Cynthia Stokes Brown, in the preface to her book Big History; From the Big Bang to the Present, presents Big History as the scientific creation story. She asserts that by looking beyond the written sources traditionally considered by academic historians, “We are now able to think in scientific terms about the timescales of the universe we are part of...”1 She continues, “By the late twentieth century, scientists had invented instruments that could begin to view the macroscopic heavens and the microscopic domain. Knowledge about these worlds has recently expanded exponentially. Now everyone can understand the amazing universe that is our home.”2 This wealth of recent information has not only given us a better understanding of our physical environment (large or small). It has also developed our understanding of where we fit chronologically in the time-scale of the universe. With technology, we are able to see the edges of our universe, calculate the rate at which it is continually expanding, and from that information, gauge with some degree of accuracy the amount of time the universe has existed. While written records give us a window into the last few thousand years of human history, science and technology have provided a window to the past 13.7 billion years. It is the goal of Big History, then, to place human history within the larger context of the universe. Surely, by better understanding broad trends which are beyond our control, we will be better able to understand our particular animal and how we are distinct.
The South Asian Subaltern Studies Group was founded in the early 1980's and marks one of the fundamental challenges to any history claiming to be inclusive. As described by John Beverley in his article, “Writing in Reverse: The Subaltern and the Limits of Academic Knowledge,” the process of accurately representing the views of a subaltern group is impossible. In any attempt to portray the outlook of a person or persons which are in some way subordinate, there is the inevitable application of resources, be it means of portrayal, acquired knowledge, or so forth, which that subaltern does not have access to. Therefore, in attempting to create a reproduction of that subaltern perspective, the representation is being made from a standpoint that is conforming to the oppressive system that has been the cause of their social position.3 Beverley’s argument is meant to apply to subordinate human populations. However, the argument can be generalized. Never having experienced life as a tree, for example, we cannot understand the tree as an agent. This view goes beyond the Subaltern Studies Group. Haines Brown, in an article titled “The Reconstruction of Objectivity”, argues, “Since the Second World War (although it has deeper roots), there has been an assault on the ideal of objectivity that we might very loosely call postmodern deconstructionism”.4 Brown goes on to identify several issues that make any form of objectivity impossible. Subaltern Studies and postmodern deconstructionism are obviously not an attempt at universal understanding. Rather, they seem to be the opposite. Argued to its fullest, it would assert that being ourselves, we are limited to knowing only ourselves.
This introduction, hopefully, has provided a brief overview of two historical viewpoints that, despite having been constructed within years of each other, seem diametrically opposed. The point of this introduction has not been to question the value of the postmodernist critique of Subaltern Studies, nor the macro histories of Big History. Rather, the goal of this brief (but necessary) exposition has been to demonstrate that many framing methods may exist simultaneously, and that they may seem (and may be) incompatible. Big History is a project which engages the entire globe and all of those communities and cultures within it. Its purpose is to connect the whole of human knowledge. But Big History, like any other belief system, is rooted in a particular intellectual, geographic tradition. It was born out of, and pre-existing set of scientific beliefs. David Christian, in the introduction to his seminal book in the field Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, writes, “I intend this book to contribute to the larger project of constructing a more unified vision of history and of knowledge in general. I am well aware of the difficulties of that project. But I am sure that it is both doable and important, so it is worth attempting in the hope that others may eventually do it better.”5 (MofT pg5) Christian has provided us with a framework for thinking globally. The rest of this paper will attempt to address the value of creating a global perspective that, despite its best efforts, remains firmly rooted in a particular cultural and intellectual tradition. To do so, this essay will explore several topics. The first section of this essay will seek to more accurately define Big History's origins. Hopefully, by understanding how Big History came to be, we can identify the audience it was constructed for (and therefor will be useful to). Once we have established that Big History, as with any other history, is a specific tool, useful to a specific demographic, we can begin to evaluate how exactly it is supposed to be useful within that specific context. Only after examining in detail how Christian's paradigm works, can we begin to critically evaluate those areas where Big History must be improved if it is to continue being a useful.
