Our Common Story: A Big History Syllabus

Our Common Story: A Big History Syllabus
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This is a teachable moment — the best of times and the worst of times. How should we understand the world around us?

Take with me a semester-long course on Big History. This “Short Course on Everything” will provide you an overview of the physical, chemical, biological, and human sciences. We will debate how to understand our new common story and what it means for our Big Future. We begin with the new natural history of humanity and the dynamics of the Great Acceleration, before turning back to evolution and cosmology for further insights. We end with a debate about our Big Future.  I provide an extensive annotated bibliography for the required books below:

  • Robert McNeill and William H. McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History, 2003.
  • Gwynne Dyer, War: The Lethal Custom, 2004.
  • Eric Beinhocker, The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics, Cambridge, 2006.
  • Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture, 2003.
  • Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003, 2005.
  • Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams, The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos, 2006.
  • Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near, 2005.


Annotated Bibliography

Teachable Books

Book 1

The Human Web

The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History.
By Robert McNeill and William H. McNeill. New York: W.W. Norton. 2003.

The Human Web is a systems approach to world history, written by father and son historians. William H. McNeil is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Chicago. His son J.R. McNeil is a professor of history in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Webs are sets of connections linking people together. These connections take many forms: kinship, friends, cooperation, rivalry, enmity, and chance encounters. These connections involve common worship, economic exchange, ecological exchange, political cooperation, and military competition. These webs always involve the communication and use of information, and with it the transfer of useful technologies, crops, goods, ideas, and diseases. The McNeils analyze 12,000 years of human history up to the present from the perspective of the exchange and spread of information, technologies, genes, and people. Metropolitan webs came to dominate the planet after the invention of agriculture. In the last 500 years, beginning with oceanic navigation and intensifying in the last 100 years, these metropolitan webs have become more interconnected resulting in a single global, cosmopolitan web today.

The authors’ systems approach to world history allows them to make a number of important observations about the patterns in cultural evolution:

1) All webs involve cooperation and competition, both of which are sustained by communication. This can been seen already in hunter-gather societies, where small bands of humans transmitted local knowledge about edible plants and ecologies, organized cooperative hunting of large game, developed exogamous marriages with neighboring tribes, as well as cooperative aggression against and defense from competing groups of humans.

2) Those groups that achieve more efficient communication and cooperation improve their competitive advantages and survival prospects. Cooperating groups tend to grow and in so doing also begin to lose internal cohesion, often leading to collapse and succession. For instance, larger and larger metropolitan webs grew over the last 6000 years, because urban cultures had a) economic advantages via specialization of labor and exchange, b) military advantages via larger well-equipped warriors with better technology, and c) epidemiological advantages via frequent exposure to a wider array of diseases that built up their immunities over many generations.

3) Metropolitan webs tended to expand and grow in scale because of improved communication and transportation technologies. This can be seen today in the development in modern communication, air travel, and global capitalism, leaving no part of the world untouched by the world-wide cosmopolitan web.

4) Human communication, cooperation, and competition also shape the earth’s history, not just human history, beginning with the deliberate use of fire, coordinated hunting of large animals, and the domestication of plants and animals. This process of changing the ecologies of the world has accelerated dramatically in the last centuries through harnessing more and more of the earth’s energy and material flows for our human purposes, leading to a vast expansion of the human population and a great remaking of the geology and the biosphere.

The first chapter gives an over view of human paleoanthropology beginning with our hominid ancestors some 4 million years ago, their spread to diverse habitats, the beginnings of human tool-making some 1.8 million years ago, the controlled use of fire, and the appearance of Homo sapien some 200,000 years ago, and their dispersal in diverse ecologies around the planet. No other large mammal has been able to crossover so many climatic and water barriers and inhabit so many different ecological niches. The McNeils argue that the development of language played an important role in our species adaptability and successes, arguing that cultural evolution has tended to supplant genetic evolution. Indeed, human civilization today has become the driving force of biological change on earth, but these processes can already be traced to human activities beginning about 40,000 years ago. Human genetic, cognitive, and cultural capacities and dispositions were formed as hunter-gatherers. These capacities for discovery, invention, and communication lead to the creation of the earliest human webs. For instance, hand-held spears for hunting were invented multiple times and used throughout the world. This was supplemented by the invention of bows and arrows, which spread throughout the world between 30,000 and 15,000 years ago.

