The book offers an easy to read and relatively short history of our entire past, while introducing a simple original model
all of history, including human history.
This model works as follows: all forms of complexity, including ourselves, consist of
matter, while they have needed an energy flow to emerge. Some more complex forms also require matter and energy flows to keep going.
Stars, for instance, do so by converting their supply of hydrogen into helium, while a sufficiently large rocky planet like Earth
releases geothermal energy resulting from the fission of large chemical elements, thus driving plate tectonics.
Life forms have
evolved more sophisticated forms of harvesting matter and energy, namely by actively gathering them from their environments. This
is also what humans have been doing during most of their history.
While doing so, as a result of the Second Law of Thermodynamics
all these forms of complexity, including ourselves, inevitably produce chaos, or waste, known as entropy. Because over time the universe
has become very large, cold, and mostly empty, it can function as a trash can for getting rid of this entropy in the form of low level
This means that humans can only continue to exist on the surface of our home planet, because our existence is positioned
very close to the rest of the universe, where we can dump most of our entropy, while the sun and geothermal energy provide our energy
Furthermore, all forms of complexity have their own boundary conditions, known as Goldilocks circumstances, only within
which they can exist. The sun, for instance, needs a lot of empty and cold universe around it to dump its radiation. Without it, our
central star would explode very soon. Humans, a form of greater complexity, need more refined Goldilocks circumstances, which can
only be found on Earth’s surface (or imitations of it).
This underlying model, elaborated in the book, appears applicable to
all of history. Yet it is not meant to replace other established theories. In fact, every level of complexity requires its own relatively
autonomous theory, ranging from big bang cosmology, plate tectonics, the theory of biological evolution, to human history. All of
these theories are work in progress, while some theories, such as a comprehensive theory of the biosphere, still appear to be lacking.
looking at all of history in this way, the book provides a much better understanding of how and why things have gone the way they
did, while considering all of history in as much detail as possible.
The book is organized along the following lines:
first two chapters, general aspects of big history are discussed.
In chapters 3 to 7 an overview of big history is presented
using the proposed model, while chapter 8 focuses on what the future may bring.
Within the chapters, a wide range of topics is
discussed in 23 new text boxes, varying from the 'Origin of Cosmic World Views' to 'How Violent Have Humans Been?'
Chapter 1 opens with a discussion of the need to re-examine our daily concepts of past and present while examining the history
of the universe. This is followed by a detailed history of big history.
Chapter 2 examines the model used to summarize and analyze
. Types of complexity, the importance of matter and energy flows, and sufficiently good (Goldilocks) circumstances required
for the existence of complexity are all discussed. In all these cases, the price of greater complexity has inevitably entailed more
disorder somewhere else.
This is as much applicable to you and me as to the universe as a whole. In fact, our lives can
be described as a large and ceaseless struggle to make sure that both our complexity and the complexity of the people we care about
survive in reasonable well-being. This is, in my view, the bottom line of human intentions in human history.
Chapter 3 looks
at the history of the universe, from the big bang to the emergence and development of galaxies and stars, including the formation
of heavier chemical elements that are required for the emergence of further complexity.
Chapter 4 focuses on the emergence of
our solar system, most notably Earth compared with its neighboring planets Mars and Venus. The chapter also includes a discussion
of the origin of life on our planet.
Chapter 5 offers an overview of the history of our planet and life over the past 4.5 billion
Chapter 6 concentrates on early human history, from the emergence of Australopithecines on the East African savannas to
the rise of anatomically modern humans in Africa and their subsequent migration all around the globe.
Chapter 7 tells the story
of the last 10,000 years of human history within its ecological context, from the rise of agriculture to our current information societies.
8 examines scenarios of the future at all scales using the model proposed in the book. It focuses on human history, most notably on
diminishing natural resources, and on what needs to be done to move to more sustainable life ways if we want to maintain our complexity
as a human species.