You may have heard the term ‘Big History’. It comes from historian David Christian, at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He has a TED talk describing what his team has been up to with Big History, a project that has received some funding from the Gates Foundation. Big History is the story of how life and eventually civilization have emerged on Earth, building upon one another. The story starts with the Big Bang roughly 13.7 billion years ago. The discussion introduces a puzzle. In a universe ruled by the Second Law of Thermodynamics (paraphrased: everything runs down over time), how could the complexity that we see today have come about?
Well, it seems that the universe can produce complexity in spite of the Second Law, but it is very difficult, and it requires special conditions, found only where suitable conditions are present at each stage of the process. Professor Christian calls this the Goldilocks conditions, not too hot, not too cold, just right. Even then, it was necessary to cross eight difficult thresholds to arrive at our present-day reality. It is not clear how much longer this can continue.
But let’s start at the beginning of the Big History story according to the best available evidence. Before the Big Bang, it was completely dark. This was before time and matter existed. Then suddenly, our universe emerged from a single point in space/time about 13.7 billion years ago. That was the first threshold to be crossed, and scientists have little idea why or how it occurred, as they can only see the after effects.
When our universe first emerged, it was incredibly dense and hot, theoretically no bigger than an atom, yet it began to expand rapidly. Within the first second, the forces of electromagnetism and gravity were unleashed. The universe continued to expand for thousands of years until, after about 380,000 years, it had cooled enough that protons and electrons could combine to form simple atoms. Once this happened, gas clouds were formed, largely made up of hydrogen and helium atoms (the lightest elements in the periodic table).
One of today’s satellites recently peered back into the early universe and took a picture of the cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang. The temperature was close to the same everywhere, but there were minute differences, indicating differences in density in the clouds of early matter. Since gravity is stronger where there is more stuff, compaction of these clouds took place gradually over time where density was highest. Where compaction occurs, temperatures rise. Some 100-200 million years after the Big Bang, the temperature in some parts of the universe exceeded 10 million degrees, where protons began to fuse, and stars were born. This was the second threshold. Today, it is believed that there are some 200-400 billion stars just in our galaxy, the Milky Way (not counting all of the other galaxies out there).
With the presence of stars, the creation of more complex chemical elements became possible. When very large stars age and run out of their lighter elements such as hydrogen, then helium, they collapse upon themselves and create temperatures so hot that they fuse more and more protons together to create heavier elements. Very heavy elements in the periodic table are formed when large aging stars are finally blown apart in a supernova event. If you have a gold ring on your finger, its elements were formed as part of a supernova explosion from a dying star. The creation of these denser chemical elements was the third threshold that was crossed, and they have been gradually scattered into space as a result of many, many supernova explosions.
Some 9.2 billion years after the Big Bang, or about 4.5 billion years ago, our solar system and its planets (including Earth) were formed. When this happened, the fourth threshold had been crossed. Of course, most of the solar system was still inhospitable to the creation of living organisms, being either too hot (near the sun) or too cold (far from the sun). Earth was just about perfect for the creation of life, especially because it had large amounts of water on its surface in the form of oceans. Wet chemistry is important for the creation of life. For instance, oceanic vents, where heat is released from the earth’s mantle, was a good place for complex molecules to form through wet chemistry involving the electromagnetic force. The remarkable thing that occurred was that a template for life was created (the complex DNA molecule), whereupon life began to reproduce itself based on that information. This was the fifth threshold. As life reproduced itself, DNA would occasionally make mistakes. Evolution relies on the fact that some of those mistakes work better in the environment than the original, so DNA appears to learn what works best over time, building greater diversity. Single-celled organizations were all there was at first, but slowly small multicell organisms began to emerge, then many others, large and small over millions of years, including famously the dinosaurs.
About 65 million years ago an asteroid crashed into the Yucatan peninsula (in current day Mexico), creating conditions akin to a nuclear winter worldwide. That was bad news for the large dinosaurs that were wiped out in short order, but good news for mammals that began to populate the niches that they left behind. Birds, as it turns out, are today’s decedents from the dinosaurs.