Modern Creation Myth
David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and other 'Big' historians often refer to Big History as a 'modern' or 'scientific' creation myth. This term is essential to field, and the implications of the term may lend some valuable insight into how the framework is constructed. For this purpose, the term can be deconstructed. To begin, it may be useful to see how Big History sits in relation to other creation myths.
I soon realized that Big History is in some important ways similar to traditional creation stories. These also used the best available information in the societies in which they were constructed, to create credible stories that gave people a sense of their bearings in space and time. And that was what made them so powerful. they offered maps of space and time, within which people could say, 'that's where I am'.6
Our ability to consider Big History a creation myth, then, must be seen as a consequence of the framework's scale. Because the limits of Big History are defined only by our scientific knowledge, it allows us to situate ourselves within the broadest imaginable context. Chronologically, Big History (unlike other histories) allows us to trace our origins back to the beginning of time. In terms of breadth, Big History's directive to connect knowledge from all communities and perspectives allows us to locate ourselves geographically, as well as in relation to other existing social and cultural traditions. Because these two boundaries of big history (chronological scale and scope of sources considered) have been stretched to their scientifically measurable limit, an individual familiar to Big History is able to situate themselves within the context of everything that exists, or has ever existed around them. All creation myths seek to achieve this end.
However, like all other creation myths, Big History is rooted in a particular tradition. There is an obvious reason Christian attached the word 'modern' or 'scientific' to his creation myth. These words hint at the tradition from which Big History arose. More importantly, they may be helpful in identifying who Big History was constructed for, and for whom it will be useful method of framing.
To begin to understand the tradition which Big history originates from, it may be useful to explore Christian's origins as a scholar. So much of Big History has been constructed by Christian alone, that he seems a logical place to start.
My own somewhat confused background is relevant here. When someone says to me 'Where are you from?', I'm frankly never sure of the best answer. This is the problem. My father was English. My mother was American, though she was born in Beijing. My parents married in Izmir, in Turkey, at the end of the war. I was born in Brooklyn, despite the accent. I lived as a child in Nigeria. I went to school, and then university, in England. I married in Canada. And I studied in Russia – in fact, I had a fascinating year as a graduate student living in Leningrad, today's St. Petersburg, in the Brezhnev years. And that was a wonderful introduction to what seemed at the time during the cold war a completely different world, a sort of dark side. - Then, I completed my PHD at Oxford. And I got a job in Sydney, Australia. And there I taught for 21 years before coming to the U.S. in 2001.
That mixed background may explain why I've always been uncomfortable with the idea of history as essentially a national story, or the story of particular cultures, or particular groups; and always interested in the idea of some sort of global approach to the past.7
Christian's argument is clear, and seems logical. And surely he has had a more cosmopolitan experience than most. It makes sense that a global theory should be produced by someone whom has been forced to think globally since youth. But how global has his experience been?
Three decades have passed since Christian had the chance, as a graduate student, to glimpse into the 'completely different world' that was then the Soviet Union during the 'Brezhnev years'. While during the cold war, this may have seemed the most obvious way to engage with a cultural or intellectual 'other', the distinction between the two sides of the iron curtain is less clear now. The other cosmopolitan bits of his past may be similarly linked. England, China, Turkey, the U.S., Nigeria, Canada, Russia, and Australia, while diverse in geography, may now be more easily seen as a system of nodes in the developed world. Though some are more firmly rooted in a global network than others, these locations act as hubs of modernity. They are deeply entrenched within economic, political, cultural, and social systems which ensure their continued involvement with other similar areas around the world. Christian's personal history, then, was not entirely global. Rather, he should be seen has having lived between several hubs of the developed world. In this way, he has not grown up on within a global tradition, but a tradition of the modern (developed) world.
Under scrutiny, Big History's global framing methods can be similarly linked back to a similar tradition. Big History's closest predecessors, as far as historical framing methods are concerned, are world histories. The first history of this sort may be traced back to the Annales school. Developed by Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch in 1929 France, the Annales soon became known as an interdisciplinary institution. Christian, in his lecture series on Big History, says, “The Annalles school had an immense impact on historians of my generation. One of the things they did was insist on seeing human history in its geographical and ecological context.”8 Fernand Braudel, when he published The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II in 1949, was the first to publish what would later be considered a world history. The types of information that both framing methods attempt to organize and make sense of is similar. William H. McNeill describes, in his book Human Web: A Birds Eye View of World History, briefly describes the structure of world histories.
