Big History and the Future of Humanity


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Big History and the Future of Humanity

Big History, in contrast to conventional history, has more of an interdisciplinary basis. Critics of Big History, including sociologist Frank Furedi , have deemed the discipline an " anti-humanist turn of history. According to historian and educator Sam Wineburg of Stanford University , Big History eschews the interpretation of texts in favor of a purely scientific approach, thus becoming "less history and more of a kind of evolutionary biology or quantum physics.

Big History seeks to retell the "human story" in light of scientific advances by such methods as radiocarbon dating , genetic analysis , thermodynamic measurements of "free energy rate density", along with a host of methods employed in archaeology , anthropology , and world history. David Christian of Macquarie University has argued that the recent past is only understandable in terms of the "whole billion-year span of time itself. Big History makes comparisons based on different time scales and notes similarities and differences between the human, geological, and cosmological scales.

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 s. 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. The roots of the idea of cosmic evolution extend back millennia.

Ancient Greek philosophers of the fifth century BCE, most notably Heraclitus , are celebrated for their reasoned claims that all things change.

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Early modern speculation about cosmic evolution began more than a century ago, including the broad insights of Robert Chambers , Herbert Spencer , and Lawrence Henderson. Only in the midth 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, [33] and NASA embraced it in the late 20th century as part of its more limited astrobiology program.

Big History and the Future of Humanity

Carl Sagan , [34] Eric Chaisson , [35] Hubert Reeves , [36] Erich Jantsch , [37] and Preston Cloud , [38] among others, extensively championed cosmic evolution at roughly the same time around This extremely broad subject now continues to be richly 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 mids.

Cosmic evolution is a quantitative subject, whereas big history typically is not; this is because cosmic evolution is practiced mostly by natural scientists, while big history by social scholars. These two subjects, closely allied and overlapping, benefit from each other; cosmic evolutionists tend to treat universal history linearly, thus humankind enters their story only at the most very recent times, whereas big historians tend to stress humanity and its many cultural achievements, granting human beings a larger part of their story.

One can compare and contrast these different emphases by watching two short movies portraying the Big-Bang-to-humankind narrative, one animating time linearly, and the other capturing time actually look-back time logarithmically; in the former, humans enter this minute movie in the last second, while in the latter we appear much earlier—yet both are correct. This contrasts with the approach used by some big historians who divide the narrative into many more thresholds, as noted in the discussion at the end of this section below. Yet another telling of the Big-Bang-to-humankind story is one that emphasizes the earlier universe, particularly the growth of particles, galaxies, and large-scale cosmic structure, such as in physical cosmology.

Notable among quantitative efforts to describe cosmic evolution are Eric Chaisson 's research efforts to describe the concept of energy flow through open, thermodynamic systems, including galaxies, stars, planets, life, and society.

Big History and the Future of Humanity

As such, ordered material systems—from buzzing bees and redwood trees to shining stars and thinking beings—are viewed as temporary, local islands of order in a vast, global sea of disorder. A recent review article, which is especially directed toward big historians, summarizes much of this empirical effort over the past decade. One striking finding of such complexity studies is the apparently ranked order among all known material systems in the universe.

Although the absolute energy in astronomical systems greatly exceeds that of humans, and although the mass densities of stars, planets, bodies, and brains are all comparable, the energy rate density for humans and modern human society are approximately a million times greater than for stars and galaxies. Cosmic evolution is more than a subjective, qualitative assertion of "one damn thing after another". This inclusive scientific worldview constitutes an objective, quantitative approach toward deciphering much of what comprises organized, material Nature.

Its uniform, consistent philosophy of approach toward all complex systems demonstrates that the basic differences, both within and among many varied systems, are of degree, not of kind. And, in particular, it suggests that optimal ranges of energy rate density grant opportunities for the evolution of complexity; those systems able to adjust, adapt, or otherwise take advantage of such energy flows survive and prosper, while other systems adversely affected by too much or too little energy are non-randomly eliminated.

Fred Spier is foremost among those big historians who have found the concept of energy flows useful, suggesting that Big History is the rise and demise of complexity on all scales, from sub-microscopic particles to vast galaxy clusters, and not least many biological and cultural systems in between. Christian elaborated that more complex systems are more fragile, and that while collective learning is a powerful force to advance humanity in general, it is not clear that humans are in charge of it, and it is possible in his view for humans to destroy the biosphere with the powerful weapons that have been invented.

A theme in Big History is what has been termed Goldilocks conditions or the Goldilocks principle , which describes how "circumstances must be right for any type of complexity to form or continue to exist," as emphasized by Spier in his recent book.


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Stars require sufficient quantities of hydrogen , sufficiently packed together under tremendous gravity, to cause nuclear fusion. Christian suggests that the universe creates complexity when these Goldilocks conditions are met, that is, when things are not too hot or cold, not too fast or slow.

For example, life began not in solids molecules are stuck together, preventing the right kinds of associations or gases molecules move too fast to enable favorable associations but in liquids such as water which permitted the right kinds of interactions at the right speeds. Somewhat in contrast, Chaisson has maintained for well more than a decade that "organizational complexity is mostly governed by the optimum use of energy—not too little as to starve a system, yet not too much as to destroy it" italics in the original published paper [55]. Neither maximum energy principles nor minimum entropy states are likely relevant, and appeals to "Goldilocks principles" or other such fairy tales are unnecessary to appreciate the emergence of complexity in Nature writ large.

