Why Davos Man Loves Big History

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 27/07/2018 - 9:01pm in

On the face of it, David Christian’s Origin Story doesn’t look like the kind of book that demands a political analysis. Subtitled A Big History of Everything, I imagine it will strike most readers as a weightier, less amusing, version of Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything – a book for the interested non-specialist, if not the shameless dilettante. Its author, an Australian academic, is the sort of populariser that can communicate complex concepts with an energy and enthusiasm bordering on showmanship. His 2011 TED talk ‘The History of Our World in 18 Minutes’ has been viewed over eight million times. No doubt they’ll be a TV series, or Netflix doco, down the road. Make room, Prof. Neil Degrasse Tyson.

Unlike space and time, however, books do not appear ex nihilo, and the story of how this particular book came to exist is an interesting one. A book, of course, should be judged on its contents, not on the circumstances of its conception. Nevertheless, the events leading up to the publication of Christian’s opus, which purports to be a history of humankind told from a universal perspective, and to furnish our embattled species with a new and globalising mythos, strike me as inseparable from its thesis. So what is the origin story of Origin Story?

Notwithstanding the creation of atoms and molecules and intelligent life and the printing press, it all began with Bill Gates. In 2008 the tech billionaire was exercising on his private treadmill and watching a series called Big History, which took its title from the approach to history pioneered by Prof. Christian (then at San Diego State University) – an approach combining numerous disciplines from both the humanities and sciences, and beginning, not with farming and the invention of writing as per traditional history, but with the creation of the universe itself. Impressed with its ambition and scope, Gates decided to track Christian down, and to bung him a cool $10m to develop a course for high-school students. The resulting course, The Big History Project, is essentially Origin Story in embryo.

Nor was Gates the only rich-lister to be impressed by the concept of Big History. In 2015, Christian was invited to address the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, and his speech (introduced by Al Gore) seems to have touched off an enthusiasm for histories of the longue durée variety. In the last two years especially, there has been much discussion amongst the Davos faithful about the newish concept of the Anthropocene – a geologic designation describing the profound effect that the human species has had on the planet, pressed into service, more often than not, in debates around anthropogenic climate change. In 2016 Davos was abuzz with the news that the International Commission on Stratigraphy was considering a recommendation to make the designation official, while last year the executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Johan Rockström, was invited to present a talk entitled ‘Beyond the Anthropocene’. The excitement has even extended to the decor. In 2017 the meeting featured Tomas Saraceno’s installation Aerocene, the purpose of which, according to the artist, was to propose a new, post-Anthropocene epoch, ‘where we together learn how to float and live in the air, and to achieve an ethical collaboration with the environment’.

Christian’s Origin Story, then, did not appear in a cultural vacuum. To adapt one of the author’s favoured metaphors – the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears – it emerged, or is emerging, at a time when the conditions for its reception were/are ‘just right’ – at least amongst a certain, influential cohort. The question is: What is it about Big History that so appeals to this powerful cohort? Why are the global elite so taken with the new historiography?

Well, it’s reassuringly global, for a start. Eschewing the microscope for the telescope, Big History takes a species-level view of humankind’s development, which must be reassuring indeed when the economic class to which you belong is in the frame for massive inequality, economic and environmental collapse, and a host of other planetary evils. I’m not being facetious here. Big History in its various forms necessarily obscures much messy detail in favour of a panoramic perspective. Referring to ‘the Anthropocene narrative’ and how it operates ideologically in the debate on anthropogenic climate change, Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg summarise the issue thus:

The Anthropocene narrative portrays humanity as a species ascending to power over the rest of the Earth System. In the crucial field of climate change, this entails the attribution of fossil fuel combustion to properties acquired during human evolution, notably the ability to manipulate fire. But the fossil economy was not created nor is it upheld by humankind in general […] Steam-engines were not adopted by some natural-born deputies of the human species: by the nature of the social order of things, they could only be installed by the owners of the means of production. A tiny minority even in Britain, this class of people comprised an infinitesimal fraction of the population of Homo sapiens in the early 19th century […] Capitalists in a small corner of the Western world invested in steam, laying the foundation stone for the fossil economy: at no moment did the species vote for it either with feet or ballots, or march in mechanical unison, or exercise any sort of shared authority over its own destiny and that of the Earth System.

Even if the Davos faithful are genuine in their desire to combat climate change and environmental degradation more generally, they are unlikely to warm to a narrative that points to the devastation wrought by a system based on endless growth. But with its focus on the species as a whole (and thus on no one in particular) the Anthropocene narrative circumvents this problem. As Malm has put it elsewhere: ‘Climate science, politics, and discourse are constantly couched in the Anthropocene narrative: species-thinking, humanity-bashing, undifferentiated collective self-flagellation, appeal to the general population of consumers to mend their ways and other ideological pirouettes that only serve to conceal the driver.’

