Is there an autonomous collective learning process?

During a time referred to as ‘the olden days,’ Australians had their milk delivered in glass bottles with foil caps. The bottles were left at the front door. It was also a time when blocks of ice were delivered – usually to the back door – since there were no refrigerators that I could discern. Perhaps they were unaffordable. Meat safes were the order of the day. The homes I was familiar with were those of ordinary low-income Australians.

It was a local bird – I think it was a magpie – which learned how to tear away the cap on a milk bottle, and have a sip or two of rich milk. Its interest may have been the shiny top, rather than the milk. The magpies (well-built black and white birds) I have known walk with grace and dignity across residential lawns. They portray themselves as enjoying their indigenous native-title rights to the land. Native title confers a right to use (not ownership) in a traditional manner; viz. to hunt and for recreational pastimes. In the cities, it is likely that smaller birds were involved; I do not know if they might have displayed native-title rights.

Shortly, we read that birds in Britain and (later) other nations with comparable milk bottles and delivery had also displayed an ability to rip off bottle tops. It was as if learning had spread across the seas when the birds had obviously not.

We subsequently read about how a scientific discovery in one continent was soon followed by a similar discovery across the ocean. More significantly, there was clear evidence that more and more fellow-scientists all over the modern world were now more and more speedily displaying a propensity to produce the same results. Learning to achieve the same (or comparable) results (and more speedily) seemed to come out of the air.

The question which then arose was whether a ‘how to …’ process was being transmitted through the ether, with no known transmission paths. Was there some form of collective learning taking place? Was the transmitting medium human consciousness? If so, does this occur autonomously? That is, does a process – once discovered – remain in the ether in the way mathematics is out there to be tapped into, accessed, discovered?

Just as there is some reason to believe that a collective human unconscious (say, a deep-seated memory of some terrible disaster) is real, there may be a collective consciousness enabling learning at a distance. Such learning would be different from epigenesis, which apparently requires direct learning (see my earlier post about recent work at Monash University, Australia).