Advances in particular sciences such as archaeology , gene mapping , and evolutionary ecology have enabled historians to gain new insights into the early origins of humans, despite the lack of written sources. Big History proponents suggest that humans have been affecting climate change throughout history, by such methods as slash-and-burn agriculture, although past modifications have been on a lesser scale than in recent years during the Industrial Revolution. A book by Daniel Lord Smail in suggested that history was a continuing process of humans learning to self-modify our mental states by using stimulants such as coffee and tobacco , as well as other means such as religious rites or romance novels.

Another theme that has been actively discussed recently by the Big History community is the issue of the Big History Singularity. Big History is more likely than conventional history to be taught with interactive "video-heavy" websites without textbooks, according to one account.

ChronoZoom splays out the entirety of cosmic history in a web browser , where users can click into different epochs to learn about the events that have culminated to bring us to where we are today — in my case, sitting in an office chair writing about space. Eager to learn about the Stelliferous epoch? Click away, my fellow explorer. Curious about the formation of the earth? Jump into the "Earth and Solar System" section to see historian David Christian talk about the birth of our homeworld. While the emerging field of Big History in its present state is generally seen as having emerged in the past two decades beginning around , there have been numerous precedents going back almost years.

In the midth century, Alexander von Humboldt 's book Cosmos , and Robert Chambers' book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation [20] were seen as early precursors to the field. In the first half of the 20th century, secular biologist Julian Huxley originated the term "evolutionary humanism", [1] while around the same time the French Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin examined links between cosmic evolution and a tendency towards complexification including human consciousness , while envisaging compatibility between cosmology, evolution, and theology.

In the mid and later 20th century, The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski examined history from a multidisciplinary perspective. Later, Eric Chaisson explored the subject of cosmic evolution quantitatively in terms of energy rate density , and the astronomer Carl Sagan wrote Cosmos. The field continued to evolve from interdisciplinary studies during the midth century, stimulated in part by the Cold War and the Space Race. One account suggested that the notable Earthrise photo, taken by William Anders during a lunar orbit by the Apollo 8 , which showed Earth as a small blue and white ball behind a stark and desolate lunar landscape, not only stimulated the environmental movement but also caused an upsurge of interdisciplinary interest.

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Field and Eric Chaisson started synthesizing knowledge to form a "science-based history of everything", although each of these scholars emphasized somewhat their own particular specializations in their courses and books. His analysis did not begin with the Big Bang, but his chapter "Foundations of History" explored the influences of large-scale geological and astronomical forces over a broad time period.

Sometimes the terms "Deep History" and "Big History" are interchangeable, but sometimes "Deep History" simply refers to history going back several hundred thousand years or more without the other senses of being a movement within history itself. His first university-level course was offered in Since the s, other universities began to offer similar courses.

In at the University of Amsterdam and the Eindhoven University of Technology , college courses were offered. I defined a regime in its most general sense as 'a more or less regular but ultimately unstable pattern that has a certain temporal permanence', a definition which can be applied to human cultures, human and non-human physiology, non-human nature, as well as to organic and inorganic phenomena at all levels of complexity.

By defining 'regime' in this way, human cultural regimes thus became a subcategory of regimes in general, and the approach allowed me to look systematically at interactions among different regimes which together produce big history.

Big History - Wikipedia

Christian's course caught the attention of philanthropist Bill Gates , who discussed with him how to turn Big History into a high school-level course. Gates said about David Christian:. He really blew me away. Here's a guy who's read across the sciences, humanities, and social sciences and brought it together in a single framework. It made me wish that I could have taken big history when I was young, because it would have given me a way to think about all of the school work and reading that followed.

In particular, it really put the sciences in an interesting historical context and explained how they apply to a lot of contemporary concerns. By , a dozen college courses on Big History had sprung up around the world.

This program, directed by Mojgan Behmand, includes a one-semester survey of Big History, and an interdisciplinary second-semester course exploring the Big History metanarrative through the lens of a particular discipline or subject. Our program invites you on an immense journey through time, to witness the first moments of our universe, the birth of stars and planets, the formation of life on Earth, the dawn of human consciousness, and the ever-unfolding story of humans as Earth's dominant species. Explore the inevitable question of what it means to be human and our momentous role in shaping possible futures for our planet.


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The Dominican faculty's approach is to synthesize the disparate threads of Big History thought, in order to teach the content, develop critical thinking and writing skills, and prepare students to wrestle with the philosophical implications of the Big History metanarrative. Barry Rodrigue, at the University of Southern Maine , established the first general education course and the first online version, which has drawn students from around the world. By , 50 professors around the world have offered courses.

In , one report suggested that Big History was being practiced as a "coherent form of research and teaching" by hundreds of academics from different disciplines. There are efforts to bring Big History to younger students. There are initiatives to make Big History a required standard course for university students throughout the world. An education project founded by philanthropist Bill Gates from his personal funds was launched in Australia and the United States, to offer a free online version of the course to high school students. Its inaugural gathering in was described as "big news" in a report in The Huffington Post.

Academics involved with the concept include: [9]. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. This article is about the academic discipline. For the project, see Big History Project. This article possibly contains original research. Please improve it by verifying the claims made and adding inline citations.

Statements consisting only of original research should be removed. October Learn how and when to remove this template message. Universe events since the Big Bang Nature timeline.


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This box: view talk edit. Matter-dominated era. Single-celled life. Multicellular life. Dark Ages. Earliest stars. Earliest galaxy. Omega Centauri. Andromeda Galaxy. Milky Way spirals. Alpha Centauri.

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