This essay is part of Tortoise’s File on The Future of History, which considers what history should look like in the 21st Century – as a subject of study, but also an area of action and protest. To see the rest of the File’s contents, please tap here.
In the beginning there was David Christian, a Brooklyn-born teacher and originally a scholar of Russian history. In 1989 he was hired to teach a general history introduction at University of California, San Diego, and developed a multidisciplinary course collaborating with colleagues from other academic fields. He called it “Big History”.
Biology, physics, geology, politics, history, anthropology, economics… Big History weaves together the latest findings from each specialism to create an overarching narrative, from the Big Bang to the present era, that puts human life in its cosmic context. It seeks to answer the Big Questions: where did we come from? How did we get here? Where are we going?
An all-encompassing approach to history is nothing new; appropriately, Big History claims a long lineage. The idea of cosmic evolution – or the development of our universe, from atoms to stars – goes back almost as far as we do. It was read into the constellations by the Ancient Greeks, more than 7,000 years ago. Centuries later, though still some time ago, Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos (1845) tried to set out a history of the universe and its nature.
But cosmic evolution really took off in the early 20th Century, with the development of the Big Bang Theory. Thanks to Hubble’s observations of galaxies moving apart, radiometric dating of rocks and the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964, the universe was no longer static and eternal. We learned that it had an age and, therefore, a timeline.
Photos such as the famous ‘Earthrise’ (1968), taken during the Apollo 8 mission, also gave people a new perspective on Earth and its place in the universe. The Environmental Protection Agency was formed soon afterwards. By the 1980s, courses on cosmic evolution were taught at Harvard. Universal history caught on in Russia.
In 2001, a Harvard astrophysicist named Eric Chaisson published a key text. Cosmic Evolution told the story of humanity from the perspective of universal energy flows and the move towards complexity in nature – with an interdisciplinary approach, stretching from the Big Bang to human culture.
And then came 2008, when Christian’s work was chosen for inclusion in The Great Sources series: an honour that meant he had to record 24 hours’ worth of lectures. These captured the imagination of Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, who had Christian present a TED talk in 2011. Together, they ended up launching the Big History Project.
Some critics argue that Big History reduces the significance of humanity to almost nothing. Others say it errs more on the side of natural sciences than history.
I present these criticisms to David Baker, who studied his PhD in Big History under Christian himself, and who now teaches all courses at Macquarie University’s Big History Institute. He also provided the lion’s share of the lectures for the new global school resource, Big History School.
He laughs, and says the criticisms “seem to indicate that people haven’t read much Big History at all”. If you look at the structure of the teaching, he says, almost the opposite is true.
“People hear the concept of Big History and assume that it is one more attempt to drive humanity into the dirt and trivialise its affairs. It’s not. The rewarding thing about it is that you can actually objectively and quantitatively point to the significance of humanity.”
After all, if the courses were really strict about things, they would dedicate only a tiny percentage of material to human history, given that 300,000 years of humanity in 13.8 billion of the universe is barely a blink in a lifetime. But human history actually receives a lot of attention, mostly thanks to the complexity of humanity itself.
“We’re looking at the rise of complexity in the universe, and some of the biggest leaps have been made by humans. Which, if you study the transition of the inanimate universe to something as powerful as life and culture, starts to make sense.”
Things started out relatively simple, 13.8 billion years ago, and grew increasingly complex. From the Big Bang, to quarks, to protons and neutrons, to atoms, hydrogen and helium, then stars, then the rest of the elements. Then the formation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago, then the origins of life at just under 4 billion, then the complexity of multicellular organisms. Then humans, about 300,000 years ago, who interacted in more and more complex ways, from villages to populous cities to multinational empires.
This is where Big History diverges from cosmic evolution, which is quantitative and linear: the remit of natural scientists. Big History focuses more on humanity and cultural progress.
The biggest driver of complexity in humanity, says Baker, is our ability to accumulate more innovation in one generation than is lost. So one person invents something, then it is tinkered with by the thousand generations that follow – which explains why we’ve gone from stone tools to skyscrapers in 300,000 years. In evolutionary terms, that is rapidly fast.
But, Baker stresses, complexity is not synonymous with progress. “It creates and feeds off of a lot of destruction, like a fire that creates heat but burns trees.” So with every rise of complexity in human history there has been immense suffering and death. The unification of the globe, for example, resulted in imperialism, slavery and millions dying from diseases to which they had no resistance. The rise of complexity in nature is predicated on the extinction of 99 per cent of species.
Speaking of complexity, the Big History movement requires some explanation. In fact, the Big History Effort is the correct umbrella term, while the International Big History Association (IBHA), founded in 2010, is its academic wing. Part of the Big History Effort is the Big History Project, started by Christian with Gates and funded by the Bill Gates Foundation. The purpose of the project is to have Big History taught globally.
