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Big history: the role of universal Darwinism, collective learning, & the rise of complexity in the longue durée

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posted on 2022-03-29, 03:18 authored by David Baker
This thesis demonstrates how the annaliste school's search for broad trends over a few centuries can be connected to Big History's search for broad trends over 13.8 billion years. The rise of complexity through Universal Darwinism is linked to the annaliste idea of population cycles by the idea of 'collective learning' - which is itself part of the Darwinian process of cultural evolution. On this basis, the macro and micro trends of history are connected. At one end, annaliste population cycles influenced the events of conventional history 5000 to 250 years ago by profoundly influencing the rise and decline of living standards, population numbers, elite incomes, and sociopolitical instability. The Big History concept of collective learning explains both why those population cycles occurred in agrarian civilisations and why there was a transition to the Industrial Revolution, since accumulation of knowledge raised the carrying capacity of the human population, and thus the number of potential innovators. I also examine periods when severe population decline caused accumulated knowledge and the carrying capacity to decline. The carrying capacity has a profound influence on all stages of human history. This work extends the chronology of human history back to 200,000 years of hunter-gatherers and 2 million years of hominine evolution, in which collective learning also played a role in population growth. Collective learning is itself a form of 'cultural evolution', which is in turn a manifestation of the 'Darwinian algorithm'. The latter is a process of random variation and non-random selection that raises the free energy rate density or complexity of certain areas of the Universe: from culture, to biology, to chemicals and minerals, to stellar elements, and the theoretical formation of multiple universes. A portion of this thesis is given over to the role of the Darwinian algorithm in these processes and also to showing how the grand narrative of Big History and even the events of human history are part of the broadest trend of 'rising complexity' in the Universe.


Table of Contents

Introduction -- Chapter One. The longue & plus longue durées -- Chapter Two. Complexity in the pre-agrarian plus longue durée -- Chapter Three. Population decline & the 'Tasmanian effect' -- Chapter Four. Longue durée cycles in the agrarian era - Chapter Five. Ladurie revisitied -- CHapter Six. The rising tide of collective learning -- Conclusion. The shape of history & the plus longue durée.


Theoretical thesis. Bibliography: pages 362-394

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Arts, Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations

Department, Centre or School

Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations

Year of Award



Copyright David Baker 2014. Copyright disclaimer:




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