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Big History: What is it? Why do we study Big History?

Updated on April 29, 2012

Big History, Begins with the Big Bang

Looking Back to the Big Bang with the Hubble Telescope
Looking Back to the Big Bang with the Hubble Telescope

Big History: David Christian

Historians have long struggled with the concept of what history actually is. Is it the story of individuals? Is it the story of nations? Is it a long list of dates to be memorized and repeated ad nauseum? Is history an Art or Science?

All have their own argument over these and many other questions.

Several years ago, historian David Christian came up with a revolutionary concept.

History is a multidisciplinary study. It can involve cosmology, astronomy, physics, geology, metereology, biology and Politics, anthropology and linguistics.

Basically history is everything, and everything is history.

David Christian and Big History

Where does Big History begin?

For David Christian, the creator of "Big History." History begins where everything is thought to have begun, in the "Big Bang."

Christian has gone back to the origins of the universe in order to show how the universe and the world we know today is the culmination of all events since the "Big Bang."

As such it can be seen that history is a long narrative of events, no event even your own existance can have happened without all other events in the history of the universe happening in their own turn. You and the world we know are the result of all previous time. Whether by creation or by chance, is not argued, science can trace all physical events back for billions of years. In linking history to the physical and natural sciences historians can open new doors to their understanding of human history.

So How does geology affect history?

One might ask how sciences might answer questions about human history?

For instance can Geology affect history?

Yes it can. Geology affects factors such as the flowing of rivers, whether a region is warm and fertile or a barren desert. Geology affects the mineral resources of a place or lack therof.

Imagine if our ancient predecessors had not had the great rivers of the middle and far east to plant agricultural crops beside, the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus valley and China may never have developed. Without those civilizations the world would be a different place today.

What Big History Isn't

Big History isn't the study of the minutiae of history.

One will not find details of great leaders or even much about nation states in the field.

It is about broad pictures, how large movements have changed the development of the human race and have affected us in our world.

Of course covering such a vast period of time, about twenty billion years. There are vast periods where nothing much happens. Human history only begins between four or five million years ago. Recorded time about 10,000 years ago and before about five hundred years ago most of human history outside Eurasia and Africa is unknown.

Why Even Bother?

Big History is important to historians because it allows us to understand the links of human societies and the world around us.

Traditional national histories have led historians down an ever more focused path of detail. Doing this has often led to the view that human and national actions do not affect outside groups. If we look at the facts, few human events occur within a vauum. Human actions spread out like ripples on a pond. With every new idea, a new problem, a new solution, they quickly spread across the world, sometimes they have major effects sometimes little visible effect.

Big History allows us to see how those ideas and effects of our pasts have created the world today.


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    • Bretsuki profile image

      William Elliott 6 years ago from California USA

      Hello Man from Modesto, I agree with phdast7. I chose the TED clip merely because it was David Christian explaining his theories in a understandable form.

      Whether the TED group or any of their speakers are politically biased or extremist I don't know. I do not wish to block the messenger merely because one speaker says something NOT RELATED to my hub.

      Readers may choose to see any other video clip if they wish, but the link here was to one specific clip, by a speaker that I had discussed, explaining his own theoriwes.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Fortunately, there is a lot more to Ted Talks than Bill Gates talking about his plan to reduce population growth.

      As with anything, books, magazines, newspaper columnists, television and radio commentators and hosts, POLITICIANS, the guy next door and his or her opinions, it is important to be selective and thoughtful about what we hear and read.

      I would rather apply critical thinking to all that comes across my path, rather than discard a particular source, because I don;t approve of or trust "some" of the content.

      I still think TED TALKS (and a lot of other sources of information, both right, center, and left-wing in origin) have a lot to offer. Videos, articles, TV and radio segments that are off the wall, hateful, counter-productive, or misrepresent the facts....those I ignore and do not recommend to others.

    • Man from Modesto profile image

      Man from Modesto 6 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine (formerly Modesto, California)

      TED is the same group that hosted Bill Gates talking about reducing the human population to "near zero" by the use of "planned parenthood, vaccinations, and health care". Basically, this is the New World Order indoctrinating whoever will listen.

    • Bretsuki profile image

      William Elliott 6 years ago from California USA

      Hello Ed, I can see a very definite link in your appreciation of History and Literature . After all if we want to find out about attitudes in certain periods it is often literature which points out morals and common attitudes of its day. Chaucer in Medieval England, Moliere in 17th Century France, Harrit Beecher Stowe in mid 19th Century America.

      Thank you for taking the time to reply and comment, I very much appreciate your ideas.

    • Ed Michaels profile image

      Ed Michaels 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      I am also a student of history, my long term (over twenty-five years) interests being the Holocaust, medieval Europe, the French Revolution, ancient Greece, and Rome. A big list, actually, compared to some of the rather over-focused, limited interests of some of my history student/graduate friends.

      For me, history is all about connections. And I like this embrace of the connections of humans in their movement, their ways of life, and their potentials to the earth they inhabit and move upon. That makes sense. And it is important. I couldn't write this type of geologically centered history, but it can contribute to the understanding of that history I do.

      Strangely, I began my scholastic career twenty years ago as a double major in history and literature. I could very clearly see that the two contributed to each other, that they had a dialogue. I was more surprised when others, primarily lit majors by the way, not historians, did not see the dialogue, or discounted its importance. It makes very good sense to me that history have a dialogue with the hard sciences as well as with literature and art.

      Thank you for the heads up.

    • Bretsuki profile image

      William Elliott 6 years ago from California USA

      Hello sustainable Sue, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

      I can believe what you say about Napolleon invading the Middle East, sinilar reasons led to the discovery of theAmericas, Europeans wanting a supply of Far Eastern supplies of spices etc cutting out the Islamic Middle man.

      Historians have for a long time seen their subject within very confined boundaries, only in recent decades have they moved their point of view to see what other areas of study have to offer and they are finding a lot of overlapping ideas which can only enrich our view of history in general.

    • Sustainable Sue profile image

      Sustainable Sue 6 years ago from Altadena CA, USA

      I used to hate history in high school. It was exactly as you describe - names of heroes, dates of wars, and key political events. At the same time I was reading historical fiction and loving it. Why? Because it brought into the picture all the rest of what was going on at the time. It showed the interactions between social, political, and often artistic events. It showed the personalities of the times - rich and poor, male and female, the mix of nationalities involved in the story.

      Did you know that Napolean invaded the Middle East because Europe wanted better access to black pepper and certain other spices? The Arabs were the sole source and were killer dealers, jacking up the prices for the spices that Europeans desperately needed to disquise their overripe foods (no refrigeration in those days).

      I'm a little surprised that historians are only just now recognizing that history is more than just politics and war.

    • Bretsuki profile image

      William Elliott 6 years ago from California USA

      Thank you phdast7, I lovr history in general. While Big History is a little too much, for me, the concepts of links and connections is fascinating. It leads to all sorts of fascinating ideas.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Good Hub I love TED TALKS. Sometimes I show a shorter clip in the middle of one of my classes, oh yeah, I teach history, Western Civ, Twentieth Century Europe, Holocaust, and History of Science. I have always avoided dates and lists of rulers and most minutiae. :)

      I won't say I have been teaching "Big History" exactly, but what matters to me are the connections, the continuities and discontinuities and the overlap of disciplines in the real world, ie., History of Science course. I look forward to reading more of your work.