Thursday


three peaks 3

David Christian and Stephen Jay Gould on Complexity

The development of the universe as we have been able to discern its course by means of science reveals a growth of emergent complexity against a background of virtually unchanging homogeneity. Some accounts of the universe emphasize the emergent complexity, while other accounts emphasize the virtually unchanging homogeneity. The school of historiography we now call Big History focuses on the emergent complexity. Indeed, Big Historians, most famously David Christian, employ a schematic hierarchy of emergent complexity for a periodization of the history of the universe entire.

David Christian, the best known figure in Big History, emphasizes emergent complexity over cosmological scales of time.

David Christian, the best known figure in Big History, emphasizes emergent complexity over cosmological scales of time.

In contradistinction to the narrative of emergent complexity, Stephen Jay Gould frequently emphasized the virtually unchanging homogeneity of the world. Gould argued that complexity is marginal, perhaps not even statistically significant. Life is dominated by the simplest forms of life, from its earliest emergence to the present day. Complexity has arisen as an inevitable byproduct of the fact that the only possible development away from the most rudimentary simplicity is toward greater complexity, but complexity in life remains marginal compared to the overwhelming rule of simplicity.

When we have the ability to pursue biology beyond Earth, to de-provincialize biology, as Carl Sagan put it, this judgment of Gould is likely to be affirmed and reaffirmed repeatedly, as we will likely find simple life to be relatively common in the universe, but complexity will be rare, and the more life we discover, the less that complex life will represent of the overall picture of life in the universe. And what Gould said of life we can generalize to all forms of emergent complexity; in a universe dominated by hydrogen and helium, as it was when it began with the big bang, the existence of stars, galaxies, and planets scarcely registers, and 13.7 billion years later the universe is still dominated by hydrogen and helium.

Stephen Jay Gould characterized emergent complexity as the 'long tail' of a right-skewed distribution that distracts us from the vast bulk of simple life.

Stephen Jay Gould characterized emergent complexity as the ‘long tail’ of a right-skewed distribution that distracts us from the vast bulk of simple life.

Here is how Gould characterized the place of biological complexity in Full House, his book devoted to an exposition of life shorn of any idea of a trend toward progress:

“I do not deny the phenomenon of increased complexity in life’s history — but I subject this conclusion to two restrictions that undermine its traditional hegemony as evolution’s defining feature. First, the phenomenon exists only in the pitifully limited and restricted sense of a few species extending the small right tail of a bell curve with an ever-constant mode at bacterial complexity — and not as a pervasive feature in the history of most lineages. Second, this restricted phenomenon arises as an incidental consequence — an ‘effect,’ in the terminology of Williams (1966) and Vrba (1980), rather than an intended result — of causes that include no mechanism for progress or increasing complexity in their main actions.”

Stephen Jay Gould, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, 1996, p. 197

And Gould further explained the different motivations and central ideas of two of his most influential books:

Wonderful Life asserts the unpredictability and contingency of any particular event in evolution and emphasizes that the origin of Homo sapiens must be viewed as such an unrepeatable particular, not an expected consequence. Full House presents the general argument for denying that progress defines the history of life or even exists as a general trend at all. Within such a view of life-as-a-whole, humans can occupy no preferred status as a pinnacle or culmination. Life has always been dominated by its bacterial mode.”

Stephen Jay Gould, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, 1996, p. 4

Gould’s work is through-and-through permeated by the Copernican principle, taken seriously and applied systematically to biology, paleontology, and anthropology. Gould not only denies the centrality of human beings to any narrative of life, he also denies any mechanism that would culminate in some future progress of complexity that would be definitive of life. Gould conceived a biological Copernicanism more radical than anything imagined by Copernicus or his successors in cosmology.

emergent complexity 0

Emergent Complexity during the Stelliferous Era

How are we to understand the cohort of emergent complexities of which we are a part and a representative, and therefore also possess a vested interest in magnifying the cosmic significance of this cohort? Our reflections on emergent complexity are reflexive (as we are, ourselves, an emergent complexity) and thus are non-constructive in the sense of being impredicative. Perhaps the question for us ought to be, how can we avoid misunderstanding emergent complexity? How are we to circumvent our cognitive biases, which, when projected on a cosmological scale, result in errors of a cosmological magnitude?

