Friday, February 26, 2016

Correcting the Bible on Slavery

Pointing to the Bible, Marco Rubio has said: "You'll find all the answers in that book."  That's his way of appealing to evangelical Christian voters who believe that a literal reading of the Bible as God's inerrant revelation does indeed give us all the answers.

This has been a powerful tradition in American political life--the belief of many American Christians that we can find the answers to all of our moral, political, scientific, and religious questions through a careful reading of the Bible.  In response to my arguments for "Darwinian natural right," for natural standards of right rooted in our evolved human nature, one of the most common objections has been that morality is impossible without the revelation of a divine moral law in the Bible.  Even some evolutionary theorists have provided some support for this by arguing that the cultural evolution of moral gods--such as the God of the Bible--beginning about 5,000 years ago made it possible for human beings to live in huge communities of people who cooperated with one another because they thought they were being watched by a moral God enforcing His moral law.

But sometimes the Bible does not give clear and indisputable answers to our great moral questions, and thus some moral debates cannot be resolved by the Bible.  The most dramatic example of that in American political history was the debate over slavery leading to the Civil War.  As Mark Noll indicates in his book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, some Christians saw the Bible as proslavery, and others saw it as antislavery.  The text of the Bible was not clearly on one side or the other.  This became a great "theological crisis," because it meant that while Americans had always looked to the Bible as the inerrant moral authority, it failed to resolve the deepest moral and political controversy in American history, and thus the only way to answer the question of what the Bible taught about slavery was to go to war.  And in that war, as Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural, "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."

50 years ago, as a young man growing up in Texas, I struggled with this problem.  Like Rubio, I had been taught by my Southern Baptist ministers that all the answers were to be found in the Bible, and therefore that Baptists should carefully read the Bible.  It was recommended that by reading a few chapters of the Bible every day, starting with Genesis and ending with Revelation, one could read the entire Bible over a year.  I did that for five years.  But I was bothered by some of what I read, particularly the passages that seemed to accept slavery without any condemnation.  When I learned that the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, was founded in 1845 to defend slavery as sanctioned by the Bible against the antislavery arguments of the Northern Baptists, I was deeply troubled by this and by the refusal of American Baptists to confess that this had been a mistake.  Later, in 1995, at the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Convention finally passed a resolution apologizing for its mistake in interpreting the Bible in supporting slavery and racism.  But that resolution says nothing about the many verses in the Bible that speak about slavery as though it is acceptable.

In later years, I studied the American debate over the Bible's handling of slavery, which became part of my wider study of the Darwinian evolution of a moral sense condemning slavery.  Much of my thinking on this went into Chapter 7 of Darwinian Natural Right.  Now I am finally ready to draw some conclusions about the Biblical teaching on slavery.

I have come to two conclusions.  First, if one looks at the verses in the Bible that specifically mention slavery, one can see that slavery is accepted and never condemned as wrong.  Second, if one wants to correct this Biblical endorsement of slavery by finding a way to read the Bible as antislavery, then one must appeal to some general moral principles of Biblical teaching--such as the Golden Rule, for example--that conform to our natural moral sense for condemning slavery.

In the antebellum writing on the Bible and slavery, people recognized this point.  For example, James De Bow, writing on "Slavery and the Bible" for the September 1850 issue of De Bow's Review, explained:
"The anti-slavery party maintain, that the Bible teaches nothing directly upon the subject, but, that, in holding slaves, we are guilty of a moral wrong.  This mode of reasoning would be perfectly fair, if the Bible really taught nothing directly upon the subject of slavery: but when that book applies the principles it lays down to the particular subject in controversy, we must take the application to be correct.  We think we can show, that the Bible teaches clearly and conclusively that the holding of slaves is right; and if so, no deduction from general principles can make it wrong, if that book is true."
If one is looking for the verses that specifically mention slavery, the King James translation (favored by American Evangelicals) is confusing because the word "slave" appears only twice.  In Jeremiah 2:14, the word "slave" appears in the translation, although there is no Hebrew word for it in this verse.  In Revelation 18:13, "slave" translates the Greek word doulos, which really is the most common Greek word for "slave."  In all of the other Biblical verses that seem to refer to slaves, the King James translation most often uses the word "servant," and sometimes other words such as "manservant," "maidservant," "bondman," or "bondmaid." 

