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Big History is an idea whose time has come
Big History is an idea whose time has come. In simple terms, it is the conjunction of natural and human history. This story starts with the “Big Bang” and ends in the domain of human culture in the future to the extent that future events can be foreseen.
The addition of cosmic and biological events to history offends some historians. Such phenomena belong to the disciplines of physics, chemistry, and biology which traditionally have been conceived in terms of static relationships. Newtonian physics is based upon a set of mathematical equations that describe immutable relationships between mass, force, and velocity. Chemistry is based upon an atomic chart devised by Dimitri Ivanovich Mendeleev. Biological studies rest upon a foundation of classifications of plant and animal life first devised by the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus. These great scientists were less concerned with the development of the universe than its present state.
When primitive man looked at the night sky, he saw a bewildering assortment of stars. Those small, bright spots could be recognized by their place in constellations imagined to have human or animal shapes. Some “stars”, later understood to be planets, seemed to move about in the skies. This was all that could be determined within our framework of immediate experience.
It took a long time for humanity to acquire instruments of observation that would allow more and better information to be received. Devices to detect electromagnetic radiation, combined with our knowledge of chemistry, allowed astronomers to determine the chemical composition of stars, their surface heat and luminosity, and their velocity and direction of travel with respect to earth. Later this knowledge became translated into a picture of how the cosmos developed.
However, changes in stars happen much too slowly for human astronomers to observe. The sun, for instance, is expected to last another five billion years before the hydrogen fuel supporting its internal thermonuclear conversion is exhausted and it changes into another type of star.
Fortunately, at each moment astronomers can observe stars in a great variety of states. By what Robert Carneiro calls “the comparative method”, it is assumed that “where a process cannot be observed over its entire course in any one individual (star), it is equivalent to observe it as manifested by a number of individuals, each representing a different stage of that process.” In other words, “from the comparison of synchronic data one (can) draw diachronic conclusions.”
A century ago, astronomers Ejnar Hertzsprung and Henry Norris Russell, observing the spectra of visible stars, created a graph, the “Hertzsprung-Russell diagram”, that correlated the luminosity (brightness) of stars with their surface temperatures. They found that the vast majority of stars were situated in a band sloping from the upper-left part of the diagram (high temperatures and high luminosity) to the lower-right part (low temperatures and low luminosity). These became known as “main sequence” stars. However, a number of stars fell outside the band. They included red-giant and supergiant stars (having high luminosity and low surface temperatures), on one hand, and white-dwarf stars (having low luminosity and high surface temperatures), on the other.
Gradually, the significance of the stellar distribution became clear. Stars within a certain size range undergo a process of changing from one state to another. As they gather cosmic dust into a concentrated mass by the force of gravity, the intense pressure produces heat and a thermonuclear reaction converting hydrogen into helium plus energy. This conversion continues at a stable rate over a long period of time (often billions of years). The star then expands in size to become a red giant that has great luminosity but a low surface temperature. Finally it becomes a white dwarf with low luminosity and increasing temperature as the star again contracts.
In other words, stars experience life cycles. This means that each has a history. Each star changes in predictable ways with the passage of time.
Human knowledge thus proceeds from patterns observed in the present to assumptions about past and future events. The “Big Bang” itself is assumed from Doppler shifts in spectra of light that suggests distant stars are receding from earth at approximately the same rate in all directions. In conclusion, the universe itself is expanding. The distance from earth and rate of velocity suggests how much time has elapsed during the expansion. Conversely, it can be assumed that the universe was much smaller when the process began. Ultimately, it began with an immense outward flow of energy and matter from a single point in space and time in an event that we call the “Big Bang”.
The point is that several centuries ago human knowledge was inadequate to support theories of cosmic development. Much of our knowledge has been acquired during the past century. Until then, we knew only of static relationships. An attempted Big History could not have included theories concerning the expansion of the universe or the destiny of main-sequence stars. There was then no history regarding such events.
