Big History studies the history of everything, offering a way of making sense of our world and our role within it.
It starts with the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago. All the best scientific evidence today suggests our universe appeared as an incredibly dense, fantastically hot pinpoint of energy that contained everything – all the stars, all the atoms and every photon in today’s universe. It expanded fast, and as it expanded it cooled. As the fireball cooled, things changed. New forms of matter and energy and new structures appeared, from stars, to planets, to living organisms and, finally, modern human societies. Big History is therefore a wonderful way of getting a sense of our place in the overall scheme of things, according to the best available scientific knowledge.
Why bother with the history of everything? Today, we teach and learn about our world in fragments. In literature classes you don’t learn about genes; in physics classes you don’t learn about human evolution. So you get a fragmented view of the world. That makes it hard to find meaning in education. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim called this sense of disorientation and meaninglessness anomie, and he argued that it could lead to despair and even suicide. The German sociologist Max Weber talked of the “disenchantment” of the world. In the past, people had a unified vision of their world, a vision usually provided by the origin stories of their own religious traditions. That unified vision gave a sense of purpose, of meaning, even of enchantment to the world and to life. Today, though, many writers have argued that a sense of meaninglessness is inevitable in a world of science and rationality. Modernity, it seems, means meaninglessness.
But is it really true that modern science gives us lots of clever tricks but no meaning? I don’t think so. In fact, I think the problem is that we are slowly learning our way around a new origin story that is being constructed, piece by piece, within modern science. Modern scientific knowledge appeared piecemeal. Historians wrote about human history; physicists tackled the material world; and biologists studied the world of living organisms. But there were few links between these disciplines, as researchers focused on getting the details right. Modern schools and universities reproduce this fragmented sense of knowledge.
Since the middle of the twentieth century, though, we have seen more and more links between disciplines. We have also figured out how to date events in the remote past. So now we are ready to put the pieces together into a single, coherent story that shows how our universe came to be and what our place is within it. Big History tells this modern, scientific origin story, and the story is as enchanting and meaningful as any earlier origin story.
In early 2014, Big History courses are being taught in perhaps 50 universities, mostly in North America. Online Big History courses are being taught in almost 150 high schools, mostly in the United States and Australia, but also in South Korea, the Netherlands, Scotland and elsewhere. There is a growing literature on Big History and the field is booming. Is it possible that within 20 years Big History will be a normal part of school and college curricula in most countries in the world?
I hope so, because a coherent vision of reality is vital as we tackle the complex global challenges we face today. Humans are remarkable: the first species in almost 4 billion years of life on earth that dominates the biosphere. This gives us the power, in principle, to build societies in which everyone flourishes. But it also creates great dangers because it is not clear that we really understand how to use our potentially devastating powers. We need the Big History story.
Author: David Christian is an author and historian. He is participating in the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2014 in Davos. To find out more about Big History, see the International Big History Association; David Christian’s book, Maps of Time, and his Ted Talk; the Big History project; the college textbook Big History: Between Nothing and Everything; the History Channel series; and the Teaching Company lectures.
Image: The barred spiral galaxy M83 is seen in a NASA Hubble Space Telescope. REUTERS/NASA