History #12: The Modern Revolution

This is the seventh post in an ongoing big history series. It follows the structure of the course developed by historian David Christian. This post will explore the modern revolution that we are currently living in.

Past posts can be found here: The Big Bang, Star Formation, Solar Systems, Life, Collective Learning, Agriculture

The story so far

(adjusted scale: all of time condensed into 13 years)

About 13 years ago, unknown conditions set off the Big Bang. This produced space, time, energy, and matter (mainly hydrogen and helium). The universe was born.

About 36 days later, cooling and tiny variations in the density of matter allowed gravity to bring together hydrogen and helium into high pressure clumps. Stars were born.

High temperatures within those stars, along with supernova explosions, allowed for the synthesis of every other element on the periodic table. Chemistry was born.

As new stars formed around chemically rich clouds, solar systems formed. About 4.3 years ago, the Earth formed.

About 3.5 years ago, unknown conditions led to the first prokaryote. Life was born. About 85 days ago, the first mammals evolved from a branch of reptiles that loosely related birds.

About 1.6 hours ago, Homo Sapiens evolved in Africa. Our powerful brains and symbolic language allowed us to share ideas very efficiently. Collective learning was born.

About 4.9 seconds ago, population growth and accumulated knowledge led to the development of agriculture. Agriculture led to even greater population growth, which fed back into even greater knowledge accumulation.

Collective learning revisited

As we talked about last week, collective learning is a big deal. Compared to our ancestors – who lived 200 thousand years ago – we aren’t much smarter. This isn’t intuitive, since we have indoor plumbing and they didn’t, but indoor plumbing is the product of centuries of accumulated knowledge. We didn’t travel to the moon because we evolved a superior intellect; we traveled to the moon because someone figured out fire thousands of years ago, and we’ve been tinkering with it ever since.

Collective learning is a function of two variables: population size and the number of connections within that population. Both were about to see a huge spike after the agricultural revolution.

Bringing the world together

By the 15th century, human populations had successfully colonized the majority of the planet. European exploration, motivated in part by the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, was about to connect all of those populations together. Ideas from China would now be able to travel to America and vice versa.

Since this is big history, we will gloss over all the cons from this period – slavery, war, disease, genocide, etc – and skip to the pros. A global system allowed for a massive boom in collective learning, which continues to fuel complexity and connectivity to this day.

Harnessing new sources of power

By the beginning of the 18th century, as with the preceding 200 thousand years, the majority of our energy came from plant-based solar power. The industrial revolution was about to change this. Thanks to coal (admittedly, another form of plant based solar power) and the steam engine, humanity was about to break free from the limitations of muscle based power.

By the 19th century, the average European enjoyed a quality of life better than that of royalty a century prior. We continued to harness new forms of energy in oil, natural gas, hydro-electric, and nuclear. New forms of transportation, communication, and agriculture meant that collective learning would feed on the increased population size and connectivity. The modern revolution was just beginning.


13 billion years ago, hydrogen and helium smashing together to form a star was the most complex thing in the universe. Compare that to a human brain, which has trillions of connections between complex neurons which are made out of atoms formed in a star.

Today, there are billions of these brains connected together in a network of shared information (mainly cat pictures on the internet). In the entire universe, nothing we have observed is more complex that this human system.

And we are still at the beginning of what this system can accomplish. The Cambrian explosion in biological complexity lasted for millions of years. We are in the first couple centuries of the modern revolution. Assuming we don’t blow ourselves up, there is room to run. At least until the heat death of the universe, which we will get to next week.




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