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From Star Gazing to Sustainability

Science and the Liberal Arts

From Star Gazing to Sustainability

Jonathan Yavelow, Biology Department, Rider University

Bartley 1010; Tuesday, Thursday, February 12, 4:30 p.m.;   ACS Approved

A call from a scientist to the liberal arts to respond to a story of our common origins by creating a culture necessary for sustainability.

The natural sciences together provide evidence for our common origins and how the deep past is embedded in what we are now.  We are made today of protons that were formed soon after the big bang, the carbon and oxygen that were fused inside a star billions of years ago.  All of the elements on earth that are heavier than iron were made by a supernova that burst and ignited the formation of our solar system over 4.5 billion years ago.  The life that we have inherited comes from the earliest and simplest form of it that first emerged about 3.8 billion years ago.  The way we are put togerther - our eyes, backbone, wrists, two legs and two arms, and so much else - is a gift from creatures who lived hundreds of millions of years ago.  So much of our culture today finds its origins in our human ancestors who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago in Africa.

We share a common past with each other and with nature.  The response of many people to this story is to seek to sustain the nature from which we have emerged and which sustains us now.  Can those in the liberal arts fields - politics, ethics, art, history, literature, philosophy, theology, and others - create a culture that leads to the policies required for sustainability?

We live in a world dominated by science and technology.  Consider our heated and air conditioned homes, our various forms of transportation, our modern medicine and lengthened life expectancy, our computers and the internet, our energy-rich lives giving us free time to ponder philosophical questions and be entertained.

There is a new cosmology that grows out of science that is more fascinating than the wildest fiction.  This new science-based cosmology was founded on scientific thinking over the last 400 years.  Both the story and science as a way of knowing about the natural world continues to be on the periphery of most cultures in the world despite the fact that cultures have fully adopted (or wish to adopt) the fruits of science and technology.

Consider a first step towards a truly sustainable and peaceful world as intuiting the lessons of the new cosmology – chief among them that human beings are integral with the natural world.  Thomas Berry has said that we can’t have peace among humans until we have peace with the earth.  This talk will review some of the thinking that has given rise to our science-based cosmology and introduce ideas for discussion about the value of the new cosmology as a critical step to addressing our environmental problems.

Gazing at a Vocation in Science

Jonathan Yavelow, Ph. D. in Cell and Molecular Biology, is a member of IBHA and participated in the IBHA 2014 conference.  He has been a biology professor at Rider University for 32 years. He does research in breast cancer, funded by NIH as well as other cancer research foundations.  He has taught science and non-science majors, as well as many team-taught classes with colleagues from both the sciences and the humanities. These team-taught classes have expanded his perspective on science to include viewpoints from philosophy, political science, and literature.  He recently was one of a few senior faculty to participate in a year-long program aimed to improve college teaching.  Dr. Yavelow’s teaching begins with seeing his students where they are, rather than where he would wish them to be.  He finds that unfortunately, many of today’s college students read very little, have short attention spans, and are constantly interrupted by their smart phones.   It is with this in mind that he has written Star Gazing to Sustainability: Appreciating the Scientific Process (Kendall-Hunt).

Star Gazing to Sustainability is a short (30,000 words) science story showing how evidence discovered through research in the major science disciplines may be combined into one comprehensible account, the science portion of Big History.  The story celebrates the beauty and power of scientific thought. It is written for non-science majors enrolled in college science core courses.  It differs from traditional scientific textbooks in that it includes all of the sciences and seeks to elicit science appreciation by drawing on them to present a history of the universe, from the Big Bang through the evolution of life.  Descriptions of experiments, together with data from each of the science disciplines, is set off in boxes so as not to interrupt the flow of the book.  These sections focus on how we know certain scientific facts rather than just what we know.  This story not only shows our common origins; it also shows how embedded nature is in us.  We are that part of the known universe that can reflect on itself - and can choose to help sustain our small portion of a vast universe.