History could also not have included stories concerning the origin of chemical elements. It is now known that originally cosmic matter consisted mainly of hydrogen, with some helium, and a smattering of lithium. The heavier elements did not exist in the aftermath of the Big Big. It took stars known as supernovae with internal pressure and heat sufficient to create those elements followed by explosions that dispersed their materials in space. We know that the solar system, for instance, was created from such debris. From radiometric dating techniques, we can also determine its age.
Biological knowledge follows a similar pattern. Because many species of life have evolved over millions of years, scientists cannot immediately watch those species being created. Charles Darwin conceived the theory of evolution after a voyage to the south Pacific where he observed a variety of species in particular environments. Judgments could be made of their origin by the comparative method. Meanwhile, paleontologists in the 19th century were uncovering fossils and bones of extinct species that bore a resemblance to living creatures. The tree of life was beginning to disclose sequential relationships and lineages among the species.
With respect to Homo sapiens, skeletons were found in east Africa and other places whose structure bore a greater or less resemblance to great apes in comparison with human beings. Through dating techniques, scholars could determine which species was the ancestor of another. Besides skeletal comparisons, the newly acquired technique of DNA analysis has revealed relationships between species. Science again was developing a capacity to track changes over time.
Finally, archeological science has made discoveries relating to prehistoric human cultures. Our knowledge of primitive societies increases as each relic is retrieved from the ground and compared with other relics of a known purpose and style. Anthropologists acquire knowledge of ancient oral traditions through conversations with living members of aboriginal tribes. This scholarly knowledge allows us to place prehistoric objects in time.
The point is that modern scholarship and science have paved the way for Big History. This enterprise would not have been possible in previous times to the degree possible today. The accumulation of knowledge over the past several centuries has been such that historians have a bewildering amount of information about the past. The challenge now is to write a story that makes sense of it.
What we are doing is grafting various kinds of knowledge upon history. To create history is an art rather than a science. The writer of history is one who selects particular details from the record of human experience to produce a story. A certain literary judgment is exercised in choosing some events to include in the narrative while neglecting others. The goal is to produce a meaningful story in terms of its purpose and genre.
Big History is essentially a creation story. It is the story of how the world, both natural and human, came to be. Artistry is required to describe a flow of events from one situation to another which is historically accurate and which makes sense to people. Otherwise, there is no “correct” way to write the history. With that in mind, I am offering my own version of the story to throw into the hopper of Big History schemes while this field of study is still fluid and young.
The story of Big History is divided between what is learned from scientific and scholarly investigations of evidence provided from nature and what is disclosed in written records. In other words, it is divided between prehistory and history proper. If the story aspires to be a cosmology, it might also indicate what will transpire in the future.
While I do not believe in “end of time” schemes, I do believe that humanity’s future may be quite different than the situation today. The title of my book, A Cosmology of Matter/Life/Thought, indicates that the story will be about three distinct types of being - matter, life, and thought - that have emerged in the physical universe, with predictions made of future events. The story is about the emergence of these different types of objects or beings at diffferent times.
Scientific theories provide the story in the first part of the book. We have stories of how the universe developed, how the earth and solar system appeared in a certain part of the Milky Way galaxy, how life appeared on earth, how Homo sapiens developed as a species of life, and how human culture developed in preliterate societies.
With writing came civilization, whose experience is told in the second part of the book. History proper begins at this point. Here disagreements start to appear about how the story should be told. In terms of Big History, I propose that this be about the creation and development of thought.
What is history? Traditionally, it is the story of kings and other important persons. As a boy, I once read a book, 1066 and All That, which was about the history of England told through the succession of monarchs beginning with William the Conqueror’s accession to the English throne in 1066 A.D. There are similar stories for other nations.
This type of history has certain advantages. First, it is the story of particular individuals. That means we can relate to the stories in personal terms. Second, because these individuals sat upon the throne, their activities affected entire nations and therefore could become a focus of national history. Third, there were distinct break points in the story when one monarch died or was overthrown and another individual came to power. The history is simple, coherent and clean with respect to story telling.
