Origin Stories

Origin stories have preserved and transmitted the cultural heritage of peoples for millennia. To show our appreciation, today, we digitize them … and then we forget them.
(A woman standing and telling a story, while the audience sits around her. Cairo, 1911. Original source: Douglas Sladen; CC-BY-2.5)

David Christian, the main exponent of “Big History”, can tell an “origin story” of the Universe with mere eight thresholds based on a single criterion. This criterion comes from Physics, not History: it is called complexity.

According to the second law of thermodynamics, the universe tends to increase its entropy — the degree of disorder of a system — until everything turns into an absolute chaos of particles and shapeless energy. That’s where the relevance of complexity lies: in theory, the level of structuring in the universe — its order — should decrease until all structures dissolve away. But we see it increase instead! The problem is that order demands energy and entails fragility. Just think about how we order the environment and observe its consequences, and you will understand what it means to go against entropy.

The eight thresholds of increasing complexity are:

  1. Big Bang: the origin of something out of nothing;
  2. Stars: giant clusters of particles form out of chaos and produce their own energy;
  3. New chemical elements: stars manufacture all the elements of the periodic table inside them, and when they die as supernova, they disperse them throughout the universe;
  4. Planets and solar systems: molecules formed by the new atoms unite to form moons, planets and solar systems;
  5. Life: certain planets like Earth provide the right conditions for molecules to become living cells;
  6. Man: cells evolve to generate ever more complex multicelular organisms until the human being arises and with it the capacity for collective learning;
  7. Agriculture: new technologies allow surplus production that will generate a cascade of innovations in the direction of increasingly advanced civilizations;
  8. Industrial Revolution: the revolution that begins with the burning of fossil fuels generates such an acceleration that man starts to completely dominate the planet.

Simplifying 13.8 billion years into just eight thresholds leaves out much more than it puts in. Yet the possibility of having a “little story of our great history” in the palm of our hand, which we can tell our children in the peace of our homes, is far more important than it seems at first glance: perhaps this origin story is the only thing we all have in common.

David Christian and his peers are fascinated by the idea of ​​a modern origin story that shows where we came from and who we are, and help us to understand where we are going. They argue that origin stories have been used for millennia to keep alive the cultural heritages of peoples, perhaps even of the human species itself since dwelling in caves.

Today, paradoxically, when we have so much information about our past and our universe, we are so focused on the here and now that we hardly know the history of our parents, let alone that of our race or our planet. It is no wonder that when we are alone, without typing in social networks or semi-entertained in trivial conversations, silence displeases us – it makes us seek something within ourselves, and we realize that there is almost nothing there.

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