= " 'Big’ history treats events between the Big Bang and contemporary technological life on Earth as a singlenarrative, suggesting that cosmological, biological and social processes can be treated similarly". 
- 1 Contextual Quote
- 2 Description
- 3 Characteristics
- 4 History
- 5 Discussion
- 5.1 Comparison with Cosmic Evolution
- 5.2 Complexity Thresholds and Complexity Transitions
- 5.3 Universal Internalization and its Role in Human and Cosmic History
- 5.4 The Thermodynamic Hypothesis Behind Big History
- 5.5 Was Big History a Response to Religious Fundamentalism ?
- 5.6 Frank Furedi's Critique of Big History as Anti-Humanist
- 6 More information
"In the Big Historical narrative what connects the unimaginably inhuman scales of subatomic, super-galactic space, and everything in between, is the progressive evolution of complex structure in our local region (Aunger 2007a, 2007b). The cosmic evolutionary understanding refers to this complex structure as the materialist hierarchy of interconnected forms (Smart 2008). Thus, in this framework what unites the ‘micro-macro’ worlds of the physical universe to the ‘middle’ world of the human symbolic orders is the ‘evolution of complexity’ in terms of diverse parts (elements) capable of connecting (relating) in higher coherent wholes. These wholes in turn exhibit structural forms with novel properties, from macromolecular chemical communities to the technological global human community. Consequently, the concrete theoretical interpretation of the Big History story relies on the structure of complexity science."
- Cadell Last 
"I argue that Big History emerged in opposition to the resurgent and often politically sustained religious fundamentalism. This oppositional stance presents some dangers for Big History. For example, the concept of modern creation myth, while useful in the debate with religious fundamentalism, hides the true character of Big History. Big History should not endorse the once fashionable triumphalism of science."
- Alexander Mirkovic 
"If conventional history focuses on human civilization with humankind at the center, Big History focuses
on the universe and shows how humankind fits within this framework and places human history in the
wider context of the universe's history." 
"Big history is the study of the human past in relationship to the history of the universe (see Christian 2004; Spier 2011). This endeavor attempts to utilize the entire collective body of human knowledge in order to construct a deeper understanding of all natural processes(e.g. Aunger 2007a, b; Chaisson 2011a, b) from ‘‘Big Bang to Global Civilization’’ (e.g. Rodrigue et al. 2012). In contrast with the traditional attempt in physics to construct a ‘grand unified theory’ of the universe, big historians see the subject as providing the beginnings of a working ‘‘grand unified story’’ of the universe (Christian 2004, p. 4). From my perspective this goal should not be to eventually develop ‘one unchanging objective story’, but rather to develop the empirical framework for a story of our collective history that everyone can in turn relate to and utilize on a personal level. Thus big history has the opportunity to become simultaneously one story of our shared world as well as an infinite number of stories of how individuals can relate to that world. The usefulness of such a common origin story is that it can always be re-symbolized depending on contemporary sociopolitical context and scientific understanding. Consequently, big history offers humanity a deeper perspective and an opportunity for cosmic reflection in relation to the meaning of human life from an exploration of the processes that culminated in our existence."
"Big History is a subject that formally emerged to meet and potentially satisfy a general desire for a symbolic space capable of holistically integrating fragmented scientific disciplines from cosmology to biology to human history (Christian 2017). Consequently, the ultimate goal of the study of Big History is to create a common language for all academic research so that seemingly disparate phenomena can be understood in an integrated framework (Spier 2017). From this perspective all disciplines, irrespective of their object of analysis on the various scales of reality, are all a part of the Big Historical narrative from ‘Big Bang to Global Civilization’ (Rodrigue et al. 2012). In this way, as Big History pioneer David Christian conjectures, the aim of Big History is to conceive of a ‘grand unified story’ capable of reclaiming the human desire for a total vision of reality (Christian 2004: 4). This desire has not been satisfied by the hyper-fragmented structure of the 20th century knowledge. Thus, Big History at its most fundamental ground seeks to construct a symbolic order in the form of a temporal narrative (past-present-future) that can reconcile a totalizing understanding of substance (Big Bang to global civilization)."
Akop P. Nazaretyan:
"Big or Universal History is a concept that considers evolution from the Big Bang to modern society. It took shape from about 1980 into the 1990s. At least, two crucial achievements in the 20th century science influenced this trend. First: Relativist evolutionary cosmology models had been mathematically deduced and then received indirect empirical support from discoveries, such as the red-shift effect, cosmic background radiation and others. Historical methods deeply penetrated into Physics and Chemistry: All material objects, from nucleons to galaxies, proved to be temporal products of a certain evolutionary stage, which had their histories, pre-histories and naturally restrained futures. Second: A set of natural mechanisms were discovered by which open material systems could spontaneously move away from equilibrium within their habitats and – using the environment's sources for anti-entropy work – sustain their non-equilibrium conditions. Self-organization patterns became a subject of interest in the Sciences and the Humanities. All the above-mentioned factors reveal that we can distinctly trace progressive vectors or mega-trends, which enter into social, biological, geological and cosmo-physical histories as a single and continual process. Moreover, although no direct contradictions with the laws of physical irreversibility have been found, the mega-trends' orientation conflicts with the classical natural science paradigm. Some astrophysicists (Chaisson 2001) describe this as the disparity between two ‘arrows of time’ – the thermodynamic and the cosmological ones. Indeed, available data allows us to observe evolution from the quark-gluon plasma up to star clusters and organic molecules, from the Proterozoic cyanobacteria up to the higher vertebrates and most complicated ecosystems of the Pleistocene, and from Homo habilis with pebble chips up to post-industrial civilization. Thus, as far back as our view reaches, the Universe has been evolving from the more probable or ‘natural’ states, from an entropy point of view, to the less probable (or ‘unnatural’) ones. True, the cone of evolution has been tapering. Most matter of the Universe (the so-called dark matter) has avoided evolutionary transformations and remained apart from atomic structures. A tiny portion of atomic structures has formed organic molecules. Living matter has apparently emerged in extremely rare and limited parts of cosmic space, and only one of hundreds of thousands of biologic genes on Earth has reached the social stage. Thus, we may agree with Eric Chaisson (2001) and David Christian (2004) that complexity and rarity go together. Still, the appearance of a qualitatively higher structure imparts a novel attribute of the Universe as a single whole."