So some interpreters who wanted to deny that the Bible was endorsing slavery could argue that "servants" were not really "slaves," but rather hired servants.  But this is not a credible interpretation.  In the King James translation, the word "servant" appears in the Old Testament most often as a translation of the Hebrew word ebed, which denotes "bondage"; and in the New Testament, "servant" most often translates the Greek word doulos.  Moreover, the Bible distinguishes between "hired servants" and "bond servants," and the "bond servants" were those who had been bought with money and held as the property of the master (see, for example, Genesis 17:12, Leviticus 25:44-46, Exodus 21:20-21, 26-32).

There are places in the Bible where God or His angels have clear opportunities to condemn slavery as wrong, but instead of that, they sanction slavery as right.  One example is when Abraham allows Sarah to beat her bondwoman Hagar, and Hagar runs away.  Hagar meets an angel of the Lord.  Instead of helping her to escape, the angel tells her: "Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands" (Genesis 16:9).

Christians might think that even if the Old Testament supports slavery, then surely the New Testament condemns it as a violation of Christian love.  But it is startling that while Jesus overruled many of the regulations of the Old Testament--such as those allowing for polygamy and divorce--he never said anything against slavery.  Furthermore, Paul and Peter often tell slaves to obey their masters and not to run away.  Even when slaves are converted to Christianity, this gives Christian masters no reason to emancipate their Christian slaves. (See 1 Corinthians 7:21; Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22, 4:1; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; 1 Peter 2:18).

Some abolitionists thought they have found a specific condemnation of slavery in the Old Testament's punishment of "man-stealing": "And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death" (Exodus 21:16).  Doesn't this mean that slave traders should be punished with death?  But a few lines later in this same passage, it is said: "And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.  Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money" (Exodus 21:20-21).  So it seems that holding a slave as property does not violate the rule against "man-stealing."  This must be so, because the Hebrews were permitted to hold slaves.

Although a reading of the Bible as antislavery cannot be based on specific Biblical condemnations of slavery as wrong, such a reading can, and has been, justified by appealing to some of the general moral principles of the Bible that are not specifically applied to slavery in the Bible.  The two most common principles employed here are the creation of Adam and Eve in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), which can be read as an affirmation of human equality, and the Golden Rule as stated by Jesus (Matthew 7:12), which can be read as suggesting that enslaving a human being is not treating that human being as one would wish to be treated.  People who say that slavery is good don't honestly believe that, because they never choose the good of it for themselves.  Lincoln and many others have cited this as a Biblical basis for recognizing slavery as wrong.

But as Fred Ross (in Slavery Ordained of God, 1857) and others have pointed out, it's not clear that these general moral principles must be interpreted as condemning slavery.  First, it's not clear that God's creation of human beings in His image means that they are all equal.  Here's the verse: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them" (Genesis 1:27).  Far from creating all men equal, Ross observed, God here created humanity as "male and female," so that they are not equal in body and mind.  God made the woman "out of the man" (Genesis 2:23); and He made "the man the image and glory of God, but the woman for the glory of the man.  For the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man" (1 Corinthians 11:7-9); and he made the woman to be the weaker vessel (1 Peter 3:7).   Moreover, just as wives are to obey their husbands, and children to obey their parents, slaves are to obey their masters (Ephesians 5:22-24, 6:1-5).  Insofar as slaves are inferior in body and mind to their masters, the slaves are naturally better off being ruled by their masters.

Similarly, Ross argued, it's not clear that the Golden Rule requires equality in human social relationships.  If the Golden Rule means that we ought to do unto others as we would have them do unto us if we were in similar circumstances, then we can see that different circumstances justify differences in treatment.  We do not rightly treat children the way we treat adults, because we know that children depend on the care of adults.  Similarly, we do not rightly treat slaves the way we treat masters if slaves are naturally weaker in body and mind in ways that make them dependent on the care of their masters.

And yet both of these arguments fail if one denies Ross's assumption that some human beings are by nature so inferior in body and mind that they are like perpetual children dependent on the care of those superior to them.  Except for those few human beings who might be born so mentally disabled that they are better off being under the lifetime care of others, it's hard to imagine that any group of human beings would be naturally adapted for enslavement.  As members of the same evolved human species, we can recognize the equality of all human beings as possessing a common human nature.  Although human beings are naturally unequal in many respects, they are equal in those minimal emotional and intellectual capacities that sustain a moral sense and thus identify them as members of the human species.  All normal human beings will resist exploitation and demand social cooperation based on reciprocal exchange.  They will be enslaved only when they are held down by brute force.

