Sharing Scientific Knowledge

EDITORIAL, 28 Jun 2021

#699 | John Scales Avery – TRANSCEND Media Service

We Stand on Each Other’s Shoulders

Cultural evolution depends on the non-genetic storage, transmission, diffusion and utilization of information. The development of human speech, the invention of writing, the development of paper and printing, and finally, in modern times, mass media, computers and the Internet: all these have been crucial steps in society’s explosive accumulation of information and knowledge. Human cultural evolution proceeds at a constantly-accelerating speed.

Our modern civilization has been built up by means of a worldwide exchange of ideas and inventions. It is built on the achievements of many ancient cultures. China, Japan, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, the Islamic world, Christian Europe, and the Jewish intellectual traditions, all have contributed.   Potatoes, corn, squash, vanilla, chocolate, chili peppers, and quinine are gifts from the American Indians.

The sharing of scientific and technological knowledge is essential to modern civilization. The great power of science is derived from an enormous concentration of attention and resources on the understanding of a tiny fragment of nature. It would make no sense to proceed in this way if knowledge were not permanent, and if it were not shared by the entire world.

Science is not competitive. It is cooperative. It is a great monument built by many thousands of hands, each adding a stone to the cairn. This is true not only of scientific knowledge but also of every aspect of our culture, history, art and literature, as well as the skills that produce everyday objects upon which our lives depend. Civilization is cooperative. It is not competitive.

Our cultural heritage is not only immensely valuable; it is also so great that no individual comprehends all of it. We are all specialists, who understand only a tiny fragment of the enormous edifice. No scientist understands all of science. Perhaps Leonardo da Vinci could come close in his day, but today it is impossible. Nor do the vast majority of people who use cell phones, personal computers and television sets every day understand in detail how they work. Our health is preserved by medicines, which are made by processes that most of us do not understand, and we travel to work in automobiles and buses that we would be completely unable to construct.

The Collective Human Consciousness

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
— John Donne (1572-1631)

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
— Isaac Newton (1643-1727)

“The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it.”
— Aaron Schwartz (1986-2013)

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Human society is a superorganism, far greater than any individual in history or in the present. The human superorganism has a supermind, a collective consciousness far greater than the consciousness of individuals. Each individual contributes a stone to the cairn of civilization, but our astonishing understanding of the universe is a collective achievement.

Scientists of all nations pool their knowledge at international conferences and through international publications. Scientists stand on each other’s shoulders. Their shared knowledge is far greater than the fragments that each contributes.

Other aspects of culture are also cooperative and global. For example, Japanese woodblock prints influenced the French Impressionists. The nonviolent tradition of Shelly, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela is international. Culture is cooperative. It is not competitive. Global cultural cooperation can lead us to a sustainable and peaceful society. Our almost miraculous modern communications media, if properly used, can give us a stable, prosperous and cooperative future society.

Pasteur’s Unselfish Gifts of Knowledge

Louis Pasteur, the great pioneer of modern medical science, made many inventions during his lifetime, for example the processes of pasteurization for milk, wine and cheese. He always patented his inventions, to prevent others from doing so, but he then gave the patents freely to the general public. His lifelong search for knowledge was not motivated by a desire to make money but rather by his wish to serve the general welfare of humanity.

Getting Rich from Vaccines during a Pandemic?

Pharmaceutical corporations, with the help of the World Trade Organization, seem intent on making as much money as possible from vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic. They greedily embrace their “intellectual property rights”, despite the fact their vaccine research was supported by government funds, and despite the fact that if vaccines are not rapidly made available to poor countries, mutant viruses may arise which will threaten all nations, rich and poor alike. Is this not another case where scientific knowledge should be shared for the general good of humanity?


John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf). Website:

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 28 Jun 2021.

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