In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, one of the characters speaks of how “There must be a systole and diastole in all inquiry,” referring to a rhythm of alternating contraction and expansion of the attention, from a focus on details to a broader view of the whole horizon of knowledge. Last week David Christian spoke at IU on the idea of big history, an expansion in our view of history for which the time might well be ripe. It was an inspiring talk for a number of reasons. I like the big picture of how we got to be here and how things got to be this way, for one thing; also, the educational possibilities for a big-history approach are in my opinion very exciting.
Christian described the reasons behind the narrowing of history’s scope in the late nineteenth century. With science’s rise in prestige, other disciplines wanted to be equally rigorous and precise. In history, this meant focusing on areas where you could say something well-supported by documentary evidence; periods of time for which there was no written record (e.g., the revealingly named “pre-history”) had to drop out of the picture to one degree or another.
Christian likened the state of knowledge after this to an archipelago with only isolated islands above water, and the connecting land submerged. He’s hopeful that some of the islands are being reconnected; I think science is growing more cross-disciplinary these days, and some efforts are being made to link, e.g., neuroscience and literary studies, but by and large the gap between C.P. Snow’s two cultures, the sciences and the humanities, is still there.
Big history may offer a way to bridge that gap, and it’s possible now in a way it wasn’t before because history can be done rigorously across different time scales well outside that of written human history. Thanks to what Christian terms the chronometric revolution, we have reliable dates for events across much vaster stretches of time; big history as he proposes wouldn’t have been possible 100 or maybe even 50 years ago. (He mentioned how he’s been teaching a course in big history for a number of years and has watched astronomers narrow down the date for the Big Bang, the starting point for the timeline. That reminded me that when I first started studying astronomy in the 1980s, our estimates of the age of the universe were much less precise. It’s been a phenomenal few decades to be following astronomy.)
One possible unifying thread in the study of all history, from the Big Bang to yesterday, is the rise of complexity. Christian mentioned the work of Eric Chaisson, an astronomer who also studies and writes about complexity (he has a controversial but intriguing theory that complexity can be quantified using a parameter called the free energy rate density). For awhile I’ve had the topic of complexity on my radar as something I need to learn more about, but so far I haven’t read much. We can think of complexity in terms of five characteristics:
- Multiple diverse, varied components
- Linking mechanisms that connect the components in precise patterns
- New energy flows
- New emergent properties (new rules, new types of entities)
Seeing death on that list might be something of a surprise, but it makes sense; complex structures eventually break down. It’s another angle from which to look at death, a variant of sorts on Carl Sagan’s description of evolution as relying on time and death. For more about the role of complexity in the history of the universe, see Christian’s Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History.
The most interesting implications lie in the three possible agendas for applying big history that Christian described: in research, in teaching, and in global/political understanding. It seems to me that the last two are closely linked. Educationally, big history offers a coherent, unified narrative that helps students at all levels understand their place in the world, both in space and time. He argued that most if not all human communities have some kind of creation story, and suggested that perhaps big history could offer that kind of narrative for a secular age, satisfying what might be a deeply ingrained human need to understand the context for our individual lives.
Even more exciting is the potential to teach a story of human history, rather than the history of particular countries or regions. A big-history narrative makes clear the unity of humankind; Christian speculated about whether big history might be able to raise the kinds of emotions that national histories do, helping people to see the planet as a unified whole rather than a collection of tribes. He jokingly said that having a hostile alien appear would be a boon, because it would give us a common external enemy to rally against and define ourselves in opposition to. But, more seriously, he suggested that perhaps global climate change might offer the same kind of challenge. I think he’s probably right about that, and I hope we rise to the challenge. I can’t think of anything more thrilling than seeing humanity growing into a narrative of itself that includes a description of its setting that’s as full as possible in time and space, and that casts the story in terms of our whole species, set in a web of interdependencies with other species and with the rest of the planet. And if we share a reasonably accurate view of the story so far, maybe we can do a better job of figuring out where the story should go.