Cosmic evolution is the scientific study of universal
change. It is an intellectual framework that offers a grand synthesis of the many varied changes in the assembly and composition of radiation, matter, and lifethroughout the history of the universe. While engaging the time-honored queries of who we are and whence we came, this interdisciplinary subject attempts to unify the sciences within the entirety of natural history—a single broad scientific narrative of a possible originand evolutionof all material things, from an inferred big bangto humankind. (Closely related subjects include epic of evolution, big history, and astrobiology).
The roots of cosmic evolution extend back millennia.
Indian philosophywith sages like Yajnavalkyaintroduced cyclic concepts to a world view. Early Greek philosophersof the fifth century BCE, most notably Heraclitus, are celebrated for their reasoned claims that all things change. Its modern history began more than a century ago, including the wide insights of Robert Chambers, Herbert Spencer, and Lawrence Henderson. Only in the mid-20th century was the cosmic-evolutionary scenario articulated as a research paradigm to include empirical studies of galaxies, stars, planets, and life—in short, an expansive agenda that combines physical, biological, and cultural evolution. Harlow Shapleyarticulated the idea to the public at mid-century, and NASAembraced it in the late 20th century as part of its more limited astrobiology program. Carl Sagan, Eric Chaisson, Hubert Reeves, and Steven Dick, among others, became dedicated proponents of cosmic evolution in its current form writ large, and it now continues to be more intricately formulated as both a technical research program and a scientific worldview for the 21st century.
The flow of time
arrow of timeprovides a convenient archetypical symbol for cosmic evolution. Seven major epochs are arrayed across 14 billion years of time—a compact collection of salient features of cosmic history from its fiery origins to the here and now. The arrow captures the sequence of events based on a large body of post- Renaissanceobservational and experimental data—a continuous thread of change from simplicityto complexity, from inorganicto organic, from chaosin the early universe to ordermore recently. Evolution, broadly considered, has become a powerful unifying factor in all of science, bridging numerous academic disciplines—including physics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, biology, and anthropology, among others—thus forging an interdisciplinary scientific story of epic proportions that includes every known class of structured object in our richly endowed universe.
Notable among quantitative efforts to describe cosmic evolution is the concept of
energyflow through open, thermodynamicsystems, including galaxies, stars, planets, and life forms. Informationcontent is another potential metric to model the subject, though informational bits and bytes might be akin to energy acquired, stored, and expressed within ordered systems. The observed increase of energy rate density (energy/time/mass) among a whole host of ordered systems is one useful way to address the rise of complexity in an expanding universethat still obeys the cherished 2nd law of thermodynamics and thus continues to accumulate net entropy. As such, material systems—from buzzing bees and redwood trees to shining stars and thinking beings—are viewed as temporary, local islands of order in a vast, global sea of disorder.
Accordingly, biological evolution is a small, albeit important, subset of a more extensive evolutionary scheme stretching across all of
spaceand all of time. Nothing entirely randompertains, as systems are “non-randomly eliminated” as unfit for their environments by dynamically mixing chancewith necessity, or randomness with determinism, thereby deciding the winners and losers throughout Natureregardless of whether those systems are quarks or quasars, microbes or minds. Most contemporary researchers consider the term cosmic evolution as all-encompassing, thereby incorporating different types of evolutionary change within and among many temporal epochs:
* Cosmic Evolution
** Eras: physical evolution-->biological evolution-->cultural evolution
*** Epochs: particulate-->galactic-->stellar-->planetary-->chemical-->biological-->cultural.
Although by no means the culmination or pinnacle of the evolutionary process, technologically intelligent humans, as a quintessential expression of cultural evolution, now reflect back upon the profound series of changes that brought us forth. Considering culture’s possible logical outcome, we may already exist in a postbiological universe—one that has evolved beyond flesh and blood intelligence to artificial intelligence. Such proposals help to inform the search for
extraterrestrial life, asserting the importance of biological and cultural evolution as key elements of cosmic evolution and not separate from it. Whether humankind is alone in the universe or among many other sentient beings, cosmic evolution remains a viable explanation of our material origins.
By contrast, some researchers (notably astrophysicists) restrict their view of cosmic evolution to change within
stars and galaxies, confining the adjective “cosmic” to only astronomical objects during mostly the first several billion years of the universe. Others (astrobiologists) also limit their study of this subject, working among more specialized venues such as planets and moons suitable for life during the most recent few billion years. But those who study the entire subject of cosmic evolution in its most general scope over 14 billion years from a presumed creation event (including both astrophysics and astrobiology) address all changes ubiquitously and indefinitely, as diagramed above.
This subject can elicit controversy, for several reasons: A creation event like an inferred Big Bang can be hard to accept for non religious adherents. Evolution on the other hand inherently attracts detractors, especially among religious fundamentalists; cosmic evolution addresses universal and human origins, which can cause emotion; it challenges age-old ideas about life’s sense of place in the cosmos; it champions change, which many people dislike or distrust; it welcomes a broad interpretation of the concept of evolution, which some biologists prefer as their exclusive purview pertinent only to life; it proposes a grand, sweeping, interdisciplinary worldview based on rationality and empiricism, which, despite its experimental tests, some find intellectually arrogant.
Teilhard de Chardinfor example (see Omega Point), have embraced cosmic evolution for religious purposes (both western and eastern), given its highly inclusive big-bang-to-humankind narrative and its spiritual overtones. However, this is not the intent of main-stream scientific researchers who ply the trade; rather, the effort described herein is a decidedly objective, empirical, and quantitative science driven by naturalists who adhere, liberally and broadly, to the modern scientific method. Ultimately, if people of all cultures and persuasions find cosmic evolution religiously or philosophically attractive, then all the more intellectually powerful is this transdisciplinary scenario of rich natural history for the new millennium.
*Chaisson, E., [http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/CHAHUX.html "The Hubble Wars"] ,
Harvard University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-674-41255-9
*Chaisson, E., [http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/CHACOS.html "Cosmic Evolution"] ,
Harvard University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-674-00987-8
*Chaisson, E., "Epic of Evolution", Columbia Univ. Press, 2006. ISBN 0-231-13560-2
*Christian, D., "Maps of Time", Univ. of California Press, 2004. ISBN 0-520-23500-2
*Dick, S. The "Biological Universe", Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996. 0-521-66361-X
*Dick, S. and Strick, J., "The Living Univers"e, Rutgers Univ. Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8135-3733-9
*Reeves, H, "Patience dans l’azur: L’evolution cosmique", Editions du Seuil, 1981.
*Sagan, C., "Cosmos", Random House, 1980. ISBN 0-394-50294-9
Timeline of cosmology
Timeline of the Big Bang
* [http://www.tufts.edu/as/wright_center/cosmic_evolution/index.html Cosmic evolution web site]
* [http://www.voyagesthroughtime.org/ Voyages through time web site]
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