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A Paper presented by William McGaughey at the Second Conference

of the International Big History Association on August 7, 2014


"An Alternative View of Thresholds and Historical Turning Points"


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 Christian calls 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 world.

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 of turning points. 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 formation of stars from clouds of cosmic materials, explain how the heavier chemical elements are produced within stars, and envision the continuing expansion of space, along with its energy and matter, in galaxies and galactic clusters.

The second chapter is about the creation of the solar system and earth. Its story does not chronologically follow events of the first chapter but concerns 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 Way galaxy where the sun and its planets exist. Why? It is because one of those planets, earth, 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 place 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 most of the physical universe. 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 life. Although those awarenesses 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.

If thought had remained an obscure electro-chemical process within the human brain, it might not merit being considered a third sector of existence any 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 exists 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.

When we come to the period of civilization - roughly 5,000 years ago - thought becomes translated into written words. Writing puts thought in a more durable form so its expressions can be communicated to others. Through verbal and mathematical communication, the knowledge gained from individual experience becomes collective knowledge embodied in an accumulation of written documents. Knowledge on this scale changes the world in massive 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 of being, its scheme differs from 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 in the story of the human species, but not from the standpoint of advancing thought. Agriculture is a revolutionary advance in feeding the human community but it does not put thought in a new form. It does, however, illustrate the application of human thought to living creatures.

A problem with my scheme of big history is that we do not have individuals, or groups of them, deliberately trying to advance thought. What we do have is people acting within institutional structures to pursue various other purposes, often those concerned with gaining power, where 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 institutions of 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 - namely, ideographic writing, alphabetic writing, printing, electronic recording and broadcasting.

Government, the focus of chapter 6, was first institution to develop. Then came world religion, the focus of chapter 7. Starting with 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 culture is centered 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, was focused on government and the emergence of political empires. Then, from the time of Christ until around 1500 A.D., religious institutions became the main focus of history. We had the three world religions - Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam - becoming established as powerful institutions cooperating with government to govern society.

The Italian Renaissance in the 14th and 15th centuries A.D. brought a shift of attention away from religion to humanistic and secular interests, including the natural sciences. Commercial and educational institutions became dominant for the next four or five hundred years. Then, after World War I, the entertainment industries took off, fueled by new communication technologies. In addition to the motion-picture and sound-recording industries, radio stations began broadcasting entertainment programs. In the mid 20th century, television networks were formed.

Now, in the early 21st century, the news and entertainment industries - especially the big television networks - are starting to lose their edge. Computers are changing society. Chapter 10 tells the story of that industry. Finally, in chapter 11, we anticipate that computer technology will progress to the point of replicating the human mind. The products of artificial intelligence and robotics are machines created by human thought that are themselves capable of thinking. But until they are freed from the tether of maintenance by human beings, they will not assume the attributes of life.

This in a nutshell is where I would place the turning points of Big History. The four epochs of history in civilized times are defined by communication technologies and by the major institutions in society. But Big History is bigger than this. We are not as interested in human societies or modes of communication as how the historical process has advanced thought. In civilized times, thought has become a complex of knowledge accessible to the entire human race.

In telling that story, I would collapse chapters 6 and 7 into one segment and chapters 8 and 9 into another. Their events take place, respectively, in the period between 3000 B.C. and 1500 A.D. and in the period between 1500 A.D. and 2000 A.D. For the time being, we are ignoring computers and what might come from them.

Why divide the history of civilizations into two periods? The story told in chapters 6 and 7 concerns the production of knowledge in written texts - whether in ideographic or alphabetic scripts. The texts themselves have little impact upon the physical world. On the other hand, the story told in chapters 8 and 9 concerns knowledge in the form of machines. Machines have greater physical impact.

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. The collective 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 different than the first two. The machine age started with the Renaissance. Think of Leonardo da Vinci, an inveterate inventor of machines. Think of the Portuguese sailing vessels that traversed the oceans and of the muskets that Europeans used to subdue indigenous peoples. Think of the Dutch wind mills that became a source of power for manufacturing and reclaiming land 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 years when machinery came to dominate human culture.

Even though we have here divided 5,000 years of world history into two periods, there is a rhythm in history - a wave-like motion - that causes the progress of thought to fluctuate between greater and lesser states of engagement with the physical world. There is a period of advance toward increasing worldly impact and a period of regression into images and ideas inhabiting the mind. Let us consider the two periods separately.

In the first three thousand years of world history, civilizations were taking shape at the direction of governments. In the government-centered era, great monuments such as pyramid tombs, great walls, roads, canals, palaces and sea ports were built by kings.

Then in the next fifteen hundred years, religion came to the fore with a different set of concerns. In the religion-centered era, scholars ceased to be interested in the natural world. Their attention was turned to religious ideas, sacred texts, and the prospect of a blissful afterlife. Things unseen took precedence over what could be seen.

Likewise, in the last five hundred years, the Renaissance launched an age of discovering the world. Painters and sculptors discovered beauty in the human body. Navigators visited distant places on earth. As theological disputes subsided, European intellectuals again became interested in the natural sciences. Technologies derived from them spawned commercial products. This was the period of increased engagement with the world.

In the 20th century, however, humanity lost interest in such things while retreating into an artificial world related to popular entertainment. Its reality consisted of sensuous images recorded on tape or disk, and transmitted in radio or television broadcasts, that were pleasing to the human mind.

But now it is time for another material advance. The computer is not just another electronic device. It does not merely record or broadcast images. Instead, this machine processes information much as the human brain does. The technology of intelligent machines continues rapidly to improve.

In my scheme, the flow of Big History runs through the gyrations of human culture to the development of artificial intelligence and robots. Although the fourth epoch of civilization was inward-looking, its use of electricity and electronics brought technology to the point that it could replicate the human mind. A living species, Homo sapiens, may soon have the capability of replacing itself by machines in economic and other areas.

The flow of history is clear. First came matter, then came life, and finally thought. Thought first appeared in the brain of the human species. Then it was set down in writing. Then it became embodied in machines built from metals and written knowledge. And finally machines will produce their own knowledge. They will become thinking creatures, like us.


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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