Big History Research Paper

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The study of big history places the history of humanity and Earth in the largest possible context, that of the universe. In 1991, David Christian coined the term big history in an article he wrote for the Journal of World History, although the first courses utilizing the concept of big history were taught in the late 1980s.

Describing the content of a typical course in big history may convey something of big history’s scope and scale. Such courses normally begin with the origins of the universe and the first stars and galaxies, surveying some of the central ideas of modern cosmology and astronomy. The creation of new chemical elements in dying stars and supernovae allowed the creation of more chemically complex entities such as planets, and leads naturally to the earth sciences and biology. Big history courses survey the origin and history of our Earth and the origin and evolution of life on Earth—the only planet so far where we know for certain that life exists. The evolution of our own species, Homo sapiens, leads naturally to a survey of human history. Within this large story the distinctiveness of human history stands out, for we can see the large patterns that are hidden at the scales of traditional history teaching. We see how our species began to display a unique capacity for sustained adaptation and innovation, which allowed its members to extract more and more resources from the biosphere, to begin supporting larger populations, and eventually to create more complex human communities, which generated new adaptations even more rapidly in a complex but powerful feedback cycle. This accelerating process of adaptation through cultural change is easiest to see during the last 10,000 years since the appearance of agriculture, but it was already apparent in the Paleolithic (foraging) era in the technological innovations that allowed our ancestors to settle all the world’s continents apart from Antarctica. Today we can see that our remarkable propensity for sustained and accelerating innovation has its dangers. So courses in big history inevitably raise large questions about the future of our species and its relationship with the biosphere, as well as about the future of our Earth and of the universe as a whole.

In the late 1980s the U.S. astrophysicist Eric Chaisson taught one of the first courses in big history; he was soon followed by David Christian in Australia and John Mears in the United States. (Christian actually coined the term itself in a 1991 article for the Journal of World History.) Today such courses are still rare, though their number has increased. Courses in big history can now be found in Russia and the Netherlands as well as in Egypt, Australia, India, and Korea; analogous courses have also been taught in geology departments (by Walter Alvarez, for example). Their growth has been driven, at least in part, by the thirst of students for a more unified vision of the past and of scholarship in general, and for approaches that help overcome the extreme intellectual fragmentation of modern education and scholarship.

Universal History: An Ancient Tradition

Today, big history may seem anomalous. Yet the questions it pursues are ancient. Most societies we know of have tried to construct coherent and unified accounts of the entire past using the best information available to them, in order to explain the existence and nature of the universe we inhabit and the communities of which we are members. This is what traditional creation myths did. All literate cultures have also produced analogous accounts of origins at multiple scales. Christian cosmology described a universe approximately 5,000 to 6,000 years old, with the Earth at its center. That story provided the basic framework for historical thinking in the Christian world for 1,500 years, and some still think within the same framework today. Even after the Scientific Revolution had undermined the credibility of Christian cosmology, historical thinkers continued to construct universal maps of space and time, although now they did so within more secular traditions of thought whose basic parameters were provided by Newtonian science. Universal histories were constructed during the Enlightenment and during the nineteenth century. This was the tradition within which both Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx wrote. Even Leopold von Ranke, who is often thought of as the pioneer of modern traditions of detailed, empirical historical research, insisted that the ultimate goal of historical scholarship should be the creation of universal histories, and in his final years he attempted to write such a history himself.

Yet today this ancient tradition of writing universal history is barely remembered. It vanished, suddenly and decisively, at the end of the nineteenth century. Why it vanished remains unclear. Nationalistic perspectives on the past discouraged the search for commonalities between societies and encouraged geographical and cultural specialization. The growing prestige of the natural sciences raised standards of rigor and precision in all scholarly disciplines and showed how flimsy were the empirical foundations of even the most interesting attempts at universal history. Eventually historians turned away from large, speculative histories toward detailed empirical research, often modeling their scholarship on the techniques of archival research associated with the work of Ranke.

Many historians may have hoped that sustained empirical research would spontaneously generate new, more “scientific” accounts of the past at large scales. After all, something like that seemed to have occurred in biology, where Charles Darwin provided a wonderful model of how sharply focused empirical research might yield grand unifying theories. But in history no grand unifying story emerged, and the very idea of universal history began to seem Utopian. H. G. Wells attempted a universal history in the 1920s, but his work was ignored by professional historians, and probably with good reason. Like the great universal histories of the nineteenth century, Wells’s Outline of History contained too much speculation and too little hard information, particularly about the deep past. Eventually many historians began to think there was something fundamentally different about history. R. G. Collingwood argued, for example, that history was different from the natural sciences because it dealt with an unpredictable world of conscious actions rather than merely with events. “The events of nature are mere events, not the acts of agents whose thought the scientist [i.e., historian] endeavors to trace” (Collingwood 1994, 214). The historian’s goal, therefore, was not to seek general laws, but to “penetrate” the thoughts that motivated past actions. That was why historians seemed to occupy a different epistemological universe from natural scientists.