Each nation has its own history in the experiences of the political administrations whether led by monarchs, emperors, or presidents. From the standpoint of big history or even world history, a complete telling of the story so as to represent all nations would be much too lengthy to be useful to readers. The historian might find space in the story for the larger political units to be covered - the Roman or Chinese empires, for example - but the many smaller nations would not merit inclusion. Another problem is that histories focused primarily on government exclude much of human experience. They are filled with irrelevant details from a typical reader’s point of view.
The American writers Will and Ariel Durant produced an eleven-volume history titled The Story of Civilization that was more than an account of political experiences. Each volume covered a particular period of time. Separate chapters covered political events, social and economic history, literature and arts, philosophy and religion, ordinary people’s lives, and other subjects related to the culture and society of that period. However, the Durants’ work was too Eurocentric to be an acceptable “world history”. The series of books was too voluminous for most readers to digest in its entirety.
Arnold Toynbee redirected large-scale history to the history of civilizations. He identified twenty-one separate civilizations, both living and extinct, in the history of humanity. His A Study of History, originally written in six volumes, was condensed to two volumes in the abridged version produced by D.C. Somervell. In 1976, Toynbee published another book, Mankind and Mother Earth: A Narrative History of the World, which was not a study but a historical narrative. The chapters of this single-volume work were in roughly chronological order, while jumping around between societies in different parts of the world. Deriving much historical information from this book, I also followed its scheme of organization.
However, my book, Five Epochs of Civilization, differed from Toynbee’s work in several respects. Most importantly, it defined civilization differently. Toynbee regarded civilization as a regional entity existing in a particular time and place. For example, Babylonic civilization originated in Iraq shortly 1500 B.C. and culminated in the neo-Babylonic empire of the 6th century B.C. before it was overthrown by the Persians and later replaced by Syriac and then Hellenic civilizations. My book regards civilizations as a successive stages in the development of a single worldwide civilization. Communication technologies and the emergence of institutions in society are important parts of the picture. Also, I pay more attention to recent events than Toynbee did.
Five Epochs of Civilization tells the story of how modern society was created. Human beings first became organized in small-scale tribes dependent upon hunter/gatherer activities. Then, after agriculture was adopted, city-states appeared in several parts of the world. From here society developed over the years until we have large metropolises with a variety of institutions including those of government, religion, business, education, and entertainment. Each is powerful in its own way. Each institution has a story to tell in the course of its development.
The chapters in Five Epochs of Civilization reflect the idea that the various institutions of society each developed as full-fledged entities at different times in world history. Societies became pluralistic in structure as each new institution developed and was added to the mix.
Separating from primitive temple cultures, the institution of government developed first. The early period of civilized history - from around 3,000 B.C. until the time of Christ - culminated in large political empires. These were succeeded politically and culturally by institutions of world religion. After the Renaissance, commercial and educational institutions dominated the culture of western Europe. Then, in the 20th century, there was a culture focused on entertainment delivered primarily by electronic equipment. And now, a fifth civilization is taking shape at the hands of computer technology.
In other words, the historical story in civilized times is told in five chapters, separately describing the development of their dominant institutions. Power struggles between the leaders of those institutions are the “stuff” of history. Even if this history involves non-governmental institutions more than most, it is close to other historical writings that one might recognize. It says: First this event happened, then this, then that, etc. Therefore, one might say that my version is putting the “history” back into “big history” in contrast with writers who stress such things as patterns of increasing complexity or energy use.
After the first five chapters that are based on scientific discoveries and theories, there are another five chapters devoted to the history of humanity in civilized times. How is the story organized? Which materials are selected?
Like Toynbee, I recognize that the history of events in different parts of the world must be narrated separately, while trying generally to maintain chronological order. Therefore, in the chapter focusing on government, for instance, we progress from the earliest governments in Egypt and Mesopotamia to the Persian and Greek empires, to the Roman empire, to the Byzantine Roman and the Sasanian Persian empires, to empires in India and China, and finally those of pre-Columbian America. In the chapter on religion, we narrate the histories of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism successively.