The second chapter looks at the development of agriculture from 11,000 to 3,000 years ago. Humans independently invented agriculture several times in widely different places. The domestication of plants and animals dramatically changed humans and the planet. Agriculture also domesticated humans, leading to year-round settlements, early forms of specialized labor and knowledge, and ultimately defended towns and later cities. Agricultural varieties and technologies spread most successful in Eurasia because of its size, geography, and the early possibilities for communication and transportation over contiguous east-west land routes in temperate climates. Also communicated were viral herd diseases from domesticated animals – smallpox, measles, and influenza – as well as new vulnerabilities to crop failures, famine, weather, and organized warfare.

Chapters follow on the rise of civilizations in the Old World web from 3500 b.c.e. to 200 c.e., the growth of these Old World webs from 200 to 1000 c.e., the intensification of these webs from 1000 to 1500 c.e., and the beginning of the first truly global web with the rise of oceanic travel in the 1500s and European colonial expansion which this brought. Throughout, the McNeils show the impact of new technologies and new modes of human organization on the development of webs. Their systems approach allows us to see simultaneous systemic changes in diverse parts of the world, for instance with the adoption of money in commerce and taxation.

In chapter seven, the McNeil examine the impact of the early globalized web from 1750 to 1914, which broke the old chains through colonial disruption of previously largely isolated civilizations and indigenous cultures. The world was increasingly integration into single economic entity empowered by new technologies and the industrial revolution. Chapter eight takes us through the last century and up to the present tracing the dramatic growths in human populations, consumption, technologies, travel, trade, and communication, as well as their impact on the environments local and global. The book ends then with two separate prospective readings by J.R. McNeil and William McNeil about the challenges humanity faces in the 21st century and beyond, now that the human web has come to dominate the entire planet and the evolution of life on the planet.

Most intellectuals around the world focus on narrow readings of their own nation, civilization, or religion, and often in a very narrow time-span, emploting these histories in terms of victimization or tribal triumpalism. By reframing human history as they have, the McNeils offer a powerful antidote to different forms of ideological, regional, and cultural chauvinisms. Readers end up with a much greater appreciation of the human drama as a unified process and the remarkable transformations that have occurred and which are accelerating. In their prescriptive post-script, the McNeils offer a prospective, suggesting that another widening of the web is necessary, uniting humans more intimately and less destructively with different natures and cultures. As one of the book jacket quotes suggests “If you are going to read only one book on world history, this is the one it should be.”

Book 2

War by Gwynne Dyer

War: The Lethal Custom.
By Gwynne Dyer. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004.

This is a revision of Gwynne Dyer’s 1985 book titled War, which was also produced as a six-part Canadian Broadcast Service documentary film. The first edition was written in the midst of the Cold War in which the world lived in fear of an all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The second edition was revised in light of the growth in terrorism and includes a new chapter on evolutionary biology of human aggression. “The conclusion was getting hard to avoid, even before the advent of nuclear weapons” begins Dyer, “the game of war is up, and we are going to have to change the rules if we are to survive.”

Simply saying so, however, won’t make it so. We need to understand the history and evolution of warfare in human societies, the psychological dynamics of combat and how it has changed over the centuries, the impact of new technologies on warfare, the nature of human nature, including old philosophical arguments and new biological insights from anthropology and primate studies. To this we must understand, the role of warfare in the body politic and economics, the interests served and costs paid. Finally, we need to understand what it means when war is waged by non-state actors in the rise of guerrilla and terrorist movements. When we understand the nature of the beast, the threat it poses to us all, we can begin to take realistic and pragmatic steps to secure our long-term wellbeing.

The problem with war precedes the introduction of the atomic bomb, in spite of its symbolic importance and its horrifying menace. Dyer notes that while 70,000 people died in the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, in previous conventional bombing raids in WWII killed 70,000 in Hamburg, 80,000 in Dresden, and 225,000 in Tokyo. 123,000 died in the battle for Iwo Jima. During the last two years of WWII, over one million people were being killed each month (5).

