The story of the Universe, the Earth, and Sentience through Deep Time
ChronoZoom is a free open source project that visualizes time on the broadest possible scale from the Big Bang to the present day. Website. Image Wikipedia
A unified approach to cosmology, evolution, and history
Big History is the study of the cosmos, life, and humanity, taking a broad interdisciplinary approach that encompasses the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. The subject is characterized by its integration of cosmic and historical events, from the Big Bang to the present day, across different fields of study, including astronomy, geology, biology, archaeology, and history.
The usual way it is presented is in terms of an admittedly anthropocentric series of evolutionary thresholds. For example: the Big Bang, the formation of stars and galaxies, the formation of the solar system and the Earth, origin of life, eukaryotic cell, origin of humanity, the agricultural revolution, civilisation, modernity, the industrial revolution, the information revolution, and finally the future (not all Big Historians have the same series, generally the list will be limited to seven or eight). The following is a representative list of important thresholds or turning points that mark significant changes in the evolution of the universe, life on Earth, and history (eventually there will be pages on each of these topics):
- The Radiant era. Early Cosmogenesis. The early universe; popularly called “the Big Bang”. Around 13.8 billion years ago, the universe rapidly expanded from an original hot dense state. This event set the stage for the evolution of the universe and everything in it, including galaxies, stars, and planets.
- Celestial era. Later Cosmogenesis. The formation of Stars and Galaxies: Several hundred million years after the Big Bang, the first stars began to form, kicking off the process of nuclear fusion and the creation of heavier elements. Meanwhile, galaxies formed as giant collections of stars and gas set the stage for the evolution of the universe, as they merged, grew, and evolved over time.
- Molecular era. Interstellar nebula, dust clouds, primitive minerals, interstellar molecules, cosmic dust formed from exploding nova and supernovae.
- Planetary or chemical era. Formation of the Solar System: About 4.5 billion years ago, the Sun and the rest of the solar system formed, setting the stage for the evolution of life on Earth. Also included here is a discussion of exoplanets, different types of solar systems, atmospheres, planetology, geology etc.
- Emergence of Life. Biogenesis. Around 3.8 billion years ago, the first life forms (prokaryotes) emerged on Earth, beginning the long and complex process of evolution and the creation of a diverse biosphere. Prokaryotes are likely to be widespread in the universe, which leads to a discussion of exobiology, extremophiles, panspermia, etc
- Eukaryotes. Endosymbiosis, different types of protists
- The Rise of Multicellular Life: Around 1 billion years ago, multicellular life forms began to emerge, marking a major turning point in the evolution of life.
- The Cambrian Explosion: Around 541 million years ago, the first animals with hard shells appeared, triggering the "Cambrian explosion" and the rapid diversification of life.
- The Rise of Land-Dwelling Life: Around 385 million years ago, the first land-dwelling plants and animals appeared, marking a significant milestone in the evolution of life and the Earth's biosphere.
- Intelligence (Cenozoic and especially Neogene - various types)
- The Emergence of Humans: Around 2.5 million years ago, the genus Homo appeared, and eventually gave rise to modern humans (Homo sapiens) about 300,000 years ago. This marked the beginning of human evolution and the eventual rise of civilization.
- Agricultural Revolution (10,000 BCE) - The Agricultural Revolution marked the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to settled agricultural communities, leading to the development of cities, civilizations, and new technologies.
- Writing and Record-Keeping (3500 BCE) - The invention of writing and record-keeping allowed for the preservation of knowledge and the development of complex societies with written laws, religion, and administration. City states, civilisation , empires, metallurgy, writing, religion etc
- Ironworking (1200 BCE) - The widespread use of ironworking revolutionized transportation, warfare, and daily life, leading to the growth of empires and expanded trade networks.
- The Scientific Revolution (16th and 17th centuries) - The Scientific Revolution marked the beginning of modern science and a shift in worldview from religious-based explanations of natural phenomena to a more empirical, evidence-based understanding of the world.
- The Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries) - The Enlightenment was a cultural and intellectual movement that emphasized reason, science, and individual liberty, leading to major reforms in government and society.
- The Industrial Revolution (18th and 19th centuries) - The Industrial Revolution marked a significant shift in human history, with the introduction of new technologies and innovations leading to significant growth in industry, transportation, and communication.
