Understanding Natural Hierarchies through Big History
Our European ancestors once understood the universe to be a Great Chain of Being. All the entities of the world — animal, vegetable, mineral — were hierarchically organized. At the bottom were metals, precious metals, and precious stones. Then came plants and trees, followed by wild animals and domesticated animals. Humans were also hierarchically ordered from children to women to men and further into the different ranks of commoners, nobility, princes, and kings. The Great Chain of Being continued up into the celestial realm — moon, stars, angels, and archangels — to the very top where God presides over the entire creation. This scala naturae provided humans with a natural order, which they also understood to be a natural human order that structured their societies.
Retorica Christiana, written by Didacus Valdes in 1579, Source: Wiki Media
Science, or so the story goes, disrupted this view of the universe and ourselves. Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler broke the crystalline spheres of Ptolemy and demoted Earth from the center of the universe to an insignificant periphery. Darwin understood plants and animals, including the human animal, to be evolving from common ancestors all the way back into the proverbial primordial slime. Freud showed that rational man was really an unconscious mess and hardly aware of, let alone in control of, his own thoughts and passions.
The Great Chain of Being was rendered a tangled web of happenstance in an enormous universe devoid of transcendence and meaning. God was rendered an unnecessary or incompetent creator. The new existentialists and Stoics argued that the universe was indifferent, that humans were insignificant, that our consciousness was epiphenomenal, and that our evolution merely accidental.
This turns out to be quite a distortion of the actual science and history. For while there is no Great Chain of Being, as the medievals understood it, there is most definitely a Great Matrix to which all beings belong.
A matrix is a structure, medium, or environment in which something develops. Matrices can be physical, biological, social, and mathematical. It can be a mold that shapes organisms, for instance, with intercellular matrices in our body. In mathematical usage, a matrix is like a spreadsheet—a grid of quantities and formulas, charts and comparisons, statistics and accounts, or more abstractly, geometric possibility spaces. The etymology of the word matrix is from the Latin for “womb” or “mother.” We might also title this chapter “the Great Womb of All Beings.”
In all of these senses, including perhaps especially the creative maternal, we begin by considering the great matrix as discovered and elucidated by science. Everything that exists in the universe, every process that science has discovered, every power of nature, all that constitutes our human bodies and brains, our histories and cultures—all this and more—can be located within a number of natural hierarchies and scales—size, time, matter, energetics, electromagnetism, sound, information-ingenuity, sentience-consciousness, culturally constructed hierarchies, and emergent complexity. Understanding these natural scales—the warp and woof of the universe upon which all complexity is woven—is the first step to applying big history to understanding “all the big ideas of all the big disciplines.” Let’s look at each in turn:
9) culturally constructed hierachies
10) emergent complexity
It takes some effort to grok the scales of size from the macrocosm to the microcosm as discovered by science.1 How to internalize the new scales of science that extend far beyond our direct sense perceptions? In that sense, most of science is by definition counter-intuitive. You can’t see much of what science is about—it’s too large or too small, too fast or too slow. The existentialist in you may stay awake at night pondering how big the universe is, but it is perhaps more instructive to pay attention to how small entities can also be. The known universe is as many orders of magnitude smaller than us as it is larger.
The smallest unit in particle physics is the Planck scale (1.62 x 10^-35 m). Beyond the Planck scale the concepts of size and distance break down and quantum indeterminacy becomes absolute—whatever that means. You will need to find a particle physicist to make more sense of these subatomic realms in which matter turns into miniscule fields and forces.
From the Plank scale we jump about 24 orders of magnitude in size pass the scale of subatomic particle to the scale of simple atoms. The diameter of a single hydrogen atom—one proton, one electron, and a lot of empty space—is approximately 0.1 nm (nanometers). Just to be clear, one nanometer (10^-9 m) is a billion times smaller than one meter.
Amino acids—small molecules essential to cell chemistry and varying in atomic composition —are approximately 0.8 nm in size.
DNA, the molecule deoxyribonucleic acid, is about 2 nanometers wide but varies dramatically in length. The longest human DNA is found in chromosome 1 and consists of 220 million base pairs. When stretched out it would be about 85 millimeters long and very, very thin. In terms of length, human DNA has some 3 billion base pairs, but that’s nothing compared to the marbled lungfish, which clocks in at a 133 billion base pairs. At the other end of the DNA spectrum is the diminutive bacteria Carsonella ruddii with the smallest known genome containing 159,662 base pairs.2 DNA, as we will explore below, has an aperiodic property that allows it to encode information for cell construction and replication.
Prokaryotes—single-cell bacteria and archaea, more about that later—are the smallest and ur-unit of life. The smallest bacteria are about 150-250 nm. The bacterium E. coli, part of your intestinal microbiome, measures up at approximately 2 µm (micrometers or microns). Here we have moved up in the scale a thousand fold, from nanos to microns, from 10^-9 m to 10^-6 m.