Emergent complexities represent the “middle ages” of the cosmos, which first comes out of great simplicity, and which will, in the fullness of time, return to great simplicity. In the meantime, the chaotic intermixing of the elements and parts of the universe can temporarily give rise to complexity. Emergent complexity does not appear in spite of entropy, but rather because of entropy. It is the entropic course of events that brings about the temporary admixture that is the world we know and love. And entropy will, in the same course of events, eventually bring about the dissolution of the temporary admixture that is emergent complexity. In this sense, and as against Gould, emergent complexity is a trend of cosmological history, but it is a trend that will be eventually reversed. Once reversed, once the universe enters well and truly upon its dissolution, emergent complexities will disappear one-by-one, and the trend will be toward simplicity.

We can't simply take the thresholds of emergent complexity recognized in Big History and reverse them in order to obtain the future history of the universe.

We can’t simply take the thresholds of emergent complexity recognized in Big History and reverse them in order to obtain the future history of the universe.

One could, on this basis, complete the sequence of emergent complexity employed in Big History by projecting its mirror image into the future, allowing for further emergent complexities prior to the onset of entropy-driven dissolution, except that the undoing of the world will not follow the same sequence of steps in reverse. If the evolution of the universe were phrased in sufficiently general terms, then certainly we could contrast the formation of matter in the past with the dissolution of matter in the future, but matter will not be undone by the reversal of stellar nucleosynthesis.

The Structure of Emergent Complexity

Among the emergent complexities are phenomena like the formation of stars and galaxies, and nucleosynthesis making chemical elements and minerals possible. But as human beings the emergent complexities that interest us the most, perhaps for purely anthropocentric reasons, are life and civilization. We are alive, and we have built a civilization for ourselves, and in life and civilization we see our origins and our end; they are the mirror of human life and ambition. If we were to find life and civilization elsewhere in the universe, we would find a mirror of ourselves which, no matter how alien, we could see some semblance of a reflection of our origins and our end.

Recognizable life would be life as we know it, as recognizable civilization would be civilization as we know it, presumably following from life as we know it. Life, i.e., life as we know it, is predicated upon planetary systems warmed by stars. Thus it might be tempting to say that the life-bearing period of the cosmos is entirely contained within the stelliferous, but that wouldn’t be exactly right. Even after star formation ceases entirely, planetary systems could continue to support life for billions of years yet. And, similarly, even after life has faded from the universe, civilization might continue for billions of years yet. But each development of a new level of emergent complexity must await the prior development of the emergent complexity upon which it is initially contingent, even if, once established in the universe, the later emergent complexity can outlive the specific conditions of its emergence. This results in the structure of emergent complexities not as a nested series wholly contained within more comprehensive conditions of possibility, but as overlapping peaks in which the conditio sine qua non of the later emergent may already be in decline when the next level of complexity appears.

The Ages of Cosmic History

In several posts — Who will read the Encyclopedia Galactica? and A Brief History of the Stelliferous Era — I have adopted the periodization of cosmic history formulated by Adams and Greg Laughlin, which distinguishes between the Primordial Era, the Stelliferous Era, the Degenerate Era, the Black Hole Era, and the Dark Era. The scale of time involved in this periodization is so vast that the “eras” might be said to embody both emergent complexity and unchanging homogeneity, without favoring either one.

