The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Monday, September 22, 2008

Big History

The Big History course has my attention. In the first lectures, Professor Christian lays down his central thesis: the universe can be viewed as movement toward increasing levels of organization and complexity, and that this has been happening since the Big Bang. I see what he's getting at: stars are more complex than "empty" space, planets more complex than stars, living matter more complex than non-living, etc. All the way to human civilization, which begins to create a whole different level of organization.

It's a good organizational structure for fantastically complex ideas, and pretty much aligns with the way I see things: that life is constantly trying to organize at higher levels of complexity. I never thought about applying that idea to reality itself. This is, by the way, one of the reasons that the concept of an over-arching world government strikes me as inevitable, even if it doesn't happen in our lifetimes...but that's another discussion.

He discusses eight "Thresholds" and their related disciplines:

1) The Creation of the Universe (Cosmology)

2) The first stars (Astronomy)

3) The Chemical elements (Chemistry)

4) The Earth and the Solar System (Geology)

5) Life (Biology)

6) The Paleolithic Era (Human History)

7) The Agrarian Era (Human History)

8) The Modern Era (Human History)

It seems rather obvious to me that once you've absorbed this structure and its basic information, you have one hell of an internal organization system. Branching out from this structure into philosophy, art, psychology, politics, etc. would be child's play.


Can't wait to get into the third lesson.

17 comments:

Andrew said...

Hm. It's an interesting theory, but I would be very, very hesitant (as a historian) to apply this sort of thing to human history, by stating that life is far more complex now than it was several thousand years ago. I would really disagree with that, because while our knowledge has certainly increased, I have yet to see any argument that humanity's intelligence has as well. This isn't so much a jab at anything, but I do remember reading that human minds work pretty much the same way that they did several thousand years ago.

Anonymous said...

We're having a hard enough time getting 300 million Americans to agree on who should be our next President. In fact, I've heard that the political debates in the U.S. about Obama vs. McCain have gotten a tad heated lately -- almost as if adherents of the two sides can barely stand one another, and are mutually appalled at the idea of the other side actually winning the 2008 election.

Given that, and given that -- from the perspective of 97% of the human race who aren't U.S. citizens -- an argument between blue-state and red-state Americans is like an argument between different types of Sneeches ... are you seriously convinced that there is any sane prospect for getting 6,000+ million human beings to agree on, well, anything more controversial than, "On many days, the sky is blue"?

Conversely, suppose we did have such an "over-arching world government" and it really did have the coercive power to make everybody agree on things. In that case, how would that be an advance for complexity? It seems to me that one-world government would do about as much for complexity as everybody on Earth eating the same food, drinking the same drinks, reading the same books (or, more likely, watching the same reality TV while all being banned from book-reading), going to the same church, and wearing the same kind of pants.


--Erich Schwarz

lynn said...

What Erich said makes sense to me. I think the only way there could ever be one world government is if some entity (government, intelligent machines, whatever) was powerful enough to overcome all opposition.

Dave said...

Boy, it'd be great if you could take the time for some Ken Wilber. He's all over this type of thing. I've got some Ken Wilber mp3s that I could send you. -Dave in Anaheim.

Josh Jasper said...

Like Andrew I'm leery of anyone trying to apply a loose framework of something presented as a science to human history unless they are only using it as a lens for analysis, and not a set of rules for the way things are, or a tool for making predictions. When you say "life is constantly trying to organize at higher levels of complexity." I can't say that I agree.

Evolutionarily speaking, life adapts to it's environment via natural selection. But with humans, we've broken outside of that in a lot of ways. We're no longer adapting to our environment, we're adapting our environment to our selves

Pagan Topologist said...

We're no longer adapting to our environment, we're adapting our environment to our selves.

Josh, I don't fully agree with this. We cannot know what factors are making small changes to individual's reproductive success, long term. But to hazard a guess or two, we are probably selecting for people whose reflexes and judgement are not impaired by alcohol, since a significant number of people die from alcohol related traffic accidents. Also, it seems likely that we will eventually start being selected for an immune system that can fight off antibiotic resistant bacteria, once we run out of biochemical tricks to attack them medically. Another possibility is that we are evolving resistance to artificial toxins that we add to the environment. The problem with any of these, however, is that doing the experiment would take 100K years or so, at least, so making predictions of the sort you have here is inevitably full of uncertainty.

Shady_Grady said...

Sounds interesting.

How does this thesis jibe with the second law of thermodynamics-that the amount of entropy in the universe must be increasing over time?

Christian is not arguing against this is he?

Nancy Lebovitz said...

I can believe that we're moving towards larger and larger systems of organization. The EU is astonishing compared to previous history-- it's a government that nations are begging to join, and they may be adding Canada.

pagan topologist, I suspect that car accidents are selecting for people who have prudence and/or fast reflexes.

And that we're going through a fairly tight bottleneck for wanting children.

Josh Jasper said...

