WE NEED A MODERN ORIGIN STORY: A BIG HISTORY
I'm a Russian historian, and I love teaching Russian history. I taught it during the Cold War when it seemed exceptionally significant. Teaching it in Australia, where I was, was a bit like talking about the dark side. I felt my students needed to know about that world.
I'm not Russian, but I was teaching Russian history and eventually I realized I was giving the subliminal message that humans are divided, at a fundamental level, into competing tribes. Having lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, I remember it vividly. I was a schoolboy in England where this tribalism threatened to blow us all up. That was a very vivid experience for me. I thought, for historians to keep teaching this subliminal message—that we're divided by tribes—is not a good thing.
Years later I went back to H. G. Wells' Outline of History. Right at the beginning—he wrote it at the end of World War I—he says exactly the same thing, that we need a history of humanity, because as long as we teach history as a story of competing tribes, wars are going to repeat themselves and all the horrors of World War I are going to repeat themselves. I'd stumbled on the same sort of idea: We need a history of humanity. In Australia there was no world history at that time, so there were no models that I was aware of. I had to think it through myself.
I'd always read science because I'd always been a science nerd. I loved writing by good scientists for intelligent readers. I thought, we need a history of humanity. What would it look like? I realized immediately that you have to take the Paleolithic era seriously. Chronologically, most of human history was spent in the Stone Age. In Australia the Stone Age survived until very recently. Then I started thinking you had to talk about human evolution. You have to go beyond the borders of the history discipline and talk about how humans evolved. Then I thought, yikes, now I'm in biology. To do that seriously I have to talk about how you get from bacteria to multi-celled organisms. In other words, I have to have some grip on the whole history of life on earth. To do that seriously I have to talk about the origins of life, which means talking about how the planet was formed and getting into geology. Then, I thought, to do that seriously I have to look at astronomy. This started looking terrifying until I realized there's a starting point, with the Big Bang.
In the present state of science this is a story that has a beginning, and of course, cosmologists are trying to look beyond that beginning. As I understand it, at the moment there's no hard data that takes you beyond the big bang. So here's a starting point: Could you teach a history course that began with the origins of the universe? That would be the way to give a sense of humanity as a single species facing shared problems in the modern world. That's how I began teaching Big History in 1989 at Macquarie University in Sydney, and it was a lot of fun. It was such fun.
I invited colleagues from all different departments, but none of us had a clue how to put the bits and pieces together. An astronomer would talk brilliantly about the Big Bang, someone else would talk about the origins of stars, the creation of the earth, and so on. But because of the culture of specialization, each lecturer brought their own jargon, their own suite of favorite problems, their own techniques, and so on. For students this was really tough.
Over the years I started giving more and more of the lectures myself as I slowly got on top of the agenda. Gradually, a larger story began coming into focus. I'm not the only person to have done this; Eric Chaisson in Boston had, Isaac Asimov had been doing similar things. A clear story came into focus and I realized this project was not as crazy as some people thought. It was very do-able. Then I eventually realized that what we were really teaching was a modern origin story. Of course, we were also doing what C. P. Snow had talked about. Very early on I realized I would have to help my students across the divide between the two cultures—from the sciences to the humanities. What happens at that borderline?
For several years I gave lectures on the philosophy of science, trying to help students get a sense of why the claims of science are so powerful today, why they need to be taken seriously, but also why they're not absolute. Most students have a simple epistemology with two default positions: Either science is right, and therefore everything before science is wrong, or they're all stories. I needed to maneuver my students into a more complex and unstable central position where science is powerful but not absolute. The origin stories of the past were not completely wrong. They were probably the best shot given the knowledge available at that time. I include things like indigenous dreamtime stories in Australia; they were the cutting edge science of their time, but they're not the cutting edge science of now. And if you live now, you need to take what science says very seriously. Maneuvering students into that position was important.
I realized a lot of things. One was that students loved this. Even though in the early years we didn't know what we were doing, and they knew we didn't know what we were doing, they loved it because of the questions we asked. A bright young person goes to school and they're full of questions, and their questions are about the meaning of life: What is this cosmos I'm part of? What does it mean to be human? They go to school and the first great disillusionment, which we've all suffered but we've buried it deep in our subconscious, is that the teachers more or less say to you, "Shut up about the meaning of life. Get on with your French verbs, or your American History, or your Russian history," whatever it is.
