Big Questions About Big History

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Many people heard of something called Big History for the first time through an article in the New York Times Magazine in September, 2014. The article introduced David Christian, the leading figure in developing the concept of Big History, but raised the sensationalist question whether Bill Gates and his bundles of money should tell us how to study history. That angle probably got the article published but the approach failed to show the enthusiastic response that is building around the world for an approach that puts the story of science into a historical narrative.

People are used to seeing FAQ these days when they encounter something new. So let’s look at some Big Questions (my version of FAQ) that people naturally want answered when they become interested in Big History. This is only an introduction and does not pretend to answer all questions. There will be more articles to come that deal with many practical questions arising from the spread of Big History.

What is Big History? Professional historians have usually defined history as beginning with the origin of writing and written records. Such artifacts give the stories of rulers and what they considered important or useful. Sometimes they included interesting human stories.

There are problems with this definition of history. It leaves out everything that came before writing. Archaeology has uncovered artifacts that date the origin of our species thousands of years before writing. Those are important, but have been labeled “pre-history.” Also, written records served a small elite that could read and write so that early records are essentially propaganda indicating what ruling elites wanted future generations to think about them. What might be called “people’s history” was not considered important at that time. Traditional histories have mirrored the biased and propagandistic views found in those early records.

Science has opened up a story going all the way back to the Big Bang approximately 3.8 billion years ago. Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg wrote about The First Three Minutes because science can determine physical interactions that far back in history.

Big History pushes the story back to the very beginning by turning the scientific story into a narrative comparable to ordinary histories. The impact is to turn specialized courses on scientific details into a story that allows everyone to comprehend the important developments from the Big Bang through the origin of stars, planetary systems, galaxies, life on earth, and the development of human cultures.

The history of our species and life on earth are a small percentage of time when compared to the overall span of 13.8 billion years. David Christian and his colleagues have identified eight major thresholds at which major developments occurred as the foci around which the story is developed so that one doesn’t get lost in the overwhelming detail. Each threshold represents a major evolutionary stage in the development of complexity in the universe at large and on our planet in particular.

Why talk about complexity? The overall message of Big History is the development of complexity in the universe. This is important, first, because it appears to violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics which tells us the universe is losing complexity and moving toward disorder – yet Big History tells about the emergence of organization and complexity from ultimate chaos at the Big Bang. Second, the eight thresholds tell of leaps in level of complexity, each of which brings what we would call progress along with increasing fragility and a range of problems that were more complicated than those encountered at earlier thresholds. Third, when we get to human history as part of more recent thresholds, the story highlights issues on a bigger scale than ordinarily seen in histories of nations and individuals which have been the major topics studied by professional history.

How is Big History taught? David Christian is a historian, thus it seems natural to view this subject as another offering in the history curriculum. However, the story told by Big History goes beyond normal histories to focus on information from a number of sciences and social sciences. It also has implications for the study of religions and the dynamics of social change seen in political and other current movements.

The first significant effort to teach Big History at the university level in the United States happened at Dominican University in California through the leadership of Cynthia Stokes Brown whose field was education. They developed an interdisciplinary year-long course as the foundation of a common freshman experience on which the university built a culture of interdisciplinary faculty cooperation. Their story has been told in a recent book and, beginning in 2015, is being shared through a summer institute at which other professionals can gain practical experience from those involved in the Dominican experience.

David Christian and Cynthia Brown were among the pioneers in the development of the International Big History Association (IBHA) which includes scientists, historians, and scholars from a wide range of fields intent on developing research and sharing experience to promote development of Big History internationally.

One of the projects promoted by IBHA is one funded by Bill Gates to make instruction in Big History available over the internet to high schools and students. It is the use of funding from Gates and his personal interest that led to the sensational angle of the New York Times Magazine article.

What difference can Big History make? Research on the impact of teaching Big History has focused on a very big word in education – engagement. Turning the story of the scientific development of the universe into a historical narrative supported by modern graphics and technology has been popular with students of many ages and promotes down-to-earth understanding of science. To mention one example, those interested in mathematics are attracted by efforts to solve problems but that does not tend to be true of students who are not inclined to mathematical thinking. Turning mathematical ideas into historical narrative with practical applications can make those concepts easier to understand for those less drawn to the abstract beauty and elegance of mathematics. The same impact can be expected for difficult ideas of physics, chemistry, and biology.

The combination of science and history presents current issues on a large scale so that environmental challenges emerge more clearly. The many dangers posed by industrial society stand out as modern challenges of complexity to our planet and to human cultural evolution and survival.

Another notable impact will be on religious beliefs of students from diverse cultural backgrounds (Christian, Hindu, Islam, for example) as they must adjust traditional religious views of creation and the human role in the universe to the story of the Big Bang and subsequent evolution of life. For example, parents who have demanded that school boards modify teaching of biological evolution will likely protest many of the implications of Big History for similar reasons.

FAQs and Personal Views. This has been an introduction to some basic questions about Big History. I have tried to be neutral in presenting information rather than arguing in favor of this development. No doubt you will detect that I do favor the use of Big History as a step forward in educating the public on science in a very practical way. There will be resistance to various impacts and probably fear of what might come of something so new. I encourage everyone to check out the information mentioned in this article, details of which are provided in the list of references. I will be expressing personal views in other articles.

We live in a democratic society which encourages free expression of views. My hope is that the public will heed solid information rather than be swayed by unsupported assertions of personal views.

References:

Andrew Ross Sorkin, “So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class,” New York Times Magazine, September 5, 2014.

David Christian, “The History of Our World in 18 Minutes” a TED presentation of May, 2011, at http://www.ted.com/talks/david_christian_big_history.

Curriculum materials funded by the Gates Foundation are at: http://www.bighistoryproject.com.

Richard B. Simon, Mojgan Behmand, and Thomas Burke, eds., Teaching Big History (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015) describes the experience at Dominican University.

Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (New York: Basic Books, 1993).