Cosmic Evolution

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The Concept

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."


The Book

  • Book: Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. Eric Chaisson, 2001.


"examines cosmic evolution which includes the history of natural evolution from the Big Bang to the present from the perspective of the emerging multi-scientific discipline of Big History." [1]


From the Wikipedia:

"Chaisson argues that cosmic history can be examined from the perspective of energy flows. He analyzes the flows of energy through various objects and argues that these flows are relevant to understanding the relative complexity of these objects. He suggests that a key measure for scientific analysis should be energy per second per gram, termed "energy rate density," and that analysis using this yardstick can be used to explain not only human evolution but cosmic evolution. He sees energy as "work per unit time" which he equates with power, and shows how energy rate density in some structures has increased over time. For example, in Chaisson's view, the human brain uses a much greater amount of energy, relative to its size, than a galaxy. He suggests that energy lets us make "order out of disorder"; for example, an air conditioner, which draws current from an electric outlet, can turn a less-complex zone of lukewarm air into two more-complex zones of hot air and cold air, and in so doing, it reverses the disorder in a room. According to his view, organisms do much the same thing with energy but in a more complex way, by taking in food instead of electrons, to keep themselves from disintegrating and becoming less complex; he analyzes energy flows in not just organisms and society but in inanimate structures such as stars, galaxies, planets.

Chaisson notes that increases in complexity are consistent with the second law of thermodynamics; according to one reviewer, the second law might suggest that complexity should decrease with the universe "slouching toward disorder." However, Chaisson argues that complexity can increase because complex structures such as a star can "generate and sustain complexity by exporting enough disorder to its surrounding environment to more than makeup for its internal gains."[5] From this perspective, Chaisson offers a definition of life as an "open, coherent, space-time structure maintained far from thermodynamic equilibrium by a flow of energy through it."

Reactions to Chaisson's book are generally positive, although different reviewers took issue with some of his points and writing style. Biologist Daniel W. McShea originally noted that Chaisson is "prone to using inflated language," but a decade later in another review of his work notes that "Chaisson offers data showing a trend in what he calls energy rate density ... over the history of life (and even over the much longer history of the universe), that's really saying something." Critic Stewart Kauffman found the book to be a "wonderful discussion." Critic Hillel Braude wrote "Cosmic Evolution draws from a rich scientific palette to paint a colorful explanatory model of the ascending complexity in nature." Critic Charles Seife wrote highly about Chaisson's book although he criticized Chaisson's definition of life as being "such a broad definition" that it becomes meaningless while acknowledging that Chaisson's analysis "gives the theory some numerical muscle."