While the consequences of war have changed dramatically, the role of the combat soldier is remarkably unchanged over 5000 years of human history. Dyer writes: “The teenage Iranian volunteers stumbling across minefields east of Basra in 1984 or the doomed British battalions going over the top in the July Drive on the Somme in 1916 were taking part in the same act of sacrifice and slaughter that destroyed the young men of Rome at Cannae in 216 BC. The emotions, the odds, and the outcome were fundamentally the same. Battle, the central act of civilized warfare, is a unique event in which ordinary men willingly kill and die as though those extraordinary actions were normal and acceptable… modern soldiers do not behave any more ruthlessly than their ancestors” (6).

The key to war is cost-effective killing; this is true in combat and logistics. Officers must use up the lives of their men and material in battles in order to accomplish the purposes of the state. For most of history, battles were fought in tight formation with soldiers standing shoulder-to-shoulder in rows as they marched into hand-to-hand combat. The soldiers’ fear and instinct to run away from deadly combat were psychologically and physically overcome by peer pressure. Muskets and cannons did not fundamentally change the structure of warfare. In the 19th century, big battles were still fought in formation and would generally last a single day during which 40 to 50 percent of the combat soldiers would die (22).

It was not until the invention of the breech loaded rifle, first used in the Battle of Gettysburg, that the logic of warfare began to change. It was now possible to shoot at an enemy from a distance in safety with a high probability of killing them. It would not be until World War Two, however, that military planners began dispersing their troops to decrease their vulnerability. This dispersal, however, dramatically changed the psychology of combat. U.S. Army Colonel S.L.A. Marshall studied American infantrymen on the battlefield between 1943-1945. He found that on average only 15 percent of trained combat riflemen fired their weapons at all in battle. The rest did not flee, but they would not kill – even when their own position was under attack and their lives were in immediate danger. Without the peer pressure of marching shoulder-to-shoulder into combat, it was hard to make soldiers fight (54). Dyer argues that most humans are also endowed with “natural” aversions to killing.[1]

The dispersal of combat troops during World War Two led to much lower casualty rates on any given day of intense combat – 1 to 2 percent – even though the lethality of the weapons had increased several thousand fold over the last two centuries. “It was far safer to be a soldier on any given day of battle today,” writes Dyer, “than it was a hundred or a thousand years ago” (24). The problem for soldiers today is that battles can now continue for weeks without end (24). Accumulated stress is now a major hazard. U.S. Army psychologists concluded during World War II that almost every soldier, if he escaped death or injury, would suffer a mental breakdown after two hundred to two hundred and forty days of combat stress. The reason that only about one-sixth of the casualties were psychiatric during World War II is that most combat troops did not survive that long in battle (24).

These studies resulted in a radical restructuring of basic training and a drop in the average age of combat soldiers. U.S. Army basic training is seven weeks. U.S. Marine Corp basic training is twelve weeks. Greater stress today is placed on “small group dynamics” and building solidarity between a group of five to ten men who will be the individual’s only support and audience of his actions in battle. More emphasis is also placed on the individual soldiers initiative and motivation. Basic training “works with the same raw material that’s always there in teenage boys: a fair amount of aggression, a strong tendency to hang around in groups, and an absolutely desperate desire to fit in. Soldiering… doesn’t take a special kind of person: anybody’s son will do” (52).

Of special interest in the revised edition of Gwynne Dyer’s WAR is a chapter on the evolutionary biology of aggression in primates and the anthropological studies of aggression in primal societies. “Apart from our greater size and intelligence,” writes Dyer, “there are sharp social differences between humans and chimps. Chimpanzee society is defined by acute rivalry for dominance among the males, whereas human hunter-gatherers and their proto-human ancestors have probably lived in relatively egalitarian societies with semi-permanent bonds between individual males and females and their children – families, in other words – for several million years” (71). Long-term studies suggest that endemic chimpanzee warfare causes the death of about 30 percent of the males and a lower but significant percent of the females (72). Anthropological studies of primal societies in the Amazon and the New Guinea Highlands estimated the death of males due to warfare at about 25 percent for males and 5 percent for females. Dyer notes that few modern societies have ever sustained a 15 percent death rate from war in a single generation. Dyer believes that “the creation of mass societies sharply reduced the casualty rate from war” (94), but this could be a temporary illusion. The use of nuclear weapons, or other weapons of mass destruction, in a future war would dramatically and indiscriminately increase casualties in future wars.