It was not until about 200 thousand years ago that humans appeared. This was the sixth threshold. Their big brains allowed them to learn in real time. Through human language, and eventually writing, the human species began to accumulate knowledge and pass it on to its future generations. About 10,000 years ago, farming began, unleashing another energy source needed for the foundation of complex civilizations, crossing the seventh threshold.
Only 500 years ago, humans began to link up globally after voyages of discovery opened major trade routes by sea, and humanity became a single global force manipulating the environment. This was the eighth threshold. Humans are now over 7 billion strong. Fossil fuels, agriculture, the industrial revolution, and a multitude of evolved technologies explain the complexity of civilization that we see around us today. Yet with all this apparent success, there is evidence that the Goldilocks conditions that have allowed our flourishing are rapidly being undermined on this planet. Climate change is a real and present danger due to the current overreliance on fossil fuels, releasing CO2, and producing the greenhouse effect.
That brings us to the question of how this progression will play out in the future. How do we ensure our world will serve future generations? What is the next threshold that we need to cross and what conditions need to be present for it to happen?
Well, one way to extend this story (which just happens to be relevant to this podcast) is to focus on the super-organisms that have emerged over the last 200 years to encompass and magnify human activities. I am speaking of organizations (in the forms of business, government, and non-profit entities). Here humans are encased within a large social entity (if only during part of their day), gain an energy source, band together with other like-minded individuals to find purpose and meaning, and accomplish things together that they could not do on their own. A successful organization has access to considerable power and resources over time. It is no wonder that organizations large and small dominate the world around us, and we find them indispensable.
Yet all is not well with the ecosystem of organizations, and the capitalism that drives them. A story is emerging about organizations need to enter a new age, one that we have called The Age of Organizational Effectiveness. There are several threads to the story. One recounts the difficult situation that society finds itself in on multiple fronts, with limited options, and no clear path forward. Another thread is about widespread dissatisfaction with what capitalism has now become.
It is questionable how far current management technology can take us into the future. Current management philosophy revolves largely around the goal model, which forms the basis for management by objectives. This is risky because the approach accepts virtually any goal that management wants to use. This means that arbitrary goals such as profit maximization, shareholder value maximization, or any other arbitrary objective or goal, can be entertained to drive an organization. Bringing in a new C-suite team with a new set of objectives can be a risky proposition. That coupled with the fact that in many public corporations, C-suite executives have been highly incentivized with stock offerings, encourages the use of financial accounting tricks to artificially inflate stock market valuations. This may be good for the C-suite (at least for a short time), but not so good for the firm and its employees in the longer term. It often leads to counterproductive actions at the first sign of financial trouble, such as layoffs, downsizing, and general efforts to do “more with less”. The approach encourages cost reduction approaches and asset sales, which strip productive value from a firm and contribute to employment instability and income inequality inside the firm, reducing the firm’s ability to be productive in the future.
Just as DNA has provided a biological code to replicate and evolve organisms from the distant past to the present, new management theory and practice are needed to provide a template for a reliable future. The single-minded pursuit of profit, shareholder value, or any other arbitrary objective can create instability in an organization’s complex adaptive system, as we have discussed in previous podcast episodes. Furthermore, the market cannot be relied upon to stabilize the economy because we now live in Alfred Chandler’s managerial economy rather than Adam Smith’s free market economy. For example, the financial debacle of 2006-2008 and beyond in the USA was precipitated by investment banks that were focused on generating financial profits from complex investment vehicles in the housing market, without the vehicles being sufficiently supported by underlying assets on their books — thus increasing market risks and increasing environmental instability over time. To stabilize the planet, we need organizations that serve their environment effectively and cooperate to improve the common good. Today’s discussion highlights, even more, the view that we all need to find a way to live together on Earth, a little blue dot in the vast expanse of space. New-style organizations will be needed to extend ‘Big History’ into the future.
For more information, refer to a recent book: Become Truly Great: Serve the Common Good through Management by Positive Organizational Effectiveness (2017). A link is provided in the show notes.
Charles G. Chandler, Ph.D.
Link to Big History Project: