Big History: Putting All of History in Context

From the Lecture Series: Big History—The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity

By David Christian, D.Phil., Macquarie University

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.

Decaying clock on the background of old shabby wise books
(Image: Tetyana Afanasyeva/Shutterstock)

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, and in fact, it goes into the future as well.

Learn More: What is Big History?

How do we begin teaching, let alone understanding, all of history in this way? By explaining how I began teaching such a course, I hope you’ll get some sense of the logic behind big history as we look more closely at what big history is and some of the problems when we attempt it.

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.

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 never seemed to be teaching the whole thing. While 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. 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, and what would such a course look like?

I panicked when my colleagues agreed to let me teach it. I realized I had no idea how to do it, nor did I know of any courses like this.

I panicked when my colleagues agreed to let me teach it. I realized I had no idea how to do it, nor did I know of any courses like this. We had to make it up from scratch. However, I was fortunate enough to find wonderful colleagues and I began to teach it with a team of lecturers that included astronomers, geologists, biologists, anthropologists, and historians.

Learn more about simplicity and complexity

One of the things we discovered quickly was that teaching big history was exhilarating. After all, we were teaching 13 billion years in a 13-week semester. It was exciting for the teachers but also exciting for a lot of the students 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 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, using the somewhat whimsical label big history. I was thinking, of course, of the big bang. It’s not the ideal label, but it seems to have stuck.

Image of The Big Bang Expansion of the Universe
The Big Bang Expansion of the Universe (Image:NASA/WMAP Science Team)

A Larger Vision of the Past

Since I began teaching, I’ve discovered that the rapidly emerging field of world history is also aiming at a much larger vision of the past. 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 as an expansion of the world history approach. There’s a very natural link between the two approaches.

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. Now, this project has some consequences that need to be emphasized immediately. First, we don’t try to cover everything. Instead, we try to 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, do 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, we focus on 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 about the rise of humanity

Here’s a third implication: Though we touch on many disciplines, my expertise is as a historian. Many expert courses 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; that was what made them so powerful. They offered maps of space and time within which people could say: “That’s where I am.”

Portrait of H.G. Wells by George Charles Beresford, black and white glossy print, 1920
H. G. Wells believed that you’d find a larger story if you attempted to create a unified history that embedded human history in larger histories. (Image: George Charles Beresford/Public domain)

Historians have attempted “universal histories” in all eras. 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 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, much 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 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 are concerned with just the last 2,000 years, and most of that with the last 300 or 400 years. Few historians work closely with biologists, geologists, or astronomers, resulting in a fragmented vision of reality.

Learn more about the next Millennium and the remote future

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 this is one attempt to tell the story. We can imagine many different approaches with different emphases in the future. We can imagine the contribution of versions by biologists, geologists, and astronomers. They may tell the same essential story, but they’ll differ in important ways.

Common Questions About Big History

Q: What exactly is Big History?

Big History is a project created by David Christian and Bill Gates to find patterns in the larger perspective of the history of our particular universe. It begins at the Big Bang and continues up until the present day.

Q: What are the disciplines that operate in Big History?

Big History is composed of ideas from disciplines such as history, chemistry, astronomy, and biology.

Q: What does Little Big History mean?

Little Big History is a capstone project created by Esther Queadackers. It allows students to add on to the study of Big History by deep-diving into an idea or product that has relevance to them and tracing its inception to the beginning of the universe.

Q: What is meant by Goldilocks condition?

Goldilocks conditions are a concept that derives from the popular children’s story, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” In the story, the titular characters find bowls of porridge. All three bears find porridge of varying degrees of warmth while Goldilocks finds a bowl that is “just right” for eating. This is used as a metaphor for Earth’s fortunate spot in the Sun’s circumstellar habitable zone. This is the distance that allows for warm and cold waters full of life as well as a rocky crust that facilitates continental drift. Continental drift creates the opportunity for the atmosphere to be absorbed in the crust and redistributed through volcanic blasts, replenishing the atmosphere and creating cycles that produce and sustain life.

This article was updated on May 19, 2020

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