"The projects and courses known as Big History in English have different names in other national traditions: Universalnaya Istoria in Russia, Weltallgeschichte in Germany and mega-historia in Latin America (Christian 1991, 2004; Spier 1996, 2010; Chaisson 2001, 2005, 2006; HughesWarrington 2002; Brown 2007; Velez 1998; Moiseev 1991; Nazaretyan 1991, 2004, 2008, 2010a, 2010b; Neprimerov 1992; Fedorovich 2001; Panov 2005, 2007). They had also particular denominations from the 1970s to the 1990s, like Cosmic Evolution (E. Chaisson in the USA, see in this issue) or The Universe (N. Neprimerov in Russia). In Russian universities, inter-faculty Big History courses are sometimes taught under the heading of ‘The Conceptions in Modern Science’, which fits under the standards of the Ministry of Education. Recent formats in Big History can be seen in Rodrigue and Stasko 2010 and at http://usm.maine.edu/lac/global/bighistory/."
International Big History Association:
"Beginning about 13.8 billion years ago, the story of the past is a coherent record that includes a series of great thresholds. Beginning with the Big Bang, Big History is an evidence-based account of emergent complexity, with simpler components combining into new units with new properties and greater energy flows.
The Beginning of Space and Time in Our Universe
In the first moments after the Big Bang, the universe is thought to have been so hot and dense that matter could only exist in the form of a soup of quarks and gluons. (What explains the Big Bang itself? We still need to figure this out to our satisfaction.) As the universe expanded and cooled, matter could take on new forms, including the first protons and neutrons, followed much later by neutral atoms. Though the early universe was almost perfectly uniform, slight non-uniformities existed from the beginning, and over cosmic time gravity has enhanced those non-uniformities, pulling matter from less dense regions into more dense regions. This has produced the large-scale structure of the universe that we see today, including galaxies, galaxy clusters, and superclusters.
Within galaxies, gravity causes the collapse of gas clouds to form stars, which combine atomic nuclei to produce heavier elements through nuclear fusion. Before the first stars formed, the universe contained only hydrogen, helium, and small amounts of lithium (created in the first minutes after the Big Bang, when the universe as a whole was still hot enough to sustain fusion). But massive stars create carbon, oxygen, and all manner of heavier elements through fusion all the way up to iron. When these stars run out of fuel and explode as supernovae, the huge amounts of energy released often allow for the formation of even heavier elements like gold, uranium, and others. The heavy-element-enriched gas propelled outward by a supernova mixes with pre-existing gas and dust clouds, which may then collapse under gravity’s influence to form second-generation stars. Because first-generation stars had created heavy elements, these were available for gravity to form rocky or terrestrial planets.
The Beginning of Our Solar System and Earth
The formation of our own Sun and Earth took place about 4.6 billion years ago. The Solar System is located in one of the Milky Way’s outer spiral arms, known as the Orion Arm or Local Spur. We are between 25,000 and 28,000 light years from
the center of the Milky Way galaxy, which consists of a few hundred billion stars. We are traveling around that center at a rate of about 220 kilometers per second, completing one revolution every 225- 250 million years. Over the past 4.6 billion years, the Earth has seen many chapters in its own history, with changes in atmosphere, the appearance and continual reformation of land masses through plate tectonics, and many other transformations.
The Beginning and Evolution of Life
Elements and molecules on the Earth formed various combinations in a process of chemical evolution, although exactly how still eludes us. About 4 billion years ago, some of them formed membranes, gained access to additional chemicals and energy that became metabolism, and became able to reproduce with variation. What is called life then began its own highly uneven process of evolution, sometimes becoming more complex and diversified. Major transitions led to such features as cell nucleii, photosynthesis, intentional motion, multicellular specialization and cooperation, heads, backbones, four limbs, and many other features.
The rise of mammals following the extinction of dinosaurs some 65 million years ago led to the emergence of hominids. Eventually Homo sapiens emerged 200,000 years ago. Bipedal, largely hairless, large- brained, and with opposable thumbs, humans developed symbolic and imaginative language, inherited a social nature, and made ethics explicit.
The Beginning and Development of Culture
Through our culture, humans shaped some of the natural forces from which we emerged. We added hunting to scavenging and gathering. Beginning about 70,000 years ago, we left our African home and migrated throughout the globe, crossing Beringia into the Americas some 20,000 years ago (though the precise date is still heavily debated). We formed bands, kinship groups, villages, chiefdoms, cities, nations, and empires. Our species crossed other major thresholds with the emergence of agricultural states, the burning of fossil fuels, and the recent entrance into an information-rich, digital era.
We have fought many wars among ourselves and brought about environmental degradation and resource depletion. These and other problems threaten the quality and even survival of our species. We face a current crisis and a possible loss of complexity. Over 99% of the species that have ever existed are now extinct. No complex species is likely to survive intact for more than a few million years; we will be lucky if we survive that long."
The Prehistory of Big History
"In these early stages of global networking, scholars knit together larger ideas about humanity and nature and, in the process, began to transcend imperial, religious, linguistic, and ethnic frontiers. In the first century BCE, the Roman philosopher Lucretius expressed a material view of the universe and a unitary sense of humanity in De Rerum Natura [On the Nature of Things]. Likewise, the Medieval scholar Abū Zayd Ibn Khaldun composed his vast universal history, كتاب العبر / Kitāb al-ʿibar [Book of Lessons], which assessed human experience in a pragmatic worldview through the lens of Islamic civilization. These collective understandings of a common existence went through times of intense thought called axial, renascent, enlightened, and revolutionary.
Besides holistic family-community instruction, dedicated centres for learning sprang up in places like Nalanda (India) over a thousand years ago, while Inca aristocracy along the Andes attended the Yacha Huaci [House of Knowledge] for lessons in reading quipu, mathematics, and public affairs. In China, Emperor Yongle ordered a vast encyclopaedia, 永樂大典 [Yongle Dadian] in 1403. Almost a million pages in length, it only has been superseded in scope by Wikipedia. Even some of the brilliant works of Leonardo da Vinci drew inspiration from Asian innovation (UNESCO 1966, 2009; Vega 1609: 357–359; Christos 2010; Encyclopædia Britannica 2007; Broek 2018).