If this is true, then we can apply the Bible's Golden Rule to condemn slavery as wrong, and thus correct those passages of the Bible that seem to support slavery.  Indeed, that is exactly what most Christians have done: they overlook those Biblical passages that specifically recognize slavery, and they stress the general principles of Biblical morality that show slavery to be unjust exploitation.  Those general principles appeal to our naturally evolved moral sense.  Charles Darwin saw this, in The Descent of Man, when explained how the evolution of the moral sense could lead to Jesus's statement of the Golden Rule as what "lies at the foundation of morality."

Before and during the Civil War, however, American Christians could not agree on this corrected interpretation of the Bible's teaching on slavery.  Answering the question of how to interpret the Bible required recourse to arms.  Or, as Noll said, "it was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant" (50).

When I first read this remark by Noll about Grant and Sherman deciding what the Bible meant, it bothered me a lot.  But as I thought more about it, I began to see that there is a sense in which might really does make right.  Justice is enforced by the natural propensity of human beings to retaliate against oppression and meet force with force.  Slaves had many ways to resist their slavery, including violent resistance and running away.  Southerners were deeply fearful of slave insurrections.  One primary reason for Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was to recruit slaves into fighting in the Union army.  Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, seemed to teach through the example of Uncle Tom that Christian slaves should love their enemies and not fight back; but even she, especially in her novel Dred, seemed to concede that manly honor required violent resistance to oppression.

Some previous posts on this can be found here, here, here, here, here., here., here, here., here, and here.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Human Nature of Genetic Engineering: A Realistic Assessment of CRISPR

For over fifty years, some people have been predicting that someday genetic engineering will radically transform, perhaps even abolish, human nature, and thus lead us to what Francis Fukuyama has called "our posthuman future."  The transhumanist optimists (people like Ray Kurzweil, Gregory Stock, and Nick Bostrom) have welcomed this prospect for transcending the limits of human nature.  The bioconservative pessimists (people like Fukuyama, Leon Kass, and Bill McKibben) have warned against this as biotechnological suicide.

Until recently, the existing technology for manipulating the human genome has not been powerful enough or precise enough to do this.  But now, a new technique seems to offer the prospect that parents might be able for the first time to modify the genetic nature of their offspring to create “designer babies,” and then these genetic changes could be passed on by biological inheritance so that the nature of the human species itself might be fundamentally altered, if not abolished.

And yet, a realistic assessment of the potential for genetic engineering should show us that both the transhumanist optimists and the bioconservative pessimists are mistaken, because they fail to see how genetic engineering will always be so limited in both its technical means and its moral ends, that it cannot change human nature.

The new technology for editing DNA that has stirred excitement and controversy over the past three years is called CRISPR, the acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.”  Some years ago, scientists discovered that the DNA of some microbes had some identical segments of DNA composed of repeated sequences of the same bases, the building blocks of DNA.  These repeated segments were separated by blocks of DNA, called spacers, which had a unique sequence.  Scientists also noticed that these CRISPR sequences were always accompanied by nearby genes called Cas genes (“CRISPR-associated genes”).  Once they saw that the CRISPR spacers looked like the DNA of viruses, scientists could infer that CRISPR was part of the microbe’s adaptive immune system for destroying viruses. 

When viruses invade microbes, many of the microbes die, but those that survive will grab some of the virus’s DNA and insert it into a CRISPR spacer.  The microbe can then use this viral DNA to identify future viral invaders and target them for destruction.  Cas enzymes are guided to viral DNA and then chop it up, so that the virus cannot replicate.  Scientists discovered that they could use this CRISPR-Cas system to enter a cell, snip out any segment of DNA that they targeted, and then have the cell stitch a new gene into the open space.  Moreover, they could do this not only for somatic cells, but also for germ cells (eggs and sperm).  Doing it for germ cells would mean that the genetic changes would be passed down by the biological inheritance of offspring.  Recent research has shown that this can be done with human embryos.  This suggests the possibility that parents could use this technique to genetically enhance their children with genetic propensities for better bodies and better minds, and that this redesign of the human genome could be passed down by inheritance to the next generation.

Properly understood, this should teach us at least three lessons about human evolution—lessons about the Lamarckian character of biological evolution, about the natural sources of technological evolution, and about how evolved human nature limits the power of genetic technology.

