Big History Hits the Big Time

Big History Hits the Big Time

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

“Big History” has entered the big leagues—both in academia and in entertainment. This new, cross-disciplinary field that embraces cosmic, geological, and biological history (as well as human history) offers an inspiring way forward through the thorny and tangled bank of the science-and-religion debate. Two major developments within the span of a year show the reach of Big History. In entertainment, we can point to the History Channel’s spectacular History of the World in Two Hours. In academia, the upcoming inaugural gathering of the newly formed International Big History Association is big news.

Big History: Antidote to Amythia

As philosopher of religion Loyal Rue poignantly describes in several of his books, the generations in charge of modern states and culture today are among the first to be plagued with an altogether new cultural malady. He calls this devastating psychological condition “amythia.”

For lack of a believable mythic narrative (creation story) that could embed modern and postmodern humans in a storied landscape of proud ancestry, meaningful identity, and life purpose, we are living short-changed lives. All too easily we succumb to the ultimately unsatisfying allurements of consumerism and addictive “supernormal stimuli.” The plethora of prescriptions for antidepressants among those adequately fed, clothed, and housed is one sure sign that something is seriously amiss.

Science uninterpreted and history explained only in isolated chunks offer no cure for this cultural malaise.

Enter what has only recently come to be known as “Big History”—the scholarly enterprise of discerning patterns and meaningful storylines in the 13.7-billion-year saga of everyone and everything (a.k.a., the Universe Story, the Epic of Evolution, or the Great Story). Here’s a version compressed into 85 seconds:

There were, of course, important antecedents to Big History. In the first half of the 20th century, secular biologist Julian Huxley (originator of “evolutionary humanism”) and Catholic paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (author of The Human Phenomenon) interpreted the science of their day in ways that did indeed restore a sense of storied existence. The impact of these two scholars was invigorating—alas, only upon a book-reading subset of intellectuals.

In the mid- to late 20th century, the secular evangelists of the evolutionary epic included Jacob Bronowski (The Ascent of Man), Eric Chaisson (expositor of “cosmic evolution”), and especially Carl Sagan (Cosmos). Cultural historian Thomas Berry (notably, when teamed with cosmological bard Brian Swimme) probed even deeper into the possibilities for mythic meaning, thereby inspiring many within and beyond organized religion.

A new era is now birthing: the symbiosis between great ideas sanctioned by the academy and great ways of presenting those ideas.

History of the World in Two Hours (Television/Video)

Stunning science documentaries and docu-dramas that utlize video artistry of the Internet era have, for more than a decade, been laying the foundation for a renascence of epic storytelling.

Today’s crop of dinosaur-loving kids are well aware that the great carnivores and herbivores of the Cretaceous were wiped out by a meteor impact millions of years ago. But who among them has heard how that spectacular extinction made possible their very existence?

That is where the History Channel’s new production, History of the World in Two Hours (90 minutes without the commercials!) excels. In a breakaway from an animation of T. rex and Triceratops facing off, the film cuts to paleontologist Robert Bakker announcing, “The biggest headline of the history of dinosaurs, which lasted 160 million years, is that we lost! Mammals lost! We couldn’t get much bigger than a small cat. … They beat us fair and square!”

Cut to animation of our diminutive mammalian ancestors, scavenging dino eggs—then the space rock colliding with Earth, the shock wave, tsunami, and dust cloud. Dinos dying, and this conclusion voiced by paleontologist Trevor Valle: “The greatest gift that the dinosaurs ever gave us was dying. When they went extinct, it gave the mammals time to rise.”

A pattern emerges: Chaos catalyzes creativity. We see that we wouldn’t be here were it not for that asteroid!

Indeed, every transition in the history of the universe deemed important enough to secure a spot in this television special is presented with a foreshadowing of what it means for us today. Take the supernova explosions that are featured right after we watch the first stars light up: “But something is missing from this early universe. There are billions of stars, yet not a single planet. To form planets and eventually people, to take the next leap that would make all of history possible, the universe needs more to work with than just hydrogen and helium … ”

Foreshadowed in the graphics accompanying this passage are video images of the Statue of Liberty and a wedding band being placed on a finger. Only later do we learn precisely how supernovas are implicated in these two aspects of modern human existence.

Additionally, every innovation and threshold event in the human phase of this telling of Big History is embellished with flashbacks to the preceding cosmic, geological, and biological events that in some way set the stage. The storyline thus not only unfolds but is revisited. Pattern is powerfully reinforced.

Marvel, too, at the role played by a single family of plants upon which all of human history depends: the grasses. Wheat, barley, millet, and rice are the agricultural titans of the Eastern hemisphere, while farming peoples of the West depended on native maize. Several million years earlier, the spread of grasslands in eastern Africa played an even more formative role for our lineage: inviting (or forcing) our ape ancestors to climb down out of the trees and embark on a bipedal way of savanna life, eventually aided by chipped stone and then fire. Grasses play a role, again, in the roots of the early Atlantic slave trade that provided heat-hardy forced labor to satisfy Europe’s insatiable demand for cane sugar.