By the early modern period, European colonial expansion in the fifteenth century led to profound changes in understandings about humanity, but there was no metaphysical quality of north-west Eurasian society that unleashed their hegemony on the world. Far from just a European phenomenon, the new global engagement had grown from the silk-road system into a planetary sphere of interaction that is more properly designated as ‘global civilization’ (Rodrigue 2019: 112–115).
Neo-Confucian scholar Miura Baien (1723–1789) merged Japanese concepts with Chinese and European ideas to develop a new vision of the world and existence, as in his masterpiece, 玄語 [Deep Words]. Miura's work has been compared favourably with the later studies of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). Anthropologist Keiji Iwata, for example, sees Miura's work as an expression of Eastern cosmology / existence, while Humboldt's studies express Western perspectives. Humboldt had studied at the University of Göttingen, where his professors sought to unify knowledge and deploy it so individuals, society and nature could coexist. His five-volume study, Kosmos (1845), is a precursor to what would come to be called Big History.3
As historian Daniel Smail at Harvard University points out: ‘… all universal histories before 1859 [a point of revolution in historical understandings of deep time] were big histories, since they began with cosmology (as it was then understood) and subsequently linked in the human genealogy.’ "
History of Big History
"The study of big history as an intellectual tradition can be understood as both old and new. The subject is old because we have evidence of humans constructing complex physical and metaphysical narratives, and thinking about natural and supernatural explanations for the ‘totality’ of human existence in the world, for as long as we have evidence of writing. In fact, this narrative tradition may have been manifest in the human species from the dawn of complex material culture (North 2008), as all modern human groups develop cosmic cultural worldview structures (Blainey 2010), regardless of ecological organization. Consequently, the origin of our symbolic ‘totalizing’ behaviour is hypothesized to have emerged in concert with the emergence of full linguistic capabilities (Dunbar 2009), as the formation of human worldviews is deeply interconnected with the formation of the linguistic domain itself (Underhill 2009). The ramifications of this speculation suggests that ‘big history’ as a symbolic activity could in some form represent a cultural archetype of human worldviews that is at least as old as the emergence of modern humans (*150 to 200thousand years ago) (e.g. White et al. 2003; McDougall et al. 2005).However the early origins of academic big history in the modern Western tradition can be found in the construction of empirically based cosmic narratives.
These types of histories from various scientific and philosophical perspectives started to emerge in the nineteenth century (e.g. Chambers 1844; Humboldt 1845; Fiske 1874; Spencer 1896) with the early development of modern evolutionary thinking (e.g. Darwin 1794; Lamarck 1809;Darwin 1859, 1871; Wallace 1871; Butler 1887). Early big history narratives—like many of the narratives constructed by religious, spiritual, and philosophical perspectives in pre-modern cultures—were always concerned with the human relationship to life and the cosmos as a whole. In these works central questions regarding the origins of the universe, life, and mind were often presented and explored, but the lack of a firm empirical grounding in the knowledge and theory of many subjects prevented the coherence of any testable scientific model. Thus the early study of big history, as well as the formulation of cosmic evolution, failed to mature or gain widespread academic credibility in the nineteenth century (Dick 2009b). Even throughout the early twentieth century there were only a few works that can be seen as important precursors to the contemporary subject (e.g .Bergson 1911; Wells 1920; Shapley 1930).The last half of the twentieth century was characterized by a noticeable increase in large-scale interdisciplinary big history work than ever before. In retrospect, the discovery of the big bang in 1964 appears fundamental and crucial to the development of big history as we know it today. The big bang allowed for a real beginning to a cosmological narrative, as well as an empirical way to understand the connections between the worlds of cosmology, physics, and astronomy, and the worlds of chemistry, geology, biology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, cybernetics, economics, and history (e.g. McGill 1972;Sagan 1977; Cloud 1978; Jantsch 1980; Chaisson 1981; Poundstone 1985; Reeves 1985;Christian 1991). Also important were the first NASA images of the Earth from space [e.g. ‘‘Earthrise’’ (1968) and ‘‘Blue Marble’’ (1972)], which allowed humanity to see the whole planet for the first time, and reflect on our place within the cosmos with ‘new eyes’. In this historical intellectual environment astronomer Carl Sagan’s introduction of ‘‘The Cosmic Calendar’’ (1977, p. 8) marks an important symbolic moment; as this metaphor captured a clear pattern marked with a connected, directional, and accelerating set of cosmic ‘events’ from ‘particles to people’. The modern form of big history, in its attempt to become a rigorous academic discipline, is formulating a common conceptual framework that can be used to understand the whole of nature. Although no common framework currently exists contemporary researchers have tended to place particular emphasis on energy flow as a necessary component of physical change and structural complexity (Niele 2005; Spier 2005; Chaisson2011a, b), information processing as a source of functional variation and organizing complexity (Smith and Szathmary 1995; Corning 2005; Lloyd 2006), and complexity, which can be understood as a measure of the relationships between distinct but connected parts interacting within an integrated whole (Heylighen 2000; Davies 2013).In this big historical system energy, and specifically the rate of energy flow utilized for internal work, is seen as important in enabling higher associative interactions. This essentially means that material complexity typically comes at an energy cost, and measuring the density of energy flow that can be maintained by a physical object or living subject, gives us an approximate understanding of its structural complexity. Information also plays a dominant role in big history by allowing us to understand changing patterns in all physical processes and the functional ability of information processors to reduce uncertainty by increasing knowledge of their environment. From this perspective the emergence of information processors: entities that develop a subject-object relation, or input–output function, remain fundamental to understanding how functional organizations emerge to purposefully maintain and direct energy flows with greater autonomy from physical and chemical processes devoid of subjects. Consequently, there is a clear break or divide in the history of the universe between living systems (or autopoietic self-maintaining/organizing systems) and physical systems. Living systems have an internalized subjective relationship (self) to the larger object (environment) within which they exist, making their behaviour a process of goal and value formation emerging from that subject-object interaction/tension. Big historians also need to focus on the general evolution of all processes in the local universe. In this attempt there is a conceptual emphasis on a general systems framework, which understands the universe as a nested and hierarchical metasystem of organizations from the microscopic level (e.g. subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, etc.) to the macroscopic level (e.g. organisms, ecosystems, civilizations, etc.). In this general systems approach it is not the substrate that matters but rather the organization of substrates, i.e. the functional (cybernetic) process of the substrate to maintain organization, and the (evolutionary) mechanisms of its change over time. To understand the evolution of complexity within these systems emphasis is placed on differentiation as a property of subsystem variation within a larger metasystem (Heylighen 2000; Stewart 2000, 2014), as well as integration as a property of subsystem interconnection within a larger metasystem (Turchin1977; Smith and Szathmary 1995).