The book includes a chapter on the nuclear arms race, as well as a chapter on guerrilla and terrorist wars. The book ends by considering the prospects of an end to wars. His reading of evolution and history is cautiously optimistic. All primates are malleable and adaptive in our cultures; even baboons are not shackled by their genes to the viciously aggressive norms of baboon society (citing the work of Robert Sapolsky). Environmental and economic collapse, political challenges, and the proliferation of ever more destructive weapons in the coming years could throw the world back into the old anarchy. Dyer believes we must strengthen multinational institutions, international law, and incentives to cooperate. If we drift back into alliance systems and arms races, playing the traditional game of winners and losers, then history will repeat itself and everyone will lose. Dyer believes that the great religions of the world – Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. – which were founded on the principles of equal human worth, are helpmates in cultivating such a society free from the scourges of war.

Dyer’s War offers a critical perspective that undermines the logic of violent conflicts around the world and points the direction to pragmatic solutions.

[1] Dyer cites a study of 27,574 abandoned muskets picked up after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Over 90 percent of the muskets were still loaded, although the nineteen-to-one ratio between loading time and firing time would logically argue that only about 5 percent of the muskets should have been loaded and ready to fire at the time their owners dropped them. Indeed, almost half of the abandoned muskets were loaded more than once. Six thousand of them had three and ten rounds loaded in the barrel. The implication is clearly that soldiers were pretending to fight, going through the motions of reloading, even though they had not actually fired their weapons (56).


Book 3

The Origin of Wealth

The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics.
By Eric D. Beinhocker. Cambridge: Harvard Business Press, 2006.

Eric Beinhocker is a Senior Fellow at the McKinsey Global Institute. He has written extensively on business and economic issues.[1] In the Origin of Wealth, Beinhocker synthesizes diverse fields of research, including physics, evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology, game theory, information theory, and economic history, all to tell the big story about why traditional neo-classical economic theory fails, and how “Complexity Economics” works. The book includes sections on how to rethink the role of governments and private sectors, as well as how Complexity Economics might impact corporate management and strategic planning.

Economic complexity is dynamic. It is adaptive. It is accelerating. In the last 250 years, world GDP per person has increased 37-fold [9]. Beinhocker writes: “To summarize 2.5 million years of economic history in brief: for a very, very, very long time not much happened; then all of a sudden, all hell broke loose” [11]. The miracle of economics is that 6.4 billion people today participate in a $37 trillion global economy that is predicted to continue to grow. No one oversees it. No one designed it. No one can control it. Economic complexity emerges from the bottom-up. How has this marvelous self-organized system evolved? What is the something new and more in economic growth and how is it created? What is the origin of wealth and how can individuals, business, and societies get more of it?

The book begins with a review of Traditional Economics (TE). This chapter will be useful to someone not familiar with the economics, providing condensed introductions to the discipline, starting with Adam Smith (1723-1790), Jaques Turgot (1727-1781), Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), and Alfred Marshall (1842-1924). We are then introduced to the early attempts to turn economics in a mathematical science in the works of Léon Walras (1834-1910), William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) and Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923). We are also introduced to a long list of influential twentieth century economists – Paul Samuelson, Kenneth Arrow, Milton Friedman, Robert Lucas – all of whom continued to build the “grand cathedral” of Traditional Economics. These chapters are dense with details, but short and easy to read.

Beinhocker argues that the use of equilibrium models from nineteenth century physics led economics down a dead end. The guiding assumptions in Traditional Economics were wrong. Humans are assumed to be rational actors with access to perfect information as they engaged in frictionless auction-like economic transactions all with the purpose of maximizing their self-interest. This, of course, is not the case. TE models assumes “incredibly smart people in unbelievably simple situations,” while the real world involves “believably simple people [coping] with incredibly complex situations” [52].