A second principle is that events relating to the creation of an institution are given greater emphasis than those when the institution is fully developed. However prominent the Papacy may have been in medieval Europe, it deserves less space in this history than the story of Jesus and his companions. The purpose is to explain how something began and how it grew to a place of power and influence in society. For ours is a creation story.
Finally, there is the question of periods (or chapter breaks). This can be a problem because historical epochs did not neatly change as, for instance, when one monarch died and was replaced by his successor. To a significant degree, the periods overlap. For example, I would say that the second epoch of civilization began in the Axial Age in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. while the first epoch, characterized by large political empires, did not end until the west Roman empire fell in the 5th century A.D.
Furthermore, there was a timing difference between regions. Egypt and Mesopotamia developed first, then India, then China, and finally Europe and the Americas. A universal chronology will not work in world history. The different peoples on earth experienced the same set of changes at different times.
Even though the historical scheme presented in Five Epochs of Civilization is inserted in the Big History book, a modification must be made to embrace the new themes. World history focuses upon the development of society and its institutions. With respect to Big History, however, we are interested in the advancement of thought. The problem is that, with few exceptions, humanity does not directly seek to advance thought. Instead, people struggle for power and position within society; and thought is advanced as an incidental part of that process.
Therefore, I filter the story of advancing thought through the history of emerging institutions and the communication technologies supporting them. An important consideration is how thought is embodied. Its embodiment in written language, first developed in the age of political institutions, was a major step forward. When alphabetic writing made literacy more convenient, another forward step was taken. Then, when written texts were mass-produced by the printing press, it took us into the modern age.
The modern age is primarily an age of machines. Thought is embodied in their design and purpose. Machines are hybrids of thought and the materials from which they are made. We also have the prospect of a particular type of machine, the computer, that is able to think. We have the prospect of artificial thought in rivalry with natural (human) thought. One can only imagine what the future will be as thinking machines become further developed.
In summary, Big History takes the story of being in our universe from the creation of matter and energy following the “Big Bang” to the emergence of life on earth and finally to the thoughts first hatched by the human species and later embodied in machines. The goal is for the story to flow seamlessly from one chapter to another. Big History may then become the basis of a cosmology that explains scientifically how our world came to be, where it may be headed, and, indirectly, what our place in this environment is.
Post script: History and Science
Science is a study of the world as it is. History is a narrative of worldly events taking place over time. Science therefore describes the world in present tense. Historical events may take in present or past tense and even, by interpolation, in the future.
A cosmology such as is being attempted here is based upon the findings of science. Some scientific discoveries, notably those in archeology and astronomy, may illuminate a past situation. However, each scientific discovery is made based upon present evidence. Each historical event also took place in the present, even if its knowledge is preserved for future times. What history does is to put several events together in a single piece of writing. It is a process of compiling information from various points in time and stringing these pieces together to create a coherent story.
History of the Triple Existence is one such attempt to tell the story of “Big History”. There are others. Some works of Big History introduce scientific concepts; they elucidate general patterns in the process of cosmic development. History of the Triple Existence focuses more narrowly upon the sequential development of the three types of being. The emergence of matter is described in the first two chapters; of life, in chapters three and four; and of thought, in the remaining chapters.
However, there is a scientific way of looking at this. Matter, life, and thought also have their own spheres of existence. These are called, respectively, the geosphere, biosphere, and noosphere. They are separate zones of activity on planet earth.
The preeminent scholar who studied these zones was the Russian scientist Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863-1945). In October 2013, the global studies faculty of Lomonosov Moscow State University hosted an international scientific conference, “Globalistics-2013”, in memory of Vernadsky's 150th birthday. Representatives of the International Big History Association (IBHA) presenting papers at this conference included David Christian (founder of the Big History movement), Joseph Voros, and William McGaughey. The Russian hosts included Alexander Rozanov, Andrey Korotayev (also IBHA board member), Leonid Grinin, and Tatiana Shestova.
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