Big History

Brian Swimme’s “short version” of Big History:

“It’s really simple. here’s the whole story in one line. This is the greatest discovery of the scientific enterprise: You take hydrogen gas, you leave it alone, and it turns into rosebushes, giraffes, and humans.”

Food for thought!!

At this time in history, when consciousness finds itself in a race against catastrophe, it is imperative that humankind takes a massive stride of soul into a new story, a new way of seeing not just ourselves but the universe in which we are embedded.  We need to begin to experience ourselves as something infinitely grander than a mere mammalian biped occupying a miniscule corner of the cosmos. We also need to see the cosmos itself as something infinitely grander than the inert machine like entity bequeathed to us by Newtonian science.  Our new story sees us as nothing less than the evolving consciousness of a living numinous whole.

It is most important to understand that the universe we are reflecting upon is very far removed from the spiritually arid one of conventional science.   It is not being seen as an accidental conglomeration of inert matter hurtling through space and time. Our new story honors our universe as a divine, sacred, ineffable and quintessentially mysterious reality.  We are a mode of that awesome reality. Our destiny through the evolution of consciousness is to house its magnificence, to bring forth its beauty. Indeed we could well be destined to become the mind of the universe. One of the most profound visionaries of this earthquake of the mental plane is mathematician and cosmologist Brian Swimme. In his inspiring  telling of our new story he speaks of three great macrophase transitions:


 Man is evolution becoming conscious of itself.

                                                                                    Julian Huxley

In his telling the story of evolution as science now understands it, Swimme conveys a sense of an unfolding of possibilities as though it was all a delightful Divine dance of energy. The dance began with the “Big Bang” or what Swimme refers to as  “the primordial fireball” ( “Think in terms of  a ‘bang’”  he comments, “and you think of shrapnel and it is not like that at all !”)   In the early steps, there was light.  Photons dominated our evolutionary destiny. Matter was there but only as a passenger, “specks of dust in the midst of a tornado of light”.  After 300,000 years however the universe experienced what Swimme refers to as its first macrophase transformation – matter came into its own. It starts organizing itself forming helium and hydrogen atoms. These give rise to the stars and galaxies and eventually, four billion years ago, to the planet Earth.

On the Earth, matter organizes itself into the lithosphere, the atmosphere and the hydrosphere. The intereactions of these determine the evolutionary dynamics of the planet for the next 2 billion years.  In that time a living cell pops up. At first like, matter in the early universe, it seems to be only there for the ride- an accidental, innocuous epiphenomenon.  It is extremely fragile. If it is too hot it dies if its too cold it dies.  Eventually however, it is powerful enough to alter the atmosphere by bringing significant amounts of oxygen into it which in turn throws the Earth into a huge ice age.  What was fragile and insignificant has become a power on a par with the atmosphere and lithosphere and hydrosphere. The biosphere emerged as the second great macrophase transformation in the evolutionary dynamics of our universe.

Four million years ago a primate stands up.  The early hominid Australopithecus emerges- “a four foot hairy guy doing what he has to do to survive”.  In terms of the evolutionary dynamics of the planet he is a totally insignificant creature. He is there for the ride. We now live in the time of the third great macrophase transition however. That hominid presence in the form of Homo Sapiens has become fundamental to the evolutionary dynamics of the planet alongside the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere. There is not a single species on the planet at this time that is not affected in some way by humans. There is scarcely a single atom that is not in some way affected by us. Our impact on the lithosphere, atmosphere and biosphere is so dramatic that we are now threatening the entire life support system of the planet.

In Darwin’s time, the primary shaping force of life was natural selection. This is no longer the case. Humans are now the primary shaping force. Darwinian theory only applied up until the 20th century. This is an astounding fact to get into our consciousness. We are the third great macrophase transformation. Mind, consciousness, has come into its own in human form.  The responsibility of that, once we grasp it is awesome indeed.

Unfortunately at this early stage of its evolution, consciousness is far from adequate for that responsibility. Homo Sapiens has great difficulty in even acknowledging that it has a serious survival problem on its hands.  Our capacity for denial on this issue is very much a part of the problem.  Our mind is a primate mind. It is geared to a primate agenda, primarily concerned with the survival of its own genes in the form of the local group. In our emotional bonding, for example, we focus on parents and offspring and siblings. That primate mind is also geared to its own survival in its consumption of natural resources. In its transit across the globe Homo Sapiens left in its wake untold species destruction, including the total extinction of the magnificant megafauna such as the Woolly mammoth and saber -toothed tiger. (Our precise role in this extinction remains controversial but it is known that we herded them over cliffs in our hunting exploits)  In our settling down period (known as the Neolithic revolution around 10,000 years ago) we greatly expanded our numbers with irrigation strategies, and deforestation for the cultivation of crops.

There has been no restraint built into this process of destruction and consumption. There was no need for it. As Swimme puts it  “There was never any sense of ‘enough’ built into our DNA”.  Our long habituated unrestrained greed for natural resources is now matched by the destructive power of the machinery used to deliver them to us.

Our minds have been shaped by natural selection over hundreds of thousands of years to give us advantages as one species among many. We developed brilliant strategies in that regard which is why we have become so powerful. However, as strategies for the survival of the whole they are ruinous and it is the whole of life that we are now impacting upon.

Scientist agree that humankind is the greatest disaster to hit the planet in 65 million years (the time of the demise of the dinosaurs).  The news that will not go away is that we are bringing to an end a whole geological era, that of the Cainozoic.(2) Quite an achievement.  Offering a little light relief on this heavy topic, Swimme surmises that in years to come, hominids will be reflecting on our time and comment that it was the time when “a strange species known as the ‘American consumer’ managed to knock out the Cainozoic”

A graphic way of getting a handle on the exponential acceleration of our macrophase power is to imagine filming the planet from outer space over the last 10000 years and then speed the film up to play for ten minutes (one minute per 1000 years). Nothing much would happen for seven and a half minutes. Changes after that would be gradual and scarcely significant but in the last two and a half seconds (since 1950) it would look as though a storm of locusts had descended upon the planet. Swimme                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      brilliantly sums up our current crisis by saying that we now have macrophase power but are endeavoring to organize it in terms of a microphase mind.  That microphase mind is our localized, primate mind.  It has served us well but our challenge now is to transcend it and develop and sustain a consciousness more appropriate to our macrophase power.  In other words we have to evolve a macrophase mind and  macrophase wisdom. This will be the largest stride of soul folk ever took. I will share Swimmes reflections on it in my next blog.