First, notice that CRISPR is an adaptive immune system that learns from its experience with the viral enemies of microbes and passes on what it has learned to the descendants of the microbes.  It has been generally assumed that Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s theory of the evolutionary inheritance of acquired traits has been refuted by Darwinian biology.  Actually, Charles Darwin himself accepted Lamarckian evolution as one of the mechanisms of evolutionary change.  And CRISPR shows that Lamarckian inheritance really does occur in nature.  Using CRISPR for the genetic engineering of children could become a form of intentional evolution in which parents use scientific knowledge and technology to direct the evolutionary inheritance of acquired traits for the improvement of human life.

The second lesson here is about the natural sources of the technological evolution of genetic engineering.  We might see genetic engineering as manifesting the modern scientific project, first proposed by Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century, for the human mastery of nature for the relief of the human estate.  We might think that such a conquest of nature requires the human invention of artificial tools.  But notice that CRISPR is not a human invention but something that scientists discovered in nature.  Microbes have been using CRISPR to edit their DNA for millions of years.  Once we understand how this works in nature, we can then use it for genetic engineering.  This confirms Bacon’s observation that “nature to be commanded must be obeyed,” because “all that man can do is to put together or put asunder natural bodies,” and then “the rest is done by nature working within.”  And thus we should see how the power of biotechnology is limited by the potentialities inherent in nature.

That leads us to the third lesson—how evolved human nature limits the power of genetic technology.  A realistic assessment of genetic engineering avoids both the exaggerated hopes of the optimists and the exaggerated fears of the pessimists, because we should see that genetic engineering will always be limited in its technical means and its moral ends.

It will be limited in its technical means, because an individual's traits of personality and intelligence arise in unpredictable ways from a complex interaction of genes, brains, life history, and social environment that is not determined by one or a few genes.  Genetic engineering can possibly eliminate some genetic disorders that are strongly influenced by a few genes.  But the complex traits of the human mind are not genetically determined in any simple way.

For example, proponents of human genetic engineering often say that it will allow parents to increase the innate intelligence of their children by selecting those genes that enhance intelligence.  But while there surely is some genetic contribution to human intelligence, research in behavioral genetics suggests that intelligence arises as much from environmental factors as from genetic propensities.  Moreover, the genetic basis of intelligence depends on so many genes interacting in such complex ways that it will be impossible to control this through changes in one or a few genes. 

Even if we could explain exactly the multiple genetic causes of intelligence, we would still have to explain how these genes influence neural activity and how genetic propensities and neural activity interact with environmental contingencies in the unique life histories of particular human beings.  And all of this would presuppose that we could agree on how to define and measure “intelligence,” even though both scientific research and common-sense experience suggest that there are different kinds of intelligence—for example, analytic intelligence, verbal intelligence, practical intelligence, musical intelligence, and kinesthetic intelligence.  For all of these reasons, we are unlikely to ever succeed in the genetic engineering of intelligence.

Genetic engineering will also be limited in its moral ends, because parents will want to use this technology to improve the chances that their children will be healthy and happy, and thus the parents will be guided by the same natural desires of our evolved human nature that have always motivated parents in the care of their children.

For these reasons, we should welcome genetic engineering as helping us to treat some genetic disorders, but we should not expect that it will ever fundamentally transform human nature.  We should give up both the utopian hopes of the transhumanists and the apocalyptic fears of the bioconservatives.

Some of my previous posts criticizing genetic determinism can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln

Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on February 12, 1809.  Beyond the coincidence of their being born on the same day, there were many points of connection in their lives and thought.

I have written a series of posts on this, some of which can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Is Big History Science or Myth? Or Both?

In 1978, Edward O. Wilson, in On Human Nature, warned that the naturalistic explanation of human nature as a product of natural evolution rather than divine creation created a spiritual dilemma: as products of a purposeless evolutionary process, we have no transcendent purpose or goal around which we can organize our societies, and yet the religious longing for transcendent meaning is part of our evolved human nature.  Wilson thought Friedrich Nietzsche was right in warning that evolutionary science was a deadly truth in denying human life any transcendent meaning, and that human beings would not accept this, because they would rather have the void as purpose than be void of purpose (171).  The dilemma is that human beings cannot live nobly without some religious belief in mythic stories that convey the cosmic purposefulness of human life, and yet modern scientific materialism must deny any such belief.

Wilson's proposal for resolving that dilemma was to appeal to the "mythopoeic drive" of the human mind by turning scientific materialism into a mythology of the "evolutionary epic" as "the best myth we will ever have" (201).  This evolutionary epic will begin with the origin of the Universe in the Big Bang of fourteen billion years ago, as deduced by astronomers and physicists, which is "far more awesome than the first chapter of Genesis or the Ninevite epic of Gilgamesh" (202).  This epic will move forward through the evolution of everything from stars and planets to plants and animals, and finally to the hero of the epic--the human brain as the most complex device we know.