The process of writing Star Gazing began in the summer of 2010, when I enrolled in a course on a new science-based cosmology at Genesis Farm, Blairstown, NJ, taught by Sister Miriam MacGillis.  This course emphasized that a sustainable future requires people to feel that they are a part of nature.  As a follow-up to this course, I team-taught two different classes.  The first class (Fall, 2010), taught with an environmental activist/community organizer, was titled  “The Environment: A Conflict of Interests.”  It became clear while teaching this class that many students were conflicted between scientific and religious points of view about their role in the world.  When the scientific viewpoint contradicted their religious viewpoint, they just ignored the data. This class focused on how to use objective thinking to prioritize various points of view, and many students viewed it as an epiphany in their own lives.  The second class (Fall, 2011) was team-taught with a chemistry professor and was titled “From the Big Bang to the Origin of Life.” Students in this class were primarily music majors who related to science as a collection of facts.  Focusing on the question “where do we come from?” made the class more relevant for them and was a way of integrating the scientific information into their lives.

During the 2011-2012 academic year, I was  a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, NJ, invited by the well-known physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson.  While researching this book, I expanded beyond my own field of biology into astronomy/physics, chemistry, and geology. 

While at the IAS for the academic year, I wrote Star-Gazing to Sustainability. I spent about half of my time teaching and half working at the Institute. Feedback on various drafts of this book from both first-semester college science students and non-science majors in the Baccalaureate Honors Program was particularly helpful to me.

Reflections on a Book

There is a crisis in both science appreciation and science literacy, both in students and in the general public. This crisis undermines the ability of society to deal rationally with its societal and environmental problems. Science appreciation precedes science literacy. There is both joy and insight in science. I wanted to capture both  through an account that unified all the science disciplines. 

My book, Star Gazing to Sustainability, describes the history of the universe, basing the account on the evidence discovered through scientific research. Beyond the knowledge of facts and methods, science literacy requires empowering yourself to think critically.  This has political as well as scientific value. If people become science literate and are confident in asking, “how do you know . . .?”, then we will build a stronger participatory democracy. 

When many students hear scientific words, even those describing the various fields of science such as physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology, biology, or sustainability, they are already turned off.  Often, their experience is that learning science and reading science books are impossible, boring, and exhausting activities. They would like to learn about their place in nature, but they feel inadequate. This book is for individuals who are open to giving science another try.  It presents science within the framework of the Liberal Arts.  A love of science may begin for some with learning about their place within the universe story.  As the first sentence of the book suggests,  “Stories bind people together.” Our individual lives are bound together with all others and indeed with the entire universe.

The world in which we live can defy our senses.  The Earth spins at 1,000 miles/hour, yet it doesn’t feel to us as if it is spinning at all.  In addition, the Earth is traveling at an average rate of 66,000 miles/hour around the sun in one year.  Again, we don’t feel that we are moving, but we are. Scientific insights from astronomy, chemistry, geology and biology yield a story.  It begins with the stars and the origin of the chemical elements, progresses to a supernova explosion and the subsequent formation of our solar system and the Earth as a dynamic planet capable of sustaining and evolving life.  

What is sustainability and why should we behave sustainably?  It involves more than recycling and planting trees.  It is a mindset linking our understanding of the global ecology of the natural world with good planning for the future.  The science-based story of the universe and our origins leaves no doubt that we are intimately part of nature and the environment is part of us. Plants take in carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen; animals take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide.  Our burning of fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil) sustains our energy-rich life styles and increases the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Even though this is hard to believe -- we are affecting the global climate.

Why can we believe a scientific fact more than a random guess or a whim? The process of criticism, debate, theoretical understanding, and experimental verification adds to the credibility of scientific facts.  Credibility is not just from the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and conclusion.  It is also from the community of scientists, who verify the observations and debate the conclusions.  After many years, the information continues to accumulate so that scientific theory becomes scientific fact.  The scientific process is always open to falsification; at some point in the future, we may generate data that will require us to change our thinking.  The history of science shows this to be true.  To quote Albert Einstein:

“One thing I have learned in a long life:  that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”

Good teaching conveys both information and knowledge.  For example:  when students look at identical gene sequences between humans and whales, they learn the details of the experiments but often they don’t appreciate the significance of our evolutionary relationship to whales.  It is not sufficient to review what we know and how we know it; we must also reflect on this information and ask how it affects our world-view. The connection between learning and true understanding is rare in science education.  Many students talk about the scientific details, but often they don’t integrate the significance of the data into their personal lives.  This book is an effort to address that issue.