The evolutionary-cybernetic properties of differentiation and integration are necessary to understand the growth of complexity. This is because networked patterns of interconnected distinctions inherently characterize increasingly complex systems, irrespective of material substrate. These increasingly complex networks enable multi-level adaptive capabilities (i.e. higher organism-environment relations) exhibiting emergent properties that are completely absent at lower levels of organization. Thus by studying the way differentiation and integration have progressed via new forms of cooperation big historians can identify commonality in the evolutionary processes that enabled continuous local development of hierarchical ordered levels. From this conceptual framework we can start to build a comprehensive view of the local universe as a region of ever-complexifying relationships, which produce new levels of organization facilitated by higher levels of awareness, and consequently, new living system goals and values in relation to the cosmic object.
In elucidating the complexifying connections between all historical processes we may be able to provide a foundation for understanding both our contemporary world and our potential future."
The Emergence of a General Theory of Big History
"Let me return to my own approach to Big History. A number of years after finishing The Structure of Big History, I began to see that regimes could not only be very useful for structuring big history, but also for explaining it. Over the course of about five years, the elaboration of these insights led me to a new theoretical approach. As a result, the big history approach is now becoming more of an interdisciplinary project.
A major stimulus came from the work of the US astrophysicist Eric Chaisson. Around 1980, together with the astronomer George Field, Chaisson had started teaching a course at Harvard University called 'Cosmic evolution'. This was big history from an astronomical point of view, and being natural scientists, they paid relatively minor attention to human history. Over the course of time, Chaisson developed a general approach to cosmic evolution based on thermodynamics and complexity studies, which he summarised in his groundbreaking book Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature, published in 2001.8
Summarising Chaisson's approach in only a few sentences of course cannot possibly do full justice to his book. Yet the following may be a fair summary of his main argument. First of all, big history is the story of the rise and demise of complexity at all scales, ranging from galaxy clusters to the tiniest particles. This may well be the shortest possible description of big history. As a result, the explanation of history boils down to the question of how to explain the emergence and disintegration of all these forms of complexity. From a scientific point of view, the most general answer to this question is that complexity can emerge when energy flows through matter – this is just as much the case for stars as for ourselves – but after having emerged, it all depends: Rocks swinging through virtually empty space do not need any additional energy flows to maintain their structures, since they are close to thermodynamic equilibrium. Yet a great many other forms of complexity, ranging from stars to life-forms, are not close to thermodynamic equilibrium, and can be said to consist of dynamic steady states. All of these regimes of matter need an energy flow to maintain their complexity. If this sounds austere, one need look no further than oneself. Clearly, human beings can only maintain their complexity by harvesting matter and energy on a regular basis while getting rid of unwanted forms of disorder, also known as entropy. This is not only the case for humans but applies to all life-forms.
Three general types of complexity can be discerned: physical inanimate nature, life, and culture. The first level of complexity, lifeless nature, ranges from nuclei to entire galaxies. All of this inanimate matter organises itself entirely thanks to the fundamental forces of nature. Although the resulting structures can be exquisite, in contrast to life, inanimate complexity does not make use of any information for its own formation or sustenance.
The second fundamental level of complexity is life. In terms of mass, life is a rather marginal phenomenon. Yet the complexity of life is far greater than anything attained by lifeless matter. In contrast to the inanimate universe, life seeks to maintain the conditions suitable for its own existence by actively harvesting matter and energy flows with the aid of special mechanisms, which are maintained by using information stored in large molecules (mostly DNA). Over the past four billion years or so, both the energy flows and the energy levels on the surface of our home planet have been suitable for the emergence and continued existence of biological complexity. This fact is related to the special position of the Earth within the solar system: neither too close to the Sun, in which case it would become too hot, nor too far away to make it too cold. Although from a terrestrial point of view life can operate under an impressive range of conditions, ranging from hot geysers to arctic environments, from a universal point of view this range is still fairly limited. As soon as living things stop harvesting matter and energy on a regular basis, they will die, and their matter will return to lower levels of complexity (unless it is consumed by other life-forms).
The third fundamental level of complexity emerged when living beings started to organise themselves with the aid of information stored in nerve and brain cells. The emergence of these brainy animals was a new strategy for obtaining ever greater matter and energy flows for survival and reproduction, while seeking not to become a matter and energy source for others. This suggests that the evolution of brains and intelligence may have been almost inevitable, given the long-term continuity of the rather mild temperatures and pressures on our planet.
In order to quantify these energy flows through matter, Eric Chaisson defined the 'free energy rate density', the amount of energy per second that flows through a certain amount of matter. Chaisson next showed that there is a clear correlation between the observed levels of complexity (more or less intuitively defined) and his calculated free energy rate densities. In general, life is far more complex than lifeless matter, and it is also able to generate far larger energy flows per unit mass. This may appear counterintuitive, yet the results of Chaisson's calculations leave no doubt that stars produce far less energy per unit of mass and time than living things. Although stars deliver huge energy outputs, they are so heavy that the resulting energy flow per unit of mass is substantially smaller than that of even a simple bacterium. While humans may appear to be vanishingly small compared to most other aspects of big history, according to Chaisson human brains have generated the largest free energy rate densities on a continuous basis in the known universe.
