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On Big History and the Five Epochs of Civilization


Big History describes the progress of being in the universe. Being is an entity or object with a certain type of existence. I would identify three such entities: matter, life, and thought. Although all three exist within the same universe, their types of being are quite different.

For the first 10 billion years of cosmic existence, only matter existed. Then with the appearance of living creatures on earth 3.5 billion years ago, we had two types of being: matter and life. Thought, the third type of being, is associated with human intelligence. Although Homo sapiens developed as a species of life 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, it is only within the past 5,000 years or so that thought has become a significant force in the world. And so we have in our time a trinity of beings: matter, life, and thought.

What makes this storytelling difficult is the disparity of magnitudes between astronomical, geological , and biological events and our own. Stories are made to suit human consciousness. They describe events on a level of spatial and temporal magnitude similar to ours. We can relate to other human beings as well as dogs, horses, rivers, trees, etc. We can not relate so well to electrons, microbes, and viruses, on one hand; or to galaxies, stars, and black holes, on the other. Such objects are either too small or too large for us to have meaningful interaction with them.

The larger the size, generally the slower the pace of events will be Conversely, the smaller the size an object is, the faster in time its events tend to be. The life span of bacteria ranges from less than a second to several days. On the other hand, a main-sequence star can take billions of years to convert its hydrogen to helium. Humanity will be long gone before that process ends. Yet, the teller of Big History tries to maintain a uniform perspective as if observing the entire experience from a single vantage point.

In my book, History of the Triple Existence, the stories of matter and life are covered in the first five chapters. Matter is the focus of chapters one and two. Life is the focus of chapters three and four. The element of thought begins to creep into chapter five through humanity’s emerging capacity for spoken language.

It is when we come to civilizations that the picture becomes complicated. Is the story that humanity began to live in cities, or that regional cultures became consolidated in larger territories, or that scattered cultures became aware of each other? Yes, those events were all part of the story; but, again, our focus should be upon the progress of thought. How did it develop during this time?

World history is not about the progress of thought per se. There are intellectual histories and histories of ideas but these are not “history” as it is commonly written. Instead, our standard history is about power struggles between institutions or persons in society. It is about the leaders of institutions. It is about royal dynasties, wars, religious movements, trade practices, business organizations, and whatever else affects people on a large scale.

I find it useful to divide world history - the history of human civilization - into four historical epochs, with a fifth one beginning in our own time. That is the way my book, History of the Triple Existence, is organized.

The first epoch of world history would cover a period of three thousand years or so after the first city states appeared in Egypt and Mesopotamia. This would be an age of political empires.

The second epoch would be an age of universal religions, covering a time from the middle of the first millennium B.C. until the middle of the second millennium A.D.

Then, beginning with the Renaissance, there was an age of commerce and education which lasted until World War I. This period of history was dominated by European conquest, colonization, and culture. We are currently experiencing a reaction to it.

Finally, during the 20th century, there was an age of mass entertainment conveyed by communication technologies such as photography, sound recordings, motion pictures, radio, and television.

The computer age, as yet largely undetermined, is the fifth epoch of civilization.

The history of civilization is about the changing structures of society. With increased size of populations come specialized institutions. Modern society is filled with institutions that once did not exist. It has acquired a pluralistic power structure.

Each epoch is also associated with the emergence of a communication technology. For the first period, it was writing. The ancient Sumerians and Egyptians used writing in an ideographic form. Then, in the first millennium B.C., societies in the southwestern part of Eurasia acquired alphabetic writing. In the middle of the second millennium A.D., Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable type.

With the 19th and 20th centuries came several electronic inventions that spawned the entertainment age. Today we have computer technology giving rise to the Internet.

Notice that the first three technologies all relate to writing. Alphabetic writing and printing are improvements upon the original ideographic script. The last two types of communication technology rely upon electric or electronic machines. Electronic broadcasting sends messages from a creative source to an audience of potentially unlimited size. Computers have interactive capabilities.

Communication technology creates the space within which intelligent discourse can take place. Such discourse is related to the progress of thought. Each technology has innate characteristics that shape thought. They provide a material structure to hold systems of thought together.

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