Emergence of a General Theory of Big History

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Fred Spier:

"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."