Book Summary: “Big History and the Future of Humanity” by Fred Spier

Title: Big History and the Future of Humanity
Author: Fred Spier
Scope: 5 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Spier overviews all of history from the Big Bang to the present. He also includes theory as to why the universe has developed from simplicity to regions of complexity.

If you would like to learn more about long-term human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

One of the most exciting intellectual developments of the last few decades has been the advent of Big History. Of the books that I have read so far, this one is the best. While most Big History books focus exclusively on a descriptive narrative, this one includes useful theory to tie the entire narrative together.

I highly recommend this book.

Key Take-aways

  • The universe has evolved from extreme simplicity to gradually include regions with greater and greater levels of complexity.
  • Complexity means:
    • More constituent parts
    • Greater diversity of types of those parts
    • Interactions between parts within an object
    • Differing interactions between different types of parts
  • Complexity comes from energy moving through matter under the right conditions. The denser the energy, the more complex the form.
  • Complexity can only emerge under certain circumstances:
    • the availability of suitable building blocks
    • dense enough energy flows
    • a great many limiting conditions such as temperatures, pressures and  radiation
  • Human societies are the most complex and energy dense forms in the known universe.
  • As the universe ages, gradually more complex forms are created:
    • Quarks
    • Sub-atomic particles (protons, neutrons and electrons)
    • Atoms
    • Molecules
    • Galaxies
    • Solar systems
    • Planets
    • Life
    • Human societies
  • Life is evolving faster and to greater levels of complexity because they are driven by a learning process based upon natural selection.
  • The complexity of life is fundamentally different from more simple  forms of complexity, because it actively harvests matter and energy from outside.
  • As soon as more complex organisms had emerged, there was usually no way  back. Only rarely have life forms become less complex

Important Quotes from Book

This book is about big history, the approach to history in which the human past  is placed within the framework of cosmic history, from the beginning of the  universe up until life on Earth today. This book offers a fresh theoretical  approach to big history that, I hope, will provide a better understanding not  only of the past but also of the major challenges humanity will be facing in the  near future.

This book is about big history: the approach to history that places human  history within the context of cosmic history, from the beginning of the universe  up until life on Earth today. In a radical departure from established academic  ways of looking at human history, in big history the past of our species is viewed  from within the whole of natural history ever since the big bang. In doing so, big  history offers modern scientific answers to the question of how everything has  become the way it is now. As a consequence, big history offers a fundamentally  new understanding of the human past, which allows us to orient ourselves in  time and space in a way no other form of academic history has done so far.  Moreover, the big history approach helps us to create a novel theoretical framework,  within which all scientific knowledge can be integrated in principle.

Although all the knowledge taught in big history courses is readily available  in academia, only rarely is it presented in the form of one single historical  account. This is mostly the result of the fact that over the past 200 years, universities  have split up into increasing numbers of specializations and departments.  Since the 1980s ce, however, academics ranging from historians to astrophysicists  have been producing new grand unifying historical syntheses, set forth in  books and articles.

Building most notably on the work by US astrophysicist Eric  Chaisson (1946 ce–), a historical theory of everything is proposed, in which  human history is analyzed as part of this larger scheme.

Like most, if not all large‐scale historical accounts, big history tends to focus on the emergence of developments that cause major changes, most notably new forms of complexity.

Whereas many traditional accounts of human history consist of major events that are placed within a chronological time frame, I am following the approach to history in which important processes play a major role. These include the agrarian revolution, state formation, globalization and industrialization. Within these larger processes, a great many smaller‐scale processes can be distinguished.

The shortest summary of big history is that it deals with the rise and demise  of complexity at all scales. As a result, the search for an explanation boils down  to answering the question of why all these different forms of complexity have  emerged and flourished, sometimes to disintegrate again. Here I will argue that  the energy flowing through matter within certain boundary conditions has  caused both the rise and the demise of all forms of complexity.

A closer examination of the effects of energy on matter has led scholars to the profound insight that it is energy – and energy alone – that can make matter change. It makes sense, therefore, to define ‘energy’ as anything that can change matter, including making it more, or less, complex.