What we learn is that school is not about meaning; it's about a whole series of technicalities or fragmentary bits of meaning. At no point does someone try to help you put them all together. Then you go to university and you think, at university at least there will be philosophers. Same thing happens. We all get used to this. We all get locked into this culture of specialization, which is so deeply embedded in education and research. People's egos are tied up with it. You define yourself as a specialist in this area or another. Students loved this course because of the questions we were asking. And the questions we were asking were those questions: What is your place in the cosmos? What is the cosmos of which you are a part? Are you a large part of it? Are you central? Are you marginal? Is there anything distinctive about humans?
Gradually, over the years I've come to believe that modern science contains rich answers to a lot of those questions. We can say to students, "These are great questions. We won't be able to give you perfect answers or complete answers, but we can take you a long way. Modern science can take you a long, long way as you pursue those questions." That's what we try to do in the Big History courses.
One of the things we asked ourselves, as we were trying to put together this story and trying to put together a coherent story that linked what we think of as the natural sciences and the humanities, was what sort of story would emerge at the end of this? In the past, say in the Christian tradition, or in fact, in all cultural traditions, you have unifying stories. We don't seem to have one in the modern world. I'm talking about the natural sciences here. Many scientists are so worried that a concern for meaning, or story, or significance, or purpose will somehow warp the mapping process that scientists are engaged in. At the methodological level, that's true. You don't let your preconceptions warp what you're doing. But at an ontological level, I don't think that is true.
In modern science, and I include the humanities here, science in a German sense of science—rigorous scholarship across all domains—in modern science we've gotten used to the idea that science doesn't offer meaning in the way that institutional religions did in the past. I'm increasingly thinking that this idea that modernity puts us in a world without meaning—philosophers have banged on about this for a century-and-a-half—may be completely wrong. We may be living in an intellectual building site, where a new story is being constructed. It's vastly more powerful than the previous stories because it's the first one that is global. It's not anchored in a particular culture or a particular society. This is an origin story that works for humans in Beijing as well as in Buenos Aires.
It's a global origin story, and it sums over vastly more information than any early origin story. This is very, very powerful stuff. It's full of meaning. We're now at the point where, across so many domains, the amount of information, of good, rigorous ideas, is so rich that we can tease out that story. E.O. Wilson has been arguing for this for a long time. In Consilience he argued for this. It's the same project.
It turns out, as we tell it at least, there is a coherent story. There may be various ways of doing it, but the way we do it is very much a story about increasing complexity, and it's a story that's very relevant for humans. The early universe, say, half a million years after the Big Bang, was very simple. You have clouds of hydrogen and helium, you don't have any other elements—smatterings of lithium and beryllium. And they're very homogenous, roughly the same density, roughly the same temperature everywhere. Gradually, over 13.8 billion years more complex things appear, but they only appear where the Goldilocks Conditions are just right. That's the story we tell.
We tell it—this is just a convenience—across eight thresholds of increasing complexity. The first is the Big Bang itself, the creation of the universe. The second is the creation of stars. Once you have stars, already the universe has much more diversity. Stars have structure; galaxies have structure. You now have rich gradients of energy, of density, of gravity, so you've got flows of energy that can now build more complex things.
Dying stars give you the next threshold, which is creating a universe with all of the elements of the periodic table, so it's now chemically richer. You can now make new materials. You can make the materials of planets, moons, and asteroids. On some planets, particularly rocky planets, you get an astonishing chemical diversity. The reason is because most of the hydrogen and helium from the inner solar system was driven away by the solar wind. In the inner planets you're left with an environment that's remarkably chemically rich, and that's the environment that eventually gave birth to life on this planet. The odds are increasing that the universe is crawling with life.
Life is a fifth threshold; planets are a fourth threshold. One of the wonderful things about this story is that, as you widen the lens, I'm increasingly convinced that all these very big questions that we're asking that seem impossible when seen from within the disciplinary silos begin to look manageable from the large scale. Let me give two examples. One is life itself.
