Glimpses into the Scope and Manner of Big History
David Christian has his Big History time-lines up on the Big History Project website. You can access them at http://www.bighistoryproject.com/The-Latest-Word/Download-Print-Big-History-Timelines.
As I’ve told people in the past, I’m a big fan of Dr. Christian and his work with Big History. I’m glad he and others like him are doing the kinds of research they have in this field since it’s so important to do. We need to understand the BIG PICTURE of the universe’s history, and as part of that, we need to see how the different inquiries into that perspective relate to one another (i.e., how evolutionary biology relates back to cosmology and basic physics, how human events connects in with the greater history of life, and how the world of human history fits in with the story of the larger cosmos). Furthermore, we need to understand just how the domains of these studies interpenetrate each other. None of these domains (life, astrophysical phenomena, human development) are distinct islands unto themselves; so why should we expect them to keep to themselves and not impinge on the others’ fields. The fact is, they interrelate; and though their stories are often told separately for the sake of narrative simplicity, their full-story is one of interconnection and interdependent development. Therefore, BIG HISTORY is the collective story of many of these smaller macro-histories and the subjects that come to bear on this narrative of the cosmos’s history.
Yet, it’s not without its issues or problems as a field … It would be to misconstrue Big History as a field to say that. Some have indicated that Big History is too beholden to scientism and the reductionist leanings of its contributing subjects to be a grand narrative of cosmological scale. Others in a critique of macro-history to begin with, question its utility as a discipline – wondering if it is ‘too big to be history.’ These are standard kinds of objections to the field. They can be handled by reference to Big History’s historiographical character and narrative as a field of understanding … Reductionism may or may not be an issue because this is our story of the events of universal history on a cosmological scale … The historical utility question can be answered by pointing out Big History’s open-handed approach to its content; through interdisciplinary partnership with those in other contributing fields, Big History in fact brings both rigor of subject content to its discussions AND historiographical rigor in the telling of these stories. It is not just a gloss of the grand narrative, but a unique historically- and scientifically-based telling of that story, that’s historically and factually accurate in its portrayal of grand scale events.
But, upon mentioning that, this does reveal one area (at least) where Big History runs into troubles in terms of its presentation and approach. Like it or not, the field suffers from an undue dependence on current paradigms of empiricist, scientific understanding, whether or not the criticism is justified in being pegged on it … And, therefore, it seems like the history of life (via evolution) and human events (i.e., human history) are being placed in the straight jack of cosmological events and astrophysics. It’s not the case that it is, in point of fact, but it does seem like that. For such reason, therefore, it’s essential to consider what EACH of these developing orders bring to the table of Big History, so as to discern just what this story of macro-historical scale actually is (in its essence). Human History, for one, brings a unique perspective of sapience to the mix that is Big History’s story; yet without an acknowledgment of such a reality in the narrative, scale, and order of the universe’s cosmology and cosmogony, we’re liable to miss an important principle of our world’s reality, that is, its ability to usher forth such a level of complexity in its systems. Similarly, such is the case with the history of life. It both proceeds from the order of the physical-natural world and conceives the order of sapient, human History. No big deal, except for the fact that, again, with Evolution we see another “emergent” step-up-from or out-of the material/physical order of the natural world from up to that point. Again, none of this makes any sense unless the seeds for the development of life (within evolution) and the complexity we note within History-proper, were already contained within the spectrum of the universe’s dynamics (to begin with) in producing the kinds of systems it did later on. In other words, we’re not talking aboutsome variant of Classical Physics (or Newtonian-based science) producing the complexities of evolutionary history or the complex phenomenon that is human historical eventswithin the larger framework of Big History, but instead a kind of Physics more reminiscent of Complexity Theory and Quantum Dynamics, that would in turn lay the groundwork as it were for the other major thresholds of macro-universal history (that is, via evolutionary history or human world systemic history) many billions of years later.
For that reason, then, it’s necessary to qualify Big History with the principles and approaches of other historical fields (World History, World-Systems analysis, and the specialized micro-histories) as well as to glean insights from what fields like Human Psychology and Complex System Theory can reveal to us about the natural of historical experience and natural phenomena taking place over time.
By doing this we arrive at a better understanding of Big History, and get a better picture of just what Big History is in its grand scale of universal Maps of Time (to borrow the language of David Christian’s book of the same name). That’s the job ahead, it seems to me; to map out these implications of Big History …