I became acquainted with Chaisson's approach in the year 2000, thanks to his willingness to come over and lecture in our Amsterdam big history course. Subsequently, our small group of 'big historians' began to discuss his approach, while David Christian incorporated part of it into his book Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History of 2004."
Comparison with Cosmic Evolution
From the Wikipedia:
"Cosmic evolution, the scientific study of universal change, is closely related to Big History (as are the allied subjects of the epic of evolution and astrobiology); some researchers regard cosmic evolution as broader than Big History, since the latter mainly examines the specific historical trek from Big Bang → Milky Way → Sun → Earth → humanity. Cosmic evolution, while fully addressing all complex systems (and not merely those that led to humans) has been taught and researched for decades, mostly by astronomers and astrophysicists. This Big-Bang-to-humankind scenario well preceded the subject that some historians began calling Big History in the 1990s. Cosmic evolution is an intellectual framework that offers a grand synthesis of the many varied changes in the assembly and composition of radiation, matter, and life throughout the history of the universe. While engaging in issues of the origins of humanity, this interdisciplinary subject attempts to unify the sciences within the entirety of natural history—a single, inclusive scientific narrative of the origin and evolution of all material things over ~14 billion years, from the origin of the universe to the present day on Earth.
The roots of the idea of cosmic evolution extend back millennia. Ancient Greek philosophers in the fifth century BCE, most notably Heraclitus, are celebrated for their reasoned claims that all things change. Early modern speculation about cosmic evolution began more than a century ago, including the broad insights of Robert Chambers, Herbert Spencer, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Lawrence Henderson. Only in the mid-20th century was the cosmic-evolutionary scenario articulated as a research paradigm to include empirical studies of galaxies, stars, planets, and life—in short, an expansive agenda that combines physical, biological, and cultural evolution. Harlow Shapley widely articulated the idea of cosmic evolution (often calling it "cosmography") in public venues at mid-century, and NASA embraced it in the late 20th century as part of its more limited astrobiology program. Carl Sagan, Eric Chaisson, Hubert Reeves, Erich Jantsch, and Preston Cloud, among others, extensively championed cosmic evolution at roughly the same time around 1980. This extremely broad subject now continues to be formulated as both a technical research program and a scientific worldview for the 21st century.
One popular collection of scholarly materials on cosmic evolution is based on teaching and research that has been underway at Harvard University since the mid-1970s."
"(Through) complexity science ... we can read a story articulating the notion that our universe undergoes fundamental transformations described as ‘complexity thresholds’ (Christian 2008). Complexity thresholds occur when a form of structural organization emerges and stabilizes a novel regime of phenomena (a new level of the materialist hierarchy). Dominant descriptions of these complexity transitions have been grounded in either an informational base (universal complexity as best understood in algorithmic terms) (Baker 2013), or with an energetic base (universal complexity as best understood in thermodynamic terms) (Spier 2005). In these respective frames we seek to understand the way in which the universe generally processes information and the way in which the universe generally organizes energetic flows of matter.
The most common linear demarcation of these information-energy complexity thresholds into a universal narrative includes the following fundamental distinctions:
(MB: I adapted line 8 and 9)
- 1 Origin of the universe (spacetime)
- 2 First stars and galaxies (heterogeneity)
- 3 Formation of chemical elements (diversification)
- 4 Formation of Earth, solar system (localization)
- 5 Emergence of life (self-reference)
- 6 Emergence of humanity (narrativization)
- 7 Transition to agriculture (civilization)
- 8 Modern industrial revolution (national to international)
(note MB: I would add
- 9: informational (global to cosmo-local)
"Throughout this temporal history of complexity thresholds, the universe has started to ‘internalize’ itself through a ‘progressive’ synthesis or sublation of itself. In order to capture this process of universal ‘internalization’ we can say that the complexifying universe started to form a minimal level of internal self-relation (Maturana and Varela 1991). What are the consequences of this progressive internalization? How is it connected to complexification? How should we understand the complexity of narrative given its irreducibly internal nature? Indeed, the very emergence of a Big History community represents this synthetic sublation process of internalization where the universe attempts to conceptualize itself as a totality. What we seek here to do is put a narrative emphasis on the consequences of this internalization motion as something of significance to future Big Historical research.
The agricultural and industrial revolutions are not events constituted in an observerless, narrative-less realm, but irreducibly within and by observers constituted by narrative self-action. The difference here for the Big Historical future is that for Complexity Threshold 9 the observers are ‘meta-aware’ of their narrative position in the Big Historical drama.
Big Historical interiorization during complexification suggests that complexification is somehow related to interiorization, of the universe becoming increasingly conscious of itself (Teilhard de Chardin 1955). Consequently, the passive reflection correspondence between human epistemological constructs (i.e., Big History narrative) and the ontological nature of reality (i.e., physical evolution of universe) becomes simply untenable in relation to the future of the present moment. For example, in contemporary science the inadequacy of passive epistemological reflection becomes unavoidable when reflecting on the future of conscious and technolo- gical evolution (Kurzweil 2005), the connections between physics and computation (Lloyd 2006), and a future physics dependent on observation (Smolin 2001). In all of these contemporary scientific domains we are dealing with a situation where epistemological constructs or narratives must be inscribed into the ontological nature of the thing under observation.
How does the modern global subject who has internalized the whole of nature change modern global society? Is there a thinkable universality that emerges that actually transcends mere reductions to an observer tethered to scientific reflection correspondence? In this perspective of Big Historical internalization the conflict or tension between the modernist scientific constructionist view seeking universal totality and the postmodern critical view seeking to deconstruct universal totality seem to gain new dimensions.
Past humans engaged in symbolic totalization (e.g., Biblical, Newtonian, Marxist, etc.), and we are continuing this evolution of symbolic totalization with new/different content (in the Big Historical sense, the content of cosmic evolution and the theory of complexity science). Thus, when the observer is within the system we must attempt to think the psychoanalytic ‘metastructure’ of the symbolic order. In this metastructure there is no unifying ‘metalanguage’ between particular historical subjectivities that would unify knowledge of being.