Let’s take the following information at face value –we are on a tiny planet (Earth), racing and spinning through space in a huge universe that is expanding at the rate of thousands of miles per second. How does that make you feel? Insignificant? Meaningless?  So, shall we reject the scientific facts about our universe because they make us uncomfortable? Marcelo Gleiser, professor of philosophy, physics, and astronomy at Dartmouth College, has argued “we are a rare accident and thus not pointless.”  Gleiser reminds us of the difference between life and intelligent life:

“…We matter because we are rare and we know it… The joint realization that we live in a remarkable cosmic cocoon and can create languages and rocket ships in an otherwise apparently dumb universe ought to be transformative.  Until we find other self-aware intelligences, we are how the universe thinks.  We might as well start enjoying one another’s company.” 

Star Gazing to Sustainability presents scientific information by using the unique approach of integrating what we know, how we know it, and how it affects our perspective on the world. Science is an iterative process; if data are obtained that disprove a hypothesis, then the hypothesis needs to be modified. This is humbling to the scientist, but also empowering to anyone who practices critical thinking.

To encourage critical reading and to engage the reader, reflections are incorporated in the book.  These reflections are from non-science major students who have read drafts of this book  Adding the voice of students to the book both adds to the readability of the text and anticipates questions and thoughts that may be in the readers’ minds. Here are two examples of student reflections:

“For the average person, what is most important about science is outlook.  The ideas presented came about through imagination, observation, experimentation, and analysis.  This is a thought process labeled as the scientific method.  From what one can observe, most people don’t use this process outside of school unless they become scientists. For shame! This is a terrible way to go about living.  Mankind has this thought process for a reason.  Humans are not like other animals. We can plan ahead.  Unlike a rabbit, which can’t see what effect it has on the environment, people can see.  All it takes is a little knowledge, scientific thought, and open-mindedness.  If there is one common thread among the vastly diverse disciplines of science, it is about being open-minded and questioning as much as it is about new discoveries.

“Even though it took 9 months to create you, it took millions and millions of years of mutations and evolution to create humans.

“It’s crazy how something as minor as winning the lottery has the same chance as the Universe and life being created.”

Earth is our only home.  We are deeply attached to our home environment.  We need thought leaders to see the world as it is.  Then we can more effectively work together to build a better future.  We will need to find solutions to scientific and technological challenges and then overcome problems at the level of implementation.  The scientific method is a path forward. This is a slow, patient and deliberate process.  Leave your bias at the door, and I believe the wings of creativity and the potential of the human mind are up to the task.  Here is a final student reflection:

“There is no reason for us as a nation to not approach the environmental crisis with the same open-mindedness as demonstrated in all of the disciplines of science.”

This presentation is co-sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Departments of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Biology, Chemistry, Geography and the Environment, and the Center for Energy and Environmental Education.

A couple of on-line resources on this topic can be found at the Kahn Academy's course.  

How Did We Get Here? Big History 101
World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2015
David Christian introduced by Al Gore

A sometimes tongue-in-cheek take on this is Hank and John Green's recently completed Crash Course series:

The Big Bang: Crash Course Big History #1  

Exploring the Universe: Crash Course Big History #2   

The Sun & The Earth: Crash Course Big History #3   

Life Begins: Crash Course Big History #4   

The Evolutionary Epic: Crash Course Big History #5  

Human Evolution: Crash Course Big History #6  

Migrations and Intensification: Crash Course Big History #7  

The Modern Revolution: Crash Course Big History #8  

The Anthropocene and the Near Future: Crash Course Big History #9   

The Deep Future: Crash Course Big History #10  

The issues raised by Jonathan Yavelow in his book, Science Appreciation and Sustainability, and in his presentation here, “Science-Based Cosmology and Multidisciplinary Thinking,” are important for us if we are to think about a coherent rationale for a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  How can we succinctly unify the truths that are found within disciplines throughout our college in a way that serves passionate caring about learning and living together in community?  What is an intellectual project that ties the parts of the college together into a whole?  How can evidence and imagination be integrated throughout the college?