I have a feeling that within this story it's possible to offer a fairly simple but powerful definition of what makes life a different level of complexity from the complexity of, say, simple chemical molecules or stars, or galaxies. With life, you get complex entities appearing in extremely unstable environments. Stars create their own environments so that they can work mechanically. If you have complex things in very unstable environments, they need to be able to manage energy flows to maintain their complexity. If the environments are constantly changing, they need some mechanism for detecting changes. That is the point at which information enters the story.
What were just variations in the universe suddenly become information, because something is responding in a complex way to those variations. Something like choice enters the story because no longer do living organisms make choices mechanically; they make choices in a more complex way. You can't always guarantee that they're going to make the same choice. That's where natural selection kicks in. You have millions of organisms making different choices, and natural selection allows the right choices to get preserved within the lineage. Making the right choices matters.
That means, in a sense, that purpose has entered the story at this stage. You could perhaps define life within the story as complex entities that appear in extremely unstable environments. This is complex complexity! To survive in those environments, you need capabilities that stars don't need. You need to be able to detect information. You need some mechanism for making what we can call choice. That is why living organisms are so complex and why they give the appearance of purpose.
If you move on to human beings (our fifth threshold of increasing complexity) you can ask the question, which students are dying to ask: What makes humans different? It's a question that the humanities have struggled with for centuries. Again, I have the hunch that within this very broad story, there's a fairly clear answer to that. If all living organisms use information about their environments to control and manage the energy flows they need to survive—biologists call it metabolism—or to constantly adjust—homeostasis—then we know that most living organisms have a limited repertoire. When a new species appears, its numbers will increase until it's using the energy that its particular metabolic repertoire allows it to fill.
Yet look at graphs of human population growth and something utterly different is going on. Here, you have a species that appears in probably the savanna lands of East Africa, but it doesn't stay there. During the Paleolithic—over perhaps 200,000 years—you can watch the species, certainly in the last 60,000 years, slowly spreading into new niches; coastal niches in South Africa. Blombos Cave is a wonderful site that illustrates that. Then eventually desert lands, forest lands, eventually into ice age Siberia, across to Australia. By 10,000 years ago our species had spread around the world.
This is utterly new behavior. This is a species that is acquiring more, and more, and more information. That is the key to what makes us different. You can ask what it is that allows us not to be locked within a limited, metabolic repertoire, but to keep expanding that repertoire. There may be a very simple answer. One should expect a simple answer because, on Paleontological time scales, this happens in an eye blink. It happens so fast that arguments that say, well, humans are different because of this, and this, and this, and this, and this, they don't work. There's got to be one thing that, like a key, unlocks a door. I suspect it's linguistic.
Chimps, we know have language. We know they can communicate ideas. We know that chimp mothers can teach their young to use sticks to extract termites from mounds. We also know that information does not seem to accumulate generation by generation in other species. If it did, we would see evidence of it. We would see a species that was gradually widening its niche. We don't see that. Humans have crossed a linguistic threshold. It's as if suddenly human language is more efficient. It's crossed a threshold beyond which information accumulates faster than it's lost. That means something profound. It means we're the first species in 4 billion years in which information accumulates across generations, through the cultural mechanism, not through the genetic mechanism. The cultural mechanism, of course, is orders of magnitude faster than the genetic mechanism.
Here, you have a species where information can accumulate across generations. That's it. That is the foundation for explaining everything that makes us different. If you add in that more information for a living organism gives you more control over resources and energy flows, then what you're doing is watching a species whose control over the energy flowing through the biosphere increases, and increases at an exponential rate. As information accumulates, some of that information speeds up the process of the accumulation of information. Printing is an obvious example, or the Internet. And basically that's it.
If such species exist on other planets, you can guarantee one thing: Hang around for a few hundred thousand years, and there will be something like an Anthropocene. This species will dominate flows of energy on its planet. That's where we are right now. We're managing these colossal flows of energy; we're benefitting from them; they make us staggeringly wealthy; they give us a buffer against crude needs that is something utterly new, but they are on such a scale that they're beginning to disrupt old biospheric cycles, the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle; they're disrupting biodiversity. That's the challenge for the future. Can we maintain the good things, the things that make a good life for us as a result of our increasing control of energy, without undermining the Goldilocks Conditions that allow us humans to build this extraordinarily complex civilization?