The narrativistic present is somehow related to ethical-political directives (or backgrounds) that must be stabilized across time. These ethical directives/backgrounds are by no means relativistic, but rather, absolute (Jameson 2013). Indeed, what we often find in the ethical-political directives of symbolic orders is often an invariant desire expressed under conceptual unity independent of particular historical instantiations of narrative frame (i.e., Biblical, Newtonian, Marxist, etc.).
The Biblical narrative centers subjectivity in relation to a past ‘Eden’ and a future ‘God’, the Newtonian narrative centers subjectivity in relation to an ‘Eternal Spacetime’ (with no beginning and no end), the Marxist narrative centers subjectivity in relation to a past ‘Primitive Communism’ and a future ‘Global Communism’. This is not to say that any of these narrativistic temporalities are literally true in a materialist sense (i.e., ‘Eden/God’, ‘Eternal Spacetime’, ‘Primitive/World Communism’). However, it is the case that these narrativistic temporalities are metaphorical truths for subjectivity that have stabilized action in the realm of history. Furthermore, these metaphorical truths have had real material consequences in the establishment of Christian, Physicalist, and Communist societies.
Do Big Historians actually operate on this ethical political background direc- tive? Do they reflect deeply enough on this ethical political background directive? Are there alternative possible ethical political background directives? These are what we may call ‘higher order’ internalization issues of the symbolic order.
We cannot think of contemporary Big History ‘objectively’ independent of its possible failure to reconcile planetary civilization and help instantiate a totally other observationally narrativized world. It is in this sense that we think of Big History as not simply a story about being but a story that constitutes (this temporal era of) being itself. It is in this sense that the Big History narrative is conceived as an integral part of the larger conceptual becoming of the concept itself. Can Big History think this concept in its becoming?
Towards the possibility to think this within Big History we may note that in past complexity thresholds (e.g., 6 and 7) there have not only been quantitative increases in information processing (Delahaye and Vidal 2016) and energy flows (Chaisson 2011b), but also qualitative changes in internal experience (Thompson 2010; Deacon 2011).
In this sense we call attention to higher order evolution of the symbolic order. Symbolic orders create and transform the processual content of our future through a multiplicity of frames of reference.
Can we consider the epistemological orders of cybernetics as a structuring moment for an ontology of the symbolic ?
The higher order focus here becomes self-action on the level of historical totality. In the inclusivity of each order we must reflectively take into consideration more observation and more of the consequences of observation internal to the system. The external world thus loses its objective quality and gains a complex matrix of multiple internalizations. However, as mentioned, this complex matrix is not ‘infinite’ in its possible viable interpretations, but rather must possess a metastructure that limits the range of interpretation.
There may not be a metalanguage unifying all modern global subjects but rather a unified metastructural matrix of symbolic desire expressed temporally.
We see that the problem of the ‘true’ or ‘real’ Other/Background is more and more a feature of the symbolic order in terms of what is often referred to as ‘post-Truth politics’.
Box: Higher Orders of Symbolic Evolution:
- 1 In the first order of cybernetics we are attempting to think the external physical world as it is in itself. For contemporary Big History this would be something like the ‘big bang to global civilization’ narrative
=> Physical sciences; Knowledge of the world
- 2 In the second order we are thinking of the observer's relation to the external physical world as it is in itself. For our purposes this would be a particular Big History researcher's relation to the Big History narrative
=> Deconstruction, Critique; Knowledge of our knowledge of the world
- 3 In the third order we are thinking of the observer's relation to its own internal states of mind including conscious images, visions, symbols, and so forth. For our purposes this would be the genesis of representational modes to relate to self and world
=> Psychoanalysis, Psychology; Self-knowledge
- 4 In the fourth order we are thinking of the observer's relation to the social-historical world and the way in which a self-narrative structures or centers its conception of time and direction of action. For our purposes this would be the self-action of a Big Historian or a Big History community
=> History, Sociology; Self-knowledge, its action and consequences
- 5 In the fifth order we are thinking of the totality of observational relation to the social-historical world and the way in which the totality of self-narratives structure or center conception of time and direction of action. For our purposes this would be the self-action of all historical narrativization
=> Religion, Philosophy; Self-society knowledge, its action and consequences "
"What brings together events as disparate as the origin of stars, the French Revolution and the invention of windmills into a single analysis? Christian argues that the grand sweep of events, linked together in a seamless explanatory framework, provides intellectual satisfaction and a richer context to human experience. However, beyond such aesthetic concerns, investigations at this scale are important because historical laws might be detected in this expanse of time: big history can serve as the foundation for ‘big theory’. Where exactly might such historical laws be found? Certainly, historians have long been preoccupied with identifying those events which have a special significance in determining the subsequent course of history. However, a rigorous method for selecting these events from among the myriad possibilities has been lacking. As a result, historians have been limited to the idiosyncratic identification of ‘landmark’ events, or to putting boundaries around temporally and spatially clustered events (the ‘periodization’ of history). These practices have fallen into disrepute in some quarters, being characterized as an attempt to break a continuously emergent process into arbitrary pieces (such as the ‘Renaissance’), which then acquire an unnatural grip on the mind. Nevertheless, the first step toward historical laws must be the discovery of a rigorous foundation for organizing historical processes into analytical units larger than individual events; otherwise one is left with chronologies that are simply ‘one damn thing after another. At a minimum, historical narratives ascribe cause-and-effect relationships between events. The dependence of effects on the prior occurrence of causes indicates that historical processes only run in one temporal direction: they are not reversible. A rigorous expectation for irreversibility can be found in thermodynamics: historical processes are irreversible because, at a macro-scale, entropy increases over time. The universe was very hot at the time of the Big Bang, but has progressively become cooler as it has grown larger, leaving less energy available to perform useful work as time passes, meaning that previous kinds or levels of order cannot be maintained. At the same time, in the grand sweep of big history, the opposite pattern of events is obvious: a trend toward the production of increasingly complex, but localized systems. For example, organisms are more complex organisations than stars, and social systems are more complex than organisms. From a thermodynamic perspective, temporal order (i.e., history) thus requires spatial order, which implies that historical systems must be out of thermodynamic equilibrium. Any law-like description of major events in macro-history must therefore be centrally concerned with how increasing levels of thermodynamic disequilibrium can occur and be sustained. Big history can thus serve as the focus for the discovery of laws describing major transitions in the direction of historical change that account for this increase in the maximum degree of structural complexity over time, despite the imperative for thermodynamic entropy to increase."
