Big History: Have you ever wondered if it’s possible to understand the whole of the past—from the beginning of everything to the present day? It’s an enormous undertaking, but one that David Christian endeavors to cover.
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? 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. I taught Russia, another colleague taught the US, 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. 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. How could it be done? What would such a course look like?
This is a transcript from the video series Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
When my colleagues agreed to let me teach it, that’s when I panicked; I realized I had no idea how to do it. I didn’t know of any courses like this. We had to make it all up from scratch, but I was fortunate enough to find wonderful colleagues. So I began teaching it with a team of lecturers that included astronomers, geologists, biologists, anthropologists, and historians.
Covering 13 Billion Years in 13 Weeks
One of the things we found very quickly was that teaching big history was exhilarating, 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 for the teachers, but it was also exciting for a lot of students, and the reason it was exciting for them, in particular, was because it raised fundamental questions about the meaning of history and our place in the cosmos.
As a teacher, I believe that young students should be asking those questions, and they should be encouraged to pursue them seriously. 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 that there were interesting and sensible things you could say about them.
Learn more about the story of everything, from the big bang up to the present day
The Origins of the Name “Big History”
In 1992, I wrote an article on the course, using the somewhat whimsical label “big history,” referring to the big bang. It’s not the ideal label. There are reasons why other labels might be better, but it seems to have stuck.
Big history surveys the past at the largest possible scales, and it does so using the best available information from many different disciplines.
Let’s look more closely at what big history is, with 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 find in other types of historical teaching and writing. For example, the French Revolution and the Renaissance barely get a mention; they zoom past in a blur. Instead, we discuss some less-familiar aspects of the past—the sort of things that Fernand Braudel was looking for at the longue durée, on the large scale. We’ll be looking, above all, for the very large patterns, the shape of the past.
Big History as a Traditional Creation Story
Though it uses modern, scientific information, 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. That was what made them so powerful: They offered maps of space and time within which people could say, “That’s where I am.”
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. 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.
Historians have attempted “universal histories” in all eras. Over time, it becomes clear that the project of big history is not that original. H. G. Wells’s Outline of History 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. 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 presented a sort of tribal myth that encouraged tribalism and conflict.
Could one find a larger story that might encourage a sense of unity between humans? That’s what H. G. Wells was looking for. His idea was that you’d find 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, geologists, or astronomers—and the result is a fragmented vision of reality. 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.
It’s possible now in a way that it wasn’t before, and yet oddly, “universal histories” have been 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.
Very few historians work closely with biologists, geologists, or astronomers—and the result is a fragmented vision of reality. This is 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.
Understanding “A Bit” of Everything
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, from 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.
Schrödinger was acutely aware that he was a physicist—he was one of the pioneers of quantum physics—but he was not 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. 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.
Big history tries to meet the need that Schrödinger identified for a more unified account of reality. But remember 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, geologists’ versions, and astronomers’ versions. They may tell the same essential story, but they’ll differ in important ways.
Common Questions About Big History
The Big History project was created by David Christian with Bill Gates.
Big History makes a study of the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the current and includes every field from chemistry to astronomy to social studies.
The formation of stars is important in Big History as they were crucial spots for complexity, creating more complex molecules as well as providing visible light so that lifeforms that work with visible light could thrive within their vicinity.
The Earth is estimated to be somewhere around 4.54 ± 0.05 billion years old.