Big History

The story of the Universe, the Earth, and Sentience through Deep Time

a representation of Big History - ChronoZoom
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):

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.

Logarithmic time

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).

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.

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 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