Traditional Economics thus fails to predict or explain. Beinhocker cites a long list of contemporary economists, including many of the recent Nobel laureates in the field, who have gradually dislodged the old paradigms. Beinhocker proposes to use the term “Complexity Economics” to describe the new paradigm.   He introduces concepts and examples of nonlinear systems, feedback loops, time delays, phase transitions, Boolean networks, oscillations, punctuated equilibrium, power laws, keystone innovations, bid-ask spread, price priority, time priority, “news-less volatility” in stocks, artificial life, computer simulated economics, fitness landscape, forced moves, path dependence, design space, schema, schema reader, modules, environments, and fitness function.

Beinhocker attributes the creation of wealth to the development of Physical Technologies and Social Technologies. “Physical Technologies (PTs)” writes Beinhocker, “are methods and designs for transforming matter, energy, and information from one state into another in pursuit of a goal or goals” [244]. Scientific and technological innovations are often self-reinforcing processes that unfold exponentially in economic development. PTs are purposeful adaptations driven by deductive tinkering. Beinhocker understands the Scientific Revolution to be in effect a way of “Reprogramming Evolution”. Much of the exponential economic growth in the last 250 years is the result of new Physical Technologies. He offers numerous examples.

“Social Technologies”, writes Beinhocker, “are methods and designs for organizing people in pursuit of a goal or goals” [262]. In the history of economics, STs include the use of money, property rights, double-entry accounting, limited liability joint stock corporations, the rule of law, effective banking systems, economic transparency, lack of corruption, family networks, social capital, trust, and reputation. All of these play a profound role in determining economic outcomes in communities and nations. Social Technologies are necessary for unleashing the non-zero sum dynamics through which new wealth is created to the mutual advantage of the community.

Beinhocker seems to suggest that the Social Technologies involved in creating wealth are much more difficult than the Physical Technologies. Prior to the evolution of market economies, economic activity was largely based on Big Man systems, in which wealth and power of a patriarchal ruler was maximized by the society.   “The only alternative selection system to Big Men that humans have thus far devised is markets,” writes Beinhocker. In markets, the creative, entrepreneurial, and deductive-tinkering energies of the population are liberated. Beinhocker advocates market economies, “not because they are the best method for allocating resources in a way that optimizes social welfare under conditions of equilibrium, but because they offer an evolutionary search mechanism that incentivizes deductive-tinkering leading to differentiation and then provides a fitness function on which economic selection can than act…”[294].

Beinhocker defines wealth in terms of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, drawing in part on the work of Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) but especially Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1906-1994). Economic value is created by 1) thermodynamically irreversible processes that 2) reduce entropy locally while increasing it globally 3) in reference to some human purpose [303]. “Economic wealth and biological wealth are thermodynamically the same sort of phenomena, and not just metaphorically. Both are systems of locally low entropy, patterns of order that evolved over time under the constraint of fitness functions. Both are forms of fit order.” [317]

“If wealth is indeed fit order, then we can use another more familiar word to describe it. In physics, order is the same thing as information, and thus we can also think of wealth as fit information; in other words, knowledge… The origin of wealth is knowledge. Yet rather than treating knowledge as an assumption, an exogenous input, a mysterious process outside the bounds of economics, the Complexity-based view I have outlined puts the creation of knowledge at the endogenous heart of the economy.” [317]

If order, information, and knowledge, are something that can grow independent of matter-energy, then the future is wide open, particularly if humans can deductively tinker our way into minimizing entropy while maximizing creativity, thereby partially dematerializing economic growth. That, in and of itself, is no guarantee of future growth, because complex systems can suddenly collapse simply based on their own internal, nonlinear dynamics, even without Malthusian or Thermodynamic limits ever being reached. We are currently in the midst of just such a complexity-driven economic downturn.

In his Epilogue, Beinhocker express some doubts, noting that we are conducting a real-time global experiment on the environment, whose results we do not know and cannot predict. He warns of the propensity of complex dynamic systems to reach “tipping points” that then lead to rapid changes. A whole system can collapse unpredictably, if certain minor variable are amplified by feedback loops. Earthquakes, economic markets, and perhaps also global environmental changes follow power laws and not Gaussian distributions. It seems the exponential growth in Physical Technologies now far exceeds the growth in Social Technologies. Culture matters in economics. Cultures are also transformed by economics, technology, and globalization. The evolution of human culture will be a critical component of successful twenty-first century economic developments.