The same point could be made about Christian’s universal focus in Origin Story, which is similarly instrumental in its desire to instil a global consciousness that can be weaponised in the fight against climate change. His central idea is that the universe in general, and human societies in particular, have developed across certain ‘thresholds’ that have led to ever-greater complexity – this in the teeth of the more general tendency towards entropy that will do for us all in the end. Christian identifies eight key thresholds that have brought humanity to its current juncture: the creation of matter in the wake of the Big Bang; the formation of stars and galaxies; the emergence of chemical complexity; the formation of the Earth and solar system; the emergence of life on Earth; the emergence of Homo sapiens; the development of agriculture; and the dramatic and possibly catastrophic emergence of the modern world, or Anthropocene. But however fascinating it may be to think about the development of human life in these terms, the effect of such a narrative is to collapse natural and human history in a way that ‘naturalises’ the latter. In one sense, the idea that human beings evolved from other animals, which emerged from rudimentary life-forms, which are composed of molecules and atoms, which formed after the Big Bang, is a tautology: who is claiming otherwise, apart from creationists and other oddballs? But to insist that human history be viewed as part of this broader process is something else entirely, and nothing like as value-free as Christian makes it sound.

To his credit, Christian is not deterministic. He knows that what he calls ‘collective learning’ differentiates humans from other species: that our knowledge accumulates over generations, with the result that we are no longer at the mercy of nature, and can argue for different versions of the future. But if this is the case – and I believe it is – then what is the point of the Big History narrative, other than to provide a bit of inspiration? A truly instrumental history would stress, not humanity’s ‘origin story’, but the ways in which the exploitation of nature and dangerous inequality are mapped into a system based on waged labour, profit, property and perpetual growth. Christian’s Carl Sagan-like wonderment is affecting and sincere. But his belief that such a posture will be politically and economically effective is unconvincing.

It’s also, it seems, a cause of mild tension between Christian and his principal patron, Bill Gates. Consider, for example, this revealing passage from Gates’ laudatory review of Origin Story, published on his website,

The book ends with a chapter on where humanity – and the universe – is headed. David is more pessimistic about the future than I am. He gets a little stuck on the current economic and political malaise happening in the West, and I wish he talked more about the role innovation will play in preventing the worst effects of climate change.

So: The one occasion on which Christian’s thesis approaches politics and economics is the one from which the billionaire recoils. No doubt the ‘innovations’ that Gates believes will deliver us from climate change are of a determinedly non-political nature.

In the words of educationalist Diane Ravitch, one of Gates’ most strident critics: ‘When I think about history, I think about different perspectives, clashing points of view. I wonder how Bill Gates would treat the robber barons. I wonder how Bill Gates would deal with issues of extremes of wealth and poverty.’ Drawing explicitly on the ideas of complexity theory – a species of computer science that explains how complexity increases over time – Big History necessarily obscures such questions of distribution and power in a way that is no doubt appealing to Gates. Indeed, the very language of Big History is implicitly flattering to the billionaire and his analogues. In Origin Story, the evolution of human brains under social pressures is explained in terms of ‘computational tasks whose complexity increases exponentially as groups get larger’, while the Big Bang itself is described in terms borrowed from computer science: the cosmos, writes Christian, ‘bootstrapped’ itself. Not since the conservative historian Niall Ferguson described the six ‘killer apps’ of Western civilisation (competition, science, property owning democracy, modern medicine, the consumer society and the Protestant work ethic, in case you’re interested) has a metaphor so clearly identified the black-skivvied ‘gurus’ of Silicon Valley with the progress of the human species.

And that, surely, is the key point about Big History: that in making increasing complexity the measure of human development it obscures the ideological aspects of that desperately uneven process and makes such development as is yet to happen identical with the ‘complexity’ that Gates and his Silicon Valley pals have effectively privatised in the pursuit of profit. In the rarefied air of Davos-Klosters, Prof. Christian’s ‘origin story’ becomes a just-so story for the global elite – a universal history for the Masters of the Universe.

Marx and Engels were overstating the case when they said that all history was the history of class struggle; but they understood that human history was a site of conflict and exploitation – that humans, though bounded by their material nature, were also unique in their ability to recreate the conditions of their own reproduction. In recent times, and thanks in no small part to writers such as Naomi Klein, we’ve come to see how the exploitation of human labour and the environment are part of the same process of capitalistic development, and that the existential challenge we face is matter, nor just of technology, but of political economy. In that sense, these panoramic histories strike me as a giant leap backwards. The last thing we need is an origin story in which Davos Man can cast himself as the agent of our species’ progress.

The World’s Biggest Coral Reef is Headed For Collapse

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 27/07/2018 - 5:00pm in

Cyclones, starfish, pollution... bleaching... climate change.