How can the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities be integrated to tell a coherent, evidence based narrative from the Big Bang 13.82 billion years ago through today and well into the future?  An evidence based narrative about the common origins of all people and the entire universe?  About the emergent complexity of sustained, structured relationships that begins with quarks and the strong force and leads eventually to the practice of sustainable, caring communities.  The chapters of this story build on each other, incorporating what has happened before as it moves ahead.  It is an uneven story, with many unforeseeable surprises that have been connected but were not inevitable.  Much in the story stayed at earlier stages and often has become less complex.  Only a small portion has continued to gain greater complexity.  Can studying this story help provide the skills and insights that will aid in planning and achieving a sustainable human community made possible through imagining caritas?

The college shows how science provides the evidence for periods of time since the Big Bang that have led to us now and to reasonable expectations for the future.  This covers the major periods since the Big Bang from the Radiation Period and expansion, the formation of atoms, the development of stars and galaxies, second generation stars such as our own Sun, the accretion of our Earth about 4.5 billion years ago and its many changes since then, the origins and development of life over the past 4 billion years, the origins and development of human culture over the past 200,000 years, the increasing complexity of social relations (from kinship, to village, to city, nation, empire, and globalization), the role of imagination in creating new types of relationships, and reasonable projections about what in the future might be expected.

Because we incorporate or inherit what originated millions and billions of years ago, we are investigating what has led to us now.  The quarks and hydrogen of which we are made are 13.82 billion years old. (65% of the atoms out of which you are made today are hydrogen.)  The carbon of which life on earth is made is at least 5 billion years old or more.  Our ability to turn food into energy as we do is about 2 billion years old.  Our eyesight, hearing, reproductive systems, wrists, and so on all have their own long histories of how our parts are structured within sustained relationships.  How can we interpret a very long history that was originally written not in books, but in light, stones, bones, and blood?  How do we understand the thread of continuity through the creative transitions that nature has taken over time?  A history in which there are ever more complex units that are used in the formation of more complex units with new properties?

The college needs to present succinctly how science and physical evidence help us think about the Liberal Arts.  Some of those in the fields of history and religious studies have been doing this within their fields for years. 

The natural scientists have so thoroughly revised our understanding of what the past entails.  At least from the time of Charles Lyell, the geologist in the early 19th century who argued that rocks told us a story of the earth that is much longer than the one that many had accepted, natural scientists have accumulated and analyzed physical evidence that substantiates a new story of a deep past.  Astrophysicists have established dates for the Big Bang, the formation of hydrogen and helium, and the formation of the first stars and galaxies.  Geologists have established a date for the subsequent formation of the Earth.  Biologists have established time periods for the emergence and evolution of life on earth.  Physical anthropologists have established dates for the evolution of hominins and humans.   None of them will talk about literary analysis or opinion polls.  But they will have developed methods that provide dates for basic events that have led to us (and much else).    Together, the research and publications from these fields are among the most influential in human history. 

In 2008 and again last year[1],  natural scientists from physics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, and biology presented a series of lectures here at Villanova about the periods of time that led from the Big Bang to us now.  Scientists from outside Villanova also participated in this series:  Robert Hazen, a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory.  He wrote a book calledThe Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet.  His lecture here last year was drawn from his earlier and equally fascinating book called:Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins.  He, like other scientists, date these origins to about 3.8 billion years ago. 

Jonathan Yavelow, who is a biologist from Rider University, will speak here on January 27.  He recently published his book about how the sciences together tell a story of the past from the Big Bang until now.  It not only tells an origin story of humanity and of the universe.  It also shows how the results of each chapter of that story are embedded in us – and sustain us now.  He notes how it is this scientifically based story that ties us together and that a common response to this story is to seek the common good of humanity and to sustain that little part of the universe we call home on earth.  If we want to know what we are made of, how we got to be like we are now, and what we may need to do to avoid becoming part of the current sixth great extinction since the rise of complex life – we need to know the story that the sciences tell us.  He will talk about what this scientific story may mean for the social sciences and humanities.