In the beginning, there would not have been any complexity at all.  The further the universe evolved, the more complex some portions of it could  become, most notably galaxies. Yet after a rather stormy beginning, most of the  universe became, in fact, rather empty and therefore not complex at all. Today,  after almost 14 billion years of cosmic existence, the human species is arguably  the most complex biological organism in the known universe.

Because no generally accepted definition of ‘complexity’ appears to exist,  I decided to tackle this problem by making an inventory of its major characteristics.  First of all, there is the number of available building blocks. As more  building blocks become available, structures can become more intricate. The  same is the case when the variety of the building blocks increases. Clearly, with  a greater variety of building blocks, more complex structures can be built. The  level of complexity can also increase when the connections and other interactions  between and among the building blocks become both more numerous and  more varied. On the whole it appears, therefore, that a regime is more complex when more and more varied connections and interactions take place among increasing numbers of more varied building blocks.

At different levels of complexity, different types of building blocks can be  discerned. The basic building blocks of ordinary matter are protons, neutrons and  electrons. These elementary particles can combine to form chemical elements,  which are building blocks on a higher level of complexity. The chemical elements,  in their turn, can combine to form molecules, which can be seen as building  blocks on an even higher level of complexity. They may jointly form stars, planets  and black holes, which are the building blocks of galaxies that, in their turn, may  be the building blocks of galaxy clusters. Chemical elements may also combine  to form molecules. At a higher level of complexity, a great many different molecules  may jointly form cells, which may combine to form individuals that, in  their turn, may be the building blocks of society. All these different levels of  complexity should be considered relatively autonomous with regard to one  another, which simply means that such a particular level of complexity exhibits  emergent properties that cannot be sufficiently explained from the properties of  a lower level of complexity.

There is another important aspect to complexity, namely sequence… the sequences in which these building blocks are  organized can produce considerable levels of complexity, while only a slight  change in sequence can wreck this complexity entirely. The sequence of building  blocks, and thus information, mostly matters in life and culture.

Forms of greater complexity never suddenly emerge all by themselves out of nothing. Instead, they always develop from forms of lower complexity.

According to many scholars, there are three major types of complexity: physical inanimate nature, life and culture. In terms of matter, lifeless nature is by far the largest portion of all the complexity known to exist in the universe.

All of this cosmic inanimate matter shows varying degrees of complexity,  ranging from single atoms to entire galaxies. It organizes itself entirely thanks to  the fundamental laws of nature. Whereas the resulting structures can be exquisite,  inanimate complexity does not make use of any information for its own  sustenance. In other words, there are no information centers that determine  what the physical lifeless world looks like.

The second level of complexity is life.

To achieve these elevated levels of complexity, life organizes itself with the aid of hereditary information stored in DNA molecules.

The third level of complexity consists of culture: information stored in nerve and brain cells or in human records of various kinds that is processed and communicated.

During the history of the universe, all these forms of physical, biological and cultural complexity would have emerged all by themselves.

The major question then becomes: how does the cosmos organize itself?

According to the modern view,  the emergence of any form of complexity requires an energy flow through  matter. Only in this way is it possible for more complex structures to arise. The  emergence of life, for instance, must have required a continuous energy flow.  But also stars need an energy flow to come into being, while the same happened  to planets and galaxies.

All life forms are far from thermodynamic equilibrium. In contrast to  lifeless nature, all life forms must harvest matter and energy from outside on a  continuous basis. Humans, for instance, have to keep eating, drinking and breathing  on a continual basis to keep our complexity going. If we stopped doing so, our  complexity would very soon begin to disintegrate. The energy that we ingest  serves many purposes: keeping our metabolism going, making plans, moving  around, etc

Surprisingly, perhaps, whereas humans may seem vanishingly small compared to most other aspects of big history, we have generated by far the largest power densities in the known universe.

In general, the power densities of life are considerably greater than those of lifeless matter.

