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Figure 1: Epochs in Big History (Chaisson)
Big History (also 'universal history') uses a multidisciplinary approach to examine history from the beginning of time to the present. Events are ranked according to a narrative that includes subsequent epochs. Epochs are based on what is observed at a certain moment, either in the universe at large or on a specific planet. This page eplores the ranking of phenomena and processes in Big History and shows how the operator theory can contribute to Big History.

The following paper offers more information:
General laws and centripetal science.
Jagers op Akkerhuis G.A.J.M. (2014). European Review 22: 113-144

Big history and the use of epochs

Big History is classically organised as a sequence of epochs. A much used example is presented in Figure 1 (Chaisson). This example includes particles (early universe), groups of celestial bodies (galaxies), individual celestial bodies (e.g. stellar and planetary epoch), chemistry on planets (chemical epoch), the presence of organisms (biological epoch) and the presence of intelligent beings (cultural epoch). This classification is based on major 'phase shifts' in the universe. As we will show, one risks to rank different kinds of entities.

What entities mark the start of an epoch?

Epochs start with the first occurrence of a new type of entity. In the ranking of figure 1 certain epochs start with the appearance of new particles, including the fundamental particle epoch (particles) and the chemical epoch (molecules). Another epochs start with the appearance of organisms, e.g. the biological epoch. Still other epochs are linked to the appearance of large systems, such as the galactic epoch, the stellar epoch and the planetary epoch. Finally, the cultural epoch and the future epoch are based on abstract entities. Apparently, the criteria for choosing elements that define epochs vary. In another part of this website, a similar situation was encountered when discussing the classical approach to system hierarchy. Here too, various ranking rules and system types have bee mixed in historical approaches. As an alternative approach, we showed how the application of three dimensions for organisation from the operator theory: 'upward', 'outward' and 'inward' can solve problems. The upward dimension allowed the recognition of a stringent ranking of particles and organisms (which generically were called 'operators'). We propose now, that in the same way as the ranking along the upward dimension offered an innovative hierarchy for certain kinds of systems, it also offers a second way of ranking the epochs in Big History.

Epochs based on a complexity ladder from particles to organisms

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Figure 2: Using levels of complexity for delineating epochs. Operators are ranked according to the operator hierarchy. Celestial bodies are ranked according to the highest operator level that is present in the system.
The operator theory suggests that every time that anywhere in the universe a new type of operator is formed, this signalls a new epoch. If one accepts this simple logic, the complexity 'ladder' of the operator hierarchy can be used for organising the epochs in Big History. According to the operator hierarchy, Big History thus starts with a fundamental-particle epoch, and continues with epochs for hadrons, atoms, molecules, bacterial cells, endosymbiontic cells, etc. Each of these epochs is, of course, linked to co-occurring large scale events, such as galaxy formation, stellar formation, planitary habitats, society, etc. (as is indicated in Figure 2). We compare aspects of the classical ranking of Big History with the currently proposed method in the below sections on 'the relevance of large systems' and 'the ranking of large systems'.

Emergent subsets

The universe can be viewed as consisting of one large set (the universe), with an emergent subset of hadrons being formed from (or 'within') this set, with an emergent subset of atoms being formed from that subset, etc. (Figure 2). Even though the next level elements generally consist of preceding level elements, the properties of the higher level elements make them more than just 'part of' or a 'subset' of the former set. As any next level systems shows properties that did not exist before, these systems can also be viewed as 'supersets'. For example, common electron shells (the covalent bonding that is typical for molecules) did not exist in a world full of single atoms. Likewise, attached cells with plasma connections (the hallmark of multicellularity) did not exist in the epoch of the unicellulars.

Place and time

The universe is large. This implies that new operators may form independently in different parts of the expanding universe. For example cells may form on different planets in different parts of the universe and at different moments. In principle, the epoch of the cells start with the appearence of the first cell in the universe. Of course, from the perspective of our human existence on earth, a timeline depends on what is known to us, invoving planetary information and astronomical observations from distant galaxies.

The relevance of large systems

Those whow are used to the classical ranking of Big History may now protest that a strict focus on the operators disregards the role of the galaxies, the stars and the planets. However, we do not aim at creating a conflic on this matter. It speaks for itself that the large systems provide the conditions that scaffold the selforganisation of the operators. For example, a planet has to cool down before it can offer the right chemical conditions for cells to take shape. In turn, the presence of higher level entities may affect the conditions of the large systems. For example, the atmosphere of the earth lacked oxygen until the bluegreen algae caused a major chemical change by producing oxygen as a waste product of photosynthesis. This shows that both the operators (the particles and the organisms) and the large systems are important for Big History as a process.

The ranking of large systems

But how does the fact that large systems are important assist in attempts to organise their types? How can one rank large systems? Is it possible to use size, or formation history? Of course, galaxies are big and start their lives as clouds of hydrogen and helium. But as a type (aggregates of gasses) they would be similar to small aggregates of gas. Later the aggregation of gass molecules initiates the formation of black holes, stars, planets, comets, debris, dust, new gasses, etc. Except for an incidental stellar explosion, followed by the formation of a lot of debris and, potentially, second or later generation stars, this is it. There seem to be no proper options for a stringent ranking. Yet, if one looks at a planet with plants, this looks green. And on a planet with intelligent life, one may observe a complex pattern of lighted areas during the night. These examples indicate that the presence of the highest level/type of operator is linked to the processes in large systems. Accordingly, one can recognize celestial bodies where molecular chemistry is the highest level (e.g. a lifeless planet or moon, a comet, etc.). Next one can recognize large systems where bacterial life is the highest level (e.g. the primitive earth). And then, large systems may harbor bacteria and endosymbionts, or bacteria, endodymbionts and multicellulars, or even bacteria, endosymbionts, multicellulars and neural network organisms. In this way, on can rank celestial bodies according to the highest level operators in their system.

emergence_downward_effects.jpgTop-down effects

As soon as a higer level operators exists, this has influence on the lower levels. For example, long DNA strands would never have been formed in nature without cells. The same holds for a piece of metal, like a simple key for your car. Or for agricultural crops. All these would never have taken shape without the engineers that designed it. The latter also applies to computers. This demonstrates that both the set of operators and the set of the interaction systems gain new elements under the influence of higher level operators. In other words, the formation of systems shows a bottom-up component as well as a top-down component.

Figure 3: System types associated with different succession stages of the universe. Each new operator type adds a box both to the operators (lower panel) and to the interaction systems (upper panel), the old-level boxes being pushed outward at each step. From left to right, subsequent columns indicate all system types, both operators (bottom) and interaction systems (top), which potentially exist during the following succession stages of the universe. Abbreviations: S = superstring stage, H = hadron stage, A = atom stage, mA= multi-atom stage, C = prokaryote cell stage, eC = eukaryote cell stage, mC = multicellular organism stage (including in this case both prokaryote and eukaryote multicellulars) and M =memon stage. The coding I(X-Y) indicates all possible interaction systems containing type X as the highest-level operator in a succession stage of the universe that contains Y as its highest-level operator. For example, the coding I(eC-M),covers all possible interaction systems that show eukaryote cells as the highest level elements in a universe in which memons exists. For the operators the coding X(Y) is used to indicate all possible operators of type X in a stage of the universe that contains Y as its highest-level operator.