Pagan topologist - But right now, we're the ones modifying the parts of our environment likely to cause us to change. How we react to that change is uncertain, but we will control many of the pressures that would normally change us, like temperature, diet, etc.

No other animal can create disease resistant bacteria by overuse of antibiotics, discover that it's created disease resistant antibiotics, and start to change it's overuse of anti-bacterial methods within one generation.

suzanne said...

Ken Wilber
transformed into
one of those totally egotistical cult leaders . . .
according to some of his former followers
I read his thick early book
interesting but
remains to be seen . . .

while the human capacity
for doing amazing "stuff"
has increased
though I'm not certain
the automobile or super string theory
for that matter
really is as brilliant
as figuring out how to tame fire
and domesticate plants/animals
actually
I dislike comparisons

however I do not think our
"heart/spirit" has grown
comparably

Mike Ralls said...

Interesting part of the human condition #278; as we grow older our brains don't reward us as much anymore;

--
http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2008/09/13/0802127105.abstract
Here, by using 6-[18F]FluoroDOPA (FDOPA) positron emission tomography (PET) and event-related 3T functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the same subjects, we directly demonstrate a link between midbrain dopamine synthesis and reward-related prefrontal activity in humans, show that healthy aging induces functional alterations in the reward system, and identify an age-related change in the direction of the relationship (from a positive to a negative correlation) between midbrain dopamine synthesis and prefrontal activity. These results indicate an age-dependent dopaminergic tuning mechanism for cortical reward processing and provide system-level information about alteration of a key neural circuit in healthy aging. Taken together, our findings provide an important characterization of the interactions between midbrain dopamine function and the reward system in healthy young humans and older subjects, and identify the changes in this regulatory circuit that accompany aging.
--

Nancy Lebovitz said...

http://bradhicks.livejournal.com/412723.html?view=6850867#t6850867

A piece about American politics not being as corrupt as many people think, why it's dangerous to give too much attention to conspiracy theories, and why the banking mess didn't happen on purpose.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how this structure could be adapted to a story. Kind of the way Steve uses the Chakras.

Scott

Steven Barnes said...

He's not saying humans have grown more intelligent in the last 100,000 years (although there was a consciousness threshold that was crossed about 30,000 years ago.)
#
I would think that the United States is more complex (by far) than any individual state within it. It must contain and adjust for each individual state, and allow communication and commerce between them. I think the ONLY way we could conceivably prevent a One-World government is to pretty much prevent travel, commerce, or communication between different nations. As soon as we allowed that, the concept of separate nations begins to fade--languages mingle, ATMs give instant money transfers, ATT allows me to talk to people on the other side of the world, and on and on. Remember--I'm not saying this is the best idea, or even a good idea...only an inevitable one.

B Woodson said...

i doubt that the the one-world government is inevitable. I just don't see anything breaking down regional and ethnic differences.

Anyhoo, back on the categorization - organization point. Lila, the second book by the author Robert Pirisig (zen & motorcycle . . .) was an exploration into four levels:

physical
biological
social
intellectual

It also had a static-dynamic duality to further refine the categorization system. I liked the book, thought it was a damn good effort given the sheer unadulterated genius of his first book.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

I think one world government is a plausible outcome of where we've been going.

I don't expect it to happen quickly.

I don't think it will eliminate linguistic, ethnic, or regional differences, though it will tend to weaken them. After all, nations tend to have plenty of regional and ethnic variety. The languages with fewer speakers are tending to disappear.

That last process is likely to continue unless we find some way to make it easier for the majority of people to learn languages.

Anonymous said...

"I would think that the United States is more complex (by far) than any individual state within it. It must contain and adjust for each individual state, and allow communication and commerce between them."

Yes, I know. And how happy do you think the current U.S. population is with that, politically? Have you not noticed just how bitterly vitriolic the last three Presidential elections were and are?

"I think the ONLY way we could conceivably prevent a One-World government is to pretty much prevent travel, commerce, or communication between different nations. As soon as we allowed that, the concept of separate nations begins to fade -- languages mingle, ATMs give instant money transfers, ATT allows me to talk to people on the other side of the world, and ..."

...fly jetplanes into the Twin Towers, or invade Iraq.

Yep, real political unification is obviously just around the corner!

I agree with you that our current interconnectedness makes economic and social integration unavoidable. Where I find myself shaking my head is the argument that political integration is even likely, let alone equally inevitable.

Exactly how willing are Americans, really, to accept what a One-World Government would likely entail if it were run by the 97% of human beings who aren't Americans? Or what would the rest of the world's reaction would be to such a government if it did please Americans (whether they were of the blue-state or of the red-state type)?

When you can plausibly tell me that Saudi Arabia will accept Title IX, or that Hillary Clinton will accept Wahabbi sharia, then I will start to believe that some kind of One-World Government is even vaguely possible. Until then, I'm going to continue considering World War III substantially more probable.


--Erich Schwarz