A web, as we see it is a set of connections that link people to one another. These connections may take many forms: chance encounters, kinship, friendship, common worship, rivalry, enmity, economic exchange, ecological exchange, political cooperation, even military competition. In all such relationships, people communicate information and use that information to guide their future behavior. They also communicate, or transfer, useful technologies, goods, crops, ideas, and much else. Furthermore, they inadvertently exchange diseases and weeds, items they cannot use but which affect their lives (and deaths) nonetheless. The exchange and spread of such information, items and inconveniences, and human responses to them, is what shapes history.9
The two historical frameworks (Big History and World History) are similar. They both account for historical change over a long period of time, and they both consider many of the same sources. Where Big History expanded upon world histories was in its chronologic scale. McNeill's history focuses solely on human history, whereas Christian, “...unites natural history and human history in a single, grand, and intelligible narrative.”10 Effectively though, the two are very similar. Christian takes the first 3 sections of Maps of Time to address history before the evolution of man. For the remainder of the book, he addresses the same period, and largely tells the same story, as McNeill. Another book similar to McNeill's, which is currently quite popular, is Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. During this period of history – that marked by the presence of humans - Christian follows many of the same organizational tactics as his predecessors (periodization, themes etc...)
But the Analles school too, must be rooted in tradition. So, to stretch Big History's roots back one final step, we must examine the origin of the very sorts of sources that Braudel, McNeill, and eventually Christian, have created frameworks trying to organize. The economic, political, social, and cultural factors considered by Braudel were only in this period beginning to be produced. A new way of thinking, a scientific way of thinking, had taken hold by the mid 16th century within the geographic world of the Mediterranean. This is not to say that the kind of politics, economy and culture described in The Mediterranean did not exist before the mid 16th century. Rather, the sorts sources considered by world historians, those sources that we take as evidence of such activity, only became available during this period. Alfred Crosby addresses this phenomenon in his book, The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society,1250-1600. He describes a fundamental change in the way Westerners perceive reality which occurred during this period,
In practical terms, the new approach was simply this: reduce what you are trying to think about to the minimum required by it definition; visualize it on paper or at leas in your mind, be it the fluctuation of wool prices at the Champagne fairs or the course of Mars through the havens, and divide it, either in fact or in imagination, into equal quanta. Then you can measure it, hat is, count the quanta.11
This new frame of thought, Crosby argues, applied to more than those disciplines which we currently associate with quantification (physics and economics for example). Rather, this shift was predominant throughout all of western thought, forever altering the way Westerners think about art, music, bookkeeping, mathematics, time and space. Furthermore, due to its emphasis on literate physical articulations, this period has left a wealth of information to be considered as sources by future historians. He continues later in the same chapter,
The New Model, visual and quantitative, was one of its antidotes for the nagging insufficiency of its traditional explanations for the mysteries of reality. The New Model offered a new way to examine reality and an armature around which to organize perceptions of that reality. It proved to be extraordinarily robust, providing humanity with unprecedented power and many humans with the comfort of a faith – it lasted for centuries – that they were capable of an intimate understanding of their universe.12
The reason, then, that Braudel was able to construct the first world history surrounding the period of Philip II, is because Philip II lived during a period when quantification had first inspired the desire to use science as means of a creation myth. In this sense, it is not the connection of Big History's framing methods to McNeill, or Diamond or the Analles school that is potentially troublesome. Rather, through this tradition, Big History can be directly connected to belief structure which is distinctly scientific in its origins.
Who is Big History useful for?
But why is it important that Big History is rooted in a scientific tradition? How does that effect the way we must understand it? Many aspects of modern academia bear roots in this tradition. Why is it such an obstacle for Big History in particular?