See critical review, written by William Grassie



Book 4

Moral Believing Animals

Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture.
By Christian Smith. New York: Oxford University Press. 2003.

Modern humans, perhaps more than at any other time in human history, are caught up in a web of entangled narratives. Globalization and communication technologies have brought the world of differences into our living rooms, classrooms, and communities. People wage culture wars within and between our civilizations based on these narratives, which for the most part they do not even recognize as stories. What intellectual tools can help to mediate between these competing stories. People disagree about the good life; and in so doing, tend to demonize those with different visions of that life here at home and around the world.

Many contemporary thinkers have argued that there is a deep narrative structure of human thought (Taylor 1989), (Ricoeur 1984, 1985, 1986), (Smith 2003). Psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that “it is through narrative that we create and recreate selfhood, that self is a product of our telling and not some essence to be delved for in the recesses of subjectivity” (Bruner 2002, 13). Narratives are not just a matter of individuals creating their inner and social Self; narratives are also what bind societies and cultures together. Narratives are how we integrate events and actions through time into meaningful patterns. Narratives specify cause-and-effect relationships and organize these into coherent wholes. Narratives tell us which events and actions are significant and which can be ignored. The inter-relationship of events in our lives is explained by these narratives. Our sense of meaning and purpose, our values and motivations are based on these narratives. Humans are deeply storied creatures.

In his book Moral, Believing Animals, sociologist Christian Smith explores the dynamics human personhood and culture as “animals who make stories but also animals who are made by our stories” (2003, 64). In a chapter entitled “Living Narratives”, he offers a dozen examples of contemporary metanarratives, each presented in about two hundred words – the Christian narrative, the Militant Islamic Resurgence narrative, the American Experiment narrative, the Capitalist Prosperity narrative, the Progressive Socialism narrative, the Scientific Enlightenment narrative, the Expressive Romantic narrative, the Unity with Brahman narrative, the Liberal Progress narrative, the Ubiquitous Egoism narrative, and the Chance and Purposeless Narrative. Note that not only do explicitly political and religious movements have metanarratives, but even competing schools of thought in sociology, economics, and psychology also assume the form of metanarratives. These short statements of competing worldviews in Smith’s book make for an excellent seminar discussion or role-play.

What one discovers very quickly is also disturbing on a deeper level. There is no simple way to adjudicate between these competing worldviews and world doings. Given a certain set of assumptions, any particular metanarrative becomes difficult, if not impossible to refute. Indeed, once captured by a particular worldview, it is possible to rationalize just about anything and everything within that worldview. Soon all facts seem to bolster one’s assumptions, because the facts-that-matter are dictated by the narrative. People tend to carefully select facts and the interpretation of those facts based on their metanarratives.

As an example lets read the Community Lost narrative:

Once upon a time, folk lived together in local, face-to-face communities where we knew and took care of each other. Life was simple and sometimes hard. But we lived in harmony with nature, laboring honestly at the plough and in handicraft. Life was securely woven in homespun fabrics of organic, integrated culture, faith, and tradition. We truly knew who we were and felt deeply for our land, our kin, our customs. But then a dreadful thing happened. Folk community was overrun by the barbarisms of modern industry, urbanization, rationality, science, fragmentation, anonymity, transience, and mass production. Faith began to erode, social trust dissipated, folk customs vanish. Work became alienating, authentic feeling repressed, neighbors strangers, and life standardized and rationalized. Those who knew the worth of simplicity, authentic feeling, nature, and custom resisted the vulgarities and uniformities of modernity. But all that remains today are tattered vestiges of a world we have lost. The task of those who see clearly now is to memorialize and celebrate folk community, mourn its ruin, and resist and denounce the depravities of modern, scientific rationalism that would kill the Human Spirit. (Smith, 2003, 85-86)

This is a nostalgic narrative of the tragedy of modernity, industrialization, and globalization. It offers a backwards-looking romantic view of history. In the Old Days, people were better, life was better, local communities mattered. The basic structure of this narrative is repeated by many Christians, Muslims, and Hindus, as well as in other cultural idioms. There is also a potent contemporary ecological version of this narrative articulated by some in the environmental movement. The idealized past narrative above contrasts sharply with progressive, future oriented narratives, for instance the Scientific Enlightenment narrative or the Capitalist Prosperity narrative. This nostalgia narrative is woven into many of the fundamentalist religious movements today whether in the East or West, the North or South. One can argue with this nostalgia narrative, but evidence alone cannot compel someone to believe otherwise.

