In his monumental “The evolution of knowledge”, Jürgen Renn describes a sequence of three punctuated equilibria along the way humans have so far dealt with knowledge – and therefore with uncertainty, too.
First comes a period where our ancestors lived in small non-sedentary communities (1). The evolution of biological features ranging from the shape of human bodies to the functioning of our brains enabled them to learn about the world they lived in.
With the neolithic revolution, knowledge was then increasingly connected to the material infrastructures of cities, ships, tools, and more (2). People lived in stratified societies with a central authority – be it an individual or an institutionalized collective – claiming control over some territory. Of course, uncertainty was a normal aspect of life, but when it led to doubts threatening the social order, sophisticated explanations combined with violence could often make such doubts ineffective. Those explanations were elabo¬rated by elites whose works of art and scientific knowledge rightly impress us today.
The transition to the third phase started nearly a millennium ago in Europe (3). There, craft-manship evolved into a division of labor based on lifetime learning that begun with apprenticeships for different occupations. It is often overlooked that academic knowledge and institutions developed hand in hand with this culture of lifetime learning in a community of practice. A key achievement of the resulting fabric of science and technology was the ability to manage the risks and uncertainties of investing capital, using concepts of probability and optimization.
Paradoxically, this ability has led humankind to the global risks and uncertainties of the Anthropocene. Developing concepts and institutions adequate to this challenge will take a long process of inquiry. An illustrative example is given by the future of the car as means of transport and cult object.