- The Digital Revolution (1970s-Present) - The Digital Revolution has had a profound impact on society, with the widespread use of computers, the internet, and mobile technology leading to new ways of communicating, conducting business, and accessing information.
- The biotech revolution
- Space expansionism
- Omega Point / Supramentalisation
While this may imply the transhumanist concept of accelerating change, where change happens faster and faster, moving towards a technological singularity, this is not necessarily the case. Instead change, for example technology, seems to follow a sigmoid curve: for a long time almost nothing, then a sudden breakthrough, then a plateau and nothing again. Hence it took 66 years to go from the Wright Brothers to the Moon Landings, but another 64 years on and we struggle to go beyond LEO (Low Earth Orbit).
The Posthumanity scenario (and similar ones like “All tomorrows”) implies a long, post-space opera, future among the stars, or maybe just on Earth, although Omega Point / Supramentalisation implies an earlier, metaphysical cosmological state of Divinisation.
The following is another way to consider Big History, which is to use a logarithmic timescales, each unit being about one tenth the previous one in length, zooming in on the present, as with the Transhumanist idea of accelerating change. Or it could be ten times as long going the other way. This is an idea I originally proposed on Palaeos - Deep Time. The idea of successive time scales (but not necessarily logarithmic) was also independently suggested by David Christian, one of the founders of the modern field of Big History (link to pdf essay).
- Cosmos. This section begins with the initial expansion of the universe some 13.8 billion years ago, and examines the formation of stars and galaxies, followed by billions of years of cosmic and stellar evolution.
- Earth. This section covers the formation and evolution of the solar system and the planets about 4.5 billion years ago, including major periods of geological history and the history of life on Earth including the Hadean, Archean, Proterozoic eons, and Phanerozoic eons.
- Phanerozoic. This section focuses on the evolution of Phanerozoic life, beginning with the Cambrian explosion and the Ediacaran and Cambrian periods about 560 or so million years ago. It follows the fossil record, continental drift, changing environment and extinction events, and new evolution radiations through the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras.
- Cenozoic. This time period covers the age of mammals and birds, which constitutes the most recent era in the evolution of life. These include originally archaic and later modern forms. Most of this is the Tertiary period (divided into Paleogene and Neogene). The Quaternary period covers only five percent in all.
- Pliocene-Pleistocene. This period is notable for several significant events, including the evolution of the Pleistocene megafauna and various hominid species, as well as significant changes in the earth's climate. The dominant life forms on land (in all continents apart from Australia) are various species of Proboscidea, the elephants, mammoths, two-tusked and four-tusked mastodons, and deinotheres.
- Ice Age. The last half million years, one tenth of the Plio-Pleistocene, is characterised by cycles of glacial and interglacial epochs, along with a flourishing Pleistocene megafauna and the evolution of various species of the genus Homo, of which modern humans are only one, flourishing for less than one tenth of this interval, with all of known history as a mere one percent.
- Prehistory. The period of human development and evolution from 50,000 years ago to the start of recorded human history, characterized by the emergence and diversification of Homo sapiens and their migration to various regions of the world, as well as the development of early human cultures and societies.
- History. The study of civilization and written history, which dates back approximately 5,000 years, and covers the development of human societies, cultures, economies, politics, and technological innovations.
- Modernity. A term referring to the social, cultural, and economic changes that began around five centuries ago, characterized by the rise of the nation-state, globalization, the scientific and industrial revolution, and the Enlightenment.
- Modern History. The study of the last 50 or 60 years of human history, characterized by major events such as World War II, the Cold War, decolonization, globalization, and the technological revolution.
- The Present. The current era, characterized by ongoing and rapidly advancing technological, social, and economic change, as well as various global challenges, including climate change, political instability, and existential threats such as nuclear war and pandemics.
Here, the first few sections of the above list represent Deep Time; understanding the temporal vastness of the universe and the history of the Earth, to balance the spatial vastness of billions of light years and countless galaxies. Between deep time, which is in millions or billions of years, and historical time, which is in centuries or millennia, there is a gap of some three orders of magnitude. In terms of accelerating change, zooming in on the present, this is taken up almost entirely by the Pleistocene. This gives some idea of how large deep time is; the Pleistocene is one of the shortest epochs, but it takes up three orders of magnitude.
