Short history of big history
While exploring the history of big history, I soon learned that around the same time US historian John Mears
had started teaching a similar approach to history all by himself at Southern Methodist University. The emergence of the Internet
in the 1990s allowed a further exploration of global scholarship, which led to a much deeper understanding of big history, explained
in more detail in chapter 1 of the book, now available as a sample chapter on Wiley.com
. What follows here is a summary of that account.
known societies have told stories about the deep past. In doing so they sought to answer their big questions of how everything had
come into being. For most of human history, large portions of these stories were based on pre-scientific views. In Europe, for instance, from
the Middle Ages up until the 19th century these accounts began with the Mosaic account of creation, which was followed by events in
Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and from there all the way up to their present days.
In the 19th century the emerging science
of geology made clear that Earth had to be much older than reported in the biblical account. This led to the abandonment of that story
in academic versions of history. The rest of the account was retained and evolved over time first into the Western Civilization trajectory
and later also into world history.
During the first half of the 19th century, attempts were made to formulate all-encompassing
views of reality based on science, most notably by Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and Scottish author Robert Chambers.
The rise of academic specialization and the emergence of nation states during the second half of the 19th century led to both the
abandonment of such approaches and the rise of modern academic history based on literary sources.
By abandoning the biblical
story of creation, the big questions about our entire past were also cast aside. In the 20th century, astronomers discovered a history
of the universe, while Earth scientists found ways to date rocks, which allowed to construct a time line for the history of our planet.
In the 1950s and 60s, Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley and NASA scientist Robert Jastrow realized that this new knowledge offered
possibilities to write science-based origin stories of everything and that, in doing so, these accounts provided fresh answers
to the big origin questions in modern scientific ways.
The first known course in Cosmic Evolution was organized at Harvard
University in 1975 by astrophysicists George Field and Eric Chaisson. The latter would become a pioneer of cosmic evolution also because
of his groundbreaking theoretical insights. The Canadian-French astronomer Hubert Reeves should
also be considered such a pioneer.
the cosmic evolution approach most of the emphasis is placed on the history of the universe, while human history only makes up a very
tiny portion of the story. In the 1980s and 90s, other scientists wrote similar accounts with emphasis on their own disciplines. When
in the 1980s John Mears and David Christian connected these scientific accounts to more detailed accounts of human history, big history
as a new scholarly field was born. As a result, the ancient all-encompassing big histories returned in a new and rigorous
We are now learning that by looking at those very large scales, simple patterns become visible that remain obscured
while examining smaller portions of the past. This is one of the most exciting, and unexpected, discoveries that have been made while
doing big history. Today, we are only beginning to further explore these trends.
In 2008 Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates initiated
a collaboration with David Christian to build a web site that offers all the materials needed to teach big history at secondary schools
around the world. Today, hundreds of schools in different countries around the globe are participating in this program.