Rising complexity: how we got from the Big Bang to the human brain

One question has always perplexed me: how did we get to where we are today – with an intelligent species roaming around a tiny planet, exploiting its natural surroundings while continuously in conflict with itself – from the Big Bang more than 13 billion years ago.

In a previous post, I speculated that it was possible to come up with a grand unifying theory to bridge together the natural sciences with the social sciences. I have reason to believe there is one field of enquiry which could lead us to such a theory of everything: Big History.

Combining the forces of physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology and the social sciences, the Big History Project provides a holistic account of cosmic evolution that explains how the universe went from being ‘disordered’ – that is, containing no discernible order – to containing islands of continuously-rising order. It does this without coming into conflict with the law of entropy, relative to which the idea of order arising from disorder sounds (almost) impossible.

Big History’s explanation: rising complexity.

Ever since energy was created out of the Big Bang, energy flows and matter have been directed, both by chance and by general processes in the evolution of the cosmos, to create physical systems with ever-increasing functionality and purpose; in other words, increasing order.

This overall process – which has turned a random soup of cosmic radiation into a universe containing whole, separate regimes of ordered matter (think galaxies, stars, planets, proteins, molecules, atoms, sub-atomic particles, etcetera) – Big Historians refer to as ‘rising complexity’. It didn’t happen overnight, but over billions of years of physical and chemical stratification.

Cosmochemical_flow

From the chemical elements synthesised in stars, up to planet formation and life appearance, the chemical evolution of the cosmos has followed the trend of rising complexity. Credit: Marco Polo-R/ESA.

One cosmologist, Eric Chaisson, has even come up with a quantitative way to measure this ‘rising complexity’, a metric called the ‘energy rate density‘ (the energy flow per second and per gram of material found in a given system). The idea behind the metric is, the greater the number of dynamical energy flows a system has compacted into a smaller mass, the more work that particular thing can produce (generally speaking).

This metric explains why the human brain – or human society writ large – can achieve more work than a star. The star may be orders of magnitude larger than a human brain, but the energy flowing through the mass of a brain is, by comparison of size, orders of magnitude greater than that of its stellar counterpart. But more on that in later posts.

So what does this have to do with the humanities?

Well, I will endeavour to show that rising complexity is the common thread underpinning phenomena as seemingly diverse as collective human behaviour (economics, politics, culture, etcetera), individual human psychology, biological evolution and stellar evolution. Demonstrating this, I will then make a case that it is through the lens of rising complexity that we can best analyse ourselves, our politics and our social structures.

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