Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 11 September 2023
My what is history series somewhat naively perhaps looks at history from the broad perspective of what processes an intelligent naked ape might go through to develop civilisation.
From that perspective the study of human history should also consider the external forces, including geography, environment, disease and natural disasters that have shaped the development of humanity. At the present time climate change makes this approach both pertinent and urgent.
The approach is not meant to replace mainstream histories, merely in the new era of big data, storage and retrieval to add to them. And, to perhaps provide a different flavour to the study of humanity.
The articles in the What is History? series are: 1 Introduction, 2 Sleep Patterns, 3 The Medieval Mind, 4 Love, 5 EH Carr Historians & their facts, 6 Religion, 7 EH Carr Causation in History, 8 EH Carr History as Progress, 9 Guns, Germs and Steel: Overview, 10 Polynesia A Natural Experiment of History, 11 World Economic History, 12 References from Guns, Germs and Steel and 13 World History and Big History with other articles to come.
World History and Big History an Overview
- Introduction: the Big Bang, Alfred Wegener, plate tectonics
- David Christian, World History, Big History
- My discovery of World History
- What is World History?
- What is Big History?
- Some Background to World History and Big History
- Conclusion: the status of world history
I remember physicist Paul Davies in conversation with Phillip Adams (The Big Questions 1996). Davies said:
The significance of this [background] radiation is that it gives us a clue about the state of the universe shortly after the beginning. I was a student in the mid-sixties, and I can well remember the professor in my department giving a lecture about cosmology, talking about the origin of the universe, and saying that on the basis of the recent discovery of the cosmic heat radiation it was possible to reconstruct the physics of events that took place in the first three minutes after the big bang! And everyone fell about laughing. They thought it was utterly audacious to hypothesise about what happened just a few minutes after the origin of the universe. Yet today this is standard textbook stuff.
Today, physics knows to within the first microscecond.
Similarly, an enlightened geography teacher taught us Wegener’s theory of continental drift in middle high school. I bought my copy of Arthur Strahler Earth Sciences in the 1965 edition. Strahler said of Wegener’s theory that it was unlikely without a mechanism. Within a year, on not much new data, plate tectonics had become accepted. I always thought that geology didn’t really make sense until plate tectonics.
We’ve come a long way in science in the twentieth century and particularly in the second half of the twentieth century: in understanding the universe, where the solar system came from and how life evolved on earth. We are at a point of scientific convergence. Although, there are many things we don’t understand. DNA, molecular biology, the new frontiers of genetics, self-organising networks, the human genome project and other life genomes, the interface of biology and computers, the beginnings of big data, real AI and perhaps the beginnings of unifying all science (including understanding the role of quantum entanglement) are perhaps not that far off.
And, this is despite a concomitant anti-intellectual, conspiracy theory and mis-information explosion in other parts of society.
How does history fit in with all of this and What is History?
2 World History and Big History
2.1 David Christian
David Gilbert Christian (1946) a historian was born in New York to British and American parents. He studied his BA and PHD in Russian history at Oxford and taught at Macquarie University from 1975 to 2000 where he developed his ideas on world history and big history. He is a major proponent of the Big History approach and has put enormous energy into promoting Big History including TED talks and gaining the support of Bill Gates for the Big History Project. The Big History Project is a teaching endeavour to introduce Big History into schools and higher education.
2.2 World History and Big History Defined
World History is an approach to history that attempts to integrate all human history into the biological descent of man from prehistory to the present day and to be conscious of the patterns that this provides to the understanding of all human history.
The approach is very similar to that I have adopted in my series of articles on What is History?
Big History by contrast extends this approach to the start of the universe or Big Bang right through to human history. The Big History approach is described in detail below. Big History and World History are complementary. The ideas overlap and there is some overlap in adherents.
3 My Discovery of World History
I only discovered World History as a discipline a couple of months ago when I purchased a second hand copy of David Christian This Fleeting World: A short history of humanity, fourth printing 2011 (first printing 2007), which was aimed at world history teachers.
Should I feel embarrassed that I was not aware of World History? Not at all. David Christian acknowledges the problem himself. This is a new approach to professional history teaching and has had limited impact on the mainstream history profession. Although World History is quite big in the USA and Canada and has a 50-year history.
I found this This Fleeting World to be a beautifully written summary of World History. Brilliant summaries and concise descriptions are rare and often under-appreciated.