The writers and producers of History of the World in Two Hours did an amazing job of universalizing the storyline, drawing examples from around the world. Viewers familiar with Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel thesis will discern the central role it plays in explaining why a focus on major innovations in north Africa, Europe, and Asia in no way engenders the kind of ethnic and cultural triumphalism that tainted earlier attempts at big-picture storytelling.

Aficionados of current scholarly renderings of crucial factors launching the human journey will detect traces of the thinking of Richard Wrangham (cooking), Terrence Deacon (symbolic language), David Christian (collective learning), and Matt Ridley (trade) in the program’s storyline.

Making world history accessible by way of modern metaphors, narrator Corey Burton explains, “The donkey caravan was the interstate highway and high-speed Internet of its day. Their routes will lay the groundwork for the modern world, moving not only goods (like timber and bronze) but ideas and stories. The civilizations they connect will be some of the first described in the Bible.”

The storyline builds a causative chain from the domestication of horses to the spread of empires and the rise of monotheism. In the brief sequence chronicling the birth of Islam, the narrator reports, “Arab trade will drive innovation for the next thousand years and expand the global network to places it has never gone before.”

Remarkably, every vignette, every fact and image, plays a role in the storytelling. One thing leads to the next and the next. Gape-mouthed wonder is evoked moment to moment. Thus, while the story is easy to follow, it is so fresh, and yet so compelling and insightful, that repeated viewings are assured. Indeed, college students would be well-served by an entire general studies curriculum that expanded and explained the components of just this one program.

Any course of study that used David Christian’s classic video lectures,“Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth and the Rise of Humanity” (presented in 48 half-hour episodes and produced by the Teaching Company), would benefit not only by exploring the patterns within our species-wide creation story. Every transition described by Christian is sourced in its own history of discovery. We learn how we came to know. Thus, we marvel yet again, in exploring this new thread of the human phase of the epic: the history of discovery, and of our expanding knowledge.

International Big History Association

Edutainment at the scale and sophistication of History of the World in Two Hours utterly depends on scholars (and popularizers) who search for credible patterns that span millions (even billions) of years and disparate disciplines. To construct a globally relevant and fully evidence-based creation story absolutely demands contributions from the fields of astrophysics and chemistry, geology and paleontology, archeology and anthropology, and from the full temporal and spatial range of human history. The grand epic of physical evolution, biological evolution, and cultural evolution thus brings the entire universe into a university-level general studies program. More, all pieces, all episodes, cohere. Meaning emerges, embedding students in a cosmos no longer alien.

It is the role of Big History as a scholarly endeavor in its own right to encourage a symbiosis of sorts amongst all these fields. The focus is on finding the patterns—the patterns that not only make sense of the whole shebang but that launch a frontal assault on the plague of amythia.

In this time of global communication and global trade, we need a global story that can quench the fires of global conflict ignited by unilateral allegiances to ancient, competing mythic stories interpreted literally.

Enter the International Big History Association. The IBHA emerged, in part, from three decades of work by Christian (see his TED talk). Geologist Walter Alvarez (a key contributor more than three decades ago to solving the puzzle of dinosaur extinction) then brought the full strength and credibility of science into the mix (see his UC Berkeley video introducing ChronoZoom). The work of both these scholars has received the endorsement (and key funding) from Big History enthusiast Bill Gates. Big historian Craig Benjamin (one of the featured speakers in the History of the World television special) then stepped forward to have his university (Grand Valley State in Michigan) host the first gathering (August 2 to 5). You can learn more about the association and its inaugural meeting here and here. (Connie and I will be attending and presenting.)

Implications for Science and Religion

For science stalwarts, new scholarly and media developments thus are forcing the recognition that, while interpretation is multifold, narrative matters—and mythic narrative matters most. The human mind and heart (especially among those accustomed to the wonders of the Internet and YouTube video samples) require far more than a hefty ration of rationality. A captivating storyline and spectacular graphics that evoke amazement, intrigue, and emotional engagement are no longer optional. Science and reason will not win the hearts of the young without it.

For religious traditionalists, expressions of Big History in both academia and entertainment are making scriptural depictions of creation not only lame but laughable. It no longer suffices to read into ancient scripture plausible references to dinosaurs and supernovas. Now kids expect the real deal: magnificent BBC, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and History Channel productions that enflesh T. rex and trilobites, and that spectacularly feature (and animate!) the fresh news delivered by Earth’s orbiting population of space telescopes.

Even religious liberals who try to imbue interfaith appreciation among their young find that a smorgasbord of creation stories from around the world, while capable of engaging adults when delivered with the panache of a Joseph Campbell, cannot garner the attention of the young. Ancient stories that contradict the new stories beloved of modern children (the stories of black holes and fossil behemoths) will be met with insistent protests, “But that’s not true!”

Now that Big History has entered the big leagues of academia and entertainment, we should see the science-and-religion debate catapult to a whole new level. The timing could not be more perfect.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.