In the 1960s, Arnold Toynbee, one of the few historians who regretted the passing of universal history, complained in an interview with the writer Ved Mehta (1962, 143) that “the microscope historians . . . whether they admitted it or not, had sacrificed all generalizations for patchwork, relative knowledge, and they thought of human experience as incomprehensible chaos.” But he also believed the days of microscope history were numbered: “in the perspective of historiography, they were in the minority, and Toynbee, in company with St. Augustine—he felt most akin to him—Polybius, Roger Bacon, and Ibn Khaldun, was in the majority” (Mehta 1962, 143).

Fifty years later, Toynbee’s remarks look more prescient, as universal history makes a comeback in the new form of big history. Why are some historians returning to the idea of universal history? The main reason is that we can now study universal history with a rigor and precision that was unthinkable in the nineteenth century. A century of detailed research, not just in history, but also in neighboring disciplines such as archaeology, paleontology, linguistics, and genetics, has revolutionized our understanding of the human past, extending it both in time and space. Meanwhile, the natural sciences look more historical than they did a century ago. Astronomy became a historical science with the rise of big bang cosmology; the theory of plate tectonics re-affirmed the historical nature of the earth sciences; and the discovery of DNA clinched the evolutionary nature of biology. One of the most fundamental changes has been the appearance of new dating techniques that have revolutionized our understanding of the past at all scales. Sixty years ago, absolute dates could be confidently assigned to past events only if there existed written records. So no reliable historical timeline could extend back more than a few millennia, and all earlier periods were lost in a sort of chronological haze. In the 1950s, Willard Libby established the first reliable techniques of radiometric dating, based on the regular radioactive breakdown of carbon-14. As radiometric methods have been improved and applied more widely, and eventually joined by other chronometric techniques, we find ourselves able to construct rigorous timelines that extend back not just to the origins of our species (c. 100,000 years ago) or even of our Earth (c. 4.5 billion years ago) but to the very beginnings of the universe, which we can now date, with remarkable precision, to about 13.7 billion years ago. This dazzling “chronometric revolution” has provided the chronological framework for a new, scientific account of the past at all scales (Christian 2008a and 2009).

Some Themes in Big History

Can there be any thematic coherence in a discipline that spans so many different spatial and chronological scales, and such a diversity of modern scholarly disciplines? It is already apparent that there is a coherent story of origins to be told within big history as it surveys the origins of the universe, the Earth, of life on Earth and of humanity. But unifying themes are also emerging. All the entities that stand out in the story of big history are complex: they are composite entities, formed according to precisely specified patterns, and they display novel “emergent properties.” They are also characterized by significant energy flows that sustain their complexity. So it is no accident that complex entities such as the biosphere can be found on the surface of bodies close enough to a star to benefit from the huge energy flows that stars pump into the cold space surrounding them. As the astrophysicist Eric Chaisson has pointed out, the density of these energy flows may allow us, loosely, to order complex entities by their degrees of complexity. Such calculations suggest that living organisms may be significantly more complex than stars or planets, and modern human society may be one of the most complex entities we know of. These considerations suggest that the slow emergence of new forms of complexity can provide a common theme and a common research agenda, encouraging scholars in many different disciplines to explore similar questions about complexity itself, and the different forms it takes within our universe.

The theme of rising complexity also suggests that human history may be peculiarly interesting. If living organisms are distinguished by their remarkable capacity to adapt to changing environments, our own species is distinguished by the fact that it can adapt continuously. While most species (including highly intelligent species such as the great apes), are limited by their genetic endowments, humans can adapt continuously because the remarkable efficiency of human speech allows us to exchange learned information in great volume and with great precision. As a result, learned information can accumulate culturally, and that is why our species alone seems to continually develop new patterns of behavior and new ways of extracting resources from its environment. This remarkable ability, which we can call “collective learning,” shapes the evolution of human societies as powerfully as natural selection shapes the evolution of biological species, but it operates much faster. And eventually it explains the increasing size and complexity of human societies. Our ability to learn collectively is the glory of our remarkable species, but also potentially its downfall, for we have acquired such power over our world that we are in danger of laying it to waste.

Big History and World History

There is a natural affinity between world history and big history. Big history considers the past at such huge scales that it can attempt, as more conventional types of history cannot, to understand the trajectory of human history as a whole. Because of its willingness to draw on information from multiple disciplines, it is not confined, as traditional “Rankean” forms of scholarship were, to the several millennia since the appearance of writing. It therefore provides a natural framework for the type of world history that will be needed increasingly in a world facing challenges (from the threat of nuclear war to that of ecological collapse) that cannot be tackled nation by nation. Big history provides a natural framework for the construction of a modern history of humanity.


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  4. Chaisson, E. (2001). Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [Pioneering discussion of the growth of complexity in big history]
  5. Chaisson, E. (2006). Epic of evolution: Seven ages of the cosmos. New York: Columbia University Press.
  6. Chaisson, E. (2008). Cosmic Evolution: From big bang to humankind. Retrieved October 20, 2016, from
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  9. Christian, D. (2004). Maps of time: An introduction to big history. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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