Today, most of the energy employed by humans is not used for keeping their  bodies going or burning the land but for the creation and destruction of what  I will call ‘forms of artificial complexity’: all the material complexity created by  humans. These include clothes, tools, housing, engines and machines and means  of communication. With the aid of these things, humans have transformed both  the surrounding natural environment and themselves.

Artificial complexity is different from naturally emerging  complexity in one very important aspect, namely that it is made by animals with  purposeful intentions in mind. These artificial forms of complexity could not  have emerged all by themselves.

As Eric Chaisson noted but did not systematically elaborate, complexity can only emerge when the circumstances are right. This includes, in the first place,  the availability of suitable building blocks and energy flows and, in the second  place, a great many limiting conditions such as temperatures, pressures and  radiation. Complexity cannot emerge, or is destroyed, when the circumstances  are not right. The destruction of complexity is usually caused by energy flows  or energy levels that have become either too high or too low for that particular  type of complexity…. Apparently, there is a certain bandwidth of temperature levels within  which humans can live. Such bandwidths exist not only for all living species  but also for rocks, planets and stars. In other words, all relatively stable matter  regimes are characterized by certain conditions within which they can emerge  and continue to exist. In reference to a popular Anglo‐Saxon children’s story,  this will be called the Goldilocks Principle.

The Goldilocks Principle points to the fact that the circumstances must be  just right for complexity to exist. It is important to see that these circumstances  are often not the same for the emergence of complexity and for its continued existence.

More than any other animal, humans have created a great many Goldilocks circumstances that help them to survive.

I think that the ‘energy flows through matter’ approach combined with the Goldilocks Principle may provide a first outline of a historical theory of everything, including human history.

In the very beginning, the moment of the big bang, there was only undifferentiated  matter and energy. But as soon as the universe began to expand and cool  down, a first differentiation took place into electromagnetic radiation on the  one hand and briefly existing forms of matter on the other hand. In this early  period of cosmic history, electromagnetic radiation dominated. During this so-called Radiation Era, very strong radiation existed together with a great many  short‐lived matter particles, which emerged out of radiation only to quickly  annihilate one another and turn into radiation again.

The expansion of the universe led to a rapid decrease of both temperature  and pressure over time. This produced Goldilocks circumstances for the first  emergence of matter. The first four minutes, in particular, exhibited by far the  greatest and fastest change ever to occur in big history, because during that  short period of time all the basic characteristics of the universe emerged.6 This  included, first of all, the emergence of the four basic natural forces, the strong  (nuclear) force, electromagnetism, gravity and the weak force, as well as the natural constants associated with these forces.

The strong force and electromagnetism shape small‐scale and intermediate‐scale complexity (everything up to the size of rocks a few kilometers in diameter), while gravity shapes everything with a much larger mass (planets, stars and galaxies).

In the early universe, in addition to these four major natural forces, all the  elementary particles emerged during the first minutes of cosmic history. These  particles subsequently became the building blocks of all further complexity that  has existed in the universe.

Electrons are also involved in the formation  of chemical bonds that interlink the nuclei of chemical elements. In doing  so, they help to keep molecules together. As a result, electrons play a very important role in the emergence of greater complexity.

From this point onward, radiation was no longer dominant. This monumental  change signaled the transition from the Radiation Era to the Matter Era.

Apparently, somewhere between 1,000 and 1 million years after the big bang, the temperature of the early  universe had dropped to a level that allowed the primordial nuclei, mostly positively  charged hydrogen and helium nuclei, to combine with negatively charged  electrons to form the first neutral atoms, and a little later also the first small neutral  molecules. According to the latest estimates, this would have happened at around  380,000 years after the big bang. By that time, the cosmic temperature would have  gone down to 3,000 K. This was the period when the force of electromagnetism  became more important than the temperature of the universe in shaping matter.  

During the emergence of galaxies, between 700 million and 2 billion years after  the big bang, the first stars also emerged. Apparently, at that time Goldilocks  circumstances existed that favored star formation. In contrast to galaxies, stars  have been forming ever since that time. Clearly, the circumstances for star formation  are far less restrictive than those that favored galaxy formation. Indeed,  star formation will continue as long as galaxies contain sufficient quantities of  hydrogen and helium, the primordial building blocks of stars.

