“The Story of Big History”

Ian Hesketh. 2014. History of the Present, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 171-202.
Currently, a group of historians is claiming that it might be history that provides the framework for a scientific and evolutionary account of everything. Big History, so named by its foremost practitioner, David Christian, seeks tounite the two cultures under the framework of an elegant story of the universe, a history, in the words of fellow practitioner Fred Spier, “that places human history within the context of cosmic history, from the beginning of the universe up until life on Earth today.” Big history, it would seem, is not only a science, but the science, combining the fields of astrophysics, cosmology, geology, geography, biology, archaeology, anthropology, and history, not to mention the various sub-disciplines involved, while the “grand unifying theory” is not best expressed as an elegant mathematical formula but rather as the evolutionary history of the universe and humanity itself. (p. 171)

In my last post, I explored the relatively new genres of big history and deep history, musing about the ways that these new and interdisciplinary forms of historical thinking can help us understand our place on this planet. I made the point that big and deep history differs substantially from conventional history. The vast time scale requires collaboration among many different scientific disciplines, and it requires us to think about history using different conventions. It is highly interdisciplinary.

To better understand how these vast time-scale histories differ from conventional history, the article by Ian Hesketh is very useful. Hesketh argues convincingly that big history narratives are quite similar to popular science narratives, that both the epic structure and the writers’ motives are similar to popular science works produced by scientists like Edward O. Wilson, Paul Davies, Ursula Goodenough, and others. All these writers create science narratives that feature both moral and aesthetic elements which tie the sciences together with human activity. They are often meant to be inspirational, and this is precisely how the big/deep history genre is usually written, according to Hesketh.

The big historian David Christian talks explicitly about the mythical aspects of big history, using the term quite positively, as something that inherently necessary in the human make up. We seek mythic understandings of the world, he says, but he does not think that myth in this case needs to mean untrue. Mythic understandings simply need to be awe-inspiring and engaging. They have to help us come to terms with our place in the cosmos.

Hesketh points out that the genre of big history is merely another mode of thinking about who we are: “Indeed, like any myth, big history’s deep meanings are not inherently derived from empirical observations but from its anthropomorphic projections of an idealized cosmic world.” (196) In other words, these big/deep history texts are constructions that allow the writers to project their own cosmic ideals onto the narrative. Hesketh shows that the big history stories promote a vision of the cosmos that contain moral injunctions and aesthetic elements and that they are (or at least claim to be) founded on rigorous scientific understanding from many different disciplines. Those reconstructions, he says, are used to buttress the moral conclusions of the authors. By clarifying how those big history narratives are used, Hesketh’s article helps us see what the works are doing rhetorically.

I think that we need to understand this rhetorical framework to fully appreciate these works on an analytical level, but I don’t want to simply deconstruct these works and leave it at that. I don’t want this to be simply an academic exercise in literary criticism. If these works are attempting to get people to rethink our worldview in a period of rapid historical and ecological change, we need to seriously consider whether what they are doing is going be helpful in the larger scheme of things.

Moving beyond the literary-historical analysis, I wonder what we can say about the ways in which these works might be useful more generally. Are they helpful for us in reframing our understanding of where we as human beings are in the history of the development of life on earth? Can these narratives serve, in the way that their authors certainly intend, as new modes of mythic understanding that will enable us to see where we fit in the earth?

If we are going to call our current era the Anthropocene, then we need to be able to write about it in a coherent way. This merging of historical storytelling, scientific understanding of cosmic development, and the place of humanity in the universe, suggests one way of doing this. In the next post, I’ll explore the rewards and pitfalls of doing this.

Smail, Dan. 2005. “In the Grip of Sacred History,” The American Historical Review, Vol 110, No. 5 (December), pp. 1337-1361. An interesting article by one of the proponents of deep history that gives his understanding of how and why we need to expand our historical reach and incorporate deep history into our modern historical canon.

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