Complexity Science and Myth in Big History


Ken Baskin


From early on, David Christian’s vision of big history as a “modern creation myth” faced criticism for introducing elements of spirituality. This essay contends that the resulting controversy arises from a misunderstanding of the nature of myth. The mainstream model of myth depicts it as fanciful stories of supernatural agents that members of a society use to address their anxieties. While this is often the case, the author argues that myth can be more profitably explored as a neurobiological imperative that plays a critical role in cultural evolution. To make this case, he examines how the principles of complexity science helped him understand how human history has gone through periods, such as the Axial Age and Modernity, when the change produced by societies’ greatest successes demanded new ways of thinking about the world in order for those societies to survive. He then examines current neurobiology to explain how reinventing myth has allowed such societies to transform in ways that enabled them to meet the challenges produced by change. With this understanding of myth, the essay concludes with a discussion of how the myth of big history can allow us to contribute to the new ways of thinking that are emerging today, as culture evolves so we can meet our current existential challenges.


Author Biography

Ken Baskin

Ken Baskin is an independent researcher whose work integrates insights from complexity science, neuro-anthropology, and big history. After earning a PhD in English Literature in 1977, he spent fifteen years writing public-relations material for major firms. His books include Corporate DNA (1998), an examination of how to think about organizations as living things rather than just mechanisms, and The Axial Ages of World History (2014), an exploration of the similarities between the Axial Age and Modernity that he co-wrote with Moscow anthropologist Dmitri Bondarenko. Ken is currently reinterpreting religion as a way that human groups can know and adapt to the powerful forces that surround us. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.