Big History, Deep History, and the Problem of Scale

What does it mean to talk about the anthropocene historically? Thinking about this has forced me to take a closer look at a couple areas of scholarship that I’ve watched grow over the past few years: big history and deep history. These two interdisciplinary projects have recently gained some traction in the academic world. Big history, in particular, has even made it into a popular TED talk by the historian David Christian.

In the next two or three posts, I will discuss what I think big and deep history have to offer to our discussion of habitability and the anthropocene. I want to find out if they might provide some conceptual help in grappling with our topic, and if so, how. I also want to know if they can suggest a model for successful interdisciplinary conversations.

I’m a historian, but one trained in conventional historical methods. Conventional history differs from deep and big history by the vastly different scales at which they operate. The nineteenth-century historian Leopold von Ranke established a set of rules that have driven conventional history ever since. He placed strict boundaries on what could be considered historical, specifically limiting it to written documents. Without writing, he said, there was no history.[1] The prehistoric world could not be interrogated historically. To a large extent, what he said at that time remains true today. The great majority of historians tell stories of the past in small, discrete packages: documenting events happening at specific times and places and involving particular people. By its very nature, conventional history is local and particular. Indeed, the trend of most historical analysis until recently has been to highlight the fine-grained detail and avoid generalizations.

By contrast, the new fields of big and deep history put humanity in a vast nonhuman time scale. Deep historians survey the entire duration of human existence on earth. Human history for them is the history of Homo sapiens going back two hundred thousand years and their predecessors.[2] Big historians go back even further, putting the human era into a cosmic time-scale. In their picture, the human age is tiny. We inhabit an infinitesimally small region of the universe in the most recent tiny fraction of the nearly 14 billion-year-long cosmic timeline.[3] Deep/big history, then, has just the opposite focus of conventional history. Far from local and particular, this new historical sensibility looks for broad and universal themes. Particularities get swept up like dust in the telling of the cosmic narrative or epic of our species’ evolution.

To go so far back requires wholly new tools. Indeed, big and deep historians must collaborate with colleagues in the natural sciences in ways that most conventional historians do not. Big history, for example, employs geology, astrophysics, and cosmology to help it capture the development of the cosmos in its complexity. Deep historians who study the history of Homo sapiens lean heavily on the biological sciences (especially evolutionary psychology and neurobiology) as they explore what makes us human and trace the origins and features of those habits of mind and behavior in our evolutionary past.

There is a sharp tension between conventional history and deep/big history, and I want to highlight this tension because I believe that by working through it, we may discover new ways to deal with the problem at hand: namely, how do we live in the anthropocene?

Human history in the conventional sense is very good at telling us stories about who we are, stories that make sense in terms that we all understand. We can relate well to the passions and ideals that have driven men and women to think and build and fight across the centuries. But the project that we now face is somewhat different. We are now struggling to come to terms with our place in a world that we have no intellectual or practical history with. We have no daily experience of the kinds of objects that we are interacting with as a species. The very notion of “climate” for example is not anything that we can easily grasp—let alone the infinitely more complex idea of “climate change.” The problem and the objects we are discussing exist in sizes the normal person simply cannot readily comprehend.

Humanity is now playing a new role in the world, making its presence felt in larger physical and temporal spaces, so the framework we use for thinking about our place in the world needs to change. Will big/deep history help us here? Will it help us understand how the local circumstances (diverse, particular, individualistic, … human) and the cosmic scale (unified, generalized, universalistic, … nonhuman) are related? This is the question I intend to look at further.

[1] The way that he put this was as follows: “History cannot discuss the origin of society, for the art of writing, which is the basis of historical knowledge, is a comparatively late invention. The earth had become habitable and was inhabited, nations had arisen and international connections had been formed, and the elements of civilization had appeared, while that art was still unknown.” (Leopold von Ranke, Universal History, 1884, p. ix.) Notice what he says about “habitable” and “inhabit.”

[2] One of the key books in this field is Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail, eds., Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

[3] See Fred Spier, Big History and the Future of Humanity. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

3 thoughts on “Big History, Deep History, and the Problem of Scale

  1. Pingback: How to visualize, amplify and share? | orpheusinthemud

  2. I wonder if considering ourselves on the scale of deep history will encourage a go-getter attitude through which people will feel intergenerational and interspecies solidarity combined with the desire to change the trajectory of the Earth system going forward. Or will people feel overwhelmed and profoundly unable to make even the smallest difference when the factors that have contributed to global destruction are so complex and so many of them seem to lie beyond our individual control?

  3. Your question raises a perennial problem that arises with most social movements. How do you tread the fine line in communicating a problem between generating enthusiastic support and creating a feeling of utter hopelessness. I tend to think that the main goal for us now must be finding ways to demonstrate how local control over local conditions (what makes a place habitable to each person) can translate into global changes that will sustain the planet’s habitability for the species as a whole. Whether these two goals are ever compatible is the question. Are the requirements for local habitability for the great mass of individual human beings different from the requirement for global habitability of the species?

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