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Teaching Big History
By Richard B. Simon, Mojgan Behmand, Thomas Burke
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
What Is Big History?
RICHARD B. SIMON
On my first day as a college undergraduate, I walked into my freshman seminar, "The Gaia Hypothesis," a course on James Lovelock's groundbreaking theory that the biosphere, all life, interacts with all of Earth's systems—climate, oceans, and the rocks themselves—in ways that maintain temperature and chemical homeostasis on Earth. The course changed my understanding of how the Earth works, and of how everything works. It was disruptive, and transformative, and it framed the rest of my education so that when I studied astronomy, paleontology, sociology, climate science—and even literature—it all seemed to fit together, to make sense, in ways that were profound. It made me want not only to make art about big ideas, but to teach others how to make art about big ideas.
So, when the committee revising Dominican's first-year program asked me whether I could see how Big History might work as the core of a new curriculum, my answer was an enthusiastic "yes!"
Well, first I had to look up what, exactly, Big History was.
Then I said "yes."
WHAT IS BIG HISTORY?
Big History uses humanities-based storytelling to span cosmology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, archaeology, and a traditional human history that has been reconciled with natural history and environmental geography. Its aim is to weave the vast realm of evidence-based human knowledge into a master narrative that tells the story of human beings on Earth, from the beginning of the universe to the present.
Big Historians seek to place the wealth of human knowledge into a framework that allows us to see patterns that repeat on various levels of reality, from the subatomic to the political to the macrocosmic, and to seek the relationships among those levels of reality. Ultimately, the goal is to try to understand the nature of the universe, and our place in it.
Because the Big History framework illuminates the structures that underlie the universe, it is a powerful analytic tool. Because its structure binds together content from all human disciplines, it is a powerful pedagogical tool. Finally, because the structure of the Big History narrative parallels the structures of the physical universe, even as it tells the story of those structures, Big History is at once narrative and meta-narrative. All this makes Big History an intuitive vehicle for critical thinking, and for rich, innovative intellectual exploration within students' and teachers' home disciplines, as well as within Big History itself.
Perhaps most importantly, a Big History understanding, in reframing all of human knowledge in a way that makes intuitive, logical sense, prepares us to consider possible futures, premised on the patterns we see in the past, and empowers us intellectually to act to shape the future.
BIG HISTORY AS HISTORY
Thinkers from disciplines other than history are telling versions of this story, too. These thinkers include cosmologists, biologists, geologists, astrophysicists, theologians, and more. Some approaches are more academically rigorous than others. While the name "Big History" connotes the attempt by academic historians to frame the story of the universe as history, it has also become shorthand for all the versions of this story (for a meta-narrative history of the field and some discussion of its various threads, see chapter 19, Cynthia Stokes Brown's "A Little Big History of Big History").
What is remarkable about Big History as history is that, traditionally, the field of history privileges primary sources—firsthand accounts of events. But while surviving firsthand accounts might offer us a snapshot of roughly the last five thousand years, our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, has existed for two hundred thousand years. That means that 97.5 percent of the history of humans has been off-limits to human historians!
Instead, the study of our species in those years—the Paleolithic or Stone Age—has been termed "prehistory," considered the realm of archaeologists, anthropologists, and paleontologists, and kept academically separate from "recorded history."
For scale, if in 2014, we were to write an analogous account of the history of the United States of America, we might begin at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. We would not only maintain that nothing that happened before January 20, 2009, counts as American history (perhaps because it had not been broadcast via digital social networks); we would also assume that nothing that happened before that date bears any relevant causal relationship to the events that have occurred since.
Of course, that's absurd. Yet our academic disciplines have long worked in isolation from one another, even as they are writing different chapters of the same story. We've been like the five blind men who find something in the forest and argue over whether it is a snake, a worm, a giant bat, a tree trunk, or the side of a barn, never understanding that, together, they have found an elephant.
Big Historians posit that because human knowledge has undergone—largely in modern, industrial times—a chronometric revolution, we have ways of knowing that are at least as valid, accurate, and verifiable as firsthand written accounts.
These newly readable texts are encoded in DNA, in the half-lives of the radioisotopes of certain atoms, in the time-layered sediments in rocks, and in events occurring all across the cosmos that we can observe with powerful, space-based telescopes. When we read these texts, we stretch the purview of history not only beyond "recorded" history to the dawn of humans, but across the fossil record to the dawn of life itself; to the earliest days of our planet, our star, and our galaxy; and through theoretical physics and cosmology to the first seconds in the existence of our universe. We can actually see events that occurred billions of years ago as if in real time, as the light from those far-off events finally reaches our telescopes. Of course, that makes astronomical observations firsthand accounts of the history of the universe. And our observations of other stars and galaxies across their predictable, patterned life spans allows us to extrapolate an understanding of our own sun, and of our own Milky Way galaxy.