Needless to say, it takes imagination on our part to grasp these orders of magnitude jumps in scale. At the other end of the size spectrum, we measure in light-years, which in spite of its name is a measurement of distance not time. One light-year is the distance that a photon travels in one Earth year—9.4 trillion kilometers in case you were wondering. The most distant thing that we know observationally in the universe is the background radiation from the big bang—13.8 billion light-years away from earth. 9.4 trillion kilometers times 13.8 billion is a really big number and an incomprehensible distance for mere humans to grasp—and yet we now do—though difficult to grok.
To get a feel for the relative size and scale of the universe, imagine holding a big beach ball one meter in diameter. It is summer and you’re vacationing on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. If this beach ball were the size of the sun, then the next closest star, Proxima Centauri, would be another beach ball 6609 km away—the flight distance from Boston to Rome (the actual distance is 4.2 light years).
On the other hand, if your one-meter diameter beach ball were the size of our Milky Way galaxy, then the next closest galaxy—the Andromeda galaxy—would be another beach ball 25 meter away (the actual distance is 2.5 million light years). Indeed, at the scale of the galaxies, everywhere you looked on the beach that day, above, below, and all around, you would see beach ball galaxies in all directions—a 100 billion of them. In scale, galaxies are quite close to each other and gravitationally bound in a vast moving web, while the distance between stars within the galaxies is enormous and for the most part gravitationally not interactive with neighboring stars. When galaxies collide, as Andromeda and the Milky Way some day will, they pass through each other and nary a star will collide. The universe is a web of a hundred billion galaxies held together in a dynamic gravitational embrace.
The tendency is to focus on how puny we are in the scale of hundreds of billions of galaxies spanning billions of light years, but we should also remember how enormous we are when compared with the cells, molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles. Humans exist at scales measured in millimeters, centimeters, meters, and kilometers, which turn out to be about halfway between the very small and the very large. The human scale is also the only scale where certain types of complexity could exist.
The Cosmic Uroboris is a graphic representation of the hierarchy of size. The image of a snake eating its own tail is a symbol appearing in ancient Egyptian, Greek, Norse, and Indian art. The symbol is thought to represent self-reflectivity and self-regeneration. In a rendering of the uroborus by cosmologist Joel Primack and co-author Nancy Abrams, the hierarchy of size is plotted in powers of ten along the circle. The universe is swallowing its own tail, because the very large scale of the universe loops back on the very small scale of subatomic particles. The particle accelerator at CERN recreates the intense energy of the early universe in order to study the constituents of matter. The sought-after “Grand Unified Theory” of fundamental physics (GUT in the image) would unite the four fundamental forces—gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak atomic forces—connecting the subatomic and the cosmic dimensions, much as uroborus swallows its tail.
The first axis in the great matrix of all beings is size. Note again the curiosity and perhaps necessity that life exists halfway between the largest and smallest entities known to science. And take a moment also to cogitate and meditate on how your own being is built and functions bottom-up from small to ever larger combinatorials of atoms, molecules, and cells.
Image: Cosmic Uroboris
The time scales of the universe are measured today in billions of years down to the nanosecond vibrations of cesium in atomic clocks. We have discovered a progressively true account of the 13.8-billion-year history of the universe, the 4.5-billion-year evolution of our planet, the 300,000-year rise of our species, and the 10,000-year accelerating drama of human civilization. This chronology is how big history is generally approached in books and curricula, telling the story as an integrated narrative of complexity thresholds from the big bang to the 21st century.(3)
In brief, our omnicentric universe began infinitesimally small some 13.8 billion years ago as something like infinite heat, infinite density, and total symmetry. This universe expanded, cooled, and evolved into more differentiated and complex structures—forces, quarks, hydrogen, helium, galaxies, stars, heavier elements, complex chemistry, and planetary systems.
Some 4 billion years ago, in a small second- or third-generation solar system, the intricate biophysical processes of life began on at least one small planet circling a diminutive, slow burning star. Animate energy-matter on Earth was a marvelous new intensification of the creative dynamic at work in the universe. Life adapted, evolved, complexified. Fuel by the power of the sun, Earth became a jewel of a planet with ever more complex forms and relations giving rise to the wonders of the natural world.
Then some 7 million years ago, proto-humans emerged on the savanna of Africa. By a million years ago, they mastered fire and made simple tools. About 80,000 years ago, a small band of Homo sapiens wandered out of Africa. With their tools, fire mastery, language, and collective learning, our ancestors spread across the planet. We are the only large mammals to inhabit so many diverse bioregions.
