In any history covering a broad period
of time - whether it be western history, world history, or big history
- an important aspect of design would be the identification of so-called “turning
points” which divide one part of the story from another. It’s
obvious that such history does not follow a single pattern of flowing
events but, instead, changes course at certain times.
Big history has
the advantage of being big enough that people can see that its story
is segmented. The patterns of development in star formations are
different than those in the evolution of living species. The development
of agriculture, systems of writing, religion, and commercial enterprises
each have their own types of stories.
This wide range of experiences might
well produce a chaotic history if not properly organized. Big historians
are therefore looking for points of change
when new institutions, creatures, or types of being emerge. It is when
particular sets of conditions exist for new things to be created. David
them “goldilocks” conditions, meaning that the conditions are
not too much one way or another but are “just right” in terms
of what is needed to produce the end result.
For example, human beings can
only live in a certain range of temperatures and atmospheric pressures.
We cannot live on Jupiter or on the star Sirius
or in empty space. Present-day earth provides exactly the right conditions.
My own attempt to make sense of the
bewildering variety of experiences leading up to the present situation
has led me to regard Big History
as the story
of three successive types of being: matter, life, and thought. One
type flows out of another. Mixed together, they comprise our present
My prospective book, History of
the Triple Existence: Matter,
Life, and Thought,
tells this story in eleven chapters. Each chapter is framed by a set
Let me briefly run through the table of contents to show what
is specifically involved.
The first chapter concerns the creation
of the physical universe. We start with the Big Bang, continue with the
cosmic materials, explain how the heavier chemical elements are
stars, and envision the continuing expansion of space, along with
its energy and matter, in galaxies and galactic clusters.
chapter is about the creation of the solar system and earth. Its story
does not chronologically follow events of the
a spatial sub-set of the earlier story. In telling that story,
we narrow our focus of attention to a small part of the Milky
the sun and its planets exist. Why? It is because one of those
provides a bridge to the next part of the story, which is the
appearance of life. So far as we presently know, the earth is the only
in the universe where life exists.
The third chapter, then, tells
the story of life. Life is a new type of being, different than the
inorganic materials comprising
of the physical
It belongs to the realm of matter but has special characteristics.
Chief among them, life follows a cyclical pattern leading from
birth to maturity
to death. It shows an evolutionary progression from simple
life forms to larger and more complex organisms.
The fourth chapter is
about the evolution of a particular living species, Homo sapiens, our
own species. We are telling a story
that leads from
matter to life to thought. By our standards, Homo sapiens
is the only species
that is capable of thought. Therefore, we need the story
of our species’ emergence
as a life form to move Big History forward into thought’s
murky but important domain.
Where does thought begin? It starts
with glimmering awarenesses inside their brain as individual
human beings experience
predate spoken language, it takes language to develop and
organize thought to a point that we can recognize it as
a type of being.
The fifth chapter
describes thought at this stage of its development.
thought had remained an obscure electro-chemical process within the
human brain, it might not merit being considered
sector of existence
more than sap flowing through a tree or an animal’s
digestive processes would be. But thought is more than
this because it has become a causal agent
in the world. Through technology, thought is able to
arrange and create things in the physical world. As life
materially, so do products of thought.
We have, in Vladimir Vernadsky’s terminology, three
spheres of existence - the geosphere, biosphere, and
noosphere - describing, respectively, the
realms of inorganic matter, life, and human thought.
we come to the period of civilization - roughly 5,000
years ago - thought becomes translated into written
a more durable
form so its expressions can be communicated to others.
Through verbal and mathematical communication, the
becomes collective knowledge embodied in an accumulation
of written documents. Knowledge on this scale changes
and profound ways.
I cover the period of civilization
in chapters 6 through 9 of my book. Focused upon the progression of
thought as a type
other schemes of big history which tend to show the
progression of scattered human communities toward
a global society.
Take agriculture, for example. Does
its arrival mark a major break point in human history? Yes, it does
not from the standpoint of advancing thought. Agriculture
is a revolutionary advance in feeding the human
not put thought
new form. It does, however, illustrate the application
of human thought to living
A problem with my scheme of big history
is that we do not have individuals, or groups of them,
thought. What we
do have is people acting within institutional
structures to pursue various
purposes, often those concerned with gaining
thought is advanced incidentally. The history
of civilized societies
is largely about struggles
between different power seekers.