This becomes an issue of particular importance to Big History, again, because of its scale. Christian repeatedly suggests that Big History must be seen as an attempt to link together existing knowledge13 (as we have seen, these bits of knowledge are scientific) into an intelligible whole. As such, Big History must be seen as an attempt to create something in the way of a scientific global image.
The book Earthly Politics: Local and global in Environmental Governance may help to illustrate some of the issues inherent in constructing a global image. The introduction to the book, written by Marybeth Long Martello and Sheila Jasanoff and titled Globalization and Environmental Governance, attempts to problematize our current notions of what constitutes a 'global' and a 'local' community. She argues that a truly global society is a fallacy. Rather, a somewhat global network may exist, but it is still constructed out of particular 'local' areas and cultures. In this way, New York and New Guinea are similarly 'local'. A global image then, has come to rely on information provided from local areas and cultures of exaggerated importance. Like Christian's laundry list of places he had lived and visited, these emphasized 'locals' have been situated within the scientific tradition. Sheila Jasanoff elaborates on this claim in the following chapter of the book, titled Heaven and Earth: The Politics of Environmental Images. Throughout the past century, and at an accelerated rate in the information age, contributions toward the creation of a global image have come from sources that are firmly rooted in science. She addresses several instances, including the discovery of the hole in the ozone, the re-writing of maps following WWII, and the respective American and Soviet successes in reaching outer space, in which the global image was forged from distinctly scientific contributions. Possibly the most powerful image which has contributed to our scientific global outlook, and certainly one which has reached iconic status, has been the image of our planet from space.
Even celebrated icons, however, are made, not born, and the most familiar image of earth ever created is no exception. It can be tied to three successive levels of meaning-making: first as an extension of the military adventures of twentieth century superpowers, second as a symbol of environmentalism, and third as a foundation for scientific investigations of the global environment.14
This seems to suggest that our global view is disproportionately shaped by those local communities that posses the ability to embark on large scale scientific projects. She goes on to elaborate this point later in the chapter, “Producing facts on a planetary scale requires not only scientific instruments and work, but also institutions capable of interpreting and disseminating knowledge.”15 This forces us to question the extent to which our current global image is, in fact, global. While these developed nodes may dispersed across a vast geography, they are joined by their shared scientific, and modern values.
Big History is in the business of presenting this scientific global image. But, like all creation myths, Big History is a tool that can only be useful by those within the community it represents. The previous section of this paper has been an attempt to identify the tradition (and therefor community) Big History belongs to. Because of its origins in scientific thought, Big History can only be an effective tool for those adhere to the scientific assumptions on which it is based. What does this mean? While other creation myths can be located within Big History's timeline, for those who adhere to those alternative creation myths, Big History is of no use. Presumably, just as Big History has its roots in scientific belief, alternative creation myths are founded in other sorts of belief, and have alternative ways of coping with the information of their environment. For an individual who adheres to an alternative creation myth to use Big History effectively (as a tool that can be used to locate them within their spatial and chronologic environment), they would first have to adopt basic fundamental scientific assertions about space and time. Other cultures and other creation myths, then, while having a place within the Big History's scientific creation myth, can only be viewed from the perspective of a Big Historian. Big history, then, must be seen as a tool that can only be effectively utilized by individuals whose existing beliefs are based on scientific ideals. Although this prerequisite is not necessarily rooted in a particular geography, Martello and Jasonoff have demonstrated the process by which particular locals based in scientific thought have come to be disproportionately represented in our global image. Given this understanding, Christian's own cosmopolitan history can clearly be seen as a network within the scientific world.
How to Proceed
If Big History can be understood from the outset as a tool born out of, and useful to, a particular community, then its value can only be measured solely within the parameters of that community. That is to say, the scientific creation myth cannot be expected to hold up to scrutiny from other belief systems. There has been sufficient suggestions from within the scientific community, however, to compile a necessary directive for Big History if it hopes to retain value as a framework in the future. Two recent perspectives have offered both encouragement and caution for the future of Big History.