St. Augustine examined cosmology in his book, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, in which he wrote, "Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men."

In more recent years, there has been some controversy about what Big History and Science may mean for religion.  The sometimes overblown dispute between science and religion has been important for current religious thinking.  The stories about the church at first rejecting some of Galileo’s work and then later Darwin’s idea of evolution are well known.  The first responses of many religious people was to reject the influence of science on religious thought.  Fundamentalists since the early 20th century have continued in this.   But many religious leaders have responded differently to science and the new understandings of the past.

Although the Bible does not specifically state the exact age of the earth or universe, it did become an explicit concern after the Biblical period.  One method for determining the beginning of time had been to carefully read sacred texts and figure the length of generations back to Adam and Eve, who were said to live just days after the creation of the world.  Bishop James Ussher has been famous for his calculation using this method that the creation of the universe took place on the night preceding Sunday, 23 October 4004 BC.  He was not alone in this general view.  In Book XV, chapters 12-14, of The City of God, St. Augustine calculated that Creation took place around 5600 BC.  The Jewish calendar begins its record of time with the Anno Mundi, Year of the World, and states that we are now in the year 5775.  Christians and Jews traditionally agreed on the beginning date of the world.

However interesting these calculations are, they do not seem to present the most profound teachings of the Tanakh and Bible.  The Tanakh’s emphasis on a God of Justice and the Good News of the Gospel have  little if anything to do with the age of the universe.  Requiring  a connection between that age and the Bible is poor interpretation of religious tradition.  I once heard a rabbi argue that one reason it is important to study ancient Hebrew is because that is the language that God was said to have spoken according to the Genesis account.  When God said let there be light and there was, light became the embodiment of a Hebrew word.  This is a too literal and sectarian interpretation.  However, it is profound to say that learning the narrative that light can tell us is awe inspiring and invites us into holiness, or a sense of the whole through marvel and relationship.

A religious understanding of nature has long been thought possible.  It is well known that Sir Isaac Newton, the father of modern science, was a deeply religious person, as have been many other scientists.  Just as science itself used to be called natural philosophy, this tradition can be thought of as natural theology.  But thinking about nature and thinking about the religious teachings of nature as the Word of God cannot be restricted to ancient understandings of nature and of God.  We need a fresh and current way to express what are ancient and established insights.

Villanova University has long been a leader in the effort to integrate science, the liberal arts, and religion.  It formed a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences as an intellectual project that was to explicitly seek the unity of truth in the service of passionate caring.  Since 1929, Villanova began awarding a Mendel medal to those who have seen that between true science and true religion there is no intrinsic conflict.

It was a priest, Monsignor Georges Lemaître, who first proposed the theory of a “Big Bang”[2] that is the starting point of the stages of time that began 13.82 billion year ago and leads to us now.  Lemaître was an early recipient of the Mendel Medal.  The careful observations by Edwin Hubble in the 1920s proved Lemaître’s theory and started to provide a date for the Big Bang.  Another recipient of the Mendel Medal was Dr. (Rev.) Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., who traced evolutionary stages.  Leaders of the Catholic Church have long integrated religious thought with evidence for the Big Bang and biological evolution that occurred over billions of years.  Pope Pius XII directly addressed the issue of evolution in a 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis.[3]

“Pope John Paul II revisited the question of evolution in a 1996 a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.  In April 1993 he formally acquitted Galileo, 360 years after his indictment, of heretical support for Copernicus’s heliocentrism.  The pontiff began his statement with the hope that “we will all be able to profit from the fruitfulness of a trustful dialogue between the Church and science.”  Evolution, he said, is “an essential subject which deeply interests the Church.”  He recognized that science and Scripture sometimes have “apparent contradictions,” but said that when this is the case, a “solution” must be found because “truth cannot contradict truth.”  The Pope pointed to the Church’s coming to terms with Galileo’s discoveries concerning the nature of the solar system as an example of how science might inspire the Church to seek a new and “correct interpretation of the inspired word.”

