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Reviewed by:
  • Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present
  • Don Holsinger
Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. By Cynthia Stokes Brown. New York: New Press, 2007. 288 pp. $25.95 (cloth); $17.95 (paper).

Any book that claims to present "the scientific creation story, from the big bang to the present" (p. xi) in a few hundred pages is likely to invite skepticism, if not ridicule. In the preface to Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present, Cynthia Stokes Brown provides a case in point from her days as a full-time professor. When her turn for a sabbatical came up, she presented a proposal to write a history of the world. Half the review committee thought the idea was wonderful and the other half found it laughable. To win her sabbatical, Brown was forced to narrow her focus. Her dream of writing Big History had to wait until years later when retirement from full-time teaching gave her the freedom to pursue her labor of love. It was worth the wait.

Brown's autobiographical preface recounts the experiences through which she gained the boldness, confidence, and perseverance necessary to complete such an audacious project. A two-year cross-cultural experience in Brazil played a key role in cultivating the global imagination reflected in this work.

Big History is divided into two parts. In the four chapters of part 1 the author presents the latest scientific thinking on (1) the origins of the universe up to the physical formation of the earth, (2) the emergence of earth's biological diversity, (3) five million years of hominid and Homo sapiens development, and (4) the backdrop to the development of agriculture between thirty-five thousand and ten thousand years ago. The approach is both multifaceted and accessible to a popular audience. Making good use of the pedagogical skills honed as a professor [End Page 308] of education, Brown employs well-chosen analogies to enable the average reader to grasp the mind-blowing dimensions of time and space required to narrate a history of the universe.

Part 2 tells the story of world civilizations in nine chapters that move chronologically from the beginnings of agriculture to the challenges facing humanity at the dawn of the new millennium. The author recognizes that meaningful world history requires continuous reference to geographical context. The underlying theme of part 2 is the way in which interaction between humans and their environment shaped, and was shaped by, population growth.

In addition to its clarity and honesty, the book's value derives from the solid foundations on which it is built: a careful reading of recent publications by first-rate scholars, both regional specialists and world historians. In choosing to rely heavily on the works of W. H. McNeill and J. R. McNeill, Brown stands on a firm foundation of global vision, thorough research, and thoughtful interpretation. Teachers of world history will find the bibliography a useful way to augment their "to read" lists.

Regional specialists reading Big History will likely feel that their areas of expertise are being treated superficially, particularly if those areas lie outside the "mainstream" of eastern hemispheric civilizations. This reviewer was surprised to find no mention of the fourteenth-century Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun, arguably one of the first true world historians. Also curious was the omission of the works of Alfred Crosby, who pioneered in unveiling the dimensions of "the Columbian exchange." The specialist who feels that his or her area has been sold short will still gain new and valuable perspectives in other parts of the book. At times the generalizations are too sweeping and the use of numbers too trusting. These are relatively minor flaws in a book that overall is informative, balanced, engaging, and provocative.

One of the benefits of "big history" is that it raises big questions. The author keeps students in mind throughout this book, recognizing that it is the unanswered questions that stimulate continuing research and reflection. Each chapter ends with several unanswered questions, a useful reminder that there are both limits to human understanding and vistas waiting to be explored.

Reading Big History underscores what a young and vibrant...


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pp. 308-310
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