered, but it proceeds via discernable patterns.

As should now be evident, the book’s argument unfolds in a technical language that becomes tractable only with some effort. For example, the book’s 18-page glossary (which is unhelpfully broken into thematic sections rather than presented as a single, alphabetized list) defines scientific knowledge as “knowledge resulting from the exploration of the potentials inherent in the material or symbolic culture of a society within a knowledge economy specifically dedicated to the generation of such knowledge, allowing for its corrigibility and involving appropriate control procedures.” That definition begins to make sense somewhere in part 3, but the understanding is hard won.

Part 3 describes and exemplifies “knowledge economies.” Those are the distributed, and sometimes global, networks arranged to preserve, distribute, and employ external representations of knowledge, examples of which range from tools and artifacts to rituals, music, and language. Institutions—which Renn understands broadly as social arrangements, like universities or scientific societies, that reproduce stable forms of behavior within them—are integral components of knowledge economies. They have assumptions and values built into them that both guide and constrain the evolution.

Although Renn’s observations about how knowledge moves at institutional scales are edifying, his metaphor of the knowledge economy is problematic. As Renn himself observes, the cultural resources at our disposal shape how we craft the external representations of our abstract concepts. The cultural resources of our age are increasingly those of the market, and that places troublesome constraints on our thinking. Renn, in his conclusion, worries about “new ways of accessing scientific information [being] blocked by its transformation into a commodity.” It would therefore be preferable to have a representation of institution-level knowledge processes that did not invite us to think of knowledge as a measurable economic resource to be exchanged and hoarded as capital.

Knowledge on the global scale is the subject of part 4. We are now accustomed to hearing about global processes, but Renn is careful not to miscast global knowledge as distinctive of our time. Our globalized knowledge practices are not a novel legacy of modernity, but part of the layered history of knowledge going back millennia. The point is critical because that history informs the features of our global knowledge system, including the constraints that produce some of our era’s challenges.

Those challenges, and how to address them, are the subject of the book’s part 5. Renn shows tremendous faith in the power of concepts to do useful work. He argues that there are problems with “the Anthropocene” as a concept, but defends its potential to help us “integrate knowledge from all the disciplines concerned” and address human disruption of the systems stabilizing the biosphere. Doing so, per Renn, requires unshackling ourselves from the constraints of legacy knowledge systems, such as disciplinary divisions, which inhibit the goal-oriented coordination of diverse bodies of knowledge. His proposed recategorization of knowledge into the areas of system, transformation, and orientation knowledge—roughly, the understandings of Earth’s natural systems, of human processes and their interaction with those systems, and of human values—is presented with the goal of overcoming intellectual territorialism and fostering the coordinated mobilization of knowledge toward well-defined ends.

That’s an abstract proposal, indicative of abstract exposition. Although The Evolution of Knowledge is littered with historical examples, the breadth of the subject matter means those examples are necessarily cursory. As a result, it is often challenging to envision how the processes Renn discusses manifest through human agency and, correspondingly, how the solutions proffered can translate into concrete policy. Nevertheless, this book presents a powerful system within which to reason not just about the history of knowledge but about its future. And that is reason enough to read it twice.

Joseph D. Martin is an assistant professor of the history of science and technology at Durham University in the UK.