Monthly Discussion



World Climax



Change has always been an integral feature of life. "You cannot step twice in the same river", said Heraclitus—who has been characterized as the first Western thinker—illustrating the reality of permanent change. Heraclitus invoked an incontrovertible law of nature according to which everything is mutable, “all is flux.” In the physics tradition such laws are called universal laws, for example, the second law of thermodynamics, which stipulates that entropy always increases, and explains such things as why there can be no frictionless motion. In fact, there are theories that link the accumulation of complexity to the dissipation of entropy, or wasted heat.

          The accelerating rate of change in technology, medicine, information exchange, and other social aspects of our life, is familiar to everyone. Progress—questionably linked to technological achievements—has been following progressively increasing growth rates. The exponential character of the growth pattern of change is not new. Whereas significant developments for mankind crowd together in recent history, they populate sparsely the immense stretches of time in the earlier world. The marvels we witnessed during the 20th century surpass what happened during the previous one thousand years, which in turn is more significant than what took place during the many thousands of years that humans lived in hunting-gathering societies. What is new is that we are now reaching a point of impasse, where the rate of change is becoming too rapid for us to follow. The amount of change we are presently confronted with is approaching the limit of the untenable. Many of us find it increasingly difficult to cope effectively with an environment that changes too rapidly.

          What will happen if change continues at an accelerating rate? Is there a precise mathematical law that governs the evolution of change and complexity in the Universe? And if there is one, how universal is it? How long has it been in effect and how far in the future can we forecast with it? If this law is a simple exponential, we are heading for an imminent singularity, namely the absurd situation where change appears faster than we can become aware of it. If the law is more of a natural-growth process (S-curve), then we must be presently sitting close to its middle (inflection point).

          In an article under publication I have undertaken the task to quantify complexity (and change), as it evolved over time. Also to determine the law that best describes complexity's evolution over time, and then to forecast it's future trajectory. The results throws light onto what one may reasonably expect as the future rate of change in society. However, quantifying complexity is something easier said than done.

          In the spirit of punctuated equilibrium, I have quantified complexity relatively in terms of the spacing between equally important evolutionary turning points (milestones). From the beginning of the Universe (big bang) evolution proceeded mostly in steps delimited by such milestones. At each milestone a large amount of complexity was added to the system while in between milestones little happened. If we look at only equally important milestones, the amount of complexity added each time is inversely proportional to the time period between milestones (the reader can find a detailed discussion of this under Articles in www.growth‑ Following extensive research in the literature, a set of "canonical" milestones was put together (see Table I below) and was used to quantify steps in evolution of complexity in the cosmos.

          Perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out that the world's complexity as a function of milestone number has grown along an S-shape pattern, and we presently are at the mid point of this natural-growth process. Exhibit 3 shows the rate of change of complexity, which typically depicts the bell-shaped pattern of a natural life cycle (the logarithmic vertical scale causes the bell-shape to appear mountain like).


Exhibit 3.  We see results from an S-curve fit to the data of the canonical milestone set. The vertical axis depicts the logarithm of the change in complexity. On a linear scale the gray line would appear bell-shaped. The faint circles on the forecasted trend indicate the complexity of future milestones. The reader should remember that recent milestones crowd together in time, whereas between early milestones there are vast stretches of time.


The mid point of the bell-shaped curve is at milestone number 27.89, which corresponds to 10 years ago. In other words, complexity grew at the highest rate ever around 1990. From then onward complexity's rate of change began decreasing. Future milestones of comparable importance will henceforth be appearing less frequently. In other words, turning points of importance such as the appearance of modern physics, the discovery of DNA the transistor and nuclear energy, and the spreading of Internet and the sequencing of the human genome should be expected to make their appearance in increasing time intervals, namely 38, 45, 69, 124, 245, ... years from now. The rate of change in our lives is already decreasing, and contrary to folklore, our children and their children will experience less change in their lives than we have.


Sitting on Top of the World

          We can say that the Universe's complexity has been growing along a large-scale natural-growth pattern that has just reached its mid point. Complexity's life cycle peaks during the lifetime of people born in the mid 1940s. It so happens that we are traversing the only time in the Universe's history that 80 calendar years can witness change in complexity coming from as many as three evolutionary milestones. We happen to be positioned at the world's prime!

          Coincidentally the mid 1940s is the time of the baby boom that creates a bulge on the population distribution. As if by some divine artifact a larger-than-usual sample of individuals was meant to experience this exceptionally turbulent moment in the evolution of the cosmos.



The following data set of evolutionary turning points (compiled from 13 different sources) has been used in Exhibit 3. The discrepancy between different sources has been used to estimate the errors shown in Exhibit 3.




Years ago


Big Bang / quarks / protons & neutrons / atoms of elements



Origin of Milky Way



Origin of life on Earth



First eukaryots / atmospheric oxygen / oldest photosynthetic plants



First multicelluar life (sponges, seaweeds)



Cambrian explosion / invertebrates / vertebrates / plants colonize land



First mammals



First birds / first flowers



First primates / asteroid collision / mass extinction (including dinosaurs)



First humanoids



First orangutan



Chimpanzees and humans diverge



First stone tools / first humans



Discovery of fire / Homo erectus / Emergence of Homo sapiens



Homo heidelbergensis / homo neanderthalensis



Emergence of "modern humans" / earliest burial of the dead



Rock art / protowriting



Invention of agriculture



Techniques for starting fire / first cities



Development of the wheel / writing / archaic empires



Democracy / city states / the Greeks / Buddha



Zero and decimals invented / Rome falls / Moslem conquest



Renaissance (printing press)/discovery of new world/the scientific method



Industrial revolution (steam engine) / political revolutions (French, USA)



Modern physics / radio / electricity / automobile / airplane



DNA / transistor / nuclear energy / W.W.II / cold war / sputnik



Internet / human genome sequenced