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The Scientific World Journal
Volume 2014 (2014), Article ID 384912, 41 pages
Review Article

The Natural Science Underlying Big History

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

Received 16 February 2014; Revised 30 April 2014; Accepted 1 May 2014; Published 17 June 2014

Academic Editor: Lukas Kratochvil

Copyright © 2014 Eric J. Chaisson. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Nature’s many varied complex systems—including galaxies, stars, planets, life, and society—are islands of order within the increasingly disordered Universe. All organized systems are subject to physical, biological, or cultural evolution, which together comprise the grander interdisciplinary subject of cosmic evolution. A wealth of observational data supports the hypothesis that increasingly complex systems evolve unceasingly, uncaringly, and unpredictably from big bang to humankind. These are global history greatly extended, big history with a scientific basis, and natural history broadly portrayed across ∼14 billion years of time. Human beings and our cultural inventions are not special, unique, or apart from Nature; rather, we are an integral part of a universal evolutionary process connecting all such complex systems throughout space and time. Such evolution writ large has significant potential to unify the natural sciences into a holistic understanding of who we are and whence we came. No new science (beyond frontier, nonequilibrium thermodynamics) is needed to describe cosmic evolution’s major milestones at a deep and empirical level. Quantitative models and experimental tests imply that a remarkable simplicity underlies the emergence and growth of complexity for a wide spectrum of known and diverse systems. Energy is a principal facilitator of the rising complexity of ordered systems within the expanding Universe; energy flows are as central to life and society as they are to stars and galaxies. In particular, energy rate density—contrasting with information content or entropy production—is an objective metric suitable to gauge relative degrees of complexity among a hierarchy of widely assorted systems observed throughout the material Universe. Operationally, those systems capable of utilizing optimum amounts of energy tend to survive, and those that cannot are nonrandomly eliminated.