Book Summary: “Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos” by Eric Chaisson


Title: Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos
Author: Eric Chaisson
Scope: 5 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 4.5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Chaisson covers all of history going all the way back to the Big Bang. The bulk of the book is about science, but he makes some interesting observations about human history.

My Comments

Chaisson’s book is one of number of recent books on “Big History.” Big History covers all of human history, but in contrast to more traditional history, goes all the way back to the Big Bang and covers the origins of the Solar System, Earth and Life. Chaisson adds to that literature by pointing out that all of this change can be best understood as evolution.

For readability, I would recommend “Big History and the Future of Humanity” as a better introduction to the topic.

Key Take-aways

  • Chaisson divides all of history into 7 epochs, each with their own unique forms of evolution:
    • Particle Epoch
    • Galactic Epoch
    • Stellar Epoch
    • Planetary Epoch
    • Chemical Epoch
    • Biological Epoch
    • Cultural Epoch

Important Quotes from Book

Of all the scientific achievements since Renaissance times, one discovery stands out most boldly: Our planet seems neither central nor special. Use of the scientific method has demonstrated that as living creatures, we inhabit no unique place in the cosmos.

Now, at the beginning of a new millennium, modern science is helping  us construct a truly big picture. We are coming to appreciate how  all objects—from quark to quasar, from microbe to mind—are interrelated.  We are attempting to decipher the scenario of cosmic evolution:  a grand synthesis of many varied changes in the assembly and composition  of radiation, matter, and life throughout the history of the Universe.

Thus, we give this  process of universal change a more elegant name—cosmic evolution,  which includes all aspects of evolution: particulate, galactic, stellar,  planetary, chemical, biological, and cultural.

Emerging now is a unified worldview of the cosmos, including ourselves as sentient beings, based upon the time-honored concept of change.

From galaxies to snowflakes, from stars and planets to life itself, we are beginning to identify an underlying pattern penetrating the fabric of all the natural sciences—a sweepingly encompassing view along the “arrow of time” of the formation, structure, and function of all objects in our multitudinous Universe.

Modern science now combines a wide variety of curricula—physics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, biology, anthropology, among others— in an interdisciplinary attempt to address the two most fundamental issues of all: the origin of matter and the origin of life.

Of equal importance to those advances made in the particular disciplines,  science during the past decade has also become more interdisciplinary.  Highly focused researchers now talk to colleagues across specialized  boundaries—astronomers to paleontologists, cosmologists to  particle physicists, biologists to mathematicians, neurologists to computer  scientists. The breakdown of academic barriers is long overdue, as  “thinking out of the box” is increasingly valued today. And with many  fields now moving from reductionist to integrationist approaches,  multidisciplinarity is in vogue for the twenty-first century. We are entering  an age of synthesis, when the drive toward unification is once  again at the fore.

Cosmic evolution is an inclusive working hypothesis that strives to integrate the big and the small, the near and the far, the past and the present, into a unified whole.

In the earliest epoch of the Universe, radiation dominated matter. During the Radiation Era, intense light ruled all.

From the start of the Matter Era, matter then dominated radiation; it controlled most events, even in the presence of radiation. And matter has governed radiation ever since, successively and successfully forming galaxies, stars, planets, and life.

Given enough time, even evolution evolves.

Be assured, stellar evolution continues unabated in the cores of stars  everywhere. Chemical evolution occurs in such remote sites as galactic  clouds and exotic moons. Biological evolution persists for most species  on Earth and possibly on distant planets as well. And cultural evolution  endures in many corners of our world and conceivably on alien worlds  beyond. But for technologically intelligent life, evolution per se is undergoing  profound change.

Whereas previously the gene (strands of DNA) and the environment  (whether physical, biological, or cultural) guided evolution, we humans  on planet Earth are rather suddenly gaining control of both these agents  of change.

The emergence of sentient, technological beings, on Earth and perhaps  elsewhere, heralds a whole new era—the Life Era. Why? Because  technology enables life to begin to control matter, rivaling that previous  transformation when matter began uncoupling from, and then dominating,  radiation more than ten billion years ago. In turn, matter is now  losing its dominance, if only at those isolated places where technologically  intelligent life resides.

For clarity, the onset of the Life Era coincides not with the origin of life itself, nor even with the emergence of humanity or consciousness. Rather, it’s an event in spacetime when technological life-forms begin manipulating matter more than matter influences life, much as matter eventually came to dominate radiation earlier in the Universe. For humans, this novel event is here and now.

Evolution, energy, and ethics are the core elements that will guide us  along the challenging path toward the Life Era: the first—evolution—  because a good understanding of our universal roots and of our place in  the cosmic scheme of things will help us create a feasible future course;  the second—energy—because our fate will bear strongly on the ways  that humankind learns to use energy efficiently and safely; and the  third—ethics—because global citizenship and a planetary society are  crucial factors in the survival of our species.

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