The Goldilocks circumstances in stellar cores favoring nuclear fusion are  similar to the conditions that reigned during the Radiation Era. This leads to the  profound insight that circumstances that were characteristic of early cosmic history  as a whole still exist in stars today, including our sun. A major difference is  that the early universe was more or less homogeneous, while stars and their  surroundings are not. In other words, while these Goldilocks circumstances  existed everywhere for a very short period of time during early cosmic history,  they can only be found within stellar cores in the current universe, which take  up only a minute portion of cosmic space. Another major difference is that  while the infant cosmos changed so quickly that there was hardly any time for  nuclear fusion to take place, all stars, even the shortest shiners, live a great deal  longer. As a result, stars became the major forges for creating greater complexity  at small scales, while the cosmic trash can of interstellar space allowed stars to  get rid of their entropy and keep their complexity going. 

Stars became the first self‐regulating structures…As a result of this negative feedback  loop, stars are self‐regulating, dynamic steady‐state, regimes, which maintain  their complexity for as long as they do not run out of nuclear fuel.

In contrast to life, stars and galaxies are complex, but non-adaptive, entities.

The process of nucleo‐synthesis works as follows. The forging of helium out of  hydrogen in stellar cores inevitably leads to the depletion of its main fuel supply,  hydrogen, and to the formation of helium. In stars that are sufficiently large, after  most of the burnable hydrogen has been used up, the unrelenting impact of gravity  causes the core to heat to temperatures higher than 108 K. These are Goldilocks  circumstances that favor new nuclear fusion processes, in which helium is converted  into heavier chemical elements, such as nitrogen, carbon and oxygen. As  soon as the helium is burned up, if the star is large enough, its further gravitational  contraction will cause the temperature to rise again. This provides Goldilocks circumstances  for the emergence of ever heavier chemical elements, all the way up to  iron. As was noted earlier, iron is the most stable chemical element, and therefore  the heaviest element that can be formed under average stellar conditions.

The galactic habitable zone is characterized by ‘four prerequisites  for complex life: the presence of a host star, enough heavy elements to form  terrestrial planets, sufficient time for biological evolution, and an environment  free of life‐extinguishing supernovae.’ 

Within the galactic habitable zone, the Goldilocks circumstances for the  emergence of complex life include a few more constraints. First of all, if the  central star of a solar system were too large, it would burn too fast. As a result, it  would not last for a sufficiently long period of time needed for complex life to  evolve on its planets. The central star should perhaps not be too small either,  because it might not provide enough energy to keep life going. This would very  much depend on the proximity of a life‐bearing planet to its central star.

Furthermore, most stars evolve as twins, as double stars. Obviously, planetary orbits around double stars would be rather unstable. As a consequence, the energy flows received from such stars would vary considerably.

Within our solar system, a Goldilocks zone exists that favors life.

Our basic premise is that we are dealing with Earthlike planets with CO2/H2O/N2 atmospheres and that habitability requires the presence of liquid water on the planet’s surface. The inner edge of the HZ is determined in our model by loss of water via  photolysis and hydrogen escape [the breakdown of water under the influence of  sunlight into its constituent chemical elements oxygen and hydrogen; the hydrogen  escapes into space because it is too light to be kept in the atmosphere by the planetary  gravitational force]. The outer edge of the HZ is determined by the formation of  CO2 clouds

The complexity of a planet such as Earth is caused by at least four major factors:  (1) its own gravity, which keeps the planet together; (2) the energy generated  deep inside, mostly through the process of nuclear decay of heavy chemical elements  such as uranium; (3) the external energy received in the form of radiation  from its central star, which mostly influences its surface; and (4) cosmic gravitational  effects, including collisions, exerted by other celestial bodies.