Was Big History a Response to Religious Fundamentalism ?
"I would, therefore, like to situate the emergence of Big History more precisely in this struggle between the ‘scientific counter-revolution’ advocated by religious fundamentalists and the new atheism of some scientific circles, which emerged as a reaction to religious fundamentalism of the last two decades. This is not to say that Big Historians are all atheists in the mould of Richard Dawkins. Yet, Big Historians firmly believe that the scientific account of the world and of history at the grand scale is not on the same epistemological level as the Biblical account of creation in the Book of Genesis. Big History was conceived from the beginning as the modern creation myth. In other words, Big History answers all of the question that were traditionally posed by religions, namely, the origins of the Universe (as in the Big Bang theory), the origins of the stars and planets, the Earth and life, human beings and societies. Like a typical religious narrative Big History ends with speculations about our cosmic future (Hughes-Warrington 2002). In short, Big History covers everything from Genesis to the Apocalypse. This new branch of history, the Big History, represents an answer to the challenges presented by religious fundamentalist to modern natural and social sciences. In a convenient form of a one-semester-long course, historians, helped by other natural and social scientists, present a scientific version of the creation myth. The Big History, according to David Christian, the most influential practitioner of the genre, integrated cosmic evolution (or history if you prefer), evolution of the Earth, biological and human evolution, as well as, social evolution, emphasizing environmental history, and social history on the grandest scale. Therefore, Big History includes what sciences, such as astronomy, geology, biology, anthropology, economics, and history can tell us about the origins of everything, beginning with cosmos, and ending with human society. That is why many supporters of Big History, such as Bill Gates, underline the current crisis in scientific and humanistic education in the US, and see the Big History as one of the antidotes to the emergent religious fundamentalism which, encouraged by ‘the end of history’ apocalyptic ideology, pushes for more and more control over the school and university curricula. Such religious dimensions of Big History involve some pitfalls."
On the the Anti-Humanist Turn of History.
"Outwardly, the calls for world histories or big histories look like contemporary versions of the universal histories of Oswald Spengler or Arnold Toynbee. In truth, though, their approach is directly antithetical to that tradition. Big History is not universal history. A truly universal history would take as its focus the significant human achievements that bind together people of different cultures. Rather than focusing on the biological and chemical make-up of a species, a universal history would explore the way different civilisations evolved, interacted and developed, and how they dealt with the shared challenges confronting humanity. In the Big History outlook, humans are seen as sharing, not historical inheritances, but natural ones. It is really a synthesis of what was once called natural history with evolutionary biology, geology and environmentalist ideology. That is why human beings are assigned a very limited role in Big History syllabuses – because, in Christian’s words, humans are ‘only part of the picture’ in this vision of history.
Yet history – universal or otherwise – should have as its focus the story and development of humanity. As Francis Fukuyama has noted, ‘A universal history of mankind is not the same thing as a history of the universe’. Fukuyama says of universal history: ‘It is not an encyclopaedic catalogue of everything that is known about humanity, but rather an attempt to find a meaningful pattern in the overall development of human societies generally.’ Inevitably, universal history has traditionally sought to delineate, very sharply, the distant past to which no human meaning could be assigned from human history itself.
Hegel’s Philosophy of History is invaluable in this respect. Hegel, one of the most influential nineteenth-century theorists of universal history, made a very clear distinction between the past and history. True history, he said, begins ‘at the point where rationality begins to enter into worldly existence’. He said the point of departure of history is when events begin to be interpreted and recorded as history. He said history requires concepts of individuality, rights and law, a ‘universally binding directive’, institutionalised through the State. His Philosophy of History sought to provide a philosophical-historical argument for the development of humanity’s self-conscious awareness.
Contrast Hegel with Big History, an idea now effusively promoted by the International Big History Association, an influential movement supported by Microsoft’s Bill Gates. This association’s version of history stretches back to the Big Bang itself. This so-called universal history is coterminous with the universe itself. It claims to synthesise virtually everything there is to know. Cosmology, astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, archaeology and environmental science all make an appearance. This is history that self-consciously eradicates the conceptual distinction between nature and culture, between the material and the spiritual, between the human and the non-human. On its website, the International Big History Association says ‘Big History seeks to understand the integrated history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity, using the best available empirical evidence and scholarly method’.
Big History claims to be a response to the new complexities of our rapidly changing globalised world. In truth what it offers is a melange of everything that has occurred in time and space according to a naturalistic, teleological model of evolution. Although it relies on the ideas of evolutionary biology, geology, environmentalism and cosmology, its historiographical approach bears an uncanny resemblance to medieval theological-history. That is, Big History, like more medieval views of history, relies on a mythical-sounding narrative of origins, which implicitly endows the unfolding of time with purpose. To take one example of a Big History outlook:
‘What can we conclude from our 13.82 billion-year journey so far in this universe? The access to high-quality energy in certain pockets has permitted increased complexity in relationships between quarks, atoms, molecules, cells, animals, and humans within families, cities, nations, empires, and the world. Each of the earlier relationships continue to be part of our current ones, although often in transformed ways. You and I are the beneficiaries of the relationships that have been developed. We are made from the relationships among quarks, atoms, molecules, cells, and many intricately related body parts. We live within kinship groups, nations, and empires. Many of us are connected with others around the world through the almost instantaneous exchange of digital information. We have evidence for a common origin of all of us and indeed everything in the universe. All of us on Earth have a common origin and ultimately a common destiny.’
Common origins? Only this time, our ‘common origins’ are not being located in the Garden of Eden. Nor does this new story of origins bear any resemblance to the Roman story of Aeneid. It is rather quarks, atoms and molecules that apparently embody our common origins. What we are being offered here is not the origins of humanity, but of matter.