The Primordial Era is the period of time between the big bang and when the first stars light up; the Stelliferous Era is dominated by stars and galaxies; during the Degenerate Era it is the degenerate remains of stars that dominate; after even degenerate remains of stars have dissipated only massive black holes remain in the Black Hole Era; after even the black holes dissipate, it is the Dark Era, when the universe quietly converges upon heat death. All of these ages of the universe, except perhaps the last, exhibit emergent complexity, and embrace a range of astrophysical processes, but adopting such sweeping periodizations the homogeneity of each era is made clear.

Big History’s first threshold of emergent complexity corresponds to the Primordial Era, but the remainder of its periodizations of emergent complexity are all entirely contained within the Stelliferous Era. I am not aware of any big history periodization that projects the far future as embraced by Adams and Laughlin’s five ages periodization. Big history looks forward to the ninth threshold, which comprises some unnamed, unknown emergent complexity, but it usually does not look as far into the future as the heat death of the universe. (The idea of the “ninth threshold” is a non-constructive concept, I will note — the idea that there will be some threshold and some new emergent complexity, but even as we acknowledge this, we also acknowledge that we do not know what this threshold will be, nor do we known anything of the emergent complexity that will characterize it). Another periodization of comparable scale, Eric Chaisson’s decomposition of cosmic history into the Energy Era, the Matter Era, and the Life Era, cut across Adams and Laughlin’s five ages of the universe, with the distinction between the Energy Era and the Matter Era decomposing the early history of the universe a little differently than the distinction between the Primordial Era and the Stelliferous Era.

peak 1

Peak Stelliferous

The “peak Stelliferous Era,” understood as the period of peak star formation during the Stelliferous Era, has already passed. The universe as defined by stars and galaxies is already in decline — terminal decline that will end in new stars ceasing the form, and then the stars that have formed up to that time eventually burning out, one by one, until none are left. First the bright blue stars will burn out, then the sun-like stars, and the dwarf stars will outlast them all, slowly burning their fuel for billions of years to come. That is still a long time in the future for us, but the end of the peak stelliferous is already a long time in the past for us.

In the paper The Complete Star Formation History of the Universe, by Alan Heavens, Benjamin Panter, Raul Jimenez, and James Dunlop, the authors note that the stellar birthrate peaked between five and eight billion years ago (with the authors of the paper arguing for the more recent peak). Both dates are near to being half the age of the universe, and our star and planetary system were only getting their start after the peak stelliferous had passed. Since the peak, star formation has fallen by an order of magnitude.

star-formation-decline-graph

The paper cited above was from 2004. Since then, a detailed study star formation rates was widely reported in 2012, which located the peak of stellar birthrates about 11 billion years ago, or 2.7 billion years after the big bang, in which case the greater part of the Stelliferous Era that has elapsed to date has been after the peak of star formation. An even more recent paper, Cosmic Star Formation History, by Piero Madau and Mark Dickinson, argues for peak star formation about 3.5 billion years after the big bang. What all of these studies have in common is finding peak stellar birthrates billions years in the past, placing the present universe well after the peak stelliferous.

peak 2

Peak Life

A recent paper that was widely noted and discussed, On The History and Future of Cosmic Planet Formation by Peter Behroozi and Molly Peeples, argued that, “…the Universe will form over 10 times more planets than currently exist.” (Also cf. Most Earth-Like Worlds Have Yet to Be Born, According to Theoretical Study) Thus even though we have passed the peak of the Stelliferous in terms of star formation, we may not yet have reached the peak of the formation of habitable planets, and population of habitable planets must peak before planets actually inhabited by life as we know it can peak, thereby achieving peak life in the universe.

The Behroozi ane Peeples paper states:

“…we note that only 8% of the currently available gas around galaxies (i.e., within dark matter haloes) had been converted into stars at the Earth’s formation time (Behroozi et al. 2013c). Even discounting any future gas accretion onto haloes, continued cooling of the existing gas would result in Earth having formed earlier than at least 92% of other similar planets. For giant planets, which are more frequent around more metal-rich stars, we note that galaxy metallicities rise with both increasing cosmic time and stellar mass (Maiolino et al. 2008), so that future galaxies’ star formation will always take place at higher metallicities than past galaxies’ star formation. As a result, Jupiter would also have formed earlier than at least ~90% of all past and future giant planets.”