The World History under discussion is a specific and recognised academic movement. Nevertheless, one might come across different world history materials that are unrelated. Some discussion of the historical background of World History is given after a description of World History and Big History.
4 What is World History
What is World History? David Christian did not originate these ideas. John McNeill (personal communication) says that you can find this tripartite division in the work of Gordon Childe or Lewis Mumford in the 1920s and 1930s and probably elsewhere too. (Gordon Childe was mentioned in my last article Jared Diamond’s Further Readings.) But, David Christian’s summary is generally acknowledged as a good starting point within the World History community.
David Christian divides World history into three distinct eras. Although the boundaries themselves tend to be less sharp. These are shown in Figure 1 from Christian.
4.1 The Era of Foragers
The era of foraging dates from between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago. 250,000 is a median figure. The start of the era represents the start of our species Homo sapiens.
4.2 Acceleration: The Agrarian Era
The agrarian era begins between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago with the beginnings of agriculture (in the fertile crescent). Domestication of animals began earlier, but domestication and the evolution of pastoralism evolved roughly in parallel. Settlements in the old world or Eurasia may have begun earlier between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago.
Some of these issues are covered in my previous article on Jared Diamond’s Further Reading.
The beginnings of agriculture outlined briefly in that article are rather complex and not completely understood. As a result of the article Kent V Flannery (personal communication) responded:
How great that you are still interested in the origins of agriculture. Nowadays hardly anyone is still working on it. It is as if they somehow arbitrarily decided we knew enough about it, and started turning to other topics. I hoped that now that we have DNA evidence there would be a new burst of research, but it didn’t happen.
4.3 Our World: The Modern Era
The modern era is the briefest and most turbulent of the three main eras. The starting date of 1750 is arbitrary. Indications begin around 1500 and 1750 is chosen as roughly the beginning of industrialisation.
The key features and trends outlined are generic. Much more detail on all three eras is given in David Christian’s book This Fleeting World. Online you can find similar information in the Big History Project (see Further Information below.)
The world’s ten major cities in 1500 is interesting. How the world has grown in 500 years.
The key elements of the modern era are energy, population growth, science and technology, innovation, globalisation and the ability to impact on the earth in major ways never seen before.
Looking at human history as three definite eras makes sense of all history that is completely lacking in mainstream history. It is reminiscent of the idea that geology didn’t make sense until plate tectonics was accepted in the mid-1960s. David Christian fills in the details in This Fleeting World.
5 What is Big History
Big History — coined by David Christian — is something that he has been working on for many years. It is taking world history and expanding it to cover everything from the beginning of the universe to today.
This is outlined in his 18-minute Ted talk, in the Prequel to This Fleeting World, in his entry on Big History in the Berkshire Encyclopedia, and in the Big History Project. The Big History Project is a curriculum and course offered for schools but there is also a public version, which is well-worth delving into (see Further information).
In summary David Christian says that one can understand universal history by threshold moments of complexity, and the goldilocks conditions that created where we are today. He says that despite the second law of dynamics (entropy increases) these thresholds represent increasing complexity, which are more vulnerable and fragile as one goes down the list.
His ultimate aim is to create a better world for his grandchildren, which is becoming potentially problematic.
The thresholds in summary are:
Threshold 1 The Big Bang
- The universe began 13.7 billion years ago in what cosmologists call whimsically the ‘big bang’.
Threshold 2 Stars
- After 380,000 years clouds of simple atoms hydrogen and helium condensed under gravity to become stars.
Threshold 3 More Complex Chemical Elements
- Later, the creation of new chemical elements in dying stars and supernovae, allowed the creation of more chemically complex entities such as more stars and planets, coalescing under the influence of gravity.
Threshold 4 The Sun, the Solar System and Earth
- Our sun was formed about 4.5 billion years ago. The solar system and the earth followed soon after.
Threshold 5 Life on Earth
- Around 3.7 billion years ago, life on earth arose slowly. Our oxygen atmosphere is an artefact of life. Complex life arose around 2 billion years ago (See JBS Haldane’s seminal 1929 paper). Even today, complex forms such as plants and animals are only a small percentage of existing life on earth.
Threshold 6 Humans and Collective Learning
- Around 250,000 years ago, collective learning begins through the development of symbolic language. Human history arrives following the evolution of mammals and the evolution of humans from ape-like ancestors.