It is important to emphasize that humans can hold multiple narratives, sometimes mutually exclusive. We mix and match. Each generation reinterprets these narratives in different situations, even as each generation is also constituted by these received stories. People are not passive recipients of these narratives, but active re-interpreters.

Another example is what Smith calls the Chance and Purposeless Narrative. He quotes Bertrand Russell, who lays out a stoic and existentialist reading of science. Russell writes “That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievements must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built” (as quoted by Smith 93). Note that this is not a scientific statement, nor is it a necessary interpretation of science.

In trying to weave together the many entangled narratives we encounter, inhabiting as many different perspectives and truths as possible with our limited intellect and lifespan, it is important to realize that we do now have a loom on which to weave the many pieces of truth and goodness that we discover along the way. That loom is the history of our species over the last million plus years, the evolution of life and our planet over the last four billion years, and the evolution of the universe over some thirteen billion years. This is the story that science has discovered over the last few decades and centuries, though it really represents the achievement of all of humanity over the millennia. Few of us have explored what it would mean to integrate this new story of the universe into our own special metanarrative. One of the greatest challenges today is to integrate this new, remarkable, and evolving scientific story of the cosmos, society, and self into our diverse, traditional narratives. In the next two readings we will explore this new scientific cosmology and consider its significance as part of Our Common Story.


Book 5

Short History 300

A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition. 
By Bill Bryson. New York: Broadway Books, 2003, 2005.

Bill Bryson, a celebrated travel writer, took on the task of writing a general science text, because in his words “There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never stayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting” (2005:10). The result is this 500-page book that sold over 300,000 copies in the UK alone and was recognized with the Aventis Prize in 2004 and the EU Descartes Prize in 2005.

In thirty chapters, Bryson vividly describes in layman’s terms the general state of knowledge in the natural sciences – cosmology, physics, chemistry, geology, biology, evolution, genetics, and the evolution of Homo sapiens, the latter with special emphasis on our species’ current impact upon the planet. He also tells the stories of the people who made these discoveries – Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, among others. We learn not only what the general scientific consensus is, but also how these discoveries were made. Thus Bryson’s book provides both a history of nature as well as a history of discovery. He does all of this with wit and enthusiasm for what he holds to be inspirational discoveries about the cosmos and ourselves.

For chapter summaries, quotes, and a study guide, go to:

“If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here – and by ‘we’ I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans, we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp” (478).


Book 6

View from the Center

The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos.
By Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams. New York: Riverhead, 2006.

Joel Primack, a  distinguished cosmologist at UC Santa Cruz, teamed up with his wife, Nancy Abrams, to write an unusual introduction to contemporary cosmology. In Part One, they locate scientific cosmology in the age-old efforts of ancient civilizations to ground their sense of self and society in a cosmological vision. They begins with a review of the cosmology of ancient Egypt, the cosmology in the Hebrew Bible, and the early Greek cosmology, all with a view to showing the power of cosmological myths in defining the meanings, purposes, and values that bound these societies together.

In Part Two View from the Center embarks upon the ambitious goal of making contemporary scientific cosmology equally relevant to our 21st century cultures and civilizations. The authors argue that a new science-based cosmology is capable of centering the global community around a common consensus on what reality is and how it all came about. The goal of the book is not simply to educate readers about the facts of contemporary science, but to engage in a debate about what it all means. “Before the new cosmology can matter to most people,” write Primack and Abrams, “we need to perceive connections between the expanding universe and our own lives – not dogmatically but suggestively, leaving room for future interpretations but letting science set a minimum standard” (85-86).

Chapters explore a number of contemporary questions: What is the Universe Made Of? What is the Center of the Universe? What Size is the Universe? Where Do We Come From? Are We Alone? They answer these questions with the modern scientific accounts of space-time, the singularity, matter-energy, an expanding cosmos, the evolution of stars and galaxies, the existence of dark matter and dark energy. In each chapter, they introduce symbols to evoke the mythic dimensions of the story, as well as to provide a mnemonic for remembering the significant details.