We do not know the large scale structure of life in the cosmos, whether in terms of space or time, so that we are not at present in a position to measure or determine peak life, in the way that contemporary science can at least approach an estimate of peak stelliferous. However, we can at least formulate the scientific resources that would be necessary to such a determination. The ability to take spectroscopic readings of exoplanet atmospheres, in the way that we can now employ powerful telescopes to see stars throughout the universe, would probably be sufficient to make an estimate of life throughout the universe. This is a distant but still an entirely conceivable technology, so that an understanding of the large scale structure of life in space and time need not elude us perpetually.

Even if life exclusively originated on Earth, the technological agency of civilization may engineer a period of peak life that follows long after the possibility of continued life on Earth has passed. Life in possession of technological agency can spread itself throughout the worlds of our galaxy, and then through the galaxies of the universe. But peak life, in so far as we limit ourselves to life as we know it, must taper off and come to an end with the end of the Stelliferous Era. Life in some form may continue on, but peak life, in the sense of an abundance of populated worlds of high biodiversity, is a function of a large number of worlds warmed by countless stars throughout our universe. As these stars slowly use up their fuel and no new stars form, there will be fewer and fewer worlds warmed by these stars. As stars go cold, worlds will go cold, one by one, throughout the universe, and life, even if it survives in some other, altered form, will occupy fewer and fewer worlds until no “worlds” in this sense remain at all. This inevitable decline of life, however abundantly or sparingly distributed throughout the cosmos, eventually ending in the extinction of life as we know it, I have called the End Stelliferous Mass Extinction Event (ESMEE).

peak 3

Peak Civilization

If we do not know when our universe will arrive at a period of peak life, even less do we know the period of peak civilization — whether it has already happened, whether it is right now, right here (if we are the only civilization the universe, and all that will ever be, then civilization Earth right now represents peak civilization), or whether peak civilization is still to come. We can, however, set parameters on peak civilization as we can set parameters on peak star formation of the Stelliferous Era and peak life.

The origins of civilization as we know it are contingent upon life as we known it, and life as we known it, as we have seen, is a function of the Stelliferous Era cosmos. However, civilization may be defined (among many other possible definitions) as life in possession of technological agency, and once life possesses technological agency it need not remain contingent upon the conditions of its origins. Some time ago in Human Beings: A Solar Species I addressed the idea that humanity is a solar species. Descriptively this is true at present, but it would be a logical fallacy to conflate the “is” of this present descriptive reality with an “ought” that prescribes out dependence upon our star, or even upon the system of stars that is the Stelliferous Era.

Civilization need not suffer from the End Stelliferous Mass Extinction Event as life must inevitably and eventually suffer. It could be argued that civilization as we know it (and, moreover, as defined above as “life in possession of technological agency”) is as contingent upon the conditions of the Stelliferous Era as is life as we known it. If we focus on the technological agency rather than upon life as we known it, even the far future of the universe offers amazing opportunities for civilization. The energy that we now derive from our star and from fossil fuels (itself a form of stored solar energy) we can derive on a far greater scale from angular momentum of rotating black holes (not mention other exotic forms of energy available to supercivilizations), and black holes and their resources will be available to civilizations even beyond the Degenerate Era following the Stelliferous Era, throughout the Black Hole Era.

Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin's five ages of the universe.

Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin’s five ages of the universe.

In Addendum on Degenerate Era Civilization and Cosmology is the Principle of Plenitude teaching by Example I considered some of the interesting possibilities remaining for civilization during the Degenerate Era, and I pushed this perspective even further in my long Centauri Dreams post Who will read the Encyclopedia Galactica?