Big History is not the only approach that attempts to decouple history from the human subject. So-called Deep History is also devoted to eradicating the distinction between history and pre-history; indeed, its version of ‘history’ stretches back 2.6million years. The manifesto of this school of history, Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present, complains about the ‘fragmentation of historical time’ that is apparently endemic in our era dominated by what deep historians call ‘shallow history’.
What is really at stake here is not the timescales being investigated by history, but the nature of historical imagination itself. The new historical outlooks seek to shift the focus of history away from any human-centred approach to the past, and towards the depiction of material and natural processes as the key influences on history. According to this viewpoint, anthropocentrist history, as the Big History people call it, is a conceit, since human beings have actually had very little to do with the really important events of the past 13 billion years. In effect, what used to be understood as history becomes a minor sub-branch of geology and biology. The emphasis on Big or Long or Deep history is underwritten by an (often unconscious) impulse to downgrade the humanist ideal of people making history.
It is of course true that the more we look back in time, the more we see humanity being dominated by nature. Tens of thousands of years ago, human beings played an insignificant role in the making of their world; hundreds of thousands of years ago, none at all. The lengthy timescale of Big History – the more than 13 billion years since the Big Bang – speaks to an imagination keen to relegate human accomplishment to a minor footnote. That is why in the syllabuses offered by Big Historians, the human species does not make an appearance until much later on in the course or study.
The assignment of a marginal role to human beings is also a favoured pastime of twenty-first-century environmentalists. From the standpoint of green ideology, a massive timescale is preferable when discussing history, because the further back in time you go, the more insignificant is the role of human beings relative to that of nature.
These new historic accounts all conclude with the same point – which is that although Earth has existed for about 4.5 billion years, Homo sapiens have been on this planet for barely a couple of hundred thousand years. The moral of the story is that human beings should be a bit more aware of their own insignificance as a species. If we take history as spanning billions of years, then we must look upon humans as not causing anything of great significance. Instead, human beings are reduced to the level of passive spectators of climate change, massive earthquakes, huge eruptions. Instead of serving as history’s subject, people are transformed into history’s objects. As one anti-humanist writer puts it:
‘Earth has existed for about 4.5 billion years and has experienced numerous transitional changes. Homo sapiens has been on the planet about 160,000 years – a small portion of total time. For most of the time, the human species was spread thinly over the planet with minimal environmental impact.’
Human inconsequentiality – that is the key theme promoted by those who take a naturalistic and physical perspective on the past.
All histories convey some kind of meaning, some kind of moral view of human beings and their achievements. The new historians of human irrelevance seem, outwardly at least, to eschew meaning and purpose through emphasising a vast timescale and a spectrum of arbitrarily assembled occurrences that cannot be meaningfully put in a relation to one another. In truth, despite their one-sided materialistic and mechanistic narratives, such histories still convey a sense of meaning, in the negative sense of warning that what human beings do does not matter very much. From this perspective, history is definitely not made by people; we are simply the passive voyeurs of big events.
Today’s cultural imagination seems to have little appreciation of, or even belief in, the history-making potential of humanity. On the contrary, there has been a fundamental shift towards a tendency for writing humanity out of history. Not since the Middle Ages has the human species been accorded such an insignificant status in the making of history. A new school of naturalistic history seems to revel in lowering people’s expectations of what they and their species can achieve. It promotes a sense of environmental determinism that assigns human beings a minor role in the general scheme of things. It insists that any attempt by people to gain control over their destiny is likely to be undermined by the forces of nature. Not surprisingly, it continually emphasises environmental factors, particularly geology and climate, giving the impression that history is made by natural occurrences rather than human choices and action.
In fact, mankind’s very attempt to control nature is now depicted as destructive and dangerous, a sign that our species does not know its place in the natural order of things. Far from man’s attempts to transform nature being celebrated, today history and civilisation have been recast as stories of environmental destruction. Our application of reason, knowledge and science is seen as problematic, because it apparently helps to intensify the destructive capacity of the human race. Something like the Enlightenment is now looked upon as a malevolent thing that promoted the destruction of the planet, through its arrogant elevation of rational, history-making man."
- Big History: A Working Bibliography of References, Films and Internet Sites 2011 Assembled by Barry Rodrigue Contributors: Fred Spier, David Christian, Eric Chaisson.
* THE BEDROCK OF SURVIVAL: HUMANITY, HISTORY, AND ADAPTATION. Rodrigue, Barry H. Journal of Globalization Studies. Volume 14, Number 1 / May 2023 doi
"This is a brief overview of the field of Big History and a reflection on its significance."
- See also: Books and Articles on Big History
Aunger R. 2007a. Major Transitions in ‘Big’ History. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 74: 1137–1163.
Aunger R. 2007b. A Rigorous Periodization of ‘Big’ History. Technological Forecas- ting and Social Change 74: 1164–1178.
Baker D. 2013. 1050. The Darwinian Algorithm and a Possible Candidate for a ‘Unifying Theme’ of Big History. Evolution: Development within Big History, Evolutionary and World-System Paradigms / Ed. by L. E. Grinin, and A. V. Korotayev, pp. 235–248. Volgograd: Uchitel.
Christian D. 2004. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Christian D. 2008. Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.
Christian D. 2017. What is Big History? Journal of Big History 1(1): 4–19.
Christian D., Brown C., and Benjamin C. 2011. Big History: Between Nothing and Everything. New York, NY: McGill-Hill Education.
Last C. 2017a. Big Historical Foundations for Deep Future Speculations: Cosmic Evolution, Atechnogenesis, and Technocultural Civilization. Foundations of Science 22(1): 39–124. DOI: 10.1007/s10699-015-9434-y.
Last C. 2017b. Global Commons in the Global Brain. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 114: 48–64. DOI: 10.1016/j.techfore.2016.06.013.
Last C. 2018. Cosmic Evolutionary Philosophy and a Dialectical Approach to Technological Singularity. Information 9(4): 78. DOI: 10.3390/info9040078.
Spier F. 2005. How Big History Works: Energy Flows and the Rise and Demise of Complexity. Social Evolution & History 4: 87–135.
Spier F. 2010. Big History and the Future of Humanity. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
Spier F. 2017. On the Pursuit of Academic Research Across All the Disciplines. Journal of Big History 1(1): 20–39.