I don't want to over claim; I'm a historian, I'm not a scientist. I'm not mathematically literate in the way that I ought to be if I was a scientist. The hunch I'm making is that just widening the lens like this has the capacity not to dilute your ideas, but to bring some of them into sharper focus.
About a year ago, I saw a fabulous production of Waiting for Godot in Sydney. I first encountered Godot at school and it didn't make any sense to me at all. This production finally made lots of sense to me. I realized what people more sensitive to drama than I realized years ago, that it's talking about a world without meaning, that they're waiting for meaning. That's one of the meanings of Godot. And of course, Godot never turns up.
The poignant thing that was brought out in this production was that, in a cold, bleak world of disconnection, of despair, of no meaning, no purpose, there's only one thing left, which is a desperate friendship between people who are quite different. That's all you're left with. And that image of modernity has dominated thinking for a century-and-a-half. It's connected in some way with specialization, which was the strategy of scholars in many disciplines for dealing with the vast tsunami of information that began to flow over us from the late 19th century.
Break it up. There's too much information. We can't deal with it all. Break it up. Matthew Arnold in Dover Beach captures beautifully the terrible sense of loss of meaning that accompanied specialization:
“The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.”
I increasingly think that this idea is wrong, that within modern science there is a story that's even bigger than those of the institutionalized religions. It's not deistic. It's about a universe without teleology, without a conscious creator. But, as Dan Dennett explains beautifully in his book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea.,it's a universe which can blindly create interesting and complex things. That's the story.
Dan Dennett describes this beautifully, but you can find similar ideas if you look in the early writings of Buddhism or in Greek philosophy—the idea of a universe that's not shaped and created by gods, but in which things appear. You don't need a driver. You don't need a creator. Teasing out this story, this rich story, is one of the things we're trying to do in Big History.
I'm increasingly convinced that as we do this many problems that once seemed intractable will begin to seem more manageable if you approach them from across multiple disciplines. That, I'd like to think, includes all the challenges that we'll face in the next fifty or 100 years. Challenges of climate change, declining biodiversity, the fact that there is a mass extinction going on at the moment and it's caused by the fact that we humans are hogging so many of the resources of the biosphere that other species are impoverished. We've impoverished them, and we're driving many of them to extinction.
Those challenges, too, I hope will become clearer if we can help more students and researchers to step back from the specializations a bit. I think of this sometimes as the view from the mountain top. If education and research are about learning about particular landscapes here and there—the landscape of genes, of genetics, the landscapes of French literature—then sometime you need to stand back and look at the whole thing from the mountain top where you see how they're all linked together.
One of the reasons why this approach of Big History, this attempt to put everything together, which E. O. Wilson called "Consilience," is so important is partly because specialization, for all its achievements in the last century-and-a-half—and they've been staggering—is part of the reason why so many people struggle to take science seriously, to understand science. One of the things that Big History can do is help us see that there is a coherent story behind modern science. I use the phase "modern science" in this broad sense: Rigorous contemporary scholarship right across the board. From my own students, and from the students who are learning Big History through the Big History Project in schools—there are now several hundred schools teaching Big History through the Big History Project and using the website materials available—there are many students who are worried about science. They're scared of science. They don't want to grapple with it. But once they see that there is, within our modern understanding of the universe, and the earth, and the planet, and biology, that there is a coherent story that's full of meaning, that will lead them into science.
This sense that scientists are just mapping the universe, they're not in the business of meaning, has been rather damaging. Yes, as a methodological principle, you're mapping. You're describing the world. You don't let your own biases, your own opinions, your own beliefs get in the way of what you see. That's absolutely true as a methodological principle. But if you then impose that on science as a whole, you create an image in the minds of many non-scientists, of science as a domain where you learn lots of powerful and skillful tricks, many of which are quite difficult to learn. But no meaning!
If we tease out what I call ‘the story’, and I'm aware that many scientists might be slightly worried by talking about story, or origin story, but if we tease out the story that this is a meaningful account of our place in the universe and of the nature of the universe, you'll find that will undercut a lot of contemporary resistance to science. It may stop words like "scientism" being used as an accusation. As far as I can see, the word "scientism" is just science with a pejorative loading. It's the word you use if somehow you don't like, you resist science, you fear science, but you’re not sure why.
