Big History and Big Buts
Several years ago, when I was working on a Big Project, I stumbled across the concept of Big History.*
It’s basically the opposite of the academic mantra “not my field.” Proponents of Big History integrate many scholarly disciplines in order to look at human history as a tiny part of the history of the cosmos. One of their favorite ways of illustrating how new we are is to compress the timeline of the universe from 13 billion years to 13 years. In this scenario, homo sapiens would have been around for 53 minutes. The entire recorded history of civilization would have existed for three minutes. “Modern” industrial society has been mucking up the environment for roughly six seconds. In short, we are a blink in the eye of the universe.**
This TED talk by Big History promoter David Christian sums up the basic principles:
[Reminder: if you receive this post by email you may need to go to the History in the Margins website to see the video. Just click the headline or the link.]
It’s fascinating stuff. My introduction to Big History has inspired me to ask slightly different questions than I used to ask. Not just how the salt trade functioned, but why our bodies need salt. Not just when did farming start, but how grain was domesticated. Not just the role of fire in making tools, but the role of fire in making man. But, and for me this is a Big But,*** stories about people are what pulled me into history. Here on the Margins I often focus on the smallest stories. When I think about writing books, I gravitate toward big sweeping themes. But whether the scale of my story is tiny or grand, my subject is people, not great flaming balls in the sky. I’m interested in what happened in that last three minutes, or maybe just a little bit before.
Which means I’m not quite sure what to do with Big History other than admire the intellectual audacity behind it. Any ideas?
*Or more accurately, someone beat me over the head with the idea.
**Or maybe a piece of grit.
***And as my best friend from graduate school will tell you, I love Big Buts. (Sorry, sometimes I can’t resist.)
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