My earlier book, Five Epochs of Civilization, described the process by which the major
human society have become
developed. It tells
how society fills up with them over time to
develop a pluralistic structure of
power. It also explains how each major institution
is associated with a communication technology
introduced at the beginning
of the period
writing, alphabetic writing, printing, electronic
recording and broadcasting.
focus of chapter 6, was first institution to develop. Then came world
of chapter 7.
the Renaissance, we then had a period in
which commercial enterprise and secular education
dominated society and its culture. Their
story is told in chapter 8. Finally,
in chapter 9, we have the story of the news
and entertainment industries. Our contemporary
mostly in entertainment.
My book tells the
history of those various institutions. The first period, from about
3000 B.C. to around
the time of Christ,
focused on government
and the emergence of political empires.
Then, from the time of Christ until around 1500
became the main focus
We had the three world religions - Buddhism,
Islam - becoming established as powerful
institutions cooperating with
government to govern
The Italian Renaissance in the
14th and 15th centuries A.D. brought a shift of
away from religion
the natural sciences. Commercial and
educational institutions became dominant for the next
four or five hundred years.
Then, after World
I, the entertainment
industries took off, fueled by new communication
technologies. In addition to the motion-picture
began broadcasting entertainment programs.
In the mid 20th century, television networks
Now, in the early 21st century,
the news and entertainment industries - especially
- are starting to lose
are changing society. Chapter 10 tells
the story of that industry. Finally,
will progress to
the point of replicating the human
mind. The products of artificial intelligence
by human thought
that are themselves
of thinking. But until they are freed
from the tether of maintenance by human
This in a nutshell is where
I would place the turning points of Big History.
technologies and by the major institutions
in society. But Big History is bigger
We are not
as interested in human
or modes of
communication as how the historical
process has advanced thought. In
thought has become a
complex of knowledge
accessible to the entire
In telling that story,
I would collapse chapters 6 and 7 into one segment
and chapters 8 and
9 into another.
in the period between 3000 B.C.
and 1500 A.D. and in the period between
might come from them.
the history of civilizations into two periods? The story told
in chapters 6
and 7 concerns
- whether in ideographic or alphabetic
scripts. The texts themselves
have little impact upon
On the other hand,
the story told
in chapters 8 and 9 concerns
knowledge in the form of machines. Machines
Big historians often cite
humanity’s “collective learning” as
an event associated with a
threshold of Big History. That is true of written and printed texts.
learning is embodied in those texts. Increasingly,
however, the collective learning
becomes embodied in physical objects in the form of machines. Here
the thinking has already been done. It is embodied
in the invention and design
of the machine. It does not take a scholar to see what has been created.
The machine’s presence in the world is obvious.
That is why the
third and fourth epochs of world history are
machine age started
Think of Leonardo
da Vinci, an inveterate inventor
of machines. Think of the
of the muskets
that Europeans used
to subdue indigenous peoples.
Think of the Dutch wind mills
manufacturing and reclaiming
from the sea.
Think of James Watt’s
steam engine, and of railroads,
airplanes, and automobiles.
Think of the television set
commanding human attention
for long periods of time.
These all came about in recent
when machinery came to dominate
we have here divided 5,000
years of world
into two periods,
is a rhythm
- a wave-like
- that causes
of thought to fluctuate
between greater and lesser states
of engagement with
There is a period
impact and a period of
regression into images and ideas inhabiting
Let us consider
In the first
three thousand years of world history,
civilizations were taking
at the direction
of governments. In
great monuments such
as pyramid tombs,
great walls, roads, canals,
built by kings.
in the next fifteen hundred years, religion
came to the
fore with a different
concerns. In the
scholars ceased to
be interested in the natural
religious ideas, sacred
texts, and the prospect
of a blissful
took precedence over
what could be seen.
in the last five hundred years,
an age of discovering
the world. Painters
and sculptors discovered
human body. Navigators
visited distant places
As theological disputes
in the natural sciences.
from them spawned
commercial products. This was
the period of increased
engagement with the
In the 20th
century, however, humanity
in such things
while retreating into an
related to popular
Its reality consisted
of sensuous images
recorded on tape or disk,
that were pleasing
to the human
But now it
is time for another material
is not just
does not merely
this machine processes
as the human
brain does. The technology
scheme, the flow of Big
gyrations of human
epoch of civilization
to the point
that it could
mind. A living
may soon have
capability of replacing
machines in economic
and other areas.
flow of history
brain of the
it was set down
Then it became embodied
They will become
See also “Storytelling and Science in Big History”, based on a discussion at the conference on big history held in San Rafael, California on August 13, 2014. It is a follow-up to discussion at this conference.
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