On Teleology and the Logic of Natural Selection: Guest Post by David A. Haig

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 26/07/2018 - 8:38pm in

[This is an invited guest post by David A. Haig (Harvard, Biology), which may, but need not, be read as a comment on this post--ES]

Chickens come from eggs

But they have legs.

The plot thickens:

Eggs come from chickens,

But have no legs under 'em.

What a conundrum!

(Ogden Nash)

Eggs produce chickens and chickens produce eggs. This is a fact universally acknowledged, but when a respondent at a scientific meeting raises the question “Isn’t this an example of the chicken and the egg?” what is usually being offered is an inversion, “you say X causes Y but you have it the wrong way round, Y causes X.” It is considered obvious that X cannot both be a cause and an effect of Y.

This ‘natural way of thinking’ expresses a common confusion that arises from the extrapolation of the logical properties of token-causation to type-causation. If X and Y are token events and X occurs before Y, then X can be a cause of Y but Y cannot be a cause of X. It is an empirical question whether a particular chicken developed from a particular egg. But there is no logical contradiction in claiming that events of type X could be both causes and effects of events of type Y because tokens of X can occur both before and after tokens of Y. The claim ‘events of type X are causes of events of type Y’ and its inversion ‘events of type Y are causes of events of type X’ could both be true, both be false, or one be true and the other false. In this regard, it should be noted that when scientists formulate scientific ‘laws’, these explicate regularities between types of events. The ‘laws’ are concerned with token causation only in so far as token events are exemplars of general patterns.

Life is a recursive process in which progenitors were progeny of progenitors who were themselves progeny, based on the recursive process by which copies of the DNA double helix are themselves copies of copies. By processes of natural selection, this reproductive recursion is the source of the purposiveness of living things. A genetic variant that causes a variant behavior will be copied more frequently if the behavior indirectly enhances copying of the genetic variant. Behaviors, and their consequences in the world, are responsible for which genes are copied. The causes of why this gene rather than its variants is present in a species is to be sought in the gene’s effects in the world. Genetic variants arise by ‘random’ mutational processes but these variants are then subject to the complex environmental sieve we call natural selection. And that which is sieved is subject to further mutation and resieving by the environment. By this process, information from the environment is incorporated into the genetic material.

Most of my biological colleagues believe it is intuitively obvious that genes cause behaviors rather than the other way around. But token behaviors occur both before and after token expression of the relevant genes, and a complete causal account of why the genes that we see have the sequences they possess, rather than other sequences that have existed but have failed to leave descendants, will include the effects of these genes in the world. A gene’s effects (where a gene is considered as a historical lineage of gene tokens) have a causal role in the gene’s survival of the sieve of environment. It is no more than a prejudice to consider the claim that genes determine the properties of behaviors to be more ‘scientific’ than the claim that behaviors determine the properties of successful genes.

Natural selection is a purposeless process that produces beings with purposes. Natural selection is not teleological but it produces living beings for which teleological language is entirely appropriate. For innate behaviors, a token behavior is performed because many past tokens of the same behavior were associated with effective action in the world. The behavior exists for this purpose. Purposeful action is the ‘anticipation’ of future effects. For innate behaviors, what has worked in the past is ‘anticipated’ to work in the future. And what has worked in the past is the use of information gained from the environment in a given life to guide behavior in that life.

Organisms have evolved to learn and perform behaviors for reasons that are specific to each individual life. The ‘anticipation’ of conditioned reflexes is very much like that of natural selection: what has worked in the past is ‘anticipated’ to work in the future, but we also have abilities to simulate outcomes of different choices of behavior and to choose the behavior with the most desirable predicted effects.

Many choose to restrict the use of intentional idioms to choices based on simulated outcomes but this is a choice of definition. I prefer a more expansive definition of purposes, intentions, and final causes, both because this is the way we actually use language (witness a molecular biologist talking about codes, transcription, translation, and RNA editing) and because the expansive definitions emphasize continuities in nature rather than create artificial boundaries (and a haven for dualism).

“Crazy Cat People,” Explained

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 25/07/2018 - 5:00pm in

Do you really love your cat? You might have a brain parasite.

Your Memory is Worse Than You Think

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 13/07/2018 - 5:00pm in

New research has shown that your memory is like a Wikipedia entry - you can get in there and edit it whenever you want, but so can other people.

2018 Lakatos Award Winners Announced

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/07/2018 - 11:53pm in

The Lakatos Award is given annually “for an outstanding contribution to the philosophy of science, widely interpreted, in the form of a book published in English during the current year or the previous five years.” This year two recipients were selected


The award is £10,000 (approximately $13,220), which will be split between the two winners. They will receive the awards and deliver their prize lectures at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) this fall.

The award is endowed by the Latsis Foundation, in memory of the influential philosopher of science Imre Lakatos, who was a professor at LSE.

The post 2018 Lakatos Award Winners Announced appeared first on Daily Nous.

