What can we learn about the past from a stone tool, a lyre and a chronometer? Big History Institute Associate Lecturer David Baker talks Big History and collective learning.
I was invited by the National Museum of Australia to give the inaugural talk in their lecture series "History of the World in 100 Objects" with exhibits on loan from the British Museum. The exhibit deals for the most part with human history, the majority of it the last 5000 years of agrarian civilisations, with a smattering of Neolithic and Paleolithic items. I was very glad to see a handful of objects from humanity's deep evolutionary past, from a few million years ago. But, as any geologist or paleontologist would tell you, this is not the sum and total of a "history of the world". As a big historian, I was invited to put these objects into a much larger context.
The world is not a few million, but 4.54 billion years old. The cosmic primordial soup from which all matter sprang is 13.8 billion years old. The best way to tie the objects of the exhibit to this older story was to select a few and chart their provenance all the way back to the Big Bang.
For this purpose I selected three objects: the Olduvai stone chopping tool dated 1.8 to 2 million years ago, the Queen's Lyre from Ur in ancient Mesopotamia from 2500 BCE, and the ship's chronometer from the HMS Beagle, the same vessel that carried Charles Darwin on his legendary journey across the Earth nearly 200 years ago. A good cross-section of the Paleolithic, agrarian, and modern eras.
To start, with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, I had to take issue with the dates assigned to these objects. They were, in fact, all 13.8 billion years old. Part of an unbroken continuum of matter and energy that goes back to the very beginning of space and time. Those objects are currently, as are we, in their current molecular form after being shaped and reshaped time and time again across the cosmos into an endless array of most beautiful forms.
I took those objects through their formation in firestorm of the Big Bang, the nuclear fusion in the bellies of stars, and the calamitous flashes of supernovae. And then, after billions of years, their accretion and differentiation onto the crust of this planet we call home.
I explained how the Olduvai stone chopping tool was chipped off from a bit of basalt that was belched out from beneath the surface of the Earth, as ultra-hot lava, cooling into igneous rock, pushed about by plate tectonics until it could be retrieved by a human forager.
Olduvai stone chopping tool
The gold of the Queen's Lyre was forged in a supernova, and was one of the scraps of gold that did not sink to the centre of the Earth during differentiation, explaining gold's rareness. The red limestone in the Lyre is derived from lighter elements that form in the belly of a star, but the red itself is derived from oxidation, a process kick-started by some of the earliest life, microscopic photosynthesizers dwelling on the surface of the oceans approximately 3 billion years ago. The wood of the Lyre is from those same photosynthesizers that evolved into multi-cellular plants hundreds of millions of years ago, and eventually into the trees that were cut down to produce it.
The same goes for the mahogany of the Beagle's chronometer. And the brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, both requiring a supernova, and is malleable enough to be used for the creation of fine and sensitive instruments. These enabled Darwin to travel the world and uncover one of the most astounding discoveries in all science. That life was not fixed in form, but evolved in a continuum, connecting the story of mankind to a much wider world and a much longer narrative than had previously been imagined.
All of these objects were brought into being by something even more significant. The ability of Homo sapiens, and perhaps a great many other species of our genus, to tinker and innovate. But not just in the sense of inventing tools - lots of animals can do that - but to continue to accumulate more innovations with each passing generation than is lost by the next. In the same way that Isaac Newton said that he stood on the shoulders of giants, every innovation of humanity is predicated on the tinkering and innovation that went on a generation before. This collective learning or cultural evolution has delivered us from stone tools to skyscrapers in the evolutionary blink of an eye, in the space of a few tens of thousands of years.
Yes, indeed, when you're into Big History, you can get a lot from 3 objects. Yet they are just picture stills, a snapshot in time, as they continue to be transformed, as they have been for 13.8 billion years. What is perhaps more startling than the past transformations, is what extraordinary changes still await them. And us.