Wilson claimed that although the evolutionary epic's "most sweeping assertions cannot be proved with finality," the scientific method of empirically testing hypotheses and discarding those hypotheses that are falsified can improve our understanding of the evolutionary epic so that it approaches ever closer to some approximation of reality (201).

Is this reasonable?  Or is the very idea of a scientific mythology based on an evolutionary epic incoherent?  Must any myth or story be a human fiction that cannot be fully grounded in empirical science?  Or is it possible to construct a scientific narrative of the evolution of everything that can be supported by empirical scientific research?  Can such a scientific narrative satisfy our religious longings for cosmic meaning?  Or must scientific knowledge and religious belief always be in conflict?

These are the questions that must be raised about the Big History promoted by David Christian, Fred Spier, and others, which is the elaboration of Wilson's proposal for an evolutionary epic.  An engaging presentation of Big History is Christian's TED talk, which is entitled "The History of Our World in 18 Minutes."  Over the past five years, this talk has been viewed almost 6 million times!  The influence of Christian's vision is indicated by the fact that Bill Gates is supporting Christian's "Big History Project," which is promoting the teaching of Big History courses in high schools.

The debate over Big History can be seen in an article by Ian Hesketh--"The Story of Big History" -- and an article by Eric Chaisson--"The Natural Science Underlying Big History"

Christian's TED talk is organized around the question of how the Universe creates ordered complexity without violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that randomness or disorder (entropy) increases everywhere.  His answer is that ordered, complex systems can arise when there is a flow of energy into them from the environment outside the system.  The order of the system does not violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, because the net disorder of the system and its environment always increases.  So, for example, the complex order of life on Earth arises from photosynthesis, by which some of the energy radiated onto the Earth from the Sun is captured by plants to power the processes of life.  He can then narrate the history of the Universe from the Big Bang to humankind as an evolutionary history of increasing complexity powered by the flow of energy into ordered systems.  The complexity of human systems of order depends not just on the flow of energy but also on the uniqueness of human language and networks of communication that allow for collective learning, culminating in the modern global community that constitutes a global brain.

Christian ends his lecture with a vision of the future prompted by pictures of him visiting his grandson Daniel.  Christian explains that he worries about the current threats to human civilization--particularly, nuclear war and global warming--that could disrupt the "Goldilocks conditions" for human life on Earth.  He wants his grandson's generation to study Big History in high school so that they can understand how to meet these challenges to human life on "this beautiful Earth."

Hesketh sees Christian's lecture as a good illustration of the rhetorical trick in all of Big History, in which historians claim to have found an empirical science of history that embraces the entire history of the Universe, but actually what they have done is to use the literary techniques of story-telling to tell "an anthropocentric story of cosmic origins" that has no grounding in empirical science (193).  "Indeed," Hesketh asserts, "like any myth, big history's deep meanings are not inherently derived from empirical observations but from its anthropomorphic projections of an idealized cosmic world" (196).  In fact, Hesketh notes, Christian and the other proponents of Big History have often explicitly identified this cosmic history as "a modern creation myth," and they admit that they are engaging in the sort of mythology dressed up as science that was recommended by Wilson (174, 180-81, 183-86).

The anthropocentric and anthropomorphic character of this myth is evident in the way Christian ends his story of cosmic history with pictures of himself with his grandson: he thus ends with human beings on Earth occupying the center of the Universe as they face the moral challenges of securing the ecological conditions of human life on Earth against the threats coming from nuclear weapons and global climate change. 

Hesketh points out (192-93) that this corresponds to what Christian at the end of Maps of Time predicted for the "near future" of the next hundred years, but then Christian went on in his book to predict the "remote future" of the Universe--the end of life on Earth, the burning out of the Sun, and the Universe becoming "a dark, cold place filled only with black holes and stray subatomic particles that wander light-years apart from each other" (Maps, 486-89).  In his TED lecture, Christian is silent about this dark, cold future of the Universe, because that would have taken away the heroic ending of his story with human beings at the center of the universe on "this beautiful Earth."