Today, Earth is characterized by important Goldilocks circumstances that  have been part of our planetary regime for most of its history. First of all, our  home planet is more or less the right size. If Earth had been smaller, its weaker  gravity would not have been able to retain its atmosphere or liquid surface water,  both vital for life. Had Earth been a great deal larger, its resulting stronger gravity  would have crushed most living things on land, while more likely than not,  any birds that had emerged would not have been able to take off. As a result of  its size, Earth’s interior is still hot.

In the second place, Earth has been orbiting the sun at more or less the right  distance for more than 4 billion years. As a result, the incoming solar radiation  has never been too weak to provide sufficient energy for life to flourish (in  which case all Earth’s surface water would have been frozen), nor so strong as to  destroy life (for instance, by boiling off all Earth’s water into space). In the third  place, Earth is endowed with a large moon, which stabilizes the orientation of  Earth’s axis. Without our moon, the angle of Earth’s axis would have changed  erratically.

Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus  can all combine into molecules based on covalent bonds.. This polarization of charges is extremely important for building  further complexity, because it makes possible a great many forms of  weak electromagnetic attraction and repulsion among molecules. 

All of life is therefore mostly based on covalent chemistry, although it  could not exist without a great many ions that are also dissolved in  water. Life’s reactions all take place in a watery environment, because water offers the best possible concentration and flexibility of  molecules.

The emergence of life represented, therefore, the emergence of an entirely  new mechanism for achieving greater complexity. Unlike stars and galaxies, life  forms do not thrive because they use energy that originates from supplies of  matter and energy stored within themselves. By contrast, all living things need  to continuously tap matter and energy flows from their surroundings to maintain  themselves and, if possible, reproduce.

To exist and multiply, life must actively tap matter and energy flows from  outside itself on a continuous basis. And because these resources are finite on  the good Earth, in the longer run this inevitably means a competition for  resources. This insight forms the basis of Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russel  Wallace’s theory of biological evolution, which can be summarized as a competition  for matter and energy flows within two types of specific Goldilocks  circumstances.

In contrast to lifeless nature, the greater complexity of life involves the  active harvesting of matter and energy. This active harvesting costs energy also. In  consequence, striking a balance between the costs and benefits of complexity  began  to play a role as soon as life emerged. For lifeless forms of complexity, such as stars,  planets and galaxies, such a balance does not play a role, because they do not harvest  matter and energy actively. The emergence of more complex life forms, however,  was strongly linked to such a cost‐benefit balance, in which the costs of  achieving greater complexity were not greater than the benefits of having it. 

This process, in its turn, was driven to a considerable extent by competition  within and among species, which helped define what was advantageous for  survival and reproduction and what was not.

In contrast to cosmic evolution, which has been slowing down after a very energetic start, biological evolution has been speeding up.

The underlying reason of why both biological evolution and human history  have been speeding up can be found in the fact that both have been driven by  learning processes. These learning processes first of all concerned the harvesting  of enough matter and energy as well as the preservation of one’s own complexity.  An important part of this learning process was a continuous re‐evaluation  of the cost‐benefit balance of complexity under pressure from Darwin’s and  Wallace’s process of natural selection (or nonrandom elimination). This process  operates by eliminating both the unfavorable genetic make‐up of a species and  its insufficient cultural skills.

Life forms are therefore sometimes called ‘complex adaptive systems.’

As a result of these learning processes, both biological evolution and human  history are characterized by positive feedback mechanisms. Biological evolution is based on genetic learning, 

The storage of matter and energy for later use appears to be a novel strategy,  which is exclusively employed by complex adaptive regimes. It may well be that  as life became more complex, their storage regimes also became more complex.  Such a trend is apparent in human history, too. These storage regimes can be  interpreted as the creation of specific Goldilocks circumstances facilitating the  stabilization of irregular matter and energy flows.

Through mutual interactions, the evolving geological processes and the  broadening range of living organisms jointly began to shape the surface of  our planet and, in doing so, produced ever‐changing and ever more intricate  Goldilocks circumstances on the face of Earth. Biologists call such circumstances  ‘niches’ when they are occupied by one single species, while the term  ‘biome’ is used when these areas comprise larger regions within which many  different organisms are making a living. 

