Starry Night Over the Rhone

2014 IBHA Conference

Yesterday I drove all day long from Portland to San Rafael, California, to attend the second IBHA conference, “Teaching and Researching Big History: Big Picture, Big Questions,” being held at the Dominican University of California. IBHA stands for “International Big History Association,” while “big history” is a contemporary approach to historiography that emphasizes telling the whole story of history from the big bang to the present day, and unifies scientific and humanistic approaches to history. Several of the leading figures in the field of big history are present, and many of them have spoken of how they came to the idea of big history, and that they were essentially doing big history long before there was a name for it. I can identify with this, as I was myself groping toward something like big history, which I am one time called integral history.

David Christian

The conference began with a plenary session featuring David Christian who spoke on “Big History: A Personal Voyage.” David Christian is the most visible face in big history. He began by posing the question, “How do you segue from the smallest scales to the largest scales?” and he gave the first suggestion of an answer by using Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night over the Rhone” (reproduced above) to show the unity of the eight levels of emergent complexity identified by big historians, from the stars in the sky to the two human figures in the foreground. Christian said that he had been encouraged to give a personal view of his journey to big history, and he said that for him it began with an initial disillusionment, when he began school with great enthusiasm, thinking that this would be a place where big questions could be welcomed, and quickly found out that this was not the case. Big history, he said, gives us a framework in which to meaningfully ask big questions.

Christian also said that “mapping is meaning” — and by “mapping” he not only means conventional maps, but also “maps of time,” which is the title of one of his books. If it is true that mapping is meaning, this implies that the lack of a map is the lack of meaning. We lack maps of time, hence the meaning we crave. We all know that meaninglessness has been a touchstone of modernity. It was a central theme of existentialism, and Christian referred to Durkheim’s use of “anomie” (from the Greek a-nomos, the negation of law). Christian pointed out that there are two responses to anomie: the conventional response that anomie is part of modernity, so accept it for what it is, and the big history response, which is that we are in the midst of constructing a new conception of the world, so our disorientation is understandable, but will not necessarily be a permanent feature of the human condition from now on.

Christian spoke for more than an hour, so there was a lot to take in, and I can’t even give a sketch of the whole presentation here. It was videotaped, so perhaps by the time you read this it will be available online. I especially like that fact that Christian referred to himself as a “framework thinker.” This strikes me as particularly apt, and I think that all big thinkers who like to try to see the big picture (and hence are attracted to big history) are framework thinkers.

Robert Conner

The second speaker to the plenary session was Robert Conner, a likeable classicist who covered a lot of ground in his talk. Being a classicist, he formulated his perspective in terms of the Greeks, but the principles were in no sense parochial to the west’s classical antiquity. Conner was especially concerned with the difference between those who see education as a matter of acquiring habits of mind, and those who see education as primarily as the communication of a particular story. That is to say, he contrasted history — and, by implication, big history — as an analytical inquiry and as preserving the memory of the past.

Conner developed this theme (by way of a detour through Herodotus and Thucydides) toward the idea of learning and education appropriate to a free people. He framed this in terms of “putting questions to the past that will be useful to us now.” I was a bit surprised after this that he did not mention Nietzsche’s essay “The Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life,” since this covers almost exactly the same ground. It would also have been relevant to bring up T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in this context, just substituting this historical tradition (largely humanistic, rather than scientific) for the literary and poetic tradition that interested Eliot.

David LePoire discussing energy flows.

David LePoire discussing energy flows.

Complexity (1)

After the plenary session the conference broke up into five rooms with presentations going on concurrently (which ensures that attendees will miss a large part of the program because you can’t be in two different rooms at once, though you can move, which is disruptive). I chose to go to the room with the theme of complexity, featuring presentations by David LePoire, David Baker, and J. Daniel May.

David LePoire spoke on “Two Contrasting Views of Energy and Time Scales,” in which he discussed (among other topics) how higher energy flows into systems can force a reorganization of these energy flows by way of a bifurcation. I’m not at all sure that I understood LePoire (though I picked up a list of his papers so that I can review them at some later date) but I took this to mean that a system that has been stable may become unstable when too much energy begins to flow through it, and it this point is bifurcates into two systems, at least one of which is at a higher level of emergent complexity that is able to remain stable and to thrive at these higher energy levels. If this is what LePoire meant, it seems perfectly sensible to me, and all the discussion (see below) about civilization and energy levels then suggests that once we pump too much energy through civilization, civilization will bifurcate, perhaps producing what I have elsewhere called a post-civilizational institution that can presumably remain stable at these higher energy levels.