Threshold 7 Agriculture and Population
- Around 10,000 years ago agriculture and herding began and intensified;
- Agriculture allowed increases in population, which put nomadic hunter gatherers at a disadvantage.
Threshold 8 The Modern Revolution
- Around 500 years ago humans began to link up, globalisation began, innovation, new energy forms, industrialisation and massive population increases.
The last three thresholds only deal with World History.
Although I am writing about What is History? which only includes the last three thresholds. I am sympathetic to the big history picture. If we are to survive as humans to the end of the twentieth-first century, it is imperative that Big History is taught in schools and that we seriously pay attention to it. Similarly, conventional mainstream history doesn’t make sense unless it is presented in the context of world history.
6 Some Background to World History and Big History
6.1 My Limited Involvement
Before beginning the current article, I read William H McNeill Plagues and Peoples 1976 many years ago as part of a general interest in the role of germs in history — well before I read Jared Diamond. William McNeill was one of the early new era proponents of the world history approach.
I am an avid admirer of John McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun: an environmental history of the twentieth century 2000. I used his expertise for support in writing my own book/booklet about a bad dam in India (India’s Dam Shame with Rukmini Rao; see Large Dams: 1 An Introduction, 2 Aswan High Dam, 3 Oustees India). I have also been in contact with him regarding Jared Diamond and on other matters since early 2018.
John Robert McNeill (1954) is the son of William H McNeill. Although he began and followed a separate career path. He undertook his MA in history in 1977 and his PhD in 1981, both at Duke University. John McNeill also became a proponent of world history. He has helped me by answering questions for the present article.
6.2 Background to World History
David Christian (in Berkshire 2011) says:
Universal histories were constructed during the Enlightenment and during the nineteenth century. … Universal history… vanished, suddenly and decisively, at the end of the nineteenth century. Why it vanished remains unclear. …
John McNeill (personal communication says):
As I see it, world history in the twentieth century was an eccentric activity undertaken as much by journalists and politicians (HG Wells, Nehru) as by historians until the 1960s. At that point it began to interest a very few American academic historians, three of whom were based in the city of Chicago: W.H. McNeill, Leften Stavrianos, Marshall Hodgson. In the USA it made some headway…
McNeill’s reasons for the USA relate to the Vietnam War (and related global engagements) but more particularly to the change in the immigration laws in the mid-1960s and the rapid increase in an ethnically diverse population.
David Christian (in Berkshire 2011) mentions Arnold J Toynbee as one of the few historians still interested in universal history from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Toynbee used the term microscope historians for conventional historians who:
… are people who are so interested in the details of one particular society or period that they lose sight of the wider picture. They are like people who are so busy counting the blades of grass in a meadow that they forget to look at the meadow itself.
Christian quotes from this interview with Toynbee by Ved Mehta around 1960:
…the microscope historians . . . whether they admitted it or not, had sacrificed all generalizations for patchwork, relative knowledge, and they thought of human experience as incomprehensible chaos.
Toynbee believed that the days of microscope history were numbered. Christian says:
Fifty years later, Toynbee’s remarks look more prescient, as universal history makes a comeback…
6.3 The World History Movement
Around 1990 the World History Association was formed and the Journal of World History started. John McNeill says that these two were to his mind what made it a movement.
The moving spirit behind the Journal of World History, and the author of the leading textbook in the field for about 20 years, was Jerry Bentley (1949-2012), according to John McNeill.
The publication of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History in 2004 might also have helped to strengthen the movement. The Encyclopedia was instigated by the publisher Karen Christiansen who involved WH McNeill when she found he lived only half an hour away. With around 360 contributors, it brought together many of those involved with world history.
Although the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History is an admirable multi-volume encyclopedia and certainly worth consulting, it suffers as all such encyclopedias do with many authors in that the article quality is inevitably uneven, as John McNeill says from experience. Additionally, because the content is so broad and presented in concise summary form, inconsistencies are inevitable too.
As mentioned the World History movement is big in universities in the USA and Canada, but perhaps less so elsewhere. Nevertheless, as Toynbee suggested the days of ‘microscope history’ are almost certainly numbered.
John McNeill says he teaches world history similarly to Jerry Bentley: highlighting linkages, connections, and parallels, but he also emphasises demography, agriculture, health and disease more than Bentley did, when teaching world history to first-year students.
His approach, of course, varies with higher year and postgraduate students.
6.4 Big History
In the late 1980s the US astrophysicist Eric Chaisson taught one of the first courses in big history; he was soon followed by David Christian in Australia, Fred Speir in the Netherlands and John Mears in the United States.