For example, in exploring “What is the Universe Made Of?,” they use the Masonic pyramid. At the top of the pyramid is “ordinary matter,” the stuff of which we and everything on Earth are made. These are the elements of the Periodic Table that were forged inside of stellar furnaces. These elements, essential to our existence, constitute one hundredth of a percent of the stuff of the Universe. Hydrogen and Helium constitute a half of a percent of the Universe. The rest of the Universe is made up of invisible atoms (4%), Cold Dark Matter (25%), and Dark Energy (70%). We are made of stardust, the rarest of stuff in the Universe.

In another example, they locate the human scale as midway between the largest known entity, the Universe itself, and the smallest known entities in the Plank Scale of subatomic particles. This is represented symbolically as the Cosmic Uroboros, because in cosmology the very small loops back to the very beginning of the Big Bang when all that exists came into being in a point of infinite density and infinite heat. The Universe is like a snake swallowing its own tail. The use of these iconic symbols (see below) provides a power mnemonic and a provocative invitation to view cosmology as part of humanity’s spiritual quest for meaning.

In Part Three, the Meaningful Universe, the authors explicitly challenge the dominant existential interpretations of this modern cosmology, which renders human life insignificant in a galaxy of one hundred billion stars, in a universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies. This existential view can be seen in the writings of Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Weinberg, and others. The authors observe:

“There is nothing in modern cosmology that requires the existential view, nor anything that requires the meaningful view. The bottom line of both views is scientific accuracy: both hold that interpretations of reality where science is compromised for ideological purity should be rejected. But given this bottom line, an attitude toward the discoveries of modern cosmology is every person’s choice… The existential view automatically feels more familiar and natural because the West has cultivated it for generations… But where the existential view veers off into emotions like despair or resignation or a feeling of insignificance or even dark satisfaction, those emotions are arbitrary and unnecessary. The meaningful universe encompasses the existential, in the sense that the meaningful can understand the existential, but the existential cannot see the meaningful.” (274-275)

“The choice of attitude is not a casual one. It’s all too easy to see scientific cosmology as an intellectual challenge, entertainment, cocktail banter, or even, as some cosmologists treat it, a professionally played sport, because these are the normal attitudes as long as we don’t participate in what a new universe means. But cosmology is not a game; it has the power to overturn the fundamental institutions of society.” (275)

Primack and Abrams give the following evidence in support of their meaning-filled interpretation of contemporary cosmology:

  • We are made of the rarest material in the universe: stardust.
  • We live at the center of our Cosmic Spheres of Time, because every place is the center of its own cosmic spheres of time…
  • We live at the midpoint of time, which is also the peak period in the entire evolution of the universe for astronomical observation… The universe as we are observing it today will truly become mythic, since it will become the lost Golden Age – a fabulously rich sky that, our distant descendants will know, actually existed but will never be seen again.
  • We live at the middle of all possible sizes… Life of our complexity could bloom on no other size-scales of the Cosmic Uroboros.
  • We live in a universe that may be a rare bubble of spacetime in the infinite, seething cauldron of the eternal meta-universe…
  • We live at more or less the midpoint in the life of our planet…
  • We live at a turning point for our species…. (270-272).

Recovering a meaningful cosmology, grounded in contemporary science, is a key to the proper appreciation of human life and solving many of the pressing evolutionary problems that threaten our civilizations. They call for “disciplined imagination” in the integration of contemporary science and our received wisdom traditions.

Cosmic Icons

Cosmic Icons

Icons used from left to right (top): 1) Venn Diagram: Newtonian Physics, Quantum Physics, and Relativity; 2) Masonic Pyramid: Ordinary Matter, Dark Matter, Dark Energy; 3) Cosmic Spheres of Time; 4) Lightcone of Past and Future; 5) Cosmic Uroboros of Scale; 6) Cosmic Sphere and Eternal Inflation; (second row) 7) Cyclical Universes; 8) Our Place in the Galaxy; 9) The Danger of Exponential Growth.


Book 7


The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.
by Ray Kurzweil. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. [Amazon Link]

See critical review written by William Grassie.