Thursday, May 21, 2015

We Need A Modern Origin Story: A Big History

Link to: Edge #441 - A Conversation With David Christian
In modern science, and I include the humanities here, science in a German sense of science—rigorous scholarship across all domains—in modern science we've gotten used to the idea that science doesn't offer meaning in the way that institutional religions did in the past. I'm increasingly thinking that this idea that modernity puts us in a world without meaning—philosophers have banged on about this for a century-and-a-half—may be completely wrong. We may be living in an intellectual building site, where a new story is being constructed. It's vastly more powerful than the previous stories because it's the first one that is global. It's not anchored in a particular culture or a particular society. This is an origin story that works for humans in Beijing as well as in Buenos Aires. 
It's a global origin story, and it sums over vastly more information than any early origin story. This is very, very powerful stuff. It's full of meaning. We're now at the point where, across so many domains, the amount of information, of good, rigorous ideas, is so rich that we can tease out that story.
That is the key to what makes us different. You can ask what it is that allows us not to be locked within a limited, metabolic repertoire, but to keep expanding that repertoire. There may be a very simple answer. One should expect a simple answer because, on Paleontological time scales, this happens in an eye blink. It happens so fast that arguments that say, well, humans are different because of this, and this, and this, and this, and this, they don't work. There's got to be one thing that, like a key, unlocks a door. I suspect it's linguistic.                

Chimps, we know have language. We know they can communicate ideas. We know that chimp mothers can teach their young to use sticks to extract termites from mounds. We also know that information does not seem to accumulate generation by generation in other species. If it did, we would see evidence of it. We would see a species that was gradually widening its niche. We don't see that. Humans have crossed a linguistic threshold. It's as if suddenly human language is more efficient. It's crossed a threshold beyond which information accumulates faster than it's lost. That means something profound. It means we're the first species in 4 billion years in which information accumulates across generations, through the cultural mechanism, not through the genetic mechanism. The cultural mechanism, of course, is orders of magnitude faster than the genetic mechanism.                

Here, you have a species where information can accumulate across generations. That's it. That is the foundation for explaining everything that makes us different. If you add in that more information for a living organism gives you more control over resources and energy flows, then what you're doing is watching a species whose control over the energy flowing through the biosphere increases, and increases at an exponential rate. As information accumulates, some of that information speeds up the process of the accumulation of information. Printing is an obvious example, or the Internet. And basically that's it.                 

Related recent post: Davos 2015 - How Did We Get Here? Big History 101

Related link: Big History Project

Related book: Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History