The complexity of life is fundamentally different from more simple  forms of complexity, because it actively harvests matter and energy from  outside. 

As soon as more complex organisms had emerged, there was usually no way  back. Only rarely have life forms become less complex. And if that happened,  such species did so within very special circumstances, such as dark caves.  t. But there are no cases known to me of complex organisms that spontaneously dissociated into   their constituent cells, which subsequently lived and reproduced independently.

Seen from a big history perspective, here we witness a major difference  between physical and biological regimes. Whereas all complex life forms exhibit  a clear differentiation of form and function within themselves, physical regimes,  such as stars, planets or galaxies, can undergo a differentiation of form but not  of function. To say, for instance, that individual stars fulfill the function of keeping  the entire galaxy together does not make any sense to me. Yet for complex  life forms, it makes perfect sense to wonder which functions organs such as  hands fulfill for keeping the entire organism going.

The emergence of animals with brains and consciousness was a monumental transition in big history.

Over the course of time, humans have learned to create, manipulate and  exploit a great many natural circumstances to their own benefit. In doing so,  they have created ever more intricate regimes of Goldilocks circumstances which have, so far, ensured human survival and reproduction. As a result,  human history represents a fundamentally new phase in biological evolution. 

Humans have been able to do so thanks to their unprecedented ability to  process, store and transmit enormous amounts of information as well as to use  it for all kinds of purposes and, in doing so, accumulate their knowledge and  skills beyond anything other animals have done on our planet. This process is  known as ‘culture.’ Whereas many animals exhibit forms of cultural learning,  only humans have used it to such a large extent for shaping both their own  history and the surrounding natural environment.

The major strength of brains is that they run complex software that can in  principle be adapted quickly, according to the circumstances. This makes brainy  animals far more flexible and adaptive, and thus far more effective, than other  organisms. In contrast to the dominant mechanism for adaptation in biological  evolution, in which change comes as a result of genetic variation, humans do it  by changing their image of the surrounding world and by adjusting their behavior  accordingly. In other words, thanks to culture humans do not have to wait  for the emergence of spontaneous genetic change that may help the lucky individuals  survive the changing circumstances, while all the others go extinct.  Humans only need to change their behavior, not their genes. 

Not only are humans unique in the sense that they began to use an ever-widening  tool set, we are also the only species on this planet that has constructed  forms of complexity that use external energy sources: most notably a great many  machines, but also sailing vessels, for instance. This was a fundamental new  development, for which there were no precedents in big history. This capacity  may first have emerged between 1.5 and 0.5 million years ago, when humans  began to control fire.

Around 10,000 years ago, when there were about 1–10 million humans on the  globe, they began to profoundly transform their relationship with the natural  world through the domestication of plants and animals. In doing so, humans  greatly intensified their competition with other species concerning the capture  of solar energy. For by domesticating desired plants and animals, as well as by  excluding other species that were not considered productive, humans began to  control the capture of solar energy that fell on areas where these useful plants  and animals grew. 

The rise of agriculture can thus be summarized as human efforts that were  aimed at concentrating useful bio‐solar collectors (plants) and bio‐energy converters  (animals) within certain areas to improve the conversion of solar energy  into forms of bio‐energy that were helpful for maintaining or improving human  complexity. In doing so, humans created higher gain energy resources out of  lower gain ones.

The rise of industrialization in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries  implied a fundamentally new way of producing complexity, namely with  the aid of machines driven by fossil fuels that consisted of solar energy stored in  bio‐molecules that had accumulated in the Earth’s crust over millions of years.  In essence, the industrial revolution implied the replacement of muscle, water  and wind power by machines powered by fossil fuels. As with biological evolution, human development appears to be driven by  the competition for matter and energy. With each major ecological and social  transformation, differences in matter and energy use developed as a result of the  fact that the pioneers enjoyed a head start. Yet as skills spread, such differences  have tended to even out. These developments began with tool use, followed by  fire control, the agrarian revolution, state formation, globalization, the industrial  revolution and the information revolution. 

If you would like to learn more about long-term human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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