What "Big History" MissesRoundup
tags: historiography, global history, popular history, Big History
Ian Hesketh is associate professor of history at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. His books include Victorian Jesus: J R Seeley, Religion, and the Cultural Significance of Anonymity (2017) and The Science of History in Victorian Britain: Making the Past Speak (2011).
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.
Christian not only argued that historians should broaden their narratives beyond their narrow specialisations, he also questioned the necessity of focusing solely on the era of history documented by written records. Here he challenged one of the foundational premises of modern historical analysis. Once we accept that history should extend beyond the era of written sources, it opened the possibility to go much further. As Christian explained in his 1991 article:
We cannot fully understand the past few millennia without understanding the far longer period of time in which all members of our own species lived as gatherers and hunters … Palaeolithic society, in its turn, cannot be fully understood without some idea of the evolution of our own species over several million years … Such arguments may seem to lead us to an endless regress, but it is now clear that they do not. According to modern Big Bang cosmology, the Universe itself has a history … We can say nothing of what happened before this time; indeed time itself was created in the Big Bang. So this time scale is different from others … If the past can be studied whole, this is the scale within which to do it.
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).