Hesketh's fundamental criticism of Big History is conveyed in the two quotations at the head of his article.  Hesketh identifies Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry's The Universe Story as one of the first of the recent Big History texts.  He quotes them as saying: "The goal is not to read a book; the goal is to read the story taking place all around us."  He then follows that with a quotation from Hayden White's Tropics of Discourse: "No one and nothing lives a story."  Swimme and Berry present themselves not as authors of the "universe story" they tell but as discoverers of the story that can be found in Nature (186).  Against this, Hesketh points to White's "insight" that every story is a human fictional creation that has no factual grounding in Nature (196).

If you read Hesketh's article, you should notice that he simply asserts White's "insight" without offering any evidence or argumentation to demonstrate its correctness.  In contrast to this, Chaisson presents his natural science of Big History as cosmic evolution as a "grand scientifically based story" (36).  So Chaisson thinks a story about cosmic history really can be grounded in empirical science, and he backs up that claim with scientific evidence that energy is "a common currency for all complex, ordered systems," and that one can find a quantitative measure of complexity in "energy rate density," which is the amount of energy passing through a system per unit time and per unit mass (4-5).  He surveys the evidence supporting a cosmic evolution of increasing complexity as measured by energy rate density that moves from physical systems to biological systems to cultural systems.  In some of his earlier writings, Chaisson had spoken of this as a "cultural myth."  But now he speaks of this as a "scientific narrative."  He avoids the term "myth," because that often carries the connotation of "fiction." 

But Hesketh would insist that any kind of story or narrative is fictional--that's White's "insight"--and therefore it's impossible for it to have any grounding in empirical scientific evidence.  Oddly, Hesketh recognizes the importance of Chaisson's science of cosmic evolution for Big History, but he is completely silent about Chaisson's presentation of the empirical evidence for this science, because Herseth is confident that an empirically-based science of history is impossible.

It's noteworthy that Chaisson agrees with Hesketh in criticizing the Big History of Christian and others as being too "anthropocentric" or "anthropomorphic" (see Chaisson, 1-3, 14, 35).  Chaisson criticizes Big History for restricting its view mostly to our Milky Way, our Sun, our Earth, and our history on Earth.  They do this because "big historians like all historians, basically strive to know themselves, nobly and ideally, yet sometimes dubiously rendering humanity as central or special while deciphering our sense of place in the grand scheme of things" (2).

Chaisson agrees that the empirical evidence of the cosmic evolution of complexity as measured by energy rate density shows that human brains and human cultures are some of the most complex systems in the Universe (23-30).  And yet he sees no empirical evidence that cosmic evolution follows some grand design leading up to human life as having some privileged position.  While we can hope that the human species will endure into the near future, the empirical evidence of how ordered systems evolve and of the rare conditions required for human life make it clear that human life is unlikely to last for long, and that the eventual death of the Sun will bring earthly life to an end.

Chaisson observes: "As a confirmed empirical materialist, my vocation is to critically observe Nature and to experimentally test theories about it" (36).  And thus, in contrast to Hesketh, Chaisson believes that stories about cosmic history can be tested empirically by scientific research.

Still, as we saw in the previous post, Chaisson concedes that our grandest models of the cosmos depend on speculative thinking that cannot be tested through observation and experimentation, and consequently our scientific knowledge of the cosmos must always be severely limited.  Why was there a Big Bang?  What was there before the Big Bang?  Such questions cannot be answered according to the traditional standards of scientific method.  Wilson admitted that such questions leave a big opening for religious belief in God as the First Cause (On Human Nature, 1, 171-72, 191-92, 205).

But even if empirical science cannot give us absolute knowledge of the whole--a theory of everything--it can give us empirically grounded stories about the cosmos that approximate reality.  If so, then, contrary to Hesketh's confidence in White's "insight" that all stories must be fictional, we can use science to help us read (even if only dimly) the story taking place all around us.

The first attempt at telling a scientifically based story of Big History or cosmic evolution was Lucretius's De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), which Lucretius wrote as a didactic epic poem.  The poetic artistry of Lucretius's writing in presenting Epicurean atomistic science is evident.  But those like Hesketh would raise the question of whether this poetic story-telling is the fictional imposition of a literary order onto a natural order that does not speak for itself.


Chaisson, Eric J., "The Natural Science Underlying Big History," The Scientific World Journal, volume 2014, 41 pages.

Christian, David, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

Hesketh, Ian, "The Story of Big History," History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History, 4 (Fall 2014): 171-202.

Wilson, Edward O., On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978).

Some other posts on topics related to Big History can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here., here., and here.