The first comes in the form of a flood of recent support for such a project from the digital humanities. Kevin Kelley, in a New York Times article published May 2006, “In several dozen nondescript office buildings around the world, thousands of hourly workers bend over table-top scanners and haul dusty books into high-tech scanning booths. They are assembling the universal library page by page.”16 Kelley is describing the effort amongst digital humanists globally to make accessible the information which is already available to us. This is a massive project, which involves the scanning of millions of books. But its benefits are far outweigh the necessary effort. Once digitized, it becomes possible to link information in a way never before possible.
Once a book has been integrated into the new expanded library by means of this linking, its text will no longer be separate from the text in other books. For instance, today a serious nonfiction book will usually have a bibliography and some kind of footnotes. When books are deeply linked, you'll be able to click on the title in any bibliography or any footnote and find the actual book referred to in the footnote. The books referenced in that book's bibliography will themselves be available, and so you can hop through the library in the same way we hop through Web links, traveling from footnote to footnote to footnote until you reach the bottom of things.17
Kelley's article serves as a reminder of Big History's responsibility to make use of available technologies. As in the case of traditional text based sources, technology has come to offer a method of scientific organization which surpasses the capacity of a single individual. As technology changes, similar methods of digitally linking information should be explored for other, non-text, sources. This capacity of digital technology to present information in a way that is novel and particularly of use to the Big Historian. An example can be seen in Google's recent invention of a 4D interactive map. The program works as an extension to google earth programs which allows the user to interact with maps of previous time periods; zooming in and out, investigating terrain, etc... One could easily imagine the value of such a platform if applied to the wealth of information covered by Big History. From a historian's perspective you could move spatially around the universe, galaxy, and globe; as well as backward and forward in time. At any point of interest along the way, you could zoom directly in on any part of the map to divulge its individual history. Such a framework would connect the knowledge of the scientific tradition, at its many scales, like never before.
The second perspective is reflected in an article titled The Ashkui Project: Linking Western Science and Innu Environmental Knowledge in Creating a Sustainable Environment. This article, using the Ashkui Project as an example, attempts to create some sense of the ways in which those of a scientific belief system can, in the future, responsibly interact with those of other belief systems. Sable argues against imbedded traditions within academia which have largely ignored sources of knowledge not based in a scientific belief system. Sable also argues against any sort of systematic and measurable incorporation of local knowledge. She outlines, in 6 points, a few principles which should govern future interaction between scientific and local knowledge bases.
1.Have all people been engaged in determining the motivation to undertake the project.
2.Does the research serve the community as well as the investors? Who is the ultimate beneficiary of change?
3.Who is defining the knowledge being gathered and documented? Is it inclusive of all stakeholders?
4.Who is governing the decision making process and to what end?
5.To what extent have avenues of communication, e.g. different languages, been included and respected?
6.To what extent have cultural land use practices and values been included in co-management agreements?18
Through these 6 basic principles, she recognizes that both participants in this exchange come from valid, yet incompatible ground, and suggests that the two take a more qualitative approach in coming to understand each other. With this understanding, the two opposing perspectives can more effectively and equitably engage in a common shaping of our global future.
Big History is only one of many framing methods employed globally. It comes from a specific tradition. Traced back, from Christian's own personal experience, to the Medieval quantification of reality described by Crosby, Big History is based at its core upon a fundamental belief in science. Since the Crosby's scientific revolution in thought, the fluidity of information through existing borders (presumably through the human networks described by world historians such as McNeill) has seen the spread of scientific ideals to other specific 'locals' around the globe. And in turn, the knowledge provided by these 'locals' has played an exaggerated role in our formation of a global image. Identifying the roots of Big History has shown us its limits. It is a framework that presupposes its user's belief in science, and therefor cannot be a viable framing method for individuals governed by alternative belief. For those who do have a pre-existing belief in the principles of science, the scientific creation myth offered by Big History may be a viable framing method. However, recent commentaries from within the digital humanities and the social sciences must serve as reminder of the tenants which must guide Big History in the future. The scientific creation myth must navigate carefully between its need effectively consolidate all worldly knowledge, and its responsibility to respectfully interact with all other creation myths.
The Wonders of Digital Technology
8 years ago