- Big History and the Future of Humanity
In his new book, Big History and the Future of Humanity, Fred Spier tells us straight away the cultural and intellectual context that influenced his perspective on the writing of history. As a teenager he was deeply influenced by the Apollo moon missions and the "Spaceship Earth" perspective that flowed from those seminal events. As the "Earthrise" photos and the discoveries of those missions unfolded throughout the scientific community, they also began to shape or reshape the humanities and social sciences, including the development of what Spier and others now refer to as big history. This new subdiscipline of world history is slowly but steadily expanding in colleges and universities across the world.
Spier, who is trained as an anthropologist, joined by a score of other scholars from various disciplines in the sciences and humanities around the world, has been teaching big history for almost twenty years. Big history takes the story of humanity beyond our world and places it within a universal context. In his 1996 monograph, The Structure of Big History, Spier begins to identify the parameters and timeline of what this new subdiscipline might look like. Now, in his new book, he takes things a step further and lays the theoretical foundation for this new subdiscipline. From his Spaceship Earth vantage point, Spier's big history is "the approach to history that places human history within the context of cosmic history, from the beginning of the universe up until [End Page 147] life on earth today" (p. 1). For Spier, universal history is determined by the continual intersection of matter and energy over time, and as this process unfolds the universe and life itself becomes increasingly complex, so complex that eventually entropy sets in. As Spier points out, entropy is the essence of the second law of thermodynamics and the place where all of humanity is headed. Although Spier and many other scholars think we are on the path to decay, he also believes we may be able to mitigate or slow down our eventual demise. His book is essentially about how the universe unfolded, how life forms developed, and how increasing complexity challenges us.
More than half of the book synthesizes the literature of astronomy, astrophysics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, and other hard sciences that have some bearing on the history of the universe prior to the arrival of Homo sapiens. With help from these disciplines he summarizes the story of the Big Bang and the creation of the universe, the emergence of our solar system, and the development of complex forms of life and the "Goldilocks" circumstances that were and are required to sustain life in its many forms. As Spier unfolds this story, he lucidly explains how these life-supporting Goldilocks circumstances were created, by elaborating upon the Gaia hypothesis, developed in the 1980s by the British scientist James Lovelock. This hypothesis holds that the planet Earth, operating as a system, has created the circumstances for the survival of life and it continues to develop various biofeedback mechanisms to sustain and enhance life to ensure its survival. His account in these chapters is developed and compelling, although lacking in sufficient visual supports.
More than halfway through the book, Spier finally arrives at early hominids and the emergence of Homo sapiens in what we usually call prehistory. His standard account reviews early hominids in Africa, the agricultural revolution, the emergence of cities and written history. He then sweeps through the last few thousand years, gets us to the modern period, and organizes it within the framework of globalization and its three different phases: the commercial revolution, the industrial revolution, and the communications revolution. And, finally he takes us to the complicated humanity of the twenty-first century and the increasing and precarious complexity of that which has been wrought in the modern period.
In the last chapter, "Facing the Future," Spier tells us what all of this means. He warns us that we have crafted very complicated societies that have become so...