Saturday, June 28, 2008

David Christian's History of Everything

David Christian's Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (University of California Press, 2004) is one of the most intellectually exciting books that I have read in recent years. As a historian specializing in Russian history, Christian taught for many years at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Now he teaches at San Diego State University. In 1989, the faculty in the history department at Macquarie were discussing what kind of introduction to history the department ought to offer their students, and Christian remarked, "Why not start at the beginning?" Traditionally, modern historians have assumed that the "beginning" of history was about 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, where the first cities, states, and agrarian civilizations appeared, and writing was invented. Whatever happened before that was relegated to "prehistory." But Christian decided that a modern scientific view of history should allow historians to start at the real beginning of everything--the Big Bang, the origin of the universe, 13 billion years ago--so that human history would be understood properly as part of cosmic history. He called this "big history," and this book surveys the large patterns in this history from the Big Bang to the present, and with speculations about the future. (Daniel Lord Smail's Deep History and the Brain--the subject of a previous post--belongs to this same genre of historical writing.)

Those of us who take seriously the idea of liberal education as embracing all the intellectual disciplines need to look to Christian's book as a synthesis of knowledge in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities within the framework of universal history. This exemplifies what I have called "Darwinian liberal education," and what Edward O. Wilson has called "consilience"--the unity of all knowledge. Those of us striving to develop a biopolitical science should see Christian's book as a way of framing such a science by putting human political history within the broad sweep of cosmic evolutionary history. I foresee using Christian's book as a main text in my "Biopolitical Theory" class at Northern Illinois University.

After surveying the modern scientific understanding of the origins and history of the universe, the stars, the Earth, and life on Earth, Christian turns to human evolutionary history from the Paleolithic era to the present. He divides human history into three stages corresponding to three major eras of human social life: the foraging era (from 250,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago), the agrarian era (from 10,000 years ago to 1750 A.D.), and the modern era (from 1750 to the present). Christian has written a short summary of this human history for the first volume of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, and this has also been published separately as a short book.

Of course, one of the obvious problems in such a broad view of everything is finding general patterns to sustain a grand narrative. The broadest pattern for Christian's history is taken from Eric Chaisson--the emergence of ever more complex levels of order requires structuring the flow of energy to sustain order against the entropic tendency of the second law of thermodynamics. Within that cosmic pattern, human history's three eras can be seen as three levels of ever more complex order that require ever more complex means for extracting energy to sustain ever larger human populations. Foragers extract energy through hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants. Farmers extract energy through domesticated plants and animals. In the modern era, humans have come to rely increasingly on fossil fuels as sources of energy. The ultimate source of this energy in plants, animals, and fossil fuels is sunlight.

Another general pattern in human history is set by the human capacity for "collective learning." Although many animals have some capacity for learning, human language enhances the human capacity for learning beyond anything seen in the rest of the animal world. This permits human beings to spread widely over varying niches in their ecosystems and even to create new niches. The human history from foraging to farming to modernity is largely the history of human collective learning as human beings learn new ways to extract energy from their environments to sustain ever larger populations of human beings in ever more complex societies--so that now human beings live in a global system that has transformed life on earth.

Another related theme of Christian's history is emergence: at each higher level of complexity, phenomena appear that could not have been predicted from knowledge of the lower levels. This supports my argument that E. O. Wilson's consilience by strong reductionism doesn't work if it ignores the emergent complexity by which novelty arises at higher levels of complexity that cannot be reduced to the lower levels. It is true, however, that these higher levels are constrained by the lower levels--so that, for example, even the highest levels of complex order in the universe are subject to the second law of thermodynamics and the need to extract energy to sustain order.

Like any good book on the biggest questions that human beings can ask themselves, Christian's will stimulate debate and disagreement. Although I generally find his book persuasive, I also find myself arguing with him about some points. Here I will point to only a couple of points of discussion.

As opposed to agrarian states, foraging societies do not have elaborate hierarchies of power. But I think Christian is mistaken to suggest that they have no hierarchies at all. Actually, he indicates in at least one passage that they may well have "personal hierarchies" (240). This is important because it becomes hard to understand how agrarian states could produce such complex hierarchies of rule if there were no natural disposition to status hierarchies at all. From my reading of the anthropological literature on foragers, it seems to me that although foraging societies are roughly egalitarian, this does not mean that there are no distinctions of rank at all. Some individuals in foraging groups have more status than others, and some exercise leadership, but this leadership is ephemeral and informal, and those who become too exploitative in their dominance are subject to social pressure that levels everyone to preserve individual autonomy. In agrarian societies, this natural disposition of some individuals to dominate others is magnified, and much of the rest of the social and political history of human beings is the history of exploitative dominance and of the efforts of subordinates to resist such exploitation. On this point, I follow Chris Boehm on the tension between the desire of some for dominance and the desire of many to resist exploitative dominance. I have developed this point in Darwinian Conservatism.

On a somewhat related point, I think Christian does not give enough attention to the history of political philosophy, and thus he does not see that many of his ideas about human social evolution were well understood by social theorists. Not only that, but some of these political philosophers even tried to consciously shape the movement of that evolution.

Now, of course, I understand that in such a "big history" as Christian's, one must abstract from the details of particular events and individual behavior. But still, as Christian indicates, evolutionary history is contingent in that it often turns crucially on particular events. For example, the asteroid impact that led to the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago altered the whole course of the evolution of life on earth. Similarly, Christian concedes that major political changes often depend on "the decisions and actions of individuals" (481). This would include individual thinkers who understood the general pattern in the natural history of society and who might try to shape that pattern.

For example, Christian notes that the European contact with the New World beginning in the 16th century created the first global exchange network that led to the modern era, and he also notes that this new global knowledge contributed to the intellectual evolution of modern science (393-94). One manifestation of this would be how the traveler's reports from the new world influenced political philosophers like Montaigne, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. For instance, Locke's Second Treatise of Government lays out the same natural history of society--from foraging societies to agrarian societies to commercial societies--that Christian develops in his book. But what one sees in Locke's work is a conscious argument for moving into the era of commercial society based on private property, free market exchange, and limited government. Political philosophers like Locke did not just see this evolutionary movement at work. They also set themselves to promote it and direct it. Their cultural and political influence on individual thinkers and politicians would explain much of the course of that social evolutionary history that Christian describes. But Christian never ponders the importance of those political thinkers like Locke who understood what was happening and who tried to direct it.

Studying Locke's argument for liberal democratic capitalism might also have led Christian to reconsider his Marxist tendency to disparage "consumer capitalism" (446-457, 472-81). Although he admits that the Marxist regimes of the 20th century did not offer a good alternative to capitalism, he still cannot give up his Marxist scorn for capitalism. He is surely entitled to lay out his criticisms of modern capitalist society. But he doesn't show that he has thought through the classical liberal argument for capitalism and limited government--an argument laid out by thinkers like Locke, Smith, and Hayek.

I should also say, however, that scholars of political philosophy would benefit from studying Christian's "big history" and seeing how it might illuminate the broad historical movements that set the terms for debate in the history of political philosophy.

While conceding that capitalism has been the primary engine for the explosive population growth and technological innovation of the past 250 years, Christian worries that unchecked capitalist growth over the next century could bring environmental and social collapse. The only way to achieve "sustainable development" is for capitalism to be steered by governmental regulation to limit growth. But Christian does not respond to the arguments of those like Terry Anderson who promote "free market environmentalism" based on the idea that the best path to sustainable development is through private property and the rule of law. Christian's worry about a future of depleted resources reflects his devotion to the ideas of Thomas Malthus. But those like Anderson would argue that Malthus failed to see how Adam Smith's vision of capitalism laid out a path to sustainable development that remains as powerful for the future as it has been for the last couple of centuries.

Christian concludes his book by speculating on the future of the universe long after human beings and all life has been extinguished by the expansion and then cooling of the sun. "The universe will be a dark, cold place, filled only with black holes and stray subatomic particles that wander light-years apart from each other" (489). He concludes that while the creation of human beings as the only intelligent species capable of contemplating the universe might appear to be the ultimate purpose of the universe's creation from nothing, there is no scientific justification for this. "Modern science offers no good reason for believing in such anthropocentrism. Instead, it seems, we are one of the more exotic creations of a universe in the most youthful, exuberant, and productive phase of a very long life. Though we no longer see ourselves as the center of the universe or the ultimate reason for its existence, this may still be grandeur enough for many of us."

This sounds a lot like Friedrich Nietzsche in "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense": "In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of 'world history'--yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die."

Nietzsche thought this was a "deadly truth" of modern science. But he also thought that human beings might learn to embrace a "gay science" in which reverence for earthly life in all of its transience and contingency might be enough for them. Is there grandeur enough in this vision?

1 comment:

Michael Dowd said...

Larry, Great review! Connie and I are just now listening to David's Teaching Company course on Big History. It's fabulous!

Keep up the great writing.

~ Michael