Perhaps I had been hiding under a rock but I must confess that prior to reading DK's impressive book Big History (more on that later) the Big History Project was new to me. In a nutshell, the term "Big History", coined by Australian academic David Christian of Macquarie University, is a new way of thinking about history and our species place within the timeline of how we conceive history.
The conventional history view -- one that we are aware of from primary education and beyond -- covers a timeline spanning approximately seven thousand years (5000 BCE to present day). By contrast, Big History encompasses 13.8 billion years (Big Bang to present day). Moreover, the Big in Big History isn't an exaggeration: it takes a multidisciplinary approach that includes the hard sciences, and social sciences as well as the humanities. In contrast to conventional history, which is grounded in the deep dive of getting into the minutiae of a particular specialism within a silo.
Before getting to the book, like anything, the Big History approach isn't without its critics, in particular historians who argue that:
While the idea has led to some interesting experiments in historical writing, the general consensus among historians is that history without any form of tunnel vision is a utopian impossibility. ~Katherine Edwards
Explicit within the critique of this approach is the uneasiness of having one of the richest people in the world, Bill Gates, promoting and funding this approach after watching David Christian's TED Talk.
The Case for an inter-disciplinary approach
Fair enough, criticism should always be welcome for there are few areas of academia unscathed by the flow of capital, but ultimately we must remember that even the most rigorous peer reviewed journals are subject to a cornucopia of biases. My personal bias against an orthodoxy ruling over any discipline is that new frames of looking at things, rather than being a hindrance, are a help to pushing a discipline to further heights and enlightening us.
From a personal viewpoint, the economics discipline, particularly the manner in which it is taught at the graduate level in tertiary institutions is woefully inadequate in dealing with the realities of a modern economy. It failed spectacularly in the lead up to the 2008 Financial crisis and we see that around us with the dearth of forward thinking policy as we are mired in an anemic global environment. In fact, that field would be greatly helped by incorporating a good dose of interdisciplinary thinking rather than the narrow silo thinking of orthodox priests of the discipline. As financial economist Kate Gimblett on Twitter remarked recently: The sciences have had cross-discipline collaboration for years while economics has been isolated in thought experiments built on assumptions. (Bold italicized emphasis mine)
Okay, enough of my argument for having an open mind and embracing Big History . What about the book itself? The case has been made to me that we don't need books any more since everything can be found online. Nothing could be further form the truth; to quote Bill Gates "reading off the screen is still vastly inferior to reading off of paper". Surely it goes without saying that the tactile nature of having a beautiful bound archival quality book in your hand makes the act of learning memorable? Besides, books smell good!
The Big History narrative is split into eight sections: (1) The Big Bang; (2) Stars Are Born; (3) Elements Are Forged; (4) Planets Form; (5) Life Emerges; (6) Humans Evolve; (7) Civilizations Develop; (8) Industry Rises
The introductory section that describes the beginning of the universe introduces us immediately to both modern scientific theory and elements of the how our ancestors believed the universe began. It ends by asking the reader to consider thinking, "Beyond the Big Bang" with the caveat "There are also some problems with the theory that need to be addressed and some aspects that have yet to be understood", and quotes British cosmologist Martin Rees "We can trace things back to the earlier stages of the Big Bang, but we still don't know what banged and why it banged. That's a challenge for 21st century science."
This approachable yet insightful inter-disciplinary approach that frames history through a scientific lens is made all the more palatable with some fantastic pictures.
DK's Big History is a fantastic book. I would recommend it to anyone with a thirst for knowledge. It is written at a general level so no degrees are required but after your done reading it you will definitely see things in a different light.
Highly recommended as a stocking stuffer for the holidays.
Big History is published by DK Publishing
Review by Arijit Banik (wanna be philosopher),
for @SukasaReads (a division of @SukasaStyle)
PURCHASE BIG HISTORY FROM DK CANADA