Big History: How Do We Study Everything That Has Ever Happened?

From a lecture series presented by Professor David Christian, D.Phil.

Big History: Have you ever wondered if it’s possible to understand the whole of the past, literally from the beginning of everything to the present day? It’s an enourmous undertaking, but one that David Christian endeavors to cover.

Image of Big Bang Expansion in the context of big history
A representation of the evolution of the universe over 13.77 billion years.
image of Professor David Christian, D.Phil. for article on Big History
Professor David Christian, D.Phil.

Professor David Christian—A Brief Introduction

As a history teacher, I was always concerned about the significance of history. Why was I teaching it? Why should students study it? And I was particularly worried that we always seemed to be teaching bits and pieces of the past, but we never seemed to be teaching the whole thing. So I taught Russia, another colleague taught the U.S., and another colleague taught ancient Greece, and so on.

But what was it that tied all these separate histories together? This question nagged away at me. And then, in the 1980s, I tackled the problem in the most ambitious way I could imagine—by trying to construct a course that began at the beginning of the Universe and ended now. Could it be done? How would you do it? What would such a course look like?

When my colleagues agreed to let me teach it, that’s when I panicked, because I realized I had no idea of how to do it. I didn’t know of any courses like this. We had to make it all up from scratch. I was fortunate enough to find wonderful colleagues. And I began teaching it with a team of lecturers that included astronomers, geologists, biologists, anthropologists, and historians.

Learn more: What is Big History?

Covering 13 Billion Years in 13 Weeks

One of the things we found very quickly was that teaching big history was exhilarating. It was exciting. After all, we were teaching 13 billion years in a 13-week semester. So I could say to my colleagues: “How many years do you cover in a week? I cover 1 billion years.”  It was exciting. It was exciting the teachers, but it was also exciting for a lot of the students. And I think the reason it was exciting for them in particular was because it raised fundamental questions about the meaning of history and about our place in the cosmos.

Now, as a teacher I believe that young students should be asking those questions, and they should be encouraged to pursue them seriously. So one of the things I enjoyed most about the course was it legitimized their questions—it allowed them to think that these large questions were worth pursuing and there were interesting and sensible things you could say about them.

Learn more: Big History—Moving across Multiple Scales

The Origins of the Name “Big History”

In 1992, I wrote an article on the course. And because I needed a label to describe it, I used the somewhat whimsical label “big history.” I was thinking, of course, of the big bang. It’s not the ideal label. I can think of many reasons why other labels might be better, but it seems to have stuck. And that’s why we’re going to keep using it.

Big history surveys the past at the largest possible scales, and it does so using the best available information from many different disciplines.

Now I want to look more closely at what big history is. So here’s a quick definition: Big history surveys the past at the largest possible scales, and it does so using the best available information from many different disciplines.

Because of the scale on which we look at the past, you should not expect to find in it many of the familiar details, names, and personalities that you’ll find in other types of historical teaching and writing. For example, the French Revolution and the Renaissance will barely get a mention. They’ll zoom past in a blur. You’ll barely see them. Instead, what we’re going to see are some less-familiar aspects of the past—the sort of things that Fernand Braudel was looking for at the longue durée, at the large scale. We’ll be looking, above all, for the very large patterns, the shape of the past.

Learn more: Big History—Simplicity and Complexity

Big History as a Traditional Creation Story

Now, though it uses modern, scientific information, I soon realized that big history is in some important ways similar to traditional creation stories. These also used the best available information in the societies in which they were constructed to create credible stories that gave people a sense of their bearings in space and time. And that was what made them so powerful. They offered maps of space and time within which people could say: “That’s where I am.” And that’s why I called my book on big history Maps of Time.

But creation stories are not unique. Within all the great religious and cultural traditions, you’ll find maps of this type. People have tried to understand human history as part of the larger story of the whole Universe within all these traditions.