It is not until the Dark Era that the universe leaves civilization with no extractable energy resources, so that, if we have not by that time found our way to another, younger universe, it is the end of the Black Hole Era, and not the end of the Stelliferous Era, that will spell the doom of civilization. As black holes fade into nothingness one by one, much like stars at the end of the Stelliferous Era, the civilizations dependent upon them will wink out of existence, and this will be the End Civilization Mass Extinction Event (ECMEE) — but only if there is a mass of civilizations at this time to go extinct. This would mark the end of the apotheosis of emergent complexity.

peak 4

The Apotheosis of Emergent Complexity

We can identify a period of time for our universe that we may call the apotheosis of emergent complexity, when stars are still forming, though on the decline, civilizations are only beginning to establish themselves in the cosmos, and life in the universe is at its peak. During this period, all of the forms of emergent complexity of which we are aware are simultaneously present, and the ecologies of galaxies, biospheres, and civilizations are all enmeshed each in the other.

It remains a possibility, perhaps even a likelihood, that further, unsuspected emergent complexities will grace the universe before its final dissolution in a heat death when the universe will be reduced to the thermodynamic equilibrium, which is the lowest common denominator of existence as we know it. Further forms of emergent complexity would require that we extend the framework I have suggested here, but, short of a robust and testable theory of the multiverse, which would extend the emergent complexity of stars, life, and civilizations to universes other than our own, the basic structure of the apotheosis of emergent complexity should remain as outlined above, even if extended by new forms.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

Advertisements

Monday


academic silos

Contemporary scholarship is a hierarchy of specializations, though the hierarchy is not always obvious. A typical idiom employed today to describe specialization is that of “academic silos,” as though each academic specialization were tightly circumscribed by very high walls rarely breached. The idiom of “silos” points not to a hierarchy, but to a landscape of separate but equal and utterly isolated disciplines.

There are several taxonomies of the academic disciplines that arrange them hierarchically, as in the unity of science movement of twentieth century logical empiricism, which sought to reduce all the sciences to physics. This isn’t what I have in mind when I say that contemporary scholarship is a hierarchy of specializations. I am, rather, recurring to an idea that appeared in the work of Alfred North Whitehead, and which was picked up by Buckminster fuller (of geodesic dome fame).

We can think of Buckminster Fuller as a proto-techno-philosopher, and we know that techno-philosophy disdains the philosophical tradition and seeks to treat traditional philosophical problems de novo from the perspective of science and technology. In one of the rare instances of borrowing by techno-philosophy from traditional philosophy, Buckminster Fuller quoted Alfred North Whitehead, who was a bona fide philosopher.

In R. Buckminster Fuller’s Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity (Chapter 2, “The Music of the New Life”), Fuller identifies what he called “Whitehead’s dilemma,” following an observation made by Alfred North Whitehead about the accelerating pace of specialization in higher education. The dilemma is that the best and brightest students were channeled into specialized studies, and these studies became more specialized as they progress. But there remains a need for a coordinating function among specializations, though all the best minds have already been channeled into specialist studies. That means that the dullest minds that remain are left with the task of the overall coordination of specialist disciplines.

Whitehead formulated his dilemma in terms of academic specialization and governmental coordination of society, but there are “big picture” coordinating functions that have nothing to do with government. This is most especially evident in what I have called the epistemic overview effect, which is concerned with the “big picture” of knowledge. A comprehensive understanding of some specialist discipline no less that an overall coordinating function demands a grasp of the big picture. But the rise of specialization militates against comprehensive understanding in its widest aspect — where it is most needed.

The role of specialization in contemporary scholarship is ironic in historical perspective. It is ironic because, today, more students than ever before in history throng more institutions of higher learning than ever before existed in history, and the traditional ideal of higher education was that of creating a well-rounded individual who had some degree of sophistication across a spectrum of scholarship. Specialization was once the function of the trades (something Whitehead also noted, cf. his Adventures of Ideas, Part One, Chap. 4 “Aspects of Freedom,” Section V; Whitehead’s distinction in this section between profession and craft is instructive). An individual either went on to further academic education in order to understand the wider relationship between the sciences and the humanities, or one entered a trade school or an apprenticeship program and specialized in learning some skill or craft.