If I'm right that there is a rich story here within science, then the idea that science, too, is telling a story, a story that has a lot to tell us about our place in space and time, should not be worrying. In this sense, science is like all philosophical traditions. It's a mapping process. It tells you where you are in space and time, and that mapping process, which is present in all origin stories is powerful and meaningful because it tells you who you are, and where you are. By doing that, it tells you what possibilities are open to us. There is an educational challenge for science to present itself as meaningful, to present itself as being as meaningful as any other great philosophical tradition, and, in addition, much more powerful because it sums over so much more information. And it's global.
I taught in San Diego for many years, and I taught Big History. I had a lot of students who were Creationists. They had the courage to say to me that they struggled with all of this. One of the things I found was that many of them are struggling in a way that is admirable. They're looking for big story. They don't find it in science because we don't teach it that way. Eventually they go to their churches because they do find a big story there. Quite a few, I realized, are a bit uneasy about this, because they realize there's a mismatch between the big story which they get from their churches, and the science that created the iPhone that they carry in their pockets. They're a bit uncomfortable about this. The reason they will go to that story, despite the discomfort, is precisely because science does not present itself as containing an alternative story. That's why I'd like to think that Big History can lead many students to see science as not merely powerful knowledge, but as meaningful knowledge, as knowledge that tells you about who you are and what you are.
I've floated the idea that what I call collective learning may be what makes us different: in other words, the capacity of humans to share information with such precision and in such volume that information at the cultural level increases from generation to generation. That's a fundamental threshold; it's what defines us. It explains why communities are so various, because each community accumulates information in slightly different ways. It explains why when communities meet the synergies are so powerful. It's the source of technology. It's the source of science. It's the source of civilization. It's what makes everything that’s human.
If that's right, to explain what makes us different, we need to distinguish between two problems. One is how our ancestors crossed that linguistic threshold. Explaining that is a fiendishly complex, technical problem that involves a vast range of evidence, some of it neurological, some of it archaeological, some of it anthropological. The second problem is much more manageable: Defining the threshold itself, what it changed. That we can do, and we can do quite simply. We could also look for the evidence that the threshold has been crossed. In a sense, I would like to put aside the problem of how and why this changed. It's got to be something simple, because on paleontological time scales the change is so quick. Chomsky's idea of a slight neurological change that gave us grammar may be on the right track. Whether it's literally true or not, we don't know.
If we put aside the problem of how we got human language, as opposed to chimp language, what we're left with is defining the nature of the threshold. It's quite subtle, but it's not hard. If you think of languages as communicating with a certain level of efficiency, then information theory comes into this. There's rich material in the information theory, and I wouldn't pretend to understand it in detail. The point is, you can measure the efficiency of information systems. So much information is conveyed with a certain degree of precision or not.
You can imagine a scale where, at lower levels, information is flowing. It's like a game of telephone. If I say to someone, "One, six, Z, capital Y, W. Pass it on," that information is going to die quite soon. If I say, "I'm in New York," and pass it on, that information will carry. It's as if chimps live in a world where information might be able to survive one or two exchanges, but it can't get much further. We've crossed a threshold which may be neurologically quite small, beyond which we have what Terrence Deacon has called "symbolic language," a language where words are incredibly compressed, packets containing a lot of information.
I can say four syllables "Pink Elephant," and suddenly an image will pop into someone's brain of something that's never existed and never has. Symbolic language allows us to talk about things that are not here. It vastly increases the range of what we can communicate. Once you cross that, then you're in new territory. You may be in such new territory that you will block off other species that are close to crossing that threshold, which might have been the fate of some other hominin species in the last 500,000 years.
In summary, we can define the general nature of the threshold that makes humans different. We can say what it is that makes us different: It's a language so efficient that information accumulates across generations, cultural information as opposed to genetic information. We don't yet know exactly how that happened. But it may be that we can go a long way, leaving that as a black box which we hope the linguists or the neuroscientists may solve in the next decade or two, and go on to the next project, which is looking for evidence that our species has crossed that line.
