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1 6 Historically Speaking · November 2002 Big History Mamie Hughes-Warrington It is a common complaint that world history —as practiced by historians—does not live up to the scope of its terms. Michael Geyer and Charles Bright, for instance, have argued that the "central challenge ofa renewed world history at the end of the 20th century" is to tell ofthe world's past in a global age.' Some have interpreted this as a call for the study of human interactions through frameworks wider than that of the nation-state, while others see it as an invitation to consider something bigger: the origins and evolution ofthe earth and its inhabitants . For a small but growing number of historians, though, even the shift from world to global history is not enough. What they seek is way beyond the commonly perceived boundaries of history, and thus the comfort zone of many historians. For them, history must tell the biggest story of all, that of the origins and evolution ofhuman beings, life, the earth, and the universe—hence, "big history ." Unlike die Big Bang, big history does not begin with a single point. Probably the strongest claim we can make on its origins is that it arose in the context of the enormous growth ofhistorical sciences such as cosmology , evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology , and geology in the 1980s. How it reached those trained in areas traditionally considered far away from the sciences was via the vast outpouring ofpopular science publications that followed. Of particular relevance are those works in which writers draw together separate fields, such as the Big Bang (cosmology) and the origins oflife (biology) (e.g. Isaac Asimov, Beginnings [1987]; Preston Cloud, Cosmos, Earth andMan [1978]; Arnaud Delsemme, Our Cosmic Origins [1998]; Siegfried Kutter, The UniverseandLife [1987]; Harry McSween and Brian Swimm, Fanfare forEarth [1997]; and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story [1992]). Such works evidently revealed the possibilities ofinterdisciplinary studies and suggested a bigger project uniting the sciences and humanities. It is onlywith the publication ofworks by David Christian and Fred Spier in the 1990s thatwe begin to see big history assume a historiographical profile. Christian's interest in big history first emerged, rather pragmatically , during a lively staffmeeting in 1988 at Macquarie University, Sydney, where he taught until 2001. At the meeting, Christian suggested that first year classes should "start at the beginning." Thinking more about that suggestion, he became intrigued by the questions "What is the whole of history?" and "Where does human history begin?" and was led back to the point where there is no evidence or certainty about "before:" the Big Bang, some 12-15 billion years ago. In 1989, "HISTl 12: An Introduction to World History " began and, two years later, his "The Case for 'Big History'" appeared in xhtjournal ofWorld History. That Christian came to big history through teaching rather than theory shows very clearly in his various writings on the subject: he readily adopts and adapts ideas from an incredibly varied range of sources without the fear of someone trained to know his historiographical boundaries. Even his decision to describe what he was doing as "big history" suggests a "work in progress:" When I first used the label "big history" in me early 1990s, I felt it was simple and catchy; and it helped me avoid some simple circumlocutions. In retrospect, I fear the label was also grandiose, portentous, and somewhat pretentious. So I need to make it clear . . . mat I use die phrase witii some hesitation. I continue to use it because it has acquired some currency in the last ten years, and ... I can't mink of anything better!2 Though Christian's account of the past, present, and future shifts continually, his work is at base a "map ofreality" or "a single, and remarkablycoherentstory, a storywhose general shape turns out to be that of a Creation Myth, even if its contents draw on modern scientific research."3 The modern creation myth begins with the origins ofthe universe (as suggested in the Big Bang theory) and goes on to tell about the origins of the stars and planets, the earth and life, human beings and societies and ends with speculations about our...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 16-20
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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