Big History and the Principle of Emergence


Ken Baskin


Life is a raucous carnival, full of “games” and “rides” whose ongoing interactions continually surprise us. Yet thinkers are too often tempted to treat it as a machine that spits out linear time lines of events, one leading deterministically to another. By its interdisciplinary nature, big history is inclined to treat the world as a carnival; yet the temptation to treat it in the more linear way sometimes prevails. This essay treats one key dynamic that governs life’s carnival—the principle of emergence. Emergence is the process by which a relatively simple entity interacts with its environment to become structurally complex, often in ways that seem impossible to anticipate. In this way, a seed becomes a fruit tree, a small community becomes a vast city, or a shamanic religion in a hunter-gatherer band evolves into a system of belief and practice shared by a billion people. By defining emergence and exploring religion as an extended illustration, this paper makes the case for more fully incorporating the principle of emergence into the study of big history.