Saturday, June 21, 2014

Leonid Grinin - Big History and a Single Process View of the Development of the Universe

I have only skimmed this article, but I see in this Big History approach the possibility of its use in integral theory to replace Ken Wilber's teleological version of cosmological evolution. This could only be a good thing for integral theory since Wilber's misconceptions about evolution have been widely criticized.

By way of clarification, here is a definition of Big History (Wikipedia):
Big History is an emerging academic discipline which examines history from the Big Bang to the present. It examines long time frames using a multidisciplinary approach based on combining numerous disciplines from science and the humanities,[1][2][3][4][5] and explores human existence in the context of this bigger picture.[6] It integrates studies of the cosmos, Earth, life and humanity using empirical evidence to explore cause-and-effect relations,[7][8] and is taught at universities[9] and secondary schools[10] often using web-based interactive presentations.[10] It is an academic movement spearheaded by historian David Christian of Australia's Macquarie University, who coined the term Big History,[7][9][11] and is made of an "unusual coalition of scholars".[2] While some academic historians are skeptical about its value or originality,[12] the 20-year-old discipline[13] appears to be poised for further growth, including an effort to make the discipline available worldwide via a project from philanthropist Bill Gates and David Christian called the Big History Project.
Some theorists in this field divide the whole narrative of Big History into three phases and seven epochs:
Phases: physical evolution → biological evolution → cultural evolution
Epochs: particulate → galactic → stellar → planetary → chemical → biological → cultural.
Others use even more divisions and thresholds.

Still from Wikipedia:
David Christian, in an 18-minute TED talk, described some of the basics of the Big History course.[38] Christian describes each stage in the progression towards greater complexity as a "threshold moment" when things become more complex, but they also become more fragile and mobile.[38] Some of Christian's threshold stages are:
  1. The universe appears, incredibly hot, busting, expanding, within a second.[38]
  2. Stars are born[38]
  3. Stars die, creating temperatures hot enough to make complex chemicals, as well as rocks, asteroids, planets, moons, and our solar system.[38]
  4. Earth is created[38]
  5. Life appears on Earth, with molecules growing from the Goldilocks conditions with neither too much nor too little energy.[38]
  6. Humans appear, language, collective learning.[38]
Christian elaborated that more complex systems are more fragile, and that while collective learning is a powerful force to advance humanity in general, it is not clear that humans are in charge of it, and it is possible in his view for humans to destroy the biosphere with the powerful weapons that have been invented.[38]

In the 2008 lecture series through The Teaching Company's Great Courses entitled Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity, Christian explains Big History in terms of eight thresholds of increasing complexity:[39]

  1. The Big Bang and the creation of the Universe about 13 billion years ago[39]
  2. The creation of the first complex objects, stars, about 12 billion years ago[39]
  3. The creation of chemical elements inside dying stars required for chemically-complex objects, including plants and animals[39]
  4. The formation of planets, such as our Earth, which are more chemically complex than the Sun[39]
  5. The creation and evolution of life from about 3.8 billion years ago, including the evolution of our hominine ancestors[39]
  6. The development of our species, Homo sapiens, about 250,000 years ago, covering the Paleolithic era of human history[39]
  7. The appearance of agriculture about 11,000 years ago in the Neolithic era, allowing for larger, more complex societies[39]
  8. The "Modern revolution", or the vast social, economic, and cultural transformations that brought the world into the Modern era[39]
That should be enough foundation to grok this article.

This is an open access article posted at the Social Science Research Network site.

I am including the introduction and the first part of section one below, and then also most of section two, which is where this gets more interesting (to me).

The Star-Galaxy Era of Big History in the Light of Universal Evolutionary Principles

Leonid Grinin
| May 20, 2014

  • Eurasian Center for Big History & System Forecasting; Volgograd Center for Social Research
This article appears in Teaching & Researching Big History: Exploring a New Scholarly Field; Leonid E. Grinin, David Baker, Esther Quaedackers, and Andrey V. Korotayev, editors. – Volgograd: ‘Uchitel’ Publishing House. Pp. 163–187, 2014


Big History provides a unique opportunity to consider the development of the Universe as a single process. Within Big History studies one can distinguish some common evolutionary laws and principles. However, it is very important to recognize that there are many more such integrating principles, laws, mechanisms and patterns of evolution at all its levels than it is usually supposed. In the meantime, we can find the common traits in development, functioning, and interaction of apparently rather different processes and phenomena of Big History. Of special importance is the point that many principles, patterns, reg-ularities, and rules of evolution, which we tend to find relevant only for the biological and social levels of evolution, may be also applied to the cosmic phase of evolution. The present article attempts (within such a framework for the first time in the Big History framework) at combining Big History potential with the potential of Evolutionary Studies. It does not only analyze the history of the Cosmos. It studies similarities between evolutionary laws, principles, and mechanisms at various levels and phases of Big History. Such an approach opens up some new perspectives for our understanding of evolution and Big History, their driving forces, vectors, and trends; it creates a consolidated field for interdisciplinary research.


Big History provides unique opportunities to consider the development of the Universe as a single process, to detect vectors of changes of certain important characteristics of the Universe (such as complexity and energy) at various phases of this development. However, one should note that the Big History studies tend to pay little attention to such an important aspect as the unity of principles, laws, and mechanisms of evolution at all its levels.[1] I believe that combining the Big History potential with evolutionary approaches can open wider horizons in this respect (see Grinin et al. 2011). Indeed, common traits in development, functioning, and interaction can be found in apparently quite different processes and phenomena of Big History. In this respect the universality of evolution is expressed in those real similarities that are detected in
many manifestations at all its levels.

This article is an attempt to combine Big History potential with the potential of Evolutionary Studies in order to achieve the following goals: 1) to apply the historical narrative principle to the description of the stargalaxy era of the cosmic phase of Big History; 2) to analyze both the cosmic history and similarities and differences between evolutionary laws, principles, and mechanisms at various levels and phases of Big History. As far as I know, nobody has approached this task in systemic way yet. It appears especially important to demonstrate that many evolutionary principles, patterns, regularities, and rules, which we tend to find relevant only for higher levels and main lines of evolution, can be also applied to cosmic evolution. Moreover, almost everything that we know about evolution may be detected in the cosmic history, whereas many of the evolutionary characteristics are already manifested here in a rather clear and salient way. One should also bear in mind that the origin of galaxies, stars, and other ‘celestial objects’ is the lengthiest evolutionary process among all evolutionary processes in the Universe. Such an approach opens new perspectives for our understanding of evolution and Big History, of their driving forces, vectors, and trends, creating a consolidated field for the multidisciplinary research.

Our world is immensely diverse and unlimited in its manifestations. However, fundamentally it is a single world – that is why it is so important to study those fundamentals.

I. The Formation of the Large-Scale Structure of the Universe

Preconditions. After the Big Bang, our Universe ‘lived’ for quite a long period of time without any stars, galaxies, clusters, and superclusters of galaxies (Khvan 2008: 302). The formation of modern structure of the Universe lasted for billions of years. However, the first stars and galaxies turn out to have emerged not later than 200–400 million years after the Big Bang. And what was the matter from which they had emerged?

Approximately 270,000 years after the Big Bang, a large phase transition occurred resulting in the emergence of matter in the form of atoms of hydrogen and helium. Later, they started to consolidate in new structures (see below). The main mass of this matter concentrated in gas-dust clouds that could have tremendous sizes (dozens parsecs, or even more).[2] For the first time we observe Nature in the role of a constructor. Before that, it had formed just the basic elements. Now one could observe the emergence of enormous structures from tiny particles and ‘specks of dust’. After that one could observe this constantly: largescale structures are composed of myriads of minute particles and grains.

The formation of clouds (and later stars and galaxies) meant a concentration of matter on enormous scale, which could have been caused only by gravity. However, this only force is insufficient for structuring, because in ‘an absolutely homogenous universe the emergence of largescale structures (galaxies and their clusters) is impossible’ (Dolgov et al. 1998: 12–13). Thus, certain seed grains are necessary – this is comparable with formation of rain drops that emerge around particles of dust or soot; or with formation of a pearl around grit. Small fluctuations are often needed for the powerful forces to start working. Actually, minor fluctuations (minute deviations from homogeneity) occurred in the Universe early on. Then the larger fluctuations happened. They could act as seed grains for the formation of galaxies and the matter concentrated around them on a much larger scale until the quantity started to transform into a new quality. This is a perfect example of the point that the non-uniformity (in particular with respect to the distribution of matter, energy, etc.) is a universal characteristic. Any major evolutionary shift in biological and social systems is preceded by the concentration of certain forms, resources and conditions in certain niches and places. Thus, in the major system the common processes may proceed in their usual way, whereas in the concentration zone some peculiar processes start (this is what takes place in star formation zones).

Dark and light matter. Nowadays it is generally accepted that dark matter plays an important role in the formation of the first galaxies, as it appeared capable of consolidating into clusters much earlier than the light (baryon) matter. The latter could not contract until the end of the hydrogen recombination (atom formation) due to radiation (270,000 years after the Big Bang). Only when hydrogen nuclei and electrons were able to merge and form atoms, whereas photons separated from the matter and flew away, the pressure of the radiation dramatically dropped. As a result, the light matter would fall in potential holes prepared for it by the dark matter. Though the dark matter was initially more capable to structuring than the light matter, the progress toward structuring turned out to be very short and leading to almost a dead-lock.[3] Meanwhile, the evolutionary potential of the light matter was based on the ‘achievements of the dark matter’. Such a model of development is rather typical for evolution. For example, long before the transition to agriculture some gatherers of cereal plants invented many things (sickles, granaries, and grinding stones) that later turned to be rather useful for agriculturalists, whereas specialized hunter-gatherers turned out to be an evolutionary dead end.

The epoch of formation of the large-scale structure of the Universe. First galaxies and stars. There are rather diverse opinions on timing, process characteristics and sequence of formation of stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters and superclusters. There is a hypothesis that galaxy protoclusters were first to originate. However, a more commonly held hypothesis suggests that protogalaxies (in the form of giant condensed gas clouds) were the first to emerge within the structure of the Universe, and later they became the birthplace for separate stars and other structural elements (see, e.g., Gorbunov and Rubakov 2011).

However, in recent years new evidence has come to hand to support the idea that those were the stars that appeared first. This discovery somehow modified the previous theories. At present, it is widely accepted that the stars were first to emerge, but those were the giant stars, much more massive than most of the later-formed ones (May et al. 2008). Because of the absence of carbon, oxygen and other elements that absorb the energy from condensing clouds, the process proceeded more slowly in that epoch; thus, only giant clouds could condense producing massive stars hundreds times larger than the Sun (Ibid.). Such giant stars lived only a few million years (the larger is star, the shorter is its life). In addition, the first stars contained a small amount of heavy elements. Thus, more than one generation of stars could change, until the quantity of heavy elements gradually increased. The emergence of ‘heavy elements’ from the ‘dead star stellar remnants’ resembles the formation of fertile soil from the remnants of dead plants. The circulation of matter in the Universe is always observed everywhere and at all levels.

In recent years we have witnessed the discovery of a few galaxies that are claimed to be the oldest in the Universe. Meanwhile, the dates of formation of the first galaxies are shifted closer and closer to the Big Bang. The emergence of the first galaxies is dated to less than 400 million years after the Big Bang; and there are even claims that some more ancient galaxies have been discovered. They are claimed to have emerged only 200 million years after the Big Bang (see European Commission 2011). The evidence on the first stars refers to c. 150–200 million years after the Big Bang – hence, stars and galaxies appear to have emerged almost simultaneously.

[Download the PDF to continue reading.]

Notes for this section:

1. Of course, some authors analyze important general evolutionary mechanisms and patterns, which can be seen at all phases of Big History (see, e.g., David Christian's ‘Swimming Upstream’ and the conclusion of David Baker's ‘Shoulders of Giants’ in this volume). One can also mention Fred Spier (2010) and David Baker's ‘10500. The Darwinian Algorithm and a Possible Candidate for a “Unifying Theme” of Big History’ (2013). However, we should state our position on Baker's general idea in that interesting paper. While also dealing with universal evolutionary principles like ours, Baker innovates by starting his article with analyzing the selection of universes within which there could appear some physical laws and parameters allowing the universes to evolve. Baker explores the selection mechanism among an enormous number (potentially 10500– a fabulous number even for modern cosmology) of universes in the ‘multiverse’. We suppose that his algorithm with respect to the selection of universes could hardly be called properly Darwinian. He rather speaks about the evolutionary selection in general – that is not the selection of the fittest, but rather the selection of those capable to evolve – which is much wider than the Darwinian selection. The idea that such selection is not Darwinian is confirmed if one employs Christian's (this volume) and Smolin's (2008: 34, which Christian refers to) definitions of the Universal Darwinian mechanism. Such mechanism should obviously include a mechanism of reproduction. It is clear that there is not any mechanism of reproduction in the case of isolated universes. However, for a theory of the presence of Darwinian reproduction in the evolution of multiple universes see Smolin's earlier book The Life of the Cosmos (1997).

2. 1 parsec ≈ 31 trillion km.

3. However, as with any evolutionary dead end, this does not mean an absolute stagnation. At present, in galaxy halos the dark matter is structured in certain smaller structures (see, e.g., Diemand et al. 2008).
* * * * *

2. Some Evolutionary Ideas in Connection with the Star-Galaxy Phase of Evolution of the Universe

In the evolutionary process of formation of stars, galaxies, nebulae, and cosmic clouds one can distinguish a number of important evolutionary principles and laws that are not evident. Their detection is important for understanding the unity of principles of development of the Universe. Those principles and observations are grouped below into several blocks.

2.1. Evolution proceeds with constant creation and destruction of objects

Nature, when creating, destroying, and renewing various objects, ‘tests’ many versions, some of which turn out to be more effective and have more chances to succeed in terms of evolution. For such a situation of selection within constant destruction and creation process, it appears possible to apply a rather appropriate notion of creative destruction introduced by Josef Schumpeter (1994).

* ‘Evolution is stronger than individual objects’. Cosmic processes are accompanied by constant emergence, development, change, and death of various objects (stars, galaxies, and so on). Thus, here one can point as relevant the principle that was expressed by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1987) with respect to life in the following way: ‘life is stronger than organisms’, that is, life goes on exactly because organisms are mortal. The same is relevant to stellar evolution. We may say here that the cosmos is stronger than stars and galaxies; and in general, evolution is stronger than individual objects.
* Rotation and keeping balance take place due to constant destruction (or transition to new phases in the lifecycle) of some objects and the emergence of others. This keeps balance and creates conditions for development, because development is a result of change of generations and species.

* In every end there is a beginning. Star-evolutionary ‘relay race’. The material of dead objects becomes building blocks for the formation of new objects. This represents the circulation of matter and energy in nature; on the other hand, this represents a sort of ‘relay race’.[7] The latter allows using the results of long-lasting processes (in particular, the accumulation of heavy elements).[8] Thus, we deal here with the above mentioned ‘creative destruction’ – the creation of new objects due to the destruction of the old ones, which ensures continuity and provides new forms with space for advancement (e.g., the change of generations of biological organisms always results in certain transformations). The change of rulers may not necessarily lead to radical social changes; however, each new ruler is somehow different from his predecessor, as a result the accumulation of historical experience occurs.

* New generations of organisms and taxa are a mode of qualitative development. One may also detect generations of taxa, which already have significant evolutionary and systemic differences. Thus, generations of stars differ in terms of their size, chemical composition, and other characteristics. Only through the change of several generations of objects this class of objects acquires some features that, nevertheless, are considered to be typical for the whole class of objects.

2.2. Individuality as a way to increase evolutionary diversity

* Individual fates within evolution. It appears possible to maintain that with the formation of stars one observes the emergence of individual objects in nature, ‘individuals’ that, on the one hand, are rather similar, but have rather different individual fates much depending on circumstances of their birth and various contingencies. For example, stars with small masses (in which nuclear fusion occurs at a slow rate) can use all of their fuel (i.e., remain in the main sequence) for many billions of years. On the other hand, blue giants (in which the rate of fuel consumption is rapid and which lose most part of their mass due to their instability) burn out hundreds of times faster.

The stars can end their lives in a rather different way. Some of them, having lost one or a few outer layers, would cool, slowly transforming into cold bodies; some others may contract a few dozen times, or may end their lives with huge explosions blowing their matter into open space. Finally, a star may become a black hole that does not allow any matter to come out of its immensely compressed depths.

* Ontogenesis and phylogenesis. The evolution proceeds at various levels: through the development of its certain branch, a certain class, species and so on (and sometimes even at the level of an individual organism). In addition, applying biological terminology, at every level of evolution we find a combination of processes of ontogenesis and phylogenesis. Of course, within star-galaxy evolution the phylogenesis is represented much weaker than in the evolution of life. Nevertheless, it still appears possible to speak about the history of transformation of certain types of galaxies and stars, and, hence, up to a certain extent the cosmic phylogenesis does occur (see as above with respect to change of a few generations of stars and galaxies that differ from each other as regards their size, structure, and composition).

* Required and excessive variation as conditions of a search for new evolutionary trajectories. Within the processes described above one can observe the formation of the taxonomic diversity of space objects; we may even speak about occupying the evolutionary ‘niches’. There emerge different types of stars and galaxies (see above). Such diversity is extremely important. Only the achievement of a necessary level of taxonomic and other diversity allows a search for ways to new evolutionary levels. This is sometimes denoted as the rule of necessary and excessive diversity (see Grinin, Markov, and Korotayev 2008: 68–72; for more details see also Panov 2008).

* Norm, averages, and deviation from a norm. Only when we find a sufficient diversity, it appears possible to speak about norm, average level, exceptions, and outliers. Scientists have long known that the breakthroughs to new forms usually happen at the periphery, and in those systems that diverge from the previous mainstream.

* Continuity, which actually means the emergence of a continuum of forms, sizes, life spans, and lifecycles, is rather characteristic for space objects. Thus, the stars can be presented as a continuum from heavier to lighter ones (whereas the latter become hardly distinguishable from planets). The types of planetary systems uniformly cover a wide range of parameters. There is also a sequence of phases in the transformation of cosmic clouds into stars: condensation of clouds – formation of protostars – formation of young stars, and up to the death of stars. The continuum of forms and sizes of objects may be observed at geological, biological, and social phases of the evolution.

2.3. Object, environment, competition, development systems, and self preservation 

* The relations between structure and environment. Multilevel systems (galaxy – galaxy cluster – galaxy supercluster) act as systems of a higher order for stars, and, simultaneously, they create an environment that produces an enormous influence on those stars. A star directly interacts with its immediate environment (e.g., with neighboring stars because of the strong gravity which affects the movement of both stars), whereas with the distant environment the interaction proceeds at higher levels. Within star-galaxy evolution the role of environment is generally less important than at other evolutionary levels, because single stars are separated by great distances and that is why collide rather infrequently. On the other hand, one should not underestimate the role of the environment. For example, the role of the immediate environment is very important in systems of double, triple, or multiple stars. For a small galaxy the influence of neighboring larger galaxy may turn out to be fatal, if it leads to its absorption. External factors play the major role in changes (e.g., a large cosmic body can pass by a giant molecular clouds, there can occur a star explosion, and so on) and may trigger the process of formation of stars and galaxies (by launching the gas contraction process). Collisions of cosmic bodies may create new cosmic bodies – for example, there is a hypothesis that the Moon emerged as a result of the collision of some large objects with the Earth.

With the development of a certain form of evolution, its own laws and environment gain a growing influence on the development of its objects and subjects. For example, both abiotic nature and the biotic environment influence biological organisms. However, within a complex ecological environment, it is the intraspecies and interspecies competition that may have larger influence than any other natural factors, whereas within a complex social environment it is just the social surrounding that affects individuals and social systems more than the natural forces do. Thus, with the formation of star-galaxy structure of the Universe there emerged macro-objects which start to interact with environments which are larger by many orders of magnitude.