It would not be going too far to say that, if you want to understand the big picture, the last person you should talk to is a specialist. A specialist may simply refuse to talk about the big picture, or, if they do talk about the big picture, it will be through the lens of their specialty, which can be highly misleading as regards the big picture. Thus the big picture may be characterized as a body of knowledge in which there are no specialists and no experts. Can there be experts in comprehensive knowledge? Is it possible to specialize in the big picture? How would one go about specializing in the big picture, such that one’s neglect of detail and the specialization of the special sciences would be a principled neglect of detail in order to focus on the details and patterns that emerge exclusively from an attempt to grasp the whole of the world, or the whole of the universe? This kind of specialization sounds counter-intuitive, but we must make the effort to formulate such a conception.

While prima facie counter-intuitive, we should immediately recognize that the idea of specializing in the big picture is nothing other than a particular application of the general principle of scientific abstraction. Science constructs abstract, simplified, idealized models of the world in order to understand processes and phenomena that, in the fullness of their presence, are far too complex to allow totality of knowledge. Recall that Wordsworth said we murder to dissect. The world in itself is intractable; the world of science is made tractable through abstraction; abstraction is the price that we pay for understanding. We must learn to pay that price willingly, if not cheerfully.

In asking if it is possible to specialize in the big picture, I am also in a sense asking if it is possible to think rigorously about the big picture, thus we can also ask: Is it possible to think about the big picture with a clear scholarly conscience? Big picture thinking often invites careless and sloppy formulations, and this has brought big picture thinking into disrepute by those who wish to distance themselves from careless and sloppy thinking — which is to say, almost all contemporary philosophers, who take a special pride in the rigor of their formulations. And this is a rigor largely due to the kind of specialization that Whitehead identified.

There is a kind of implicit contrition in the contemporary philosophical passion for rigor and precision, since much traditional philosophy now seems painfully muddled and unclear, and this has been a stick that scientists have used to beat philosophers, and with which they have justified their fashionable anti-philosophy. But Scientists, too, are guilty on this account. And whereas philosophers committed their sins against rigor in the past, scientists are committing their sins against rigor in the present. The pronouncements of scientists upon extra-scientific questions is an admirable attempt at comprehensive understanding, but it almost always takes place in a context that ignores the history of the question addressed.

History, I think, is essential to the big picture. Indeed, I will go further and I will suggest that the emerging discipline of Big History offers the possibility of a discipline that can specialize in the big picture with the hope of rigorous formulations. We have need of such a discipline. At the 2014 IBHA conference, David Christian in his keynote address (titled,”Can I study everything, please?”) expressed quite vividly the origins of his own interest in what would become big history in an experience of disappointment. He talked about going to school as a child with an initial sense of excitement that his big questions would be answered, only to find that his big questions were shunted aside.

How do you talk about the whole of time without inviting scholarly ridicule by those who have spent their entire careers seeking to accurately portray some small fragment of the whole? Is it possible to speak at this level of generality and still be to “right” in any relevant sense? Big History seeks to be just such a discipline, and the big historians have done a remarkable job in integrating the results of the special sciences into a coherent whole. I have made the claim that big history need not reject any more specialized scholarship, but provides the overall framework within which all specialized studies can find a place. Big history is a “big tent” in which all scholarship can find a place.

Big History is now an established (albeit youthful) branch of historiography, but it could be more than this. Where Big History remains weak is in its theoretical formulations, and this is not a surprise. While Big Historians seek to portray philosophy and the humanities as part of the sweeping story of human civilization (itself a part of a larger cosmic history), they do not draw upon philosophy and the humanities in the same way that they draw upon the special sciences. There is, as yet, no philosophy of big history, and that means that there is, as yet, no systematic attempt to clarify and to extend the conceptions upon which Big History relies in its formulations. This remains to be done.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

Sunday


Mosaic of the epic and pastoral poet Virgil, flanked by Clio, muse of history, and Melpomene, muse of tragic and lyric poetry.

