Of all the patterns that occur at many different scales, the most fundamental is the existence of pattern itself. –David Christian
David Christian (1946– ) is an Australian-American historian and public intellectual who is best known for his work on behalf of Big History—a name that is something of an understatement, as Big Historians intend nothing less than a grand synthesis of all knowledge across all time and space! In Maps of Time (2004) he attempted just such a synthesis, drawing heavily on the work of noted world historian William H. McNeill, geographer and anthropologist Jared Diamond, astronomers Eric Chaisson and Erich Jantsch, and his own long experience in history.
Such a synthesis, Christian has explained, would amount to a “modern creation myth,” which could orient people to their time and place, and indeed to the universe as a whole, in the same way that the older myths did. Just like them, it would explain where we come from, why we are here, and where we are going—but unlike them, it would be based on science, and thus constitute a modern, up-to-date answer to age-old questions. Besides the tremendous theoretical advances in science during the twentieth century, and the development of World History as a legitimate scholarly endeavor, there is a very important technological advance that has made it possible to base such a myth on science: “the chronometric revolution.” Carbon dating and spectral analysis have made it possible, for the first time, to assign reasonably accurate dates to practically every object we can observe. We thus have a firm foundation on which to build a universal history.
Whatever reservations historians might have about such a project, the attempt, Christian has argued, is both meaningful and necessary: We must have the courage to ask the big questions. These, then, are the answers Big History offers:
At bottom, the story of the universe is the story of complexity, and the task that Big History sets itself is an explanation of its origins, progress, and nature. Christian defines complexity as a property of entities having “many precisely linked internal components and novel ’emergent properties,’ whose survival depends on flows of free energy.” For instance, an internal combustion engine is a complex entity, in the sense that when its components are precisely linked, free energy can flow from the gasoline, through the pistons, and into the drive-axle, thus imparting to a vehicle the emergent property of locomotion. Conversely, if its structure is sufficiently compromised, the energy flows and emergent properties that characterize it vanish, and past a certain arbitrary point, we can no longer really speak of an engine at all, but only engine parts. Stars, galaxies, amoeba, and civilizations can all be understood as instances of complexity.
Over the course of the universe’s lifespan, the upper threshold of complexity has been continually expanding: from atoms to molecules, planets and stars, single-celled microbes, human beings, and finally human societies, which right now may very well be the most complex things in the universe. For instance, measured in terms of energy density (ergs per gram per second), the human body is about 10,000 times as complex as a star, the brain about 75,000 times, and human society as a whole about 250,000 times. Because the energy flows are so much greater at higher levels of complexity, we may reasonably infer that more complex things are more fragile, and probably also more short-lived, for they always take shape against the gradient of ever-increasing entropy, as described by the second law of thermodynamics.
In order to see how complexity has developed over time, one must look at a variety of time scales, the borders between which mark both thresholds of complexity and of the different scientific and scholarly disciplines that Big History weaves into a synthetic account. The first scale is that of the universe and its origins, covered by Cosmology, which tells us, in a manner not so different from the creation myths of earlier times, that the universe came out of nothing, how or why we cannot say. But it in any case it appeared, and the four elementary forces of the universe assembled all the atoms we see in the universe today, and hold them together to this day. At the second threshold, about 200 million years after the Big Bang, and covered by Astronomy and Astrophysics, gravity pulled these atoms (all hydrogen) together into stars, compacted them, and lit the universe. Stars turned hydrogen into helium, helium into carbon, carbon into iron, and their eventual super nova explosions into all the other elements of the periodic table, which they dispersed throughout the universe.
Crossing the fourth threshold we find that about 4.5 billion years ago gravity pulled our own solar system into shape, and that the first 700 million years (give or take) were dominated by the “Hadean” (“hellish”) eon, in which the earth was a very unfriendly place indeed. As its elements settled, the lighter ones rose to the top and formed the crust, tectonic plates, and continents, with the heavier elements below to form the various layers beneath us. During the subsequent Archaean Aeon (and crossing the fifth threshold), constituting the next 1,300 million years or so, the first living things appeared, identifiable through their ability to metabolize (i.e., produce energy in order to maintain their structure), adapt, and reproduce. The first microbes transformed the Hadean environment through photosynthesis, making the planet the comparatively livable place it is today.
By steps and degrees these living things gave rise to multicellular, vertebrate, land-dwelling, and finally intelligent life, bringing us to the sixth threshold, that of the Paleolithic (old stone age), beginning about 250,000 years ago, and bringing us into the realm of archeology and anthropology (but not yet history.) The key to human success, Christian has argued, is collective learning, a process that is greatly facilitated by the adaptation of symbolic language. Where other living things learn principally through experience, and are incapable of transmitting more than the most elementary knowledge to their offspring, humans store their knowledge in tradition, and communicate it through language. Over many generations this ability gave humans a decisive advantage over other living things, and allowed them to spread to practically every corner of the earth, in small kinship groups, or tribes, of about fifty or so people, who lived through a mixture of foraging and hunting.