The new president of the IBHA, Lucy Laffitte, is keen to clarify that the Project is “entirely separate from us”. According to Lowell Gustafson, the former president who speaks to me on Zoom with a jaunty space-themed background, the IBHA is a coalition of like-minded scholars, not just historians but also political scientists and philosophers, who are researching or teaching Big History in universities around the world.
Baker, too, draws a line between Gates’s Big History Project and the Macquarie Big History Institute. “They’re two school curricula, two books on the same shelf, and teachers can pick from either one. I’ve produced content for both.” The Institute, he says, is “kind of a hub, in the sense that we have David Christian and also we have the most university support in Macquarie”.
The university has enabled Christian and Baker to build multiple teaching mechanisms, such as Coursera and the Big History School, allowing them to reach millions of people around the world with their courses. The goal, says Baker, is to get Big History into more schools and offer free content for teachers to put together a curriculum. It’s already taught in several thousand schools in some capacity.
The Big Challenge, if you will, is how to navigate the heavily demarcated field of academia, which is feudal in its commitment to separate disciplines.
Big History is a scientific narrative – neither humanities nor science. As Laffitte puts it, narrative-driven historians eschew the idea that history begins 13.8 billion years ago, while evidence-driven scientists eschew the idea that non-experts publish about science.
The idea of a universe of knowledge that tries to integrate various fields to come up with a single coherent story of the last 13.8 billion years is something that flies in the face of how academics identify themselves.
It could also change how Big History’s practitioners identify themselves. “When you study Big History,” Baker says, “it does change you. You do look at the world in a different way. You do all the regular stuff you always do, you go shopping, you pay your taxes, but you also put everything that’s going on in context of the greater significance of things. It removes a lot of anxiety and fear about your existence.”
But it does throw up some existential angst: “When you start contemplating the meaning of all existence in the context of the heat-death of the universe, when nothing you do – no matter how godlike or powerful you could possibly become – matters in terms of history, it all fades away, it all decays back into radiation… that’s a hard philosophical hurdle to overcome.”
At the very start of this year, Baker wrote an article headlined ‘History repeats itself. That’s bad news for the 2020s’ – in which he made various predictions, including the “low to moderate chance of a ‘trigger event’… like a plague”. He says now: “It’s interesting the rapidity with which some of those predictions came true.”
But while humanity’s position may be grim, Big History does allow room for optimism – it’s just expressed in decades, if not centuries, rather than days. When will things start to look up? About 50 years down the track, Baker reckons.
Gustafson, himself a political scientist, explains that at the moment, humans are in a messy transition between a national and a global identity – and there are many who cling to ethno-national concerns when they should be thinking more broadly. “We can’t just think about national security, the motherland or homeland, because the motherland is Earth. I’m not an American; I’m an Earthling.”
He admits that “Big History does give us a bit of a Janus-faced view of the future, both of hope and, if not despair, some big yellow flags.”
Bear in mind that only a tiny minority of things become complex. The universe is filled with enormous clouds of hydrogen and helium that still haven’t developed into anything. And there are a huge number of single-cell organisms evolving, like super bacteria, that don’t become more complex at all.
Physicists speculate that right after the Big Bang, there was matter and antimatter – almost identical in structure but differing in spin. They annihilate each other. For every one billion particles of antimatter, there were a billion and one of matter, and one part survived this annihilation. That was enough to create the universe, but there’s a tension between what forms relationships and what destroys them.
Consider the five periods of mass extinction in the history of complex lifeforms. The most recent, 65 million years ago, killed off all non-avian dinosaurs – but gave mammals a chance. Now we are living in a period of self-induced extinction in which, thanks to climate change, a full one per cent of the Earth’s landmass is unbearably hot and can’t support human life. Some have predicted that within 50 years it will be 19 per cent.
If that projection is correct, large swathes of Southeast Asia, the Amazon basin, parts of Australia, where billions of lifeforms live, will be uninhabitable. The refugee crisis that we’re facing now, the largest since the end of the Second World War, will be nothing in comparison to the crisis that will come if those billions become homeless.
“It’s not inevitable,” Gustafson says, “Maybe there’s still hope – but maybe Greta Thunberg is not exaggerating when she says the house is on fire.”
Big History tells these facts in a narrative, and encourages us to think on a larger scale. “If we all understand the story of humanity in context,” says Laffitte, “the improbability of intelligent life, its fragility and its untapped potential, I think the future looks brighter. The future resides in the hearts and minds of those of us alive on Earth today.”
Illustrations by Tim Vyner