(Roughly) Daily

“What is the use trying to describe the flowing of a river at any one moment, and then at the next moment, and then at the next, and the next, and the next? You wear out. You say ‘There is a great river and it flows through this land, and we have named it History’.”*…

Ian Hesketh on “Big History”– its attractions… and, he suggests, its dangers…

Big History burst on to the scene 30 years ago, promising to reinvigorate a stale and overspecialised academic discipline by situating the human past within a holistic account at a cosmic scale. The goal was to produce a story of life that could be discerned by synthesising cosmology, geology, evolutionary biology, archaeology and anthropology. This universal story, in turn, would provide students with a basic framework for their subsequent studies – and for life itself. Big History also promised to fill the existential void left by the ostensible erosion of religious beliefs. Three decades later, it’s time to take a look at how Big History has fared.

David Christian first made the case for what he called ‘Big History’ in an article in the Journal of World History in 1991. He based it on an interdisciplinary course that he had been teaching at Macquarie University in Sydney that brought together faculty members from the sciences and the humanities. The idea for the course was to situate human history within a grand historical narrative that stretched backwards in time to the origins of the cosmos in the Big Bang and forwards to include the present and future development of the human species. The course promised to transform the way students were taught history by focusing on the big picture and what united all humans rather than what divided them.

At the time, Christian was reacting to a trend in academic life towards increasing specialisation. This trend played a role in further dividing the ‘two cultures’ of knowledge represented by the arts and sciences, but also led to divisions within those two cultures as well. Christian’s discipline of history, for instance, had grown fragmented into geographic and temporal specialisations, while narrow studies of archival sources were preferred to large-scale narratives that were more common earlier in the century. At a time when, in Jean-François Lyotard’s memorable phrase from 1979, an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ represented the era’s postmodern condition, Christian headed in the opposite direction…

Three decades later, much of Christian’s vision has been fulfilled. Big History has become well established. It is now entrenched in Australia where it is taught at several universities, and there’s a Big History Institute at Macquarie. It is taught at universities around the world such as at Newcastle University in the UK, Dominican University in California, and the University of Amsterdam, to name just a few. There is an International Big History Association (IBHA) that was founded in 2010, which has organised five conferences since then. And in 2017, the IBHA launched the Journal of Big History, now published three times per year. Several monographs and textbooks have also appeared since the mid-1990s, notably Christian’s book Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (2004) and Fred Spier’s book Big History and the Future of Humanity (2010).

Big History was in fact at the forefront of a broader shift to large-scale, scientific history. A very different attempt to establish large-scale history on a scientific footing was proposed by Peter Turchin, the Russian American evolutionary anthropologist. In Historical Dynamics (2003), Turchin sought to apply the kind of mathematical modelling associated with evolutionary biology to social processes, such as the rise and fall of complex societies. Closer to the Big History formula is the recent work of the medieval historian-turned-public intellectual Yuval Noah Harari. His bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011) reconstructs the story of humanity, beginning with the Big Bang and ending with a lament about how humans have become God-like. A subsequent bestselling work, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015), speculated about what the future holds, based on the scientific story of life that was presented in Sapiens. The popularity of Harari’s works indicates that there is a public appetite for the large-scale, scientific approach to history.

Thirty years on, it is becoming clear that the issues that confront Big History are not unlike that of earlier attempts to utilise the cultural authority of science to write a history of everything. We’ve already seen that Big History relies on the same mythopoeic rhetoric that was central to E O Wilson’s works of popular science that yearned to project the same sense of wonder and meaning on to science that has traditionally been found only in religious metanarratives. This desire has a deeper history, however, that stretches to the 16th century, and has produced genres of scientific history that resemble Big History. This includes sacred histories that sought to elaborate and narrativise the historical events of the Old Testament as well as universal histories that sought to uncover the overarching stages of human history from Providential and secular perspectives.

There are similarities with more recent forms of large-scale history as well, such as the positivist histories of the 19th century, which sought to explain the development of civilised society as the product of a progressive scientism, or the evolutionary epics of the 19th and 20th centuries, which sought to tell the story of life from an overarching evolutionary perspective. What these forms of history all share with Big History is the desire to synthesise contemporary science to tell a story of humanity and to reduce its development to a set of laws or stages leading to the present and future.

…thanks in part to Big History, large-scale accounts of the past have moved from the periphery to the centre of historical thinking and writing. What Big History has done well is challenge the long-held assumption that has limited the discipline of history to the era of written records. As it is clear that we live at a moment when, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued, the previously relatively separate processes of human and geological timescales are now colliding, so we need new ways to think historically in order to grasp what is happening and how to respond. Big History provides one possible answer to this problem by producing a holistic, singular and universal story that seeks ultimate knowledge in the overarching laws of science.

But, much like the Judeo-Christian conception of history from which it derives, Big History reduces the vicissitudes of human history to processes that are ultimately beyond human control. What this means is that Big History necessarily privileges the cosmic at the expense of the human, the natural at the expense of the political. This is, unfortunately, a necessity that follows from Big History’s goal of uniting the human species under the framework of a story that is supposedly for everyone. It may make for a popular just-so story that appeals to billionaires looking to empty history of politics and divisions, but it offers little for those hoping to understand how we go about thinking through the problems and possibilities of writing history in the age of the Anthropocene…

Sweeping the human story into a cosmic tale is a thrill but we should be wary about what is overlooked in the grandeur: “What Big History misses,” from @IanHesketh in @aeonmag. Eminently worth reading in full.

See also: “On the wisdom of the historians,” by @Noahpinion, and this thread from @JoshuaRHall3.

* Ursula K. Le Guin


As we contend with context, we might recall that it was on this date in 1972 that Spire released the first Christian comic books, a version of Brother Andrew’s God’s Smuggler and David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade. They were primarily written and drawn by Al Hartley, who was working for Archie Comics at the time; the following year, he got permission to use those characters at Spire, and added an Archie series. Then, in 1974, the company added Bible stories and a series dedicated to younger readers including the Barney Bear series.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 1, 2022 at 1:00 am

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