Big Historians also include the history of the evidence—the story of science itself.
By using all the information at our disposal, we can begin to understand the breadth and depth of the history of the universe, and to see some of the remarkable patterns that recur throughout.
That history goes a little something like this.
THE BIG HISTORY STORY
We don't know what existed before, but around 13.8 billion years ago, a tiny point appeared, in which the entire contents of the universe already existed as energy and matter. It exploded rapidly, as if in a big bang, then expanded again in a period known as inflation, until the universe consisted of a vast amount of space filled with a superhot plasma of subatomic particles.
As the universe cooled, basic forces appeared: gravity, electromagnetism, and the nuclear forces that bind subatomic particles together and govern radioactive decay—along with protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and neutrinos. As the universe continued to cool and expand, those particles were able to bind together electromagnetically as atoms, releasing loose photons in an enormous flash of light.
The new atoms of mostly hydrogen condensed into enormous clouds, which congealed in pockets of their own mass and gravity into galaxies and stars. Within one of those galaxies, our own star blinked awake when a critical mass of hydrogen, jostled by a nearby supernova (the explosion of a star that itself had been fusing hydrogen and helium into heavier elements, such as oxygen, silicon, iron, and gold), began to fuse into helium. A cloud of loose material, cast off by the supernova, continued to spiral around the new star under its gravitational influence—the heavier material closer to the star, the lighter, gaseous material toward the outside of this rapidly spinning disc of matter. This matter accreted into four rocky inner planets and four gaseous outer planets (and a few other objects).
One of the inner planets was our own, Earth. It orbited at the right distance from the star to be able to maintain water in all three states—gas, liquid, and solid—and maintained a gaseous atmosphere. Somehow, life emerged on this planet as single-celled bacteria. Some of these bacteria incorporated other bacteria and became more complex cells, which learned to reproduce sexually, to photosynthesize, and to process sugars for use as energy. Life evolved along with and affected changing planetary and atmospheric conditions—from single cells to plants to animals, including the vertebrate mammals that evolved into primates.
Some of those primates diverged from the great apes to evolve into bipedal hominines such as Australopithecus afarensis ("Lucy") and Homo erectus. Homo erectus evolved, separately, into both Homo sapiens neanderthalensis and, finally, Homo sapiens sapiens (they are commonly referred to as Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, respectively).
Homo sapiens, the wise human, spread out to populate the globe and learned to dominate and domesticate other species—namely, animals and plants. Because the invention of agriculture led humans to settle in one place, and then led to surpluses—which had to be stored and guarded against invasion, and which could also be traded—human society became more complex, and grew to include centralized yet sprawling communities, social hierarchies, and networks of exchange.
With the discovery of fossil fuels and the invention of heat-driven machines, ever-increasing flows of energy (which had originated as solar energy) pulsed through these agricultural civilizations until they became industrialized. As more and more people and ideas (from far-flung and disparate civilizations) were connected through trade, their collective learning led to more and more innovation.
As of this writing, this increased innovation has resulted in a highly industrialized global civilization, connected through rapid, energy-fueled information flows as well as advanced transportation technology. This global civilization is aware of itself; it has seen itself from space. And it is even now exploring other planets and on the verge of exploring beyond the outer reaches of its own solar system. At the same time, it faces several global problems that are existential crises, including an ever-expanding human population, resultant scarcities of energy, food, and clean freshwater resources, and an increasingly unpredictable global climate system, the cause of which is the by-product of the very consumption of energy that has led to civilization's current level of complexity. There we remain, perched on the verge of an age of wondrous new technologies and potential ecological catastrophe.
And that's the story so far. It's a cliffhanger.
A FRAMEWORK FOR HUMAN KNOWLEDGE
The framework that underpins the Big History narrative, as laid out by David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin in Big History: Between Nothing and Everything, is that of thresholds of increasing complexity. In this model, what binds the story together is that as the universe has progressed across time from the Big Bang to advanced industrial human civilization, it has tended toward greater complexity.