After this, going into the future, the perspective is reversed. The further into the future, the longer the time scale.
- The Near Future. Four scenarios for the next 50 years or so: Technological Utopia, Environmental Collapse, Technological Dystopia, Continued Globalization. This is the field of futurism.
- The Medium Future. Four scenarios for the next 500 years or so: Star Trek (utopian high tech), The Long Decline (near term), Postapocalypse, or Singularity (listed under the Medium Future because imho unlikely in the near future). This is the time span of most science fiction.
- The Far Future. Three scenarios for the next 5 thousand or 50 thousand years in the future: Space Opera, The Long Decline (medium term), or Divinisation (listed under the Far Future because imho unlikely in the medium or near future). This is the time span of epic science fiction.
- The Far Distant Future. Three scenarios for the next or 500 thousand, 5 million, 50 million years in the future: Posthumanity, The Long Decline (long term), All Tomorrows (near term).
- The Very Far Distant Future. Two scenarios for the next 500 million, 5 billion or more years in the future: Grabby Aliens, All Tomorrows (long term)
- The Degenerate, Black Hole, and Dark Eras. After the stelliferous era there follow unimaginable expanses of time in the future, in which, nevertheless, consciousness and advanced cvilisations can continue, perhaps via networked black holes.
- Conformal cyclic universe - at the end of time, all matter, even fundamental subatomic particles, dissolve into radiation, infinity and singularity are reversed, and a new cosmic cycle or kalpa begins
Usually Big History is limited to our current universe, from the Big Bang to the present, and from there optimistically speculating and anticipating the future. I thought it would be appropriate to keep extending the timeline into the future, at larger and larger logarithmic scales, until we get to the end of the universe, and then, the beginning of a new universe.
This approach, based on both Eastern philosophy and modern cosmology, differs from the Abrahamic (and also the Persian dualistic, gnostic, and esoteric monotheistic) concept of a finite universe. The idea of a finite universe is tied in with the emphasis on a finite ego. The Buddhist, Vedantic, and Taoist nonduality model however rejects the idea that personal existence is tied to a finite ego. Hence the insight of limitless consciousness relates to the similar idea of an infinite universe.
Why Big History?
The Cosmic Calendar. The 13.8 billion year lifetime of the universe mapped onto a single year. The scale was popularized by Carl Sagan in his book The Dragons of Eden and on the documentary series Cosmos. Image by Efbrazil, from Wikipedia
What I like about Big History unique is that it represents a sort of grand theory of everything, through a convergence of both the idea - discovered through empirical science - of nature as a series of evolutionary thresholds. In other words, matter, life, and mind, or cosmology, paleontology, and history, are three distinct but interrelated evolutionary dimensions, part of a grand epic system of the evolution of consciousness. In addition to the emergence of consciousness and complexity, there are also the various scales or intervals of time (and hence of change). In this context, Macrohistory (Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee) Big History (David Christian), Cosmic Evolution (Carl Sagan, Eric Chaisson), and Integral Theory (Ken Wilber) are all ultimately different ways and different perspectives of approaching the same topic.
Understanding the past also leads to an understanding of the future, whether in the short term as futurism, in the medium term as transhumanist and science fictional speculations on posthumanity, and in the long term as meditation on the vast expanse of large scale logarithmic time.
There is still another dimension to be incorporated. That is what I call Esotericism, the inner or symbolic or subtle, archetypal, and also transcendent and metaphysical, reality that complements empirical science. Some quarter of a century ago I wrote about this on the Kheper website, but now it’s time for an update, as well as grounding esotericism in Big History, and Big History in esotericism. Here the evolutionary panentheism of Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin leads the way. Hence my various current book writing projects.
By studying Big History, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the incredible story of our universe and our place in it. We can see how everything from subatomic particles to galaxies are connected, and understand how these connections have shaped the world we live in today. By exploring the deep past and considering the future of the universe, Big History can help us to appreciate the significance of our existence, and to make informed decisions about our future as a species.
References and Further Reading
Page by M Alan Kazlev, 2023