Mosaic from the III century A.D. of the poet Virgil, flanked by Clio, muse of history, and Melpomene, muse of tragic and lyric poetry.

History without Big History

Not long before I attended the 2014 IBHA “big history” conference I picked up a book at a used bookstore titled History: A Brief Insight by John H. Arnold. The book is copyrighted 2000, with additional text copyrighted 2009. Upon my return from the conference in California, I looked over the book more carefully, scanned the bibliography for names and titles, read the index, and skimmed the text. There is no hint of big history in the book.

There are a number of historians for whom “big history” simply does not yet exist, and, on the basis of textual evidence alone (that is to say, without knowing anything about John H. Arnold except what I found in this one book), John H. Arnold would seem to be one of these historians. I have enjoyed what I have read so far in Arnold’s book, and he covers a range of historiographical questions from human nature (does it change or is it the same in all ages?), through Leopold von Ranke (about how I recently wrote in Political Dimensions of History), to Fernand Braudel and the twentieth century Annales school of historians. There is much here to appreciate, and from which to learn.

It is still, today, possible to write a general introductory text on history and say nothing about big history. Is it significant that a contemporary historian can review perennial ideas of historiography without mentioning the growing contribution of big history to historiographical thought? It is, I think, both significant and understandable. I will try to sketch out why I think this to be the case.

Is there a place for historiography in big history?

Big history, although a creation of historians (David Christian specialized in Russian and Soviet history), owes more to the emergence of scientific historiography than to traditional historiography, and it shows. During my time at the IBHA conference the traditional language and concepts of historiography were notable in their absence: I did not hear a single person (other than myself) mention diachronic, synchronic, ideographic, or nomothetic approaches (four concepts that I have integrated in what I called the axes of historiography), nor did I hear any mention of the Carr-Elton debate or its contemporary re-setting in the work of Rorty and White by Keith Jenkins, nor did I hear anyone mention those figures and ideas that appeared in John H. Arnold noted above, such as Ranke, Bloc, and Braudel.

In the discussion following the presentation by John Mears the traditional historiographical question was asked — Is history a science or does it belong with the humanities? — but, surprisingly in a group of historians, the question was not taken up in its historical context, and it is the historical context of the question, in which history has tended toward the scientific or toward the humanistic by turns, that could most benefit the emerging conception of big history. The question came up again in a nearly explicit form in Fred Spier’s plenary address on the last day, “The Future of Big History,” when Spier brought up C. P. Snow’s famous lecture on “The Two Cultures.” In the middle of the twentieth century Snow had dissected the misunderstanding and mutual mistrust of the sciences and the humanities. This would have been the perfect time and the perfect context in which to pursue the relationship between these two cultures in big history, but Spier did not pursue the theme.

Paradoxical though it sounds, there is, at present, little or no place for historiography — that is to say, for the traditional conflicts and controversies of historiography — within the framework of big history, which seems to effortlessly bypass these now apparently arcane disagreements among scholars, which appear small if not petty within the capacious context of the history of the universe entire.

Big History and Scientific Historiography

Big history is, indirectly, a consequence of the emergence of scientific historiography in the previous century. This is one of the great intellectual movements of our time, and in saying that there appears to be little or no place for historiography within big history I am not seeking to demean or disparage either big history or scientific historiography. On the contrary, I have written many posts and scientific historiography, and the idea plays an important, if not a central, role in my own thought.

From the diversity of opinion represented at the IBHA conference I attended, one can already see divisions emerging between the more natural-science based perspectives and more traditionally humanistically-based perspectives on big history, and one can just as easily imagine a formulation of big history that is more or less an extended branch of physics, or a formulation of big history that only incidentally touches upon physics while investing most of its resources in human history — though, to be sure, a human history greatly expanded by scientific historiography.

For the moment, however, it is the emerging trend of scientific historiography that is the central influence in big history, and this accounts both for the marginalization of traditional historiographical controversies as well as the particular approach to historical evidence that is adopted in big history.

The Handwriting on the Wall

One can already see the handwriting on the wall: big history will become, and then will remain, the dominant paradigm in historiography for the foreseeable future. Any reaction against big history that seeks to raise (or to restore) minutiae and miniaturism to a preeminent position will simply be absorbed into the overall framework of big history, which is sufficiently capacious to find a niche for anything within its comprehensive structure, and which is not bound to reject any kind of historical research.

Given the present paradigm of scientific thought, there is no more comprehensive perspective that can be adopted than that of big history. And when, in the fullness of time, science advances past its present paradigm and places our present knowledge in an even more capacious context, big history can be expanded in like fashion. This is because, as David Christian noted, big history is a form of “framework” thinking. Evolutionary biology is similarly a form of framework thinking, and it was able to seamlessly incorporate plate tectonics and geomorphology into its structure, and is now incorporating astrobiology into its structure for an ever-more-comprehensive perspective on life. Big history as a theoretical framework for historical thought is (or will be) in a position to do the same thing for history.

Even though big history is still inchoate, perhaps one of the reasons it is likely to experience more resistance than the school of world history (there has been an interest in “world history” for some time before big history appeared) is that it incorporates a few definite and distinctive ideas, and, moreover, ideas that have not been a part of traditional historiography (specifically, emergent complexity and “Goldilocks” conditions). When big history develops a more coherent theoretical framework big history will find itself forced to define itself vis-à-vis the traditional historiographical concepts that it has so far largely avoided. One way to do this is to cast them aside and proceed without them; another way is to choose sides and become pigeon-holed into categories of historiographical thought that do not precisely suit big history.

The Structure of Historiographical Revolutions

It has been the nature of intellectual revolutions to cast aside past conceptual frameworks and to strike out in new directions. The most influential work in the philosophy of science of the twentieth century, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, meticulously detailed this process of intellectual revolution. Big history might be just such an intellectual revolution, and with the power of the scientific historiography it can easily abandon the traditions of historiography and strike out to map its own territory in its own way. I think that this would be a mistake. While past intellectual revolutions have needed to break with the past in order to make progress, this break with the past has come at a cost. When renaissance scholarship not only broke with the medieval past, but ridiculed its scholasticism, this may have been necessary at the time, but it resulted in the loss of the sophisticated logic created by medieval scholars, which could have extended and deepened the work of the literary and humanistic scholars of the renaissance. Instead, the tradition of medieval logic lay fallow for five hundred years, and is only being rediscovered in out time, when it is less of a help than it might have been in the past.

Big history could, without doubt, do without traditional historiography, but it would do much better to learn the lessons painstakingly learned by historical scholars since the emergence of critical history, starting with the same renaissance scholars who rejected medieval logic but who created a new discipline of the critical analysis of the language of historical documents. In the transition from the medieval to the modern world it was probably necessary to make a clean break with the past — the Copernican revolution, which plays so large a role in Kuhn’s thought, is another instance of a modern break with the medieval past — but social conditions have changed radically, and it is less necessary to make a break with modernity than it was to make a break with medievalism.

I count myself as a friend of both scientific history and big history, but I don’t think that it is necessary to reject the historiographical tradition in order to pursue these historical frameworks. On the contrary, scientific history and big history will be much more sophisticated if they learn to use the tools developed by earlier generations of historians.

. . . . .

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

8. Big History and Scientific Historiography

9. Philosophy for Industrial-Technological Civilization

10. Is it possible to specialize in the big picture?

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

Thursday


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.

. . . . .

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

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

%d bloggers like this: