Yesterday (link to part one), I introduced the concept of “Big History” and the Teaching Company class with Professor David Christian….if you haven’t read that, you may want to go back to it first before reading this article….when we left off, the galaxies and planets had just been formed….then, Christian goes into detail explaining how the early Earth was formed, how land was created and how life eventually emerged. This was his fifth threshold.

Although not considered separate major “thresholds” by Christian, there are three other distinctive “emergent” properties that come about with the emergence of life. They are metabolism, reproduction, and adaptation. Metabolism is an entity’s ability to use and process energy from the environment. Reproduction is an entity’s ability to re-create itself. Adaptation is an entity’s ability to change over time in response to changes in the environment.

Obviously evolution is an integral part of big history. Christian goes into great detail over the story of Darwin and how he created the theory of natural selection. For our purposes here… simply note that over millions of years life continued to evolve on Earth until early humanoids were created, and eventually the sixth threshold was crossed and humanity emerged.

What makes humans different? Ernest Holmes and other mystics often point to the fact that it is because humans “know that they know.” In other words, the fact that we became “self-aware”, a characteristic not previously in existance, was the important threshold crossed in the creation of humanity. When I was growing up, it seems like the story I was told was about how people were the first and only animals to use tools. Science has gone on to disprove that humanity is the sole user of tools, therefore, that doesn’t seem to be frequently used now as the line of demarcation. For Christian, what makes humans different is their ability to transfer learning from one person to another and across generations. This ability to stand on the backs of our ancestors and to know all that they learned is what he says makes us unique.

After the rise of humanity, big history does a very quick run through of human history, showing how we build greater and greater degrees of complexity in our organizational structures and our technology. It is interesting to note that humanity is the first species that uses more energy than it needs for basic life and survival. Other species, as well as early man only used as much energy as they needed to survive and reproduce. The history of humanity shows that we used more and more energy per person as life became more complex.

One might consider that the story of big history as told by science correlates quite nicely with “The Universe’s Story” as told by Thomas Berry he and Brian Swimme in their book by that name. What is important for us to note in the story of big history (or “the universe’s story) is that there appears to be a direction in which history or evolution is taking us. Others have called this “evolution’s arrow”, which we will look at later.

Mark

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