* The urge toward self-preservation and origins of the struggle for resources. Stars, galaxies, and planets (as well as other cosmic bodies) have their definite, quite structured, and preserved form. The ‘struggle’ for the preservation of those forms, the capacity to live and shine, the use of different layers to minimize energy losses lead to a slow but evident evolutionary development. This way the atomic composition of the Universe changes, whereas the diversity of variations of the existence of matter increases. On the one hand, the emergence of structures that strive for their preservation creates a wide range of interaction between the system and its environment; on the other hand, this creates a basis for the ‘evolutionary search’ and evolutionary advancement. This evolutionary paradox – the struggle for the self-preservation is the most important source for development – can be observed here in its full-fledged form. However, star-galaxy evolution demonstrates the emergence of this driving force which will become very important in biological evolution; and it appears to be the most important driving force in social evolution. This is the struggle for resources that among stars and galaxies may proceed in the form of weakening of another object or its destruction (e.g., through a direct transfer of energy and matter from one body to another), in the form of ‘incorporation’, ‘capturing’, that is ‘annexation’ of stars and star clusters by larger groups. We have already mentioned above galactic coalescences. Thus, some astronomers maintain that throughout a few billions of years our galaxy has ‘conquered, robbed, and submitted’ hundreds of small galaxies, as there are some evident ‘immigrants’ within our galaxy, including the second brightest star in the northern sky, Arcturus (Gibson and Ibata 2007: 30). It is widely accepted that emergence and expansion of a black hole may lead to the ‘eating’ of the matter of the nearby stars and galaxies. However, the ‘eating capacity’ of the black holes is greatly exaggerated in popular literature. In systems of double stars or in star-planet systems one may also observe such a form of interaction as the exchange of energy and resources.

2.4. Multilinearity

Multilinearity is one of the most important characteristics of evolution. Unfortunately, it does not get sufficient attention, and there is a tendency to reduce evolution to a single line – the one that has produced the highest complexity level, which is often interpreted as the main line of evolution. However, at every stage of evolutionary development one can find an interaction of a few lines that can have rather different futures. In other words, in addition to the main evolutionary line one can always identify a number of lateral ones. Firstly, they contribute to the increasing diversity; secondly, they allow expanding the range of search opportunities to move to new levels of development; thirdly, the lateral lines may partly enter the main evolutionary stream, enriching it. We quite often deal with two or more coexisting and comparable lines of development whose convergence may lead to a quantitative breakthrough and synergetic effect. Various lines of development may transform into each other. Elsewhere we have written a lot on the issue of social evolution in this context (see, e.g., Grinin and Korotayev 2009; Grinin and Korotayev 2011; Bondarenko, Grinin, and Korotayev 2011; Grinin 2011).

* Classical forms and their analogues. The main and lateral lines of evolution may be considered in two dimensions: 1) horizontal (as regards complexity and functions), 2) vertical (concerning the version that would be realized later at higher evolutionary phases). It appears also possible to speak about classical versions and their analogues. Thus, various forms of aggregation and specialization of unicellulars can be regarded as analogues of multicellulars (see Eskov 2006), whereas various complex stateless polities can be regarded as state analogues (see Grinin and Korotayev 2006; Grinin and Korotayev 2009; Grinin 2011 for more detail). Classical forms and their analogues can transform into each other; however, these are just the analogues that tend to transform into classical forms, rather than the other way round (the latter may be regarded as a forced adaptation to sharply changing conditions, and sometimes even as a direct degeneration).

* Stars and molecular clouds: two parallel forms of existence of cosmic matter. In this respect we may consider stars and galaxies as the main line of evolution and the giant clouds as its lateral lines; the former may be denoted as ‘classical forms’, and the latter may be designated as ‘analogues’. On the one hand, those forms actually transform into each other. Galaxies and stars emerge from giant molecular clouds, whereas stars through explosions and shedding their envelopes may transform into gas-dust cloud. On the other hand, giant molecular clouds are able to concentrate; the energy exchange occurs within them, and thus, in terms of gravity and structural complexity they are quite comparable to stars and galaxies. They generally have a rather complex ‘Russian nesting doll’ structure, whereby smaller and denser condensations are placed within larger and sparser ones (see Surkova 2005: 48). The Russian-doll structure is also typical for higher levels of evolution. Thus, smaller groups of social and gregarious animals constitute larger groups and tend to reproduce their structure. The same refers to social evolution, in particular to the non-centralized entities: for example, the tribal formations, whose constituent parts (lineages, clans, and sub-tribes) often reproduce the structure (and structural principles) of the tribe. That is why tribes can easily split and merge when necessary. The same is true of herds of gregarious animals.

Notes for this section:

7. For more details on the ‘rule of evolutionary relay race’ see Grinin, Markov, and Korotayev 2008.

8. For example, the Solar System emerged from the remnants of a supernova explosion. It is believed that due to this fact there are so many heavy and super-heavy elements on the Earth and other planets.

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