Solving Home Problems - Floor, damper, small boy.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 10/07/2018 - 10:07pm in



Salmonella Germs Horrified At Thought Of Touching Andrew Bolt

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 06/07/2018 - 8:18am in



Billions of salmonella germs have waged protests in petri dishes across the country after learning that the plastic bag ban may lead them to make contact with the skin of opinion writer Andrew Bolt.

“‘Most of us are decent, hard working germs who simply want to live quiet lives on onion skins at the bottom of a reusable bag waiting for the opportunity to leap onto some reheated chicken,” said protest leader Beck Tearia. “I’m sure no organism, single celled or otherwise, wants to know what Andrew Bolt’s bowels look like from the inside.”

Salmonella germs living near the white bread section of Woolworths feel most at risk of accidentally coming into contact with Bolt.

“We were amazed to find the salmonella cultures in our lab had arranged themselves into the words “bring back the plastic bags”,” said microbiologist Dr Esther Colley. “The fear of Andrew Bolt is so great amongst bacteria that we are thinking of developing a new super antibiotic constructed out of cells scraped from his host chair on The Bolt Report.”

Peter Green

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The Norms of Science: Extract from Paul Romer

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 01/07/2018 - 6:23pm in



I was looking for something on economic method, and found this section of Paul Romer’s “The Trouble with Macroeconomics” which I thought was worth posting.

Some of the economists who agree about the state of macro in private conversations will not say so in public. This is consistent with the explanation based on different prices. Yet some of them also discourage me from disagreeing openly, which calls for some other explanation.

They may feel that they will pay a price too if they have to witness the unpleasant reaction that criticism of a revered leader provokes. There is no question that the emotions are intense. After I criticized a paper by Lucas, I had a chance encounter with someone who was so angry that at first he could not speak. Eventually, he told me, “You are killing Bob.”

But my sense is that the problem goes even deeper that avoidance. Several economists I know seem to have assimilated a norm that the post-real macroeconomists actively promote – that it is an extremely serious violation of some honor code for anyone to criticize openly a revered authority figure – and that neither facts that are false, nor predictions that are wrong, nor models that make no sense matter enough to worry about.

A norm that places an authority above criticism helps people cooperate as members of a belief field that pursues political, moral, or religious objectives. As Jonathan Haidt (2012) observes, this type of norm had survival value because it helped members of one group mount a coordinated defense when they were attacked by another group. It is supported by two innate moral senses, one that encourages us to defer to authority, another which compels self-sacrifice to defend the purity of the sacred.

Science, and all the other research fields spawned by the enlightenment, survive by “turning the dial to zero” on these innate moral senses. Members cultivate the conviction that nothing is sacred and that authority should always be challenged. In this sense, Voltaire is more important to the intellectual foundation of the research fields of the enlightenment than Descartes or Newton.

By rejecting any reliance on central authority, the members of a research field can coordinate their independent efforts only by maintaining an unwavering commitment to the pursuit of truth, established imperfectly, via the rough consensus that emerges from many independent assessments of publicly disclosed facts and logic; assessments that are made by people who honor clearly stated disagreement, who accept their own fallibility, and relish the chance to subvert any claim of authority, not to mention any claim of infallibility.

Even when it works well, science is not perfect. Nothing that involves people ever is. Scientists commit to the pursuit of truth even though they realize that absolute truth is never revealed. All they can hope for is a consensus that establishes the truth of an assertion in the same loose sense that the stock market establishes the value of a firm. It can go astray, perhaps for long stretches of time. But eventually, it is yanked back to reality by insurgents who are free to challenge the consensus and supporters of the consensus who still think that getting the facts right matters.

Despite its evident flaws, science has been remarkably good at producing useful knowledge. It is also a uniquely benign way to coordinate the beliefs of large numbers of people, the only one that has ever established a consensus that extends to millions or billions without the use of coercion.

Large Grant to Fund Philosophical Work on Scientific Testimony and Diversity

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 27/06/2018 - 12:03am in

Mikkel Gerken, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Southern Denmark, has been awarded a DKK 4,259,520 (approximately $666,750) grant for his research project, “Scientific Testimony in a Diverse Society,” from Independent Research Fund Denmark (Dansmarks Frie Forskningsfond, or DFF).

The project brings social epistemology to bear on questions regarding scientific testimony, with an emphasis on the tension between respecting epistemically diverse minorities while also respecting scientific expertise. The work will be based at the University of Southern Denmark and will include recruiting two post-doctoral fellows. Its funding begins in September 2019 and will run for two years.

DFF funding “creates space for pursuing original research ideas with a yet unknown potential to improve our lives and lifestyle.” You can learn more about it here, and more about Professor Gerken’s work here.

The post Large Grant to Fund Philosophical Work on Scientific Testimony and Diversity appeared first on Daily Nous.