Small Boost for “Big History”

When earthlings begin high school, it would be great if a credible, straightforward master narrative of our species were available for parents and teachers to tell in launching and guiding the children on their way toward mature adulthood and enlightened citizenship. There are, I know, innumerable stories available for this general purpose in world literature. Then, too, parents and teachers already have origin stories to tell. They naturally tell the stories they have been taught, know well, and fervently believe. Yet, childhood stories rarely produce a thoughtful, wise, caring, and just adult citizen; childhood education eventually fails most of us in this regard. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it pessimistically in his essay, The American Scholar, commenting I suppose on the disappointments of specialization, we:

strut about so many walking monsters,—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man. (The American Scholar, 1837, p.2)

Problems are many with the origin stories humans tell themselves to substantiate their fragile identities. Such histories tend to be ancient, tribal, religious, protective, martial, nationalistic, confounding, self-glorifying, ethnocentric, sanctioned by divine authority, and unsupported by evidence. Multitudes of believers nevertheless claim certainty for their beliefs and a willingness to die for them. The brevity of human history is evident when viewed against the backdrop of earth’s origin 4.5 billion years ago, and the beginning of life on the planet four billion years ago. Hominids presaging us arrived a mere two hundred thousand years ago. Physical history dwarfs biologic history and biologic history dwarfs hominid history. The refrigerator magnets of geologic and evolutionary time scales recommended in the Prompts to Planetary Consciousness essay were meant to be gentle reminders of our newcomer, late to the party status.

Our species could benefit from a reformulated concept of history that accurately describes, inspires, and orients all of its members. In this regard, I have an exciting discovery to relate. After several years working on Abdication: God Steps Down for Good, and in the process coming to the conclusion that a reformulated concept of history is needed, I learned just this summer—thanks to a paper given to me by my friend Jim Tierney—that my problem had already been solved, and solved beautifully! The concept, the curriculum, and the program for such a new history already exists! Isn’t that remarkable? I now have the privilege of learning about a grand solution to a problem I had just come to understand and appreciate.

The man who did the work is David Christian. Christian is a Professor of Russian history at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He has been working on the problem of a “Big History” since the 1980s, published a book on the subject called Maps of Time: Introduction to Big History in 2005, and founded an organization and website to advance the idea and make a curriculum available directly to high school teachers and students. Equally exciting, he has presented his work in an astonishing 18 minute TED talk available on YouTube. That’s right, by double-clicking on the hypertext of his TED talk HERE and NOW, you too can see what he created. His approach to history is available for use at this very hour by teachers, students, and schools worldwide. Here also is the link to the David Christian Interview in Edge that my friend Jim Tierney gave me. In truth, while the “Big History” idea is new to me, it is well-established in the world already, with backing from the likes of Bill Gates. Look at the Wikipedia page on “Big History” to see what I mean. If I had been a more diligent researcher, I could have found this work before I began my book!

You now know all I know about “Big History,” but I would like to explain why I think the approach is important. As you’ve seen, if you listened to the TED talk, “Big History” refers to a history of the universe as it evolved from simplicity to complexity in a physical and natural world that eventually generated us. This history is represented in “threshold moments” on scales of universe, geologic, and evolutionary time. The six thresholds discussed in the TED talk, each representing a jump in complexity, are: “Threshold 1. The Big Bang;” “Threshold 2. The Stars Light Up;” “Threshold 3. New Chemical Elements;” “Threshold 4. Earth and The Solar System;” “Threshold 5. Life on Earth;” and, “Threshold 6. Arrival of Homo Sapiens.” Each threshold names a jump in complexity at a moment in time when narrow “Goldilocks conditions” were met allowing that transformation of energy, mass, and form to happen. In short, Christian actually took the advice of Carl Sagan, and Sagan’s protege and successor, Neil deGrasse Tyson: ‘admit it earthlings, you’re made of star dust, let’s start from there.’

This framework provides a powerful way to organize, present, and teach history. Questions are framed so as to draw upon the knowledge of all the disciplines simultaneously. People can more easily understand and directly apply knowledge that way. For example, if the extinction of dinosaurs by an astroid 65 million years ago opened up space for species like ours to thrive in the world, then areas of inquiry like asteroids, dinosaurs, extinctions, migrations, evolution and species attract inquiring minds to physics, astrophysics, chemistry, geology, biology, history, archaeology and the other disciplines. The idea that ‘overcoming’ the second law of thermodynamics, entropy, is central to the story—because narrow, just right, “goldilocks conditions” must be met for jumps in complexity to occur—is wonderful, clever, engaging, and frankly fiendish, not only because the claim is absolutely true but also because it’s an an ongoing puzzle! That problem is one of many that can and should engage and nurture a human mind over a lifetime.

The “Big History” framework locates “mankind” back in the natural world as an evolved and evolving species, a product of forces and processes begun 13.7 billion years ago with the “Big Bang,” and continuing today. With one swipe, our arrogant presumed status as chosen, special, superior, self-creating, dominating, sui generis deities—masters of the universe in Tom Wolfe’s apt phrase —is gone. We are allowed to see ourselves humbly again. This in no way diminishes us or our rich, albeit brief and confounding history. Rather it allows us to consider and learn from all human history, now framed properly within its physical and biological context. As Christian points out, this collective history frames and organizes tribal and national histories. The story can be told with equal zeal, truth, and utility in Brisbane, Buenos Aires, Toledo, Lagos, Beijing, and Timbuktu. It is the big picture of history for everyone, wherever people live.

As for the adult education revelation in Christian’s talk, that collective learning is what really counts in evolutionary terms about our species, I respond “Bravo!” I only wish we could get our collective heads around that idea. Sadly, our collective work as knowledge gatherers/transmitters appears to be as unconscious to us as are the primary functions of fish, bees or ants to them. This reminds me of a playful friend who took occasional pleasure in comparing my intelligence to a fish: ”you’re as dumb as a hake.” Aren’t we all at times? It doesn’t have to be forever, though, does it? Can we learn that we are learners? I think we can. But perhaps this problem is best left unaddressed, a nice problem for another day. It is enough to know that humans are learners and have the availability of the “Big History” framework as a foundation for the education of children and for lifelong learners of all ages. Thanks David Christian. Thanks “Big History.”

Will Callender, Jr.

© August 14, 2015

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

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