For most of our prehistory, our common ancestors were hunter-gatherers, living in small tribes, probably not larger than 150 individuals.(4) Our brains, instincts, emotions, and behavioral tendencies evolved to promote survival and reproduction in these social groups in diverse environments. Then 10,000 years ago, agriculture began, and with it growing populations of humans living in ever larger and more complex societies accumulating knowledge and knowhow, trading in genes, crops, animals, diseases, technologies, and ideas. The fossil fuel revolution began about 200 years ago and with it amazing growth in wealth and productivity. This unfolding leads us all the way to today, over 7 billion of us collectively transforming the planet and ourselves. The wonder of it all is that each of us is also a collection of transient atoms, recycled stardust become conscious beings, engaged in this global conversation brought to you by ephemeral electrons and photons cascading through the Internet and bouncing off of satellites.
That is big history, in about 300 words and with a little poetic license. The story is generally understood in thresholds of emergent complexity—the early universe gives rise to stars and galaxies, the stars give rise to the periodic tables of elements and complex chemistry, the chemistry gives rise to simple bacteria, the bacteria give rise to eukaryotic cells, which complex cells give rise to the evolution of organisms, the plants and animals give rise to complex ecosystems with ever more sentient organisms, and sentience in our lineage gave rise humans consciousness, tool-making, language, fire mastery, collective learning, agriculture, and the modern revolution. Throughout the chronology, increased complexity is hierarchical, built from the bottom-up. Each threshold realizes new emergent properties that previously did not exist.
Einstein’s theory of relativity, of course, links space and time in a continuum, so separating chronology and size scale is technically an artifact of our minds and not fundamental physics. Moreover, many of the equations of fundamental physics work forward or backward irrespective of time. And when we talk about the very fast, the very dense, and the very hot, the very cold, concepts of space and time can become elastic, but in between these extremes, time matters. For all practical purposes, including the practical purposes of applied science and managing your portfolio, it is necessary to keep space and time separate. Together space and time provide the first two dimensions in the great matrix.
Our brains are fine-tuned to pay attention to narratives and chronology, characters and motivations, causes and consequences, patterns and agents. Big history is a powerful pedagogic tool for teaching history and general science literacy, because it harnesses our innate interest in stories. We now have a progressively true and extremely practical creation story about which most humans today are tragically clueless
The universe has a scale of time measured in billions of years down to the nanosecond vibrations of cesium in atomic clocks. Our best calculations suggest that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old, that humans are 200,000 years old, and that the drama of human civilization began some 12,000 years ago. Today, we call this chronological understanding of the universe and ourselves “Big History.” There are currently a number of initiatives seeking to promote this curriculum in education. Chronology, however, is only one dimension of the Matrix.
Image: Big History Project Timeline uses a logarithmic scale
The stuff of world around us—matter—also has a scale and structure that extends from the periodic table of elements down into the subatomic realm in the standard model of particle physics. The latter—particle physics—is beyond my ken and still the subject of ongoing research and debate. The scale of atomic elements, however, is well established and central to all chemistry.
Matter turns out to be a scarce commodity in the universe. The universe is composed of about 70 percent cold dark energy. Another 25 percent consists of cold dark matter. Cosmologists don’t really know what these are, ergo cold and dark, but infer their existence from the behavior of the web of galaxies in an expanding universe. Along with the cold dark energy and matter, there are invisible atoms. Hydrogen and helium, the atoms that fuel the stars, constitute about 0.5 percent of the universe. All the other visible atoms in the Periodic Table of Elements constitute less than 0.01 percent of the universe. Fortunately, we live in a chemically rich solar system on a very special planet. We are made of these remarkable and rare elements in this vast universe.
The character of elements is determined by the number of protons in their nucleus, along with isotopic variations in the number of neutrons and electrons bound to that nucleus. The discovery of periodicity and groupings of elements based on shared properties is one of the most remarkable achievements of science leading to all manner of new discoveries in physics and biology, not to mention engineering and technology. Chemistry may not have the same academic sex appeal as physics and biology, but it is the foundation upon which evolutionary and economic complexity builds.
Periodic table of elements
The intensity of energy flows is another axis in the Matrix. There is no uniform measurement of energy because energy comes in so many different flavors, including heat, electrical, chemical, nuclear, and kinetic. Physicists calculate the energy of the universe at the moment of the big bang as 1019 GeV (billion electron volts). At the opposite end is absolute zero or minus 273.15 degrees Celsius (minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit). At both extremes, matter exhibits strange behaviors.
All complex phenomena in the universe can be characterized by energy gradients, which we can measure in ergs per second per gram. It is counter-intuitive, but when normalized for mass, a photosynthesizing plant has about 2,000 times the energy density flow of the sun. A mammalian body has about 20,000 times the energy density flow of the sun. The human brain, consisting of about 2 percent of our body weight but consuming about 20 percent of our food energy, has an energy density flow about 150,000 times greater than the sun. And if we include all of the energy consumed outside of our bodies in our global civilization, then many humans today achieve energy density flows millions of times greater than the sun.
