Big History: Putting All of History in Context

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

Is it possible to understand the whole of the past, from the beginnings of everything to the present day? Is it even possible to tell such a story? If so, what would the story look like? Welcome to the study of Big History.Image of galaxy for article on what is big history

Big history assembles accounts of the past from many different disciplines into a single, coherent account of the whole of the past. It starts at the beginning—with the origins of the universe—and it ends today. In fact, it goes into the future, as well. I’ll begin by introducing myself and explaining how I began teaching such a course. I hope by my doing that, you’ll get some sense of the logic behind big history. Then we’ll look more closely at what big history is and also at some of the problems we face when we attempt it.

So what is big history? How does it differ from conventional history courses?

Learn more: What is Big History?

For 25 years, I taught Russian and Soviet history at Macquarie University in Sydney. During the Cold War, teaching about Russia and the Soviet Union seemed very important indeed, because I was trying to teach my students something about the other side. And I was trying to teach them that, yes, there were real people there, people like you and me, and that they were trying to cope with the real world, but it was rather a different world from the one we had to cope with.

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 never seemed to be teaching the whole thing. So I taught Russian history, another colleague taught U.S. history, another colleague taught ancient Greek history, and so on.

Tying History Together

But what was it that tied all these separate histories together? This question nagged 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 started 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 how to do it.

When my colleagues agreed to let me teach it, that’s when I panicked, because 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. I was fortunate enough to find wonderful colleagues. I began teaching it with a team of lecturers that included astronomers, geologists, biologists, anthropologists, and historians. But none of us knew of any course like this, so we really had to make up the rules as we went along.

Learn more: Simplicity and Complexity

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 for the teachers. But it was also exciting for a lot of the students, because, I think, it raised fundamental questions about the meaning of history and about our place in the cosmos.

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Now, 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 that 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.

In 1992, I wrote an article on the course. 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.

Image of The Big Bang Expansion of the Universe
The Big Bang Expansion of the Universe

A Larger Vision of the Past

Since I started teaching, I’ve discovered that the rapidly emerging field of world history is also aiming at a much larger vision of the past. And while most world history courses begin with the appearance of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, some go further back and start with the origins of the first humans. Big history tackles even larger scales. It can be thought of, if you like, as a sort of expansion of the world history approach. So there’s a very natural link between the two approaches.

Now I want to look more closely at what big history is. 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. Now, this project has some consequences that need to be emphasized immediately. First, we don’t try to cover everything. What we try to do is construct a coherent narrative of the past.

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

Second, because of the scale on which we look at the past, you should not expect to find 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. Instead, what we’re going to see are some less-familiar aspects of the past. We’ll be looking, above all, for the very large patterns, the shape of the past.

Learn more: The Rise of Humanity

And here’s a third implication. Though we touch on many disciplines, my own expertise is as a historian. There are many expert courses that focus on astronomy or geology, but this is not the course in which to learn in intricate detail how DNA works or how fusion reactions occur within stars. What you’ll find instead is how the insights of these different disciplines can be woven together into a coherent, unified account of the past on all scales and in which the insights of each discipline can illuminate those of the others. You’ll find a coherent story.

Creation Stories and H. G. Wells

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.”

In fact, historians have attempted “universal histories” in all eras. 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. Wells believed that you’d find such a larger story if you attempted to create a unified history that embedded human history in larger histories.

Learn more: H. G. Wells and Utopian Science Fiction

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.

Beyond the Last 2,000 Years

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.

Learn more: The Next Millennium and the Remote Future

Now, this fragmented vision of reality that we teach in the modern world is profoundly unsatisfying. Big history tries to meet the need for a more unified account of reality. But let me remind you that this is one attempt to tell the story. We can imagine many different approaches with different emphases in the future. 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. This is one account.

Keep Reading:
The Big History of Civilizations: The Torch Podcast
The Origins of Agriculture
The Big Bang Theory Explained

From the Lecture Series: Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity
Taught by Professor David Christian, D.Phil.
Images courtesy of:
The Big Bang Expansion of the Universe, NASA/JPL

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