According to this model of complexity, which is based on the work of astrophysicist Eric Chaisson and that of cultural anthropologist Fred Spier, a form of complexity—for example, the universe, a galaxy, a solar system, an organism, or an agricultural or industrial civilization—is comprised of four elements:
diverse components, or different types of parts, arrayed in ...
specific arrangements, or characteristic structures, such as an atom with a nucleus and orbiting electrons; a cell with a nucleus and energy-processing organelles, surrounded by a membrane; a solar system with a star at its center, orbited by planets and two concentric layers of loose debris; or a civilization with a city at its center and agricultural production at its periphery, connected by trade routes to other similar cities. Those arrangements of those components are held together by ...
flows of energy, typically energy emitted by the fusion within stars that is being used in ways characteristic to that form of complexity and resulting in new ...
emergent properties, or new properties that exist only in this new form of complexity—things that the whole can do that the parts could not.
The greater the number and variety of parts, the more numerous and varied the connections among them, and the higher the flows of energy, the more complex an entity is said to be. And the more complex an entity is, the more interesting (to us!) its reality-altering emergent properties are—because they eventually result in us.
Each new emergence is marked by an increase in the amount of energy that is used by that new form of complexity to maintain its structural continuity. So, a form of complexity connotes a complex system that maintains its own energy flows and thus its structure. But the amount of energy that flows through any form of complexity must remain within limits that Fred Spier calls "Goldilocks conditions." Too little energy and the complexity collapses; too much energy and it burns out.
Christian, Brown, and Benjamin use increasing complexity as the throughline that binds the entire story together. They divide the story by eight "thresholds"—transitions in time/space across which a new form of complexity "emerged" from what existed before, and so changed everything—leading toward us, contemporary Homo sapiens.
We think of it like this:
Threshold 1: The Big Bang
Threshold 2: The Formation of Stars and Galaxies
Threshold 3: Heavier Chemical Elements and the Life Cycle of Stars
Threshold 4: The Formation of Our Solar System and Earth
Threshold 5: The Evolution of Life on Earth
Threshold 6: The Rise of Homo sapiens
Threshold 7: The Agrarian Revolution
Threshold 8: Modernity and Industrialization
Threshold 9? Possible Futures
Unless the universe continues in its present form until its eventual demise, without generating any new forms of complexity that are perceptible by humans on Earth—or, from an even more anthropocentric point of view, unless human civilization does not evolve into yet another higher order of complexity—there will be a Threshold 9. It will be marked by increasing complexity—new and more numerous components, connected in many ways into complex structures, with vast increases in energy flows and remarkable emergent properties. But "Threshold 9" is not synonymous with "the future."
A PEDAGOGICAL FRAMEWORK
Because each of the eight thresholds is primarily the domain of a few disciplines of study (Threshold 1: cosmology, physics; Threshold 2: astronomy; Threshold 3: astronomy, chemistry; Threshold 4: astronomy, geology; Threshold 5: evolutionary biology; Threshold 6: paleontology, anthropology; Threshold 7: archaeology, geography, history; Threshold 8: geography, history, sociology), the Big History narrative is quite valuable as a pedagogical framework.
Big History as a field is zoomable (the ChronoZoom project, developed by legendary geologist Walter Alvarez and technologist Roland Saekow, working with Microsoft Research, demonstrates this visually), in that we can view the long story of the universe and then focus in on what is happening in a distant nebula (astronomy), or in a particular terrestrial ecosystem (ecology), or in a period of human history. We can use our understanding of the larger picture to make sense of the specific detail. Likewise, the specific detail lends granularity to the big picture. And so we fit new knowledge into both micro- and macro-level understandings of how the world works.
Students who are taught the broad story of the universe, and who understand how the knowledge yielded by the various disciplines of human endeavor fits together, have a sound and logical scaffold in which to place the specific knowledge they attain in their own eventual disciplines. It's one thing to learn trigonometry by formula in a classroom, and quite another to understand that by using trigonometry, we know the distance to stars as measurable fact, and that because our ancestors understood this (on a more rudimentary level), they were able to navigate the seas using the stars as relatively fixed points, and thus to populate every continent, to drive trade, and to spread ideas, religions, markets, diseases, genetic material, and conflict around the globe. What discipline that students might study is not affected by this sort of understanding?
The students in our nursing program, for example, now understand why the vaccines they use work, because they are learning in Big History about the forces that drive natural selection. They also know that numerous human civilizations have met their demise at the flagella of enterprising microorganisms. So they know what's at stake when such organisms—such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA—select around the abilities of our antibiotics to contain them. They understand on both the macro and the micro scale what this means for their work in combating infection in the hospital setting. And that understanding empowers them to innovate.
Excerpted from Teaching Big History by Richard B. Simon, Mojgan Behmand, Thomas Burke. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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