The evidence has to appear somewhere between 250- and 50,000 years ago. We should look for evidence of a species whose niche is expanding. By 50,000 years ago that evidence is getting pretty powerful in Africa. Maybe by 100,000, maybe even 200,000 years ago. You should look for evidence of symbolic activity. Whenever you find hominins nearby ochre rocks that seem to have been scraped or used or marked, there's a hint there that you may have a species that is thinking symbolically because it probably painted itself. This whole problem about the origins of language, we need to unpack a bit, distinguishing between the hard problem of how we got a more efficient language, and study of the consequences of getting a more efficient language, which we can talk about.
What are the institutional structures within which Big History exists? It's a very new project. The project is trying to break through some of the barriers created by what I think of as a culture of specialization, both in research and in education. I began teaching it at university. For years I just thought, I'm teaching a boutique university course. But a few other universities got interested in it and picked it up. It's now being taught in different forms in a number of universities. The University of Amsterdam picked it up, and they've taught Big History courses for years, modeled originally on the course I was teaching. Southern Methodist in Dallas has, quite independently; John Mears began teaching a course there. Eric Chaisson has been teaching an astronomer’s version in Boston. There are probably, I'm guessing, 30 or 40 universities, mostly in North America, that are teaching Big History in some form. There now exists a college level textbook, of which I am the lead author. That's aimed at college students.
Eventually, I would love to construct a series of research conferences around Big History. Their agenda would be to take ideas such as information, or complexity, what the Santa Fe Institute is doing. Or the question, what makes humans different? Questions that run across many disciplines and bring together experts from different disciplines. That's the university level. At Macquarie Univesity, we’ve formed a Big History Institute that will organize such conferences, as well as supporting big history teaching in high schools.
Since 2010, Bill Gates has been supporting the creation of a free, online site on big history for high schools. That's the Big History Project. It's open to everyone. Anyone can go. There's a public version, which is a ten-hour course in Big History that you can do. Another version, a Big History course for high schools also has very rich resources. Now, four years after we started building that, there are over 100 schools in Australia teaching this. There are over 400 in the U.S. There are many other schools that are using some of our material, but not formally teaching Big History. That's at the school level.
I've taught Big History in Korea for five years. I've been teaching summer courses there. There are one or two schools teaching big history in Korea. There are schools in the Netherlands. Most of those schools are using the material that's been put together for the Big History Project. I had a lot to do with the basic structure of that, not with all of the details. There's video materials, there's printed material, there's graphics, and so on.
As far as we can see, the Big History project is doing very well in schools. But we've gone through individual schools, not through the educational bureaucracy, for the very simple reason that if you go through the educational bureaucracy, you're immediately involved in complex negotiations about how you fit in with existing curricula and syllabi. If you go through individual schools that are willing to experiment with a new syllabus, you can try it out. You can improve it. You can get feedback. At the moment, we're at the level of going through individual schools. We would like to see these courses going into schools in non-English speaking countries. We're already talking to schools in Hong Kong, which may provide a way of eventually producing a Mandarin version.
I've been contacted by many primary school teachers who say, we'd love to see a primary school version of this. I can see absolutely no reason why the basic story could not be told at a primary school level. That would set students up for a more sophisticated level later on. Then an even more sophisticated level, perhaps, at university. One of the other problems with education at the moment is we have this idea that a student does a course in this, then they move on, then they do a course in that and they move on. Whereas good education ought to take the form of a spiral: You encounter a set of ideas, a complex set of ideas, as a primary school student, as a child, then as a teenager, then as an adult. And each time you go deeper. In the past, that’s how people learnt their own origin stories.
What comes after Big History? I'm not sure. This is very, very rich territory. I have this hunch, as I keep saying, that the big research problems now lie—E.O. Wilson's been saying this for a long time—between disciplines, increasingly. They lie between disciplines for the simple reason that such rich research has been done within the disciplinary frameworks. As more and more people begin to take seriously the idea of an overview of all modern knowledge, it'll generate astonishing intellectual synergies with something of the power of Big Bang cosmology, which was the first great scientific synergy of recent scientific history. Bringing together the science of the very large, with the very small. Many scientists thought that was completely undo-able. When they came together, they came together with the force of an intellectual Big Bang. Big History has the power to generate lots of smaller big bangs on questions like what makes humans different.