This, for example, was the aim of Christian writers such as Augustine, who early in the 5th century helped create a universal history that began about 6,000 years ago—which was when he assumed, or calculated rather, that God had created the Earth. And that story would shape Christian historiography for over 1,000 years. What Augustine’s story did was to imbed the history of humanity, the city of man, in the history of the Universe, the divine world, the city of God.

In fact, historians have attempted “universal histories” in all eras. Over time, I’ve realized that the project of big history is not really that original. H. G. Wells’s Outline of History, which was published just after World War I, is perhaps the most famous 20th-century attempt. Wells wrote the book because of his horror at what was happening during World War I. And he found when he looked at the historians, that far from helping humanity avoid such crises in the future, the historians were part of the problem, because each of them presented a sort of tribal myth that encouraged tribalism and conflict.

So there were the historians of Germany, the historians of Britain, the historians of Russia. Could one find a larger story that might encourage a sense of unity between humans? That’s what H. G. Wells was looking for. And his idea was that you’d find such a larger story if you attempted to create a unified history that embedded human history in larger histories.

Science and Big History

Unfortunately, a lot of the science that makes big history possible now, including all the dating techniques that allow us now to put absolute dates on events in the remote past, wasn’t available when he wrote. Since his time, big history has become possible in a way it was not before, because of a whole series of scientific breakthroughs in the middle of the 20th century.

…very few historians work closely with biologists, or geologists, or astronomers—and the result is a fragmented vision of reality. And that’s what we seem to teach in most of our schools and universities: a vision of reality in which you get a bit of chemistry, a bit of history, a bit of this, a bit of that, but no coherence.

So it’s possible now in a way that it wasn’t before, and yet oddly, “universal histories” have been quite unfashionable in recent decades. Modern education focuses almost exclusively on specialized knowledge. For example, most history teaching and scholarship is concerned with just the last 2,000 years, and most of that with the last 300 or 400 years.

And very few historians work closely with biologists, or geologists, or astronomers—and the result is a fragmented vision of reality. And that’s what we seem to teach in most of our schools and universities: a vision of reality in which you get a bit of chemistry, a bit of history, a bit of this, a bit of that, but no coherence.

Learn more: Big History—Evidence and the Nature of Science

Understanding “A Bit” of Everything

Now, this fragmented vision of reality that we teach in the modern world is profoundly unsatisfying. The problem and its solution are described very well in a book that a physicist wrote in 1944 about the origins of life. The physicist was Erwin Schrödinger. His dates are 1887 to 1961. He wrote a book on the origins of life after giving a series of lectures on the subject in Dublin in 1943.

Now, he was acutely aware that he was a physicist—he was one of the pioneers of quantum physics—but he was not really qualified to write a book on life. Yet, he argued, a unified understanding of reality was vital, and that required that scholars be prepared to cross disciplines. So if no one else would do it … Let me quote Schrödinger. He puts it very well:

We have inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge. The very name given to the highest institutions of learning reminds us, that from antiquity and throughout many centuries, the universal aspect has been the only one to be given full credit. But the spread, both in width and depth, of the multifarious branches of knowledge during the last hundred-odd years, has confronted us with a queer dilemma. We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to acquire reliable material for welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind fully to command more than a small specialized portion of it.

And he concludes:

I can see no other escape from this dilemma … than that some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them—and at the risk of making fools of ourselves.

And all I can say to that is, amen.

So, big history tries to meet the need that Schrödinger identified for a more unified account of reality. But let me remind you that this is one attempt to tell the story. In the future we can imagine many different approaches with different emphases. We can imagine biologists’ versions, and we can imagine geologists’ versions, and we can imagine astronomers’ versions. And they may tell the same essential story, but they’ll differ in important ways.

Continued in The Eight Fundamental Thresholds of Big History

Keep reading:
The Big History of Civilizations: The Torch Podcast
Project Mercury, a Chimp, and the Moon: The Cold War in Space
The Great Powers of World War I — Germany’s Revolution

From the Lecture Series Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity
Taught by Professor David Christian, D. Phil