Big history is far less influential to date than world history particularly in the USA (though it may be bigger in Australia and the Netherlands). This is despite the support of Bill Gates and the charm of David Christian, but it’s role may be growing slowly.
Because of my background in science, I am much influenced by a science-based history of everything (e.g. Eric Chaisson) and like the idea, as perhaps is obvious in the introduction to my What is History? series. I suspect I will write more about Big History in a more science-based context at a later date. However, within the context of what I am trying to achieve in these What is History? series of articles, I think Big History lies somewhat outside the topic.
John McNeill puts it somewhat differently. He says two things:
Some people, indeed most who call themselves world historians, are not smitten by Big History and ignore it … That is because, I think, it involves learning about astrophysics and evolutionary biology.
World history is about people. Big History is about a lot more than people, and when it turns to people it is mainly about energy and complexity, which is not what most historians like to think about.
Again, from my work with Fred Emery, I am very sympathetic to analyses that are about energy and complexity. I think that history in the context of new forms of energy, complexity and other things such as, money, new lifeways, technologies, world views and an environmental history of the twentieth century are very important and well within an investigation and analysis of What is History?
7.1 The Status of World History
EH Carr’s What is History? lectures (for example my What is History article 5) were extremely radical at the time, but have been partly incorporated into mainstream history and are no longer radical. Similarly, World History may well have seemed quite radical to mainstream history early on, but while not accepted by conventional history departments at many universities it is probably no longer so surprising.
Nonetheless, I can’t see mainstream history that doesn’t recognise the three eras of human world history, as particularly relevant to today. History just doesn’t make sense without the overview of world history. There are patterns to history, linkages, connections and parallels that become obvious when you study the ascent of humanity from biological origins. The environment of our planet has shaped human history. Toynbee was right in his critique of microscope history.
There are also many other examples of world history and of history books with parallel arguments about world history. Universal history has become fashionable again.
7.2 The Galactic Museum Keeper
I have found Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s thought experiment — of looking at human history through the eyes of a galactic museum keeper in the remote future, as a means of gaining perspective — is a peculiarly attractive one. For example, he wonders in Millenium whether the rise of Christianity and the West, may not be merely a blip in the trajectory of the Muslim world to a Galactic Museum Keeper.
7.3 Multidisciplinary Approaches
I feel particularly fortunate to have discovered the world history movement at this stage and not earlier, as I may not have embarked on my own journey of pondering What is History?
I also don’t think that this is the end either. I have been influenced by multidisciplinary studies from early in my university career. I have also been influenced the power of such multidisciplinary, collaborative research that arose in Britain and the USA during World War II and dissipated almost immediately the war ended.
One of my attractions to the origins of agriculture and settled life research in the twentieth century, summarised in Richard MacNeish’s diagram in my last article, was its openly interdisciplinary nature and the respect accorded across disciplines. MacNeish mentions archaeologists, botanists, a zoologist, geographers in particular, but also records interdisciplinary teams often directed by archaeologists but including coprology, palynology (pollen), ethnobotany, taxonomic botany, phytolithic studies , isotopic studies and so on. Anthropologists have been prominent in other areas and more recently DNA geneticists. In the animal domestication scene Juliett Clutton-Brock and others defined a new field of zooarchaeology which also overlaps with the above.
7.4 New Directions
Concurrently with the rise of the world history movement, other comparative approaches and specific area approaches compatible with the ideas of world history have arisen. The scientific community is certainly ready to accept the arguments of big history without much scepticism.
I think the study of history is gradually being overtaken in part by those:
1 from other disciplines with a specific historical interest, and
2 from within the discipline, historians who want to link their specific interest with big-picture history to make sense of it.
Examples of the former, that I have used in my Introduction to What is History? have been popular generalised histories by Jared Diamond (biological and environmental), Mark Kurlansky (cod), Daniel Yergin (oil) but there are also more academic ones, such as my article on Richard Baldwin (world economic history) and others such as Robert L O’Connell (war and bloodshed) for example. There are a plethora of others.
Examples of the latter, also used in my Introduction are historians, such as John McNeill (environmental history), Alfred Crosby (the consequences of 1492), Niall Ferguson (money), John Keegan (warfare) and there are many others.
The era of big data and AI are likely to promote the idea of inter-linked histories in harmony with world history.