David Baker spoke on “The Darwinian Algorithm: An Extension of Rising Complexity as a Unifying Theme of Big History” which was concerned with universal Darwinism, which I take to be equivalent to what is elsewhere called universal selection theory. The influence of Eric Chaisson was apparent again here — Chaisson’s name comes up repeatedly, and many expressed disappointment that he is not at this conference — as Baker described how he used Chaisson’s free energy rate density to formulate universal Darwinism in a big history context. There was a lot of discussion about this after the talk, but what was most interesting to me was that that Baker formulated Chaisson’s ideas on energy flows in the language of Kardashev, though without mentioning Kardashev by name. Paraphrasing from memory, he said that a Type I civilization would utilize energy flows of an entire planet, a Type II civilization would utilize the energy flows of an entire star, and a Type III civilization would utilize the energy flows of an entire galaxy. As I have a particular interest in collecting variations on the theme of Kardashev’s civilization types, I was particularly interested to hear this substitution of “energy flows” for the quantitative approach that Kardashev took to civilization and energy. Indeed, I have now come to realize that Kardashev’s civilization types may be considered an early, non-constructive approach to civilization’s use of energy, whereas the big history approaches now being pursued in the shadow of Chaisson may be thought of as constructive expressions of the same essential idea.

J. Daniel May, not in the printed program, spoke on “Complexity by the Numbers.” May is an instructor in big history at the Dominican University (which has a required course on big history for all students), and he was concerned with the practical pedagogical problem of getting students to understand the unifying theme of emergent complexity, and to this end he had been collecting clear examples of qualitative change linked to the quantitative change of a single metric. I thought that this was a very effective approach. He cited examples such as the decrease of the temperature of the early universe and the emergence of matter, the mass of a proto-stellar nebula and the kind of star that forms from them, and the direct and familiar relationship between number of protons in the nucleus of an atom and the different properties of different elements.

Theories of Thresholds

Closely related to the problem of emergent complexity is the problem of thresholds in big history. This session was supposed to consist of three speakers, one by Skype from Moscow, but the Skype connection didn’t work out, so there were two presentations, “An Alternative scheme of Thresholds and historical turning points” by William McGaughey and “Using Marshall Hodgson’s Concept of Transmutations to Advance our Understanding of Thresholds in the Human Historical Experience” by John Mears. Because the third speaker could not be connected via Skype, the two presentations were followed by an extended question and answer session that was both interesting and enlightening.

John Mears raised a number of traditional historiographical problems in a big history context, especially concerning what he called, “the unavoidable problem of periodization” and “the inherent pitfalls of periodization.” I can sympathize with this, as I have struggled with periodization myself. Mears mentioned some of his minor differences over periodization with other big historians — he cited a particular example from the new big history textbook, which did not include Chaisson’s transition from the “energy era” of the universe to the “matter era” — but acknowledged in a very open way that there are many possible approaches to big history periodization. This fit in well with with William McGaughey’s presentation, which was concerned to describe a periodization that concluded with the rapid rise of automation and artificial intelligence — a topic much discussed in technology circles today, especially in relation to technological unemployment.

Mears also discussed the need for a more rigorous theoretical framework for big history, and this is something with which I strongly agree, and one of the things I hoped to learn by attending this conference was who is working on just this problem, and how they are going about it. This was an implicit theme in other presentations, but Mears made it fully explicit, though without giving a definitive formulation of an answer to the problem.

Opening Reception

After the initial day of presentations there was an evening reception for all involved, with many interesting conversations going on simultaneously. I was disappointed to have to miss so many presentations that sounded interesting because of the format of the conference. While a single session severely limits the number of presentations that can be made, splitting up the conference into five or six groups really fragments things. I think it would be better to keep the division to two or three concurrent sessions.

My overall reflection on the first day of the conference was the ongoing division between scientific and humanistic historiography, which is precisely what big history is supposed to overcome. In the extensive discussion after the “Theories of Thresholds” presentations, the traditional historiographical question was asked — Is history a science, or does it belong to the humanities? — and, despite this being a gathering of historians, the question was not taken up in its historical context. History began as a literary genre, then it became one among the humanities, and now it is becoming a science. All of these approaches still exist side by side.

There is a division among participants between those coming from a primarily science background, and those with a more traditional background in history, where “traditional” here means “humanities-based historiography. Big historians are determined to bridge these diverse backgrounds, and to emerge from the “silos” of academic specialization — but it hasn’t happened yet.

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Studies in Grand Historiography

1. The Science of Time

2. Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time

3. The Epistemic Overview Effect

4. 2014 IBHA Conference Day 1

5. 2014 IBHA Conference Day 2

6. 2014 IBHA Conference Day 3

7. Big History and Historiography

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Grand Strategy Annex

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