Big History: Examines Our Past, Explains Our Present, Imagines Our Future. Foreword by David Christian. New York: DK Publishing, 2016. Pp. 440. Timelines and Index. $50.00 (cloth).
Teachers, students, and the curious have enjoyed a rich set of resources for learning about big history for more than a solid decade now. Works by David Christian, Fred Spier, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin, to name a few, provide access to big history through traditional texts, a textbook, DVDs, and the online Big History Project.1 These works have given rise to courses that allow high school and college students as well as life-long learners to develop a big history sensibility about the interconnected stories of humans, the earth and the cosmos. What could multinational publisher DK add to these resources? In fact, might we not be concerned about a superficial approach to an important topic by a publisher whose brands include Angry Birds, World Wrestling Entertainment, and two comic book franchises? Skepticism is misplaced.
The collaboration between the Big History Institute of Macquarie University, premier contributors and consultants (including David Christian), and the DK team has produced a captivating, large-format book with a compelling approach to learning big history. When open, every two-page spread presents as much space as a twenty-three-inch computer screen. This large format is employed insightfully and beautifully to present concise text alongside incisive infographics and timelines complemented by sharp photographs. The chapters are defined by thresholds, David Christian's term for the periodization markers of big history, when the universe, and later our little piece of it, became more complex in exponentially significant ways over 13.8 billion years. The well-established names for thresholds, with slight alterations, serve as titles of the eight chapters: "The Big Bang," "Stars are Born," "Elements are Forged," "Planets Form," "Life Emerges," "Humans Evolve," "Civilizations Develop," and "Industry Rises." The final chapter concludes by drawing readers' attention to the large trajectories we humans are on and what the future might bring regarding energy consumption, the exhaustion of non-renewable natural resources, climate change, the transition to the Anthropocene (the proposed post-Holocene geological epoch), and the quest for sustainability. Mindful of the impact big history has on how we conceptualize world history, the collaborators have appended an excellent set of world history timelines, sixty-one pages in all, from the prehistoric world to 2015.
Following a paragraph-length introduction, each chapter begins with a brief text and detailed infographic that presents the conjunction of three factors—ingredients, Goldilocks conditions, and emergent properties—that define the threshold at the conceptual center of the chapter. In some cases, the complexity of the infographic (e.g., threshold five, "Life Emerges") demands extraordinary attention from the reader to make sense of the multiple connections between emergent properties. Nevertheless, precision and clarity in the explanation of complicated phenomena are the hallmarks of this book. One excellent example is the two-page section on the formation of continents in Chapter Four, "Planets Form." The formation of the Earth's oceanic crust, cratons, and continents is presented with exquisite simplicity and effectiveness through text, a well-designed set of infographics, and a photograph of Nishinoshima, a new island in the Japanese archipelago that provides vivid evidence of the billions-year old processes that shape the Earth's surface (84–85). Photography throughout the chapters contributes a visual dynamism to nearly every page. The section on tectonic plates is followed by a well-chosen photograph of twisted limestone layers that illuminates the compelling physical evidence which gave rise to the work of modern geologists (87). Similar examples of excellent visual editing and high quality photography characterize the book.
Complicated ideas and processes are presented with elegant clarity. Take for example, one sentence in the opening of Chapter Six, "Humans Evolve": "The ability to communicate using symbols, exchange ideas, and build on the knowledge of earlier generations has allowed Homo sapiens to create new levels of complexity, and become the single most powerful and influential species on Earth" (177–78). This single sentence captures the underlying goal of big history to reveal large-scale patterns which demonstrate how humans are embedded in the history of life on Earth and Earth in the cosmos. The complexity of the human experience is illustrated by examples from a global variety of geographies and societies. The earliest evidence of ritual burial practices is drawn from Spain, Israel, Russia, and the United Kingdom (218), while a section on grave goods of early complex societies features Peru's Moche Lord of Sipán rather than, say, Egypt's mummified pharaohs. The writing here and throughout Big History is succinct, lively, and neither overly dense nor superficial.
Stitched into the chapters are recurring two-page spreads that emphasize "Big Ideas," "Hard Evidence," and "Timelines." Among the big ideas are explanations of origin stories from different traditions, the need for "law, order and justice" as human societies grew larger and more complex, and the proposal by scientists that we are entering a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Big History also makes a point of explaining how we know what we know in "Hard Evidence" sections that demonstrate research findings on evidence-rich sources like meteorites, zircon crystals, Neanderthal DNA, and the Earth's 4.5 billion-year history of climate change. Eye-catching timelines in each chapter curve across the pages making excellent use of the available space to present interrelated trends or discoveries developing over time with informational captions and vivid images. The design of these pages captures the contingency and conjunction of events in the past and avoids the tendentious effect timelines can create in which the journey from past to present appears foreordained. Attentive readers will also note less explicit threads that connect chapters like the carbon theme that begins in Chapter Four, "Elements are Forged," and returns in subsequent material on the emergence of life on Earth, the formation of coal during the Carboniferous period, industrialization, the current environmental crisis, and questions about the future of Homo sapiens.
Big History will appeal to a broad audience, ranging from general readers to students, instructors, and librarians at high schools and universities. Rather than assign this work as the main text in a college or high school big history or world history course, instructors will be well served by adding a copy to their personal collections and recommending that their libraries acquire copies for general student use. Big History deserves a place on coffee tables as well, where the curious of all ages will delight in leafing through the large-format pages.
David C. Fisher is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley where he works in the fields of Russian, world, and big history. You may reach him at David.Fisher@utrgv.edu.
1 David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Cynthia Stokes Brown, Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present (New York: New Press, 2007); Fred Spier, Big History and the Future of Humanity, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015); David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin, Big History: Between Nothing and Everything (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014); Big History Project, www.bighistoryproject.org.
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