Fourth Big Bang
"The Fourth Big Bang ... is the planetary phase-shift resulting from evolution’s becoming consciousness of itself in and through humanity. We stand today on the edge of this Fourth Big Bang and have only a glimmer of the unimaginable horizons it opens. The best image available to capture what is currently potentiated in humanity is the image of a universal non-coercive human superorganism, constituted as a Unique Self Symphony."
Zak Stein and Marc Gafni:
One thing all evolutionary theories have in common is the idea that evolution is hard, painful, crisis prone, and existential (a matter of life and death). It is clear that at key moments evolutionary crises occur, cataclysmic events that bring into the universe something that is totally new and truly unprecedented. There is little doubt in the minds of those thinking seriously about evolution that we are in the midst of one such great evolutionary crisis. This is the first totalizing crisis of the Anthropocene, as humanity and the planet itself are forced into a reconfiguration toward higher order evolutionary emergence.
This is a moment of crisis, and yet such a crisis is perfectly in fitting with the structure of reality. Everything we know about evolution suggests that it is basically inevitable that evolution on Earth will again shift to a higher level (that is, if it continues at all, which is a big “if”). This shift will not only be of physical systems, exteriors, but also of interiors, of consciousness. And this evolutionary leap will take the form of a crisis. It is this crisis that we are in the midst of right now. This crisis is not only to do with the geo-history of technology and the limits of the biosphere; it is also a crisis of self-understanding. We are in the midst of an unprecedented and reflective species wide identity crisis (and this during the very decades when the self-inflicted extinction of our species has become a reality for the first time). We no longer know what it means to be human, what our purpose is on the planet, and we are aware of this ignorance collectively, for the first time.
Importantly, consciousness and self-understanding are not epiphenomenal—they are not merely supervening or reacting to a more basic bio-technological base—human consciousness and self-understanding are driving the global crisis at all levels. So it is conscious evolution from here on out: we are able to know and do too much to pretend otherwise; we must consciously orchestrate the future of the planet and the biosphere. Our generation is in an unprecedented position to take responsibility for participating in profoundly generative and destructive evolutionary crises. The question is: can we understand our crises in cosmic context, as opportunities for the emergence of the unprecedented, and as invitations into a higher form of life? To do so we must come to see that the evolution of the universe and biological life is not a fact, it is a story.
Evolution is a story about us, who we are, and what we are going through now. The universe itself is a best understood as a story, not as a mere fact. The universe is a love story. Like all true love stories (and unlike harlequin romances or romantic comedies) it has been as story of profound crisis, cataclysm, tragedy, hope, emergence, and creativity. One of the best ways to summarize the narrative arch of this story was offered by Teilhard de Chardin (1955), who followed C.S. Peirce as well as cryptic strains in Kant’s early metaphysics of nature, and organized his master work according to three epochal emergent properties of the evolving universe: matter, life, and thought. This same tripartite division has been rehearsed recently by Holmes Rolston (2010) in his, Three Big Bangs: Matter-Energy, Life, Mind.
We use this framing to tell the story of cosmic evolution, only we add a Fourth Big Bang, which is the planetary phase-shift resulting from evolution’s becoming consciousness of itself in and through humanity. We stand today on the edge of this Fourth Big Bang and have only a glimmer of the unimaginable horizons it opens. The best image available to capture what is currently potentiated in humanity is the image of a universal non-coercive human superorganism, constituted as a Unique Self Symphony. We discuss this further below. We must tell this story because understanding the story of cosmic evolution is an essential part of expanding the self-understanding of humanity during this time of crisis. Importantly, our ability to position the evolution of humanity in the vast deep-time context of cosmic evolution emerged only recently. It is truly remarkable that in the same historical moment we are confronted with the perilous reality of our impending self-induced extinction, we are also confronted by a breathtaking new vision of humanity’s precious and miraculous place in the universe. The future depends on our ability to make sense of the past, and not just our cultural and social history, but the history of the biological and physical universe that birthed our species. One of the seminal moments in modern science was the “discovery” of the Big Bang— although, as has been suggested, a better name is the Primordial Flaring Forth. With remarkable irony, a scientific worldview dedicated to denying the existence of the unmeasurable and questioning the reality of the immaterial, lead inextricably to the conclusion that everything in the universe came into being as a spontaneous explosion of something from nothing. The mystery school of modern physics tells of many mysteries, but none is more mysterious than this. Moreover, we are told that in less than a millionth of a second after something exploded out of nothing, intelligent structures began to emerge, structures that would make it possible for the universe to unfold toward a kind of structured novelty, leading to the emergence of new and more intricately organized structures, such as solar systems, suns, and planets.
As billions upon billions of years passed, a Second Big Bang was being prepared, breathtakingly improbable from the perspective of the sciences that have demonstrated its reality: the emergence of life from lifeless matter. The genesis of the biosphere on Earth is nearly as amazing as the explosion of everything from nothing. And as Stephen Jay Gould and many others have demonstrated, the sheer statistical improbability of such an occurrence is truly mind blowing.14 Yet it is a scientific reality that cannot be denied. Earth would come to be entirely encased in life, as the surface of the once barren rock was transformed into a teaming wilderness of biological diversity. The tendencies displayed in the evolution of the material universe, such as the spontaneous confluence of diffuse matter into organized forms and the emergence of higher-order structures, resulted in even more complex expressions during the evolution of the biological world. Thus emergence and self-organization have in the past decades become the watchwords of the branches of biology seeking to explain the earliest forms of life on Earth. Simply put, emergence appears to be an intrinsic property of the universe. It is a process in which synergies and symbioses resulting from self-organization propel matter toward unprecedented new forms. When what were once independent entities reach a certain density of interconnectedness, they spontaneously become interconnected elements of a new higher-order whole, and in so doing they can no longer be understood as separate parts.
As evolution unfolded on Earth for billions of years, a Third Big Bang was being prepared, again a seeming miracle from the perspective of traditional science: the emergence of self-conscious awareness and human culture. It is not clear exactly when the transition from animal signaling to human language occurred, or when the natural activities of foraging and hunting became tied into the reflective transmission culture and technology that characterize even the earliest human societies. Aside from the very first microorganisms that transformed the atmosphere of the Earth into oxygen, and thus created the conditions for the possibility of the biosphere, the emergence of human culture is perhaps the most significant moment in the history of the planet. Human self-consciousness led to the development of civilizations, and eventually our modern capitalist world-system. This is, of course, a long and complex story.
But as culture evolved through various (and largely cumulative) political and scientific revolutions, a Fourth Big Bang was being prepared. Eventually culture itself would come to be informed by thinking about evolution. Evolution was becoming conscious of itself through human consciousness. This has been a halting and error prone process, and even today the majority of the world’s population does not believe in anything like a scientifically informed theory of evolution. Nevertheless, there is good reason to believe that the coming decades will be those during which evolutionary realizations spread like wildfire and new a species wide self-understanding emerges, including new ideas about the nature of the self and human personality, and new ideas about the evolutionary function of human collectives and cooperatives.
Today we not only need a theory of evolution that is qualitatively more complex and adequate in its dealing the material and external aspects of evolutionary processes, we need one that can illuminate the evolution of interiors, the evolution of self and culture. We are called to weave a unified vision of humanity as part of an evolving universe, one that integrates interiors and exteriors, matter and consciousness, agency and communion. With this aim in mind, uniqueness emerges as an essential and broadly integrative concept at the heart of the complex new sciences of evolution."
- Book: Three Big Bangs: Matter-Energy, Life, Mind. Holmes Rolston III. Columbia University Press, 2010, 160pp., $24.50 (hbk), ISBN 9780231156394.