“When the pope came to the subject of the scientific merits of evolution, it soon became clear how much things had changed in the nearly fifty years since the Vatican last addressed the issue.  John Paul said:

“Today, almost half a century after publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.  It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge.  The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.”

Pope Francis has again recently affirmed the Church’s acceptance of the Big Bang and Evolution.[4]

The root word for religion may come from the Indo-European word leig, the same root as we have for ligament, meaning to tie or bind together.  The Latin word, religare, also meant this.  Another possible root word meant a sense of awe of the sacred.  Religions include the awesome stories, ideas, practices, imaginations, and memories that tie a group of people together.  It has often been said that nations and other political groups are associated with imagined cultural identity held by people who may share religion, language, perhaps a relationship to a portion of land, memories of a common past, a common culture, and hopes for the future.  We have evidence now that permits a story in which all of humanity is in fact descended from a small group in Africa about 200,000 years ago, life that emerged from among the most common elements on earth, and the universe from a single point without mass almost 14 billion years ago.  This is a story that ties all of humanity together with each other and with the marvelously creative processes that have led to us, leading many who study the story to seek the common good of all those who have a common origin.  That may be an intersection of science and religion.

Many religious thinkers have thought seriously about science and the deep past.  As important as the dialogue between religion and science is, the College needs also to foster a dialogue between science and other disciplines in the Liberal Arts.  One example of how this has been done elsewhere is in the field of history.

It was a Russian Historian trained at Oxford,UK, David Christian, who coined the term “Big History.”  He and other historians stepped outside their traditional education and saw how the natural sciences could influence how they approach their own discipline.  David Christian was a junior faculty member when the question of when his university’s Intro History class should begin the narrative.  He said that the study of the past should begin at the beginning.

David Christian and other big historians thought that History should be about the evidence for the entire past rather than only the last fraction of it.  This does not in any way denigrate the importance of the last fraction of time.  The study of human society and politics is not sidelined by the study of the past as a whole; it is vastly enriched by placing it within its full context.  These historians could not by reading primary texts establish scientific dates for the origins of time, hydrogen and helium, stars, heavier elements, chemicals and minerals, solar systems with terrestrial planets, life on earth, humans, and human culture.  They had to draw on research and publications from the sciences to discuss the entire past, how it has led to the present, and where events might be reasonably thought to be heading.  These historians did not ignore science nor were they hostile to it.  They took the time and effort to learn from the sciences and then think about how it influenced their own discipline.

Big History has lately received quite a bit of attention in the media and popular culture. 

David Christian’s TED talk on Big History, with four and a half million views, his appearance on Stephen Colbert’s widely watched comedy show, and articles in theNew York Times and Times of London, are a few of the pieces of evidence for the growing visibility of Big History.

The new Crash Course YouTube series on Big History is still being released in installments, and attracted over a half million viewers in its first month.

The History channel ran a series on Big History.

ChronoZoom is a website being developed by universities around the world that helps to visualize the time scales involved in Big History.

Courses on Big History have been taught at universities from Australia to the Netherlands for decades.  A mandatory course for all first year students is offered atDominican University of California.

The Big History Project’s on-line course has been recently released.

Villanova’s Expositions presented Big History in a recent edition.

The International Big History Association has additional resources about the field. 

What the media is covering and what is being taught at many universities is the intellectual and scholarly achievements that have been released in articles and books on the field by publishers such as the University of California Press, W.W. Norton, Columbia University Press, Wiley-Blackwell, and others.  Big History is evidence and theory based, offering the largest possible overview of the past, thus systematically combining all information that helps us to understand ourselves, including politics, as part of our ecological environment.  David Armitage, Lloyd Blankfein chair of the history department at Harvard University, in his recent book The History Manifesto, Cambridge University Press, argues for a return of long-term history, including Big History: .  One Big History textbook is by Fred Spier, who was trained as a  biochemist, cultural anthropologist, and social historian.  This text is highly regarded.[5]

Big History is based on the sciences.  An account of the deep past has been integrated into Catholic theology and other religious thinking.[6]  Big History has become a respected way of placing the recent past within the context of the history of the universe.  Science, big history, and religion have been integrated to a degree.  Some people who focus on traditional history or religion still resist including the deep past in their thinking, and for them there is still controversy.  Those who have integrated their foci with science have benefitted greatly.