This brings us to the seventh threshold, the discovery of agriculture, where history begins, and which initiated the neolithic (new stone age.) At this time some kinship groups began to settle into villages, and to abandon foraging and hunting in favor of cultivation. It seems at first unclear why they should wish to do so, since in many ways agrarian peoples have much harder lives than foragers. However, agriculture can also support higher populations, and thus a higher energy density, which placed them at a decisive advantage against tribes that lived by hunting and foraging when they came into conflict. Over the generations, agriculturalists pushed nomadic peoples out of more and more land, and set up permanent villages. Although agriculture was discovered independently about a dozen times in the earth’s history, conditions were not equally favorable in all places. No great agrarian empires flourished in Papua New Guinea, for instance, and they emerged very late in Mesoamerica and along the Peruvian coast.
Geography naturally divided these communities into several world systems: the Afro-Eurasian, the American, the Australian, and the Oceanic, each more or less self-contained. But because the Afro-Eurasian was the largest in terms of both arable land and population, it tended to innovate more quickly than the others, and eventually overtook them. As some villages grew larger and more powerful than others, they came to dominate their neighbors, thus giving rise to the first Agrarian Civilizations.
These were based on the rule of a tribute-taking elite (warriors and priests) over a much larger body of subjects (peasants and slaves), with a very small number of misfits (merchants, bureaucrats, artisans) in between. The elite generally despised the other classes, and saw in them little but an opportunity for plunder; the history of the agrarian period is thus largely written in terms of the struggle between the warriors, and the controversies between the priests, both of which were essentially parasites on the others. Innovation was slow, as both the political system and the very meager wealth available offered no encouragement. One of the most important innovations of this era was the domestication of certain animals, bringing them into a symbiotic relationship with humans, to their mutual benefit. This led to the secondary products revolution, which gave humans access to new forms of energy like milk, larger quantities of meat, and the muscle power of animals that can be used in agriculture. It also gave rise to pastoral nomadism, as some humans realized they could leave agriculture behind altogether and subsist entirely off the products of their animal herds, provided they moved around frequently enough. This set up the antipathy between civilizations and barbarian tribes that characterized the agrarian epoch. Nevertheless, population figures tended to rise until they eventually outran the available energy resources, thus bringing on an ecological (Malthusian) catastrophe that signaled the end of one agrarian civilization and the rise, some time later, of another, as the cycle began again.
Through such cycles we eventually come to the eighth and final threshold, that of modernity, beginning about 700 years ago, and which has seen a dramatic rise, like the others, of both the complexity and population totals of human society, and where innovation for the first time finds active, official encouragement. The rise of modernity has been fueled above all by capitalism and science, which, despite the steep learning curve encountered in the early-twentieth century, has nevertheless so far overcome all challenges. We have now reached a moment of supreme possibility, and supreme danger, in human history, for though we stand at the threshold of interstellar exploration, artificial intelligence, and other never-before-imagined powers, the long shadow of nuclear war, ecological mismanagement, and global inequality still hangs over us. We must, Christian urges, choose wisely.
Christian writes in a tradition of science popularizers and futurists that goes back at least to H.G. Wells in the early twentieth century, to Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan closer to the middle, and to Tyson and Hawking today. Uniquely, his training as a historian (he spent most of his career as a Russianist) has allowed him to draw on a rich tradition of Structuralist history that we have already encountered in Karl Marx, Fernand Braudel, and William H. McNeill, and that has generally been unknown or under-utilized by his predecessors. His is not the first universal history, to be certain; indeed, he thinks it odd that historians have largely abandoned such questions, and routinely takes them to task for not supplying the grand synthesis of the past that they are uniquely situated to create (for instance in his 2010 essay, “The Return of Universal History.”)
Big History is an important development in historiography for several reasons. The first is that it attempts, as Christian says, to revive a prior conception of scientific history that once exercised great force within the historical profession, and still does outside of it. It is by no means certain whether this project will succeed or fail in its stated aim of redefining the essential explanatory task of history, but such an ambitious attempt is notable in itself, and the financial backing of Bill Gates can only tell in its favor. Big History is also important because it attempts to integrate sociological, economic, political science, physical, and in short, all theories into a single whole—surely an intuitive and perhaps a necessary goal, but also one that suggests something of the character of a religious rather than an empirical enterprise, and which has at least potentially sinister political implications. It certainly fits the model of history criticized by Herbert Butterfield as Whig History, and by Karl Popper as Historicism, though this does not, of course, mean that it is necessarily incorrect. After all it might be the case that Butterfield and Popper were the ones in error. It is, in any case, an exciting project, and one that is well worth keeping an eye on.
This post is the thirty-third in a series on the philosophy of history; the previous article in the series is here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.