© Cathy McGowan Russell, 2013
Seven Stages in the Epic of Evolution
How can you wrap your head around 13.8 billion years of time?
Don’t you have to have a deep grasp of physics, chemistry, biology, paleontology, anthropology, history and psychology and lots of other “ologies” to understand the story of our universe?
Thankfully, thousands and thousands of scientists and teachers have contributed their deep knowledge so that you can reap the benefits of gaining an overview of this most amazing story.
To help give you an overview, I’ve divided different parts of the story into seven “stages.” Each stage is like a platform upon which a new stage emerges. Over time, the older stage continues to evolve, even as newer stages continue to emerge.
I call these stages the Radiant Stage(aka the Big Bang), the Material Stage, the Celestial Stage, the Biological Stage, the Cooperative Stage, the Cultural Stage and the Enlightened Stage.
The “Seven Stages” view of cosmic evolution is informed by many authors and from extensive research in biology and human cultural evolution. The Seven Stages view emphasizes the importance of information flow. Information flows via recombination of genes and memes. This genetic recombination happens via mobile DNA, recombination, symbiosis. Memetic recombination refers to transfer of information via language, music, images, symbols, and other cultural referneces.
Others who write about the Epic of Evolution emphasize different eras, or ages or thresholds. Check out this page to learn the other about other schemes for learning about the major divides in our Great Story.
Here is a brief outline of the Seven Stages in the Epic of Evolution:
1. Radiant Stage
About 13.8 billion years ago, a Great Radiance (aka the Big Bang) lit up our universe. Within the first moments, space-time, gravity, light and other forms of radiation emerged. Today, we know that the universe is made up of various forms of energy, or radiation. This energy permeates the universe in what physicists call the Quantum Field.
The Radiant Stage is the foundation upon which all other stages are built.
2. Material Stage
Shortly after the universe began, the first matter formed. Within minutes of the Great Radiance, protons and neutrons, the building blocks for all chemicals, had formed. Around 380,000 years after the Great Radiance, the universe cooled enough to allow the first elements to form. This cooling allowed electrons to combine with nuclei to form the first hydrogen and helium atoms. As the electrons were captured by the nuclei, light was released. Today, we can see evidence of this light as “cosmic background radiation.” Hydrogen and helium later fused into heavier elements inside of exploding supernova stars. Over time, elements merged with other elements to from more and more complex chemicals, some of which became precursors for life. New materials continue to form.
3. Celestial Stage
Soon after the the first elements formed, they began swirling into clumps of matter that would eventually become stars and galaxies. Around a hundred million years after the Great Radiance, stars began to shine. Eventually galaxies formed. Planets and moons formed. Around four and a half billion years ago, our Sun and Earth emerged , followed soon thereafter by the moon.
4. Biological Stage
Almost four billion years ago, life began on Earth. How the first organisms emerged on Earth is still a great mystery. These first organisms were simple-celled organisms lacking a nucleus. These bacteria-like creatures eventually evolved more and more complex biochemical pathways and genetic storage and retrieval systems. Some organisms evolved the ability to speed up evolution through the emergence of mechanisms to mobilize and recombine DNA. Mobile DNA allows the duplication of modification of genes. Mobile DNA allows organisms to evolve more quickly into creatures of greater biochemical and morphological diversity.
5. Cooperative Stage
Over time, simple life forms cooperated with other simple celled organisms to become more organized and more complex. These more organized and complex creatures became able to inhabit new environments. Cooperation occurs at the subcellular, cellular, organismal and societal levels. One type of cooperation is “endosymbiosis.” Two simple cells join forces to become a new kind of cell with superpowers. One endosymbiotic event led to cells with ability to convert food to energy. This symbiotic event led to the mitochondria, the powerhouses inside your cells. Without mitochondria, you would not exist. Another symbiotic event led to the chloroplasts in all plants. Chloroplasts gives plants the ability to use solar power. Eventually, these more complex cells cooperated to become multicellular organisms. Multi-celled creatures evolved differente types of tissues. These diverse tissues, in turn, cooperate to create complex organisms capable of new traits, such as seeing, running, swimming, and integrating information. Cooperation is a way for organisms to use resources more efficiently and thus be more “fit”. With cooperation, organisms use energy more efficiently. Efficiency means they can use less energy to produce more biomass.
6. Cultural Stage
Over time, organisms evolved ability to cooperate with one another. Societies form. Bees make hives. Wolves form packs. Humans form societies. With the emergence of the prefrontal cortex, humans gained the power of language and the power to imagine the future before it happens. This power of imagination leads to a new kind of creative evolution, in which scenarios are tested first in the imagination before people turn the ideal image into reality. “Imagination creates reality.” Through imagination, collective learning is codified into written form, which in turn allows for even greater imagination. This in turn facilitates the emergence of culture, religion, science, and “The Age of Reason.” Imagining the needs and desire of others, a person may then help to satisfy these needs. People can imagine the benefits of exchanging goods and services, so trade proliferates. As trade proliferates, specialization increases. People become more and more interdependent and culture becomes a powerful force of evolution.
7. Enlightened Stage
The Universe is on the threshold of something new and magnificent stage. While some people fear humans are near the end of evolution, others are rationally optimistic that we are entering a new age. As people can see where they came from, they gain a better understanding of where they may be going. People now realize that light can become matter, that species go extinct, that the conscious mind is barely aware of powerful subconscious drives, that love feeds our imagination, that imagination creates reality and that “we are all in this together.” These realizations create the possibility for a whole new era. Called by some “The Age of Empathy,” this new era of “Enlightened Evolution” opens possibilities that humanity may eliminate needless suffering, that we will find new ways to protect the biosphere and that sentient life will flourish on Earth and throughout the cosmos.