4. Electromagnetic Radiation: Electromagnetism governs almost all of the phenomena that we encounter in daily life. Negatively charged electrons are bound by electromagnetic waves into orbitals around positively charged atomic nuclei. Atoms combine into complex molecules through electromagnetic geometries and preferences. All chemistry, and therefore all biology, is governed by electromagnetic forces. The ATP molecules in your cells, the neurons in your brain, the gasoline burning in your car, the food you eat, and all the electronic devices in your life–from the light bulb to the Internet–are electromagnetic.
The entire spectrum of electromagnetic radiation goes from radio waves at one end, through microwave, infrared, visible, ultraviolet, and x-ray to gamma radiation at the other end, but our human eyes have evolved to see only a small range of visible light.
Electromagnetic radiation is central to all of the prosthetic “seeing” devices of science and technology — from radio telescopes to electron microscopes. The tools by which we see, hear, touch, taste, smell, and understand the universe of the very small and the very big, the very hot and the very cold, the very fast and the very slow, all utilize the electromagnetic effect in their technologies of perception. The spectrum of electromagnetic radiation is the fourth axis in the Great Matrix of Being.
Image: Electromagnetic Spectrum Wiki Media
5. Emergent Complexity: Here we need to appeal to informed intuition and induction, rather than some discreet, measurable qualia in nature.
The epic narrative of Big History typically orients around eight thresholds of emergent complexity. For instance, the creation of the heavy elements in the stellar foundries from which we derive the elements of the periodic table was a threshold of emergent complexity necessary for complex chemistry to later evolve. When complex chemistry catalyzed life, we saw again something new and different. And when the evolution of plants and animals gave rise to species with a central nervous system, complex brains, oppositional thumbs, vocal chords, language, tool-making, and collective learning, something new emerged again in the universe, at least on one small planet.
It is important to emphasize that emergent complexity requires lower levels of complexity to exist and function. Higher orders of complexity are built bottom-up, though emergent properties cannot be fully explained from below. With thresholds of emergent complexity, the Matrix is not simply a coordinate system of reality, but now also an epic narrative of becoming.
Image: Big History Project Timeline with Thresholds of Emergent Complexity on Top.
The four dimensions in the Great Matrix of Being give us five ways of measuring reality — by time, by scale, by energy density flow, by the electromagnetic spectrum, and by thresholds of emergent complexity. All phenomena can be located within this Matrix.
But we might postulate another axis in the Matrix: a hierarchy of consciousness. The brain-mind is an emergent phenomena and potentially scalable. A roundworm in a neuroscience lab might have only a few hundred nerve cells, while a human brain has hundreds of billions of nerve cells. Surely, there are objective differences in brain-mind complexity throughout the animal kingdom. Counting nerve cells alone, however, does not really give us an adequate measure of brain-minds because brain-minds require bodies and metabolism, vocal chords and oppositional thumbs, and an enriching social and natural environment, in order to realize their potentials. Perhaps someday we may have a robust measure of consciousness that will allow us to compare dogs with cuttlefish, elephants with birds, and smart phones with smart people.
What is important to note about the Matrix is that humans are not at the top of the hierarchies, but somewhere in the middle. Complexity thrives when it is not too hot and not too cold, not too big and not too small. Different entities have different Goldilocks niches within the Matrix. The human niche is particularly favored in the Matrix for the time being–each of us a nexus of causal relationships (physical, biological, social, economic, psychological, mental), realizing extraordinary energy density flows, intensities of experience, and accelerating transformations in the modern period.
In our drive toward specialization and division of labors, we rarely reflect on these natural hierarchies and what they might mean for our understanding of science, self, and the sacred. Any concept of God adequate for modern science, for instance, must also be reconstructed in light of the Great Matrix of Being. An anthropomorphic monarch sitting on heavenly thrones no longer make sense.
“We exist in a bizarre combination of Stone Age emotions, medieval beliefs, and god-like technology,” observed E.O. Wilson. To understand this schizophrenic state of affairs and transform it into something more wholesome, we need to understand how the Matrix actually works on different scales and perspectives. We need to see the emergent complexity of chemistry and cell biology. We need to understand the ubiquity of electromagnetism. We need to take account of the energy that flows through our daily lives. It is by consciously doing so that we extend our own being to the furthest edges of the universe and realize our fullest potential.
The bio-social-physical You and Me are never outside the Matrix, but in this scientific and philosophical exercise we seem to stand away, looking down on the Matrix from above. So far as we know, no other entity in the universe has achieved this capacity, and it is in this domain that humans are no longer middling creatures of the Matrix. Our self-transcendence, realized especially through the progress in science, is a super and completely natural emergent phenomena. We come to understand the Matrix from the inside out, though the Matrix knows nothing of us.
This article was originally published on Huffington Post Religion on 2/26/2013