Other fields also benefit from thinking about how the deep past influences them.  Frans de Waal has written fascinating work on primates’ theory of mind, empathy, and a sense of fairness.  De Waal, Richard Dawkins and others use a comparative methodology.  Since biologists have determined that we have common ancestors with various other currently living species, if we compare species, we can tentatively say something about what our common ancestors might have been like and what we have inherited from the past.  If monkeys can be shown to have a sense of fairness, is the origin of ethics to be found far before any great primary texts were written? 

One could just as easily talk about Big Geography as Big History.  Ever since Einstein connected spacetime, we’ve seen that time depends on the relative movement of bodies in space.  We measure a day by how long it takes the earth to rotate relative to the sun and a year by how long it takes for the earth to orbit the sun.  Our sense of ourselves in space has changed just as radically as has our sense of ourselves in time.  Our universe is stunningly larger and particles of matter so much smaller and odder than we had realized just a hundred years ago, just as the past is so much longer than we had thought.  How we orient ourselves in spacetime influences so much about how we understand ourselves.

There are intriguing studies about science and the origins of art, music, and other fields.  Not everyone in the Liberal Arts should concentrate on how the deep past has influenced it, but a College of Liberal Arts should include a place for this approach, especially since it provides a coherent, succinct summary that can be offered within one course.

In addition to how science has been integrated with history, religious studies, and the Liberal Arts more broadly, how should the field of Political Science consider Natural Science and the past it represents?  What impact would such an integration have?  Materials about the natural sciences, Big History, and Religion and Sciences have offer important example from which political scientists might benefit. What do the natural sciences have to say to the study of politics?  How does the story of the entire past, rather than only the most recent fraction of it, change how we need to think about Political Science?

This approach is as different from traditional political science as big history is from traditional history.  The science in traditional political science comes in large part from a statistical analysis of political behavior.  Those with a mathematics and statistics background correctly see the incredible power of these methods in understanding humans’ political nature.  But those with a background in history and the natural sciences see the value of these for political science as well.

Evidence from the natural sciences demonstrates increasing complexity in the sustained, structured relations among units over time.  We see a partial and uneven movement from protons to atoms, molecules, minerals, amino acids, proteins, single cells, and increasingly complex multicellular life.  These relationships might be referred to as examples of “Polity.”  All of these units that had emerged long before eventually combined into life with consciousness and self-consciousness; this permits a transition or threshold to a new level of relationship that we might call by a name other than polity – perhaps politics. 

As the Harvard astrophysicist, Eric Chaisson, argues in the Epic of Evolution, we move from cosmic, to chemical, to biological to cultural evolution.  His idea of Cosmic Evolution, another name for Big History, accepts the cultural as the most complex stage.  As is said, we became that part of the universe that is capable of reflecting on itself – and organizing itself.  The hundred billion neurons in each of our brains with their trillion synapses permitted so many complex and alternatively possible paths for information and ideas to flow.  Our brains are the most complex matter of which we know in the universe. 

The electrical / chemical relationships among neurons make possible an even more complex phenomenon: the sustained, structured, sometimes increasingly complex political and social relations among humans.  We move very unevenly from kinship, to village, to multi-family cities, to nations, empires, and global relationships.  These are the most sophisticated relationships that exist in the universe, as far as we know now.

Big Politics showed the evidence for the common origins of all of humanity.  It would become a basis for Human Politics.  National politics, interest groups, and social movements are clearly important topics to study, but to see them within this larger framework is valuable.  American politics might be said to have begun in 1776 or 1787, international politics perhaps in 1648, and political philosophy 2,500 years ago.  Human politics begins about 200,000 years ago and evolved out of earlier forms of polity.  An evidence based story of the common past and subsequent developoment of greater complexity among humans often has the effect of looking for current ways to build on our common origins as we develop global, humna politics.

