On Revolutions

July 17, 2020

Today I want to begin a discussion of the big, exciting events in history writ large — by which I mean nothing less than the sum total of human history, evolutionary history, Earth’s history, stellar history, and ultimately, the history of the universe.

You know the events I mean. The revolutions, the explosions, the Golden Ages, the times in history when unexpected, unpredictable things happen suddenly, often in quick succession, and after which nothing is ever quite the same. When the whole world effloresces or withers, explodes or collapses. Call it punctuated equilibrium, call them Black Swans, or recall the quote of unknown origin (though often misattributed to Lenin): that “There are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen.”

I want to talk about the weeks when decades happen.

Often the gravity of such occurrences is obvious from the name, as in the Great Oxidation Event, also called the “Oxygen Catastrophe,” the “Oxygen Revolution,” the “Oxygen Holocaust,” or my favourite, “The Rusting of the Earth.” Or take its opposite in hue, “The Greening of Land.” As if that verdant name were insufficiently magnificent, it is sometimes called the “Land Plant Explosion.” (And the big one, that is, the Big Bang, needs no comment.)

At human scale, revolution is typically the term — the French Revolution, the Chemical Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, and so on — no doubt thanks in part to that great intersection of two meanings of the word revolution, in the Copernican Revolution. It is for this reason that I’ll call them revolutions, a word I like for its connotations of rotation, of upheaval, of reversal and yet of irreversibility. But in human history they are also called Births and Rebirths (Renaissances), Awakenings and Enlightenments, formations and Reformations — and there are naturally twilights to follow the Dawns, deaths as well as births — the great Collapses, the Extinctions, the Declines and Falls.

Such shifts are not just seismic because of their size. There seems to be an element of irreversibility inherent to the process. Ingrouille’s incredible book Plants: Diversity and Evolution describes it well, and gives some hints as to where I’m going:

If the whole history of the earth took place in one day, the first cells had evolved before 8 a.m. but the land was not properly colonised until 10 p.m. Then at the end of the Silurian Period and the beginning of the Devonian Period, about 400 million years ago, after all the waiting, like a kettle suddenly coming to the boil, a full terrestrial vegetation and an accompanying arthropod fauna appeared in just a few million years.

What I intend to establish, if it is not already evident, is that all of these events, across such a diversity of domains, have something (or rather a set of things) in common. There are patterns in the conditions that produce them, and patterns in the conditions that succeed them. I am far from the first to try to trace these patterns across long time spans — and in fact, while writing this today, I discovered that examinations of such a scope even have a name!1 But I hope to give a comprehensive account of the commonalities as I have seen them, across a widely divergent variety of disciplines.

My intention, as of today, is to begin with biology, proceed to astrophysics, and then perhaps to geology, with analogies to human history, over the next few months. As I am neither a biologist, nor an astrophysicist, nor a geologist, nor a historian, I need your help! I am hosting salons via the Interintellect. You can hear about these or get in touch via my newsletter.

If any of these ideas excite you, I would love to hear from you. I would also appreciate contributions, other examples, counterexamples, critiques, or any other thoughts or questions you might have. In particular I’d love to hear things like “But what about X?” or “Have you thought about Y?” or “How have you not read Z?!”

This will eventually connect with the series I began on human culture.


A rough outline, subject to change. Unlinked posts have yet to be written.

  1. Disclaimer
  2. Definitions: Revolutions, Step Changes, Paradigm Shifts
  3. Characteristics of Revolutions
  4. A List of Revolutions
  5. Phase Transitions
  6. Two Types of Revolution

  1. Namely “Big History” to which I say… “Great!” Maybe I’m onto something. And one thing I’m interested in, in this expansive exploration, is why good ideas seem to happen simultaneously over vast distances. In recent months, I’ve also become aware that Complexity Theory has much to say on the subject.

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.