Key words: Paul Davies, The Big Questions, David Christian, This Fleeting World, World History, Big History, Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, Wegener, continental drift, plate tectonics, era of foragers, agrarian era, modern era, Kent V Flannery, beginnings of agriculture, settled life, archaeology, cosmology, biological evolution, origin of life on earth, JBS Haldane, Big Bang, Gordon Childe, Lewis Mumford, William H McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, John McNeill, Something New Under the Sun, World History Association, Journal of World History, Jerry Bentley, Arnold J Toynbee, microscope history, EH Carr, What is history, universal history, Eric Chaisson, Fred Speir, John Mears, Fred Emery, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, galactic museum keeper, Richard MacNeish, multidisciplinary
Firstly, many thanks to John McNeill for past support and for enlightening me by answering my questions on World History and Big History, which have hopefully made this a more rounded article. All the mistakes are mine!
Geology didn’t make sense before plate tectonics because nothing could explain marine fossils at the top of the Himalayas and elsewhere. Neither gradual or catastrophic theories explained the evidence of the earth’s crust.
Similarly, as I have been trying to explain through the whole of my thirteen articles on What is History? — history itself doesn’t make sense without a context of the evolution of humans from ape-like ancestors, without taking account of the geography of our planet, the distribution of plants and animals, environmental factors and the parallel evolution of diseases with humans.
I remember being impressed by a friend of mine John Gorter who introduced me to pollen research in the early 1970s as a means of looking at the past botanical history of Australia. Neither of us can remember the name of the woman involved. Not that many years later Mary White published her wonderful coffee table books on the greening of Gondwana and the subsequent browning of Australia.
Interestingly enough, some immediate criticisms arose regarding David Christian’s figures. This is always to be expected of generalist overviews, as the details quite often don’t stand close scrutiny, and the criticisms while often valid don’t usually devalue the insights of the overview.
1 Regarding Figure 3, Professor Professor Joy Marcus, a colleague of Kent Flannery, challenges the figure of 1000 BCE for the appearance of cities and states in Mesoamerica and and says it should be 100 BCE. She says:
David Christian This Fleeting World: A short history of humanity Berkshire, Fourth Printing, 2011.
William H McNeill Plagues and Peoples, 1976.
John McNeill Something New Under the Sun: an environmental history of the twentieth century, 2000.
JR & WilliaM H McNeill The Human Web: A bird’s-eye view of history, 2003.
William H McNeill et al. eds, Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, 6 Volumes, 2nd edn, 2011.
Associations and Journals
World History Association Web page
World History Association through American Historical Association
World History For Us All High school teaching curriculum
World History OER Site (Open Educational Resources) for schools
Wikipedia on David Christian
Wikipedia on William H McNeill
Wikipedia on John R McNeill
George Vrtis, American Historical Association, 2020 Presidential Address on JR McNeill PDF
David Christian Big History, in William H McNeill et al. eds, Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, 6 Volumes, 2nd edn, 2011.
David Christian TED Talk The History of Our World in eighteen minutes YouTube 2011 (18-min).
The Big History Project Public Site
The Big History Project OER Site (Open Educational Resources) for schools
Arnold J Toynbee
Wikipedia on Arnold J Toynbee
Quotations on Arnold J Toynbee by Ved Mehta, from Ved Mehta Fly and the Fly-Bottle: Encounters with British intellectuals 1962.
Charles Darwin said a similar thing to Toynbee in a letter to Henry Fawcett (18 September 1861):
About 30 years ago there was much talk that Geologists ought only to observe & not theorise; & I well remember some one saying, that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit & count the pebbles & describe their colours. How odd it is that every one should not see that all observation must be for or against some view, if it is to be of any service.
Paul Davies The Big Questions, 1996.
Quotation from transcript of the ABC series Big Questions.
Richard Baldwin The Great Convergence: Information technology and the new globalization, 2016.
Alfred Crosby The Columbian Exchange: the biological and cultural consequences of 1492, 1972.
Niall Ferguson The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000, 2001.
Niall Ferguson The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, 2008.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years, 1995.
John Keegan A History of Warfare, 1993.
Mark Kurlansky Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world, 1997.
Ved Mehta Fly and the Fly-Bottle: Encounters with British intellectuals 1962.
Robert L O’Connell Ride of the Second Horseman: The birth and death of war, 1995.
Daniel Yergin The Prize: the epic quest for oil, money and power, 1991.
Published in Canberra