Learning how nature is embedded in us and makes us who we are often has the effect of people wanting to reciprocate by caring for nature in the ways we can through sustainable environmental practices and policy.  That is the argument of Jonathan Yavelow.  So in theory and in activism, Big Politics, or Natural Science and Political Science, has merit.  A scientific story about common human origins in an age of Globalism and Environmental crisis is an important contribution to Political Science.

The journey that the universe has taken includes our own human journey.  The 65 million year rise of mammals led to primates of various sorts and then to hominins some 8 million years ago, of which our own species is the last surviving one.  Your brain now is the most complex matter of which we know anywhere in the universe.  The relationships among the billions of people today are the most complex phenomena of which we are aware.  Our relationships have been facilitated by our ability to speak a language, think in symbols, be creative and artistic, sing, dance, trade, form polities, develop ethics, be religious, fight wars, migrate, and build a digital structure than connects billions of people.  How have we developed the complexity of our relations over time?  What is necessary to create a human community in sustainable relationship with the nature from which we emerged?  How can nature be imagined in ways that accounts for creativity and marvel?

Finally, what can we reasonably expect in the future?  Can our social and political complexity continue to develop in ways that may be necessary to sustain human survival over the long term? What will happen to humanity, life, the earth, and the universe over the coming millions and billions of years?  How do you understand your place in all of spacetime?  What does this evidence based story mean to you?

To cover this material, we need to draw upon physics, astronomy, chemistry, geography, geology, biology, computing sciences, anthropology, liguistics, religious studies, art, music, philosophy, ethics, narrative and literary studies, sociology, psychology, economics, and political science.   We need to read material written by people from all of the fields covered and listen to lectures by many of them. 

By unifying the truths established by the disciplines of the entire College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, one of humanity’s greatest achievements can be investigated: the integrated story of the stages and transitions that have occurred from the beginning of our universe until now, the steps that have been taken to get to us and everything else, how each of these are embedded in us now, how imagination and learning have  been a part of this creative process, and how passionately caring about learning can be part of passionately caring for the unity of all who have a common origin.

A single course on this would provide a clear rationale for the College of Liberal Art and Sciences within Villanova’s tradition of veritas, unitas, and caritas.


[2]  He called it a Primaeval Atom.

[3]  Quoted in Doug Linder, “The Vatican’s View of Evolution: The Story of Two Popes,” acceNovember 6, 2014

[4]  Pope Francis declares evolution and Big Bang theory are real and God is not ‘a magician with a magic wand’, The Independent, 06 November 2014

[5]              Reviews of the Spier text include:

“Spier takes us one important step forward in making big history accessible to all.  I look forward to the next, more fully illustrated and documented, step in this process.”  (Journal of World History, 1 August 2012


"This is a deep and important book that promises to send scholars in many different fields off on new paths in search of a grand unified theory of history." (Journal of Global History, 2011)


"Personally, I think everyone should have access to this story, and I would put it at the heart of the national curriculum as well." (The Times Higher Education, September 2010)


"Brilliant.  It pushes the project of theorizing big history a lot further, in exactly the right way, alert to the dangers of over-theorizing or theorizing on too limited information. It will be a major contribution to the discipline.”

— David Christian, Macquarie University



 “This book has convinced me not only that Big History is interesting and exciting, but has established a genuine intellectual basis for integrating historical knowledge, and historical method, with those of the natural world. This is a framework in which, ideally, all history should be investigated, taught and discussed.”

— R.I. Moore, Emeritus Professor, Newcastle University


"The most exciting book that I've read in 30 years. A masterpiece!"

— Barry Rodrigue, University of Southern Maine


“Narratives don’t come much grander than the current scientific view of the history of the Universe…  Spier is one of a small band of exponents of big history, the effort to put the whole story together in an academically rigorous way…  Everyone should have access to this.”

— Times Higher Education Supplement

[6]  Look, for example, at the schedule for the upcoming conference entitled “The Future Is Calling Us to Greatness.”   

* SyllabusScienceLiberalArts.pdf
A syllabus integrating the sciences and liberal arts to present the journey of the universe from the Big Bang to the imagination of caritas and a sustainable society.

Dr. Yavelow's presentation is co-sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Departments of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Biology, Chemistry, Geography and the Environment, and the Center for Energy and Environmental Education.