Monday, March 14, 2016

David Christian: Think Big to Get Big

The study of physical and social sciences has always been very subdivided into specialized fields, and it is little wonder. The immense complexity of nature and humanity means that nobody is capable of grasping everything there is to know. However, despite the challenges, Dr. David Christian, a historian of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, believes that it is of utmost importance not to lose sight of the whole thing. That is why Christian created "Big History," a school of history which studies everything. Literally everything, at every point in time: From the Big Bang to the end of the universe.

As you can see, it takes some time to get through it all
Unlike most conventional historical studies, which draw largely on documentary evidence, (and occasionally dabbling in archaeology if they must), Big History draws from a vast range of different fields, including Cosmology, Astronomy, Geology, Chemistry, Biology, Ecology, Paleontology and Anthropology, covering the few several billion years in which no one was considerate enough to write anything down. Such a multitude of fields necessitated that Christian employ many colleagues from different fields, including Berkley geologist Walter Alvarez, Historian Craig Benjamin at Grand Valley State University, Physicist Joseph Voros at the Swinburne Institute of Technology, and Anthropologist Fred Spier of the University of Amsterdam, to name a few. In fact, it would be better to say that Christian spearheaded the school rather than created it, as such an immense project can't really have a single creator.

Of course, attempts to write longue durée history is nothing new, and Christian drew on many of them for inspiration, particularly from the Annales school of history popular in France, which focuses on the geology and environment in which history occurs, as much as (if not more) than the people themselves. Unlike the Annales school, however, which focuses on a specific region, Christian combines this with the common desire to create a universal history. Thus, Christian not only put a single region in context, but the entirety of humanity, as well as putting those contexts in context, and from there it's recursive context all the way down. By putting the entirety of existence into context, a historian is able to tease out trends which occur over the span of all time, which traditionally restricted historians and scientists may be unable to see

The basic premise of Christian's thesis is as such: the Universe has two major observable trends which can be seen at various levels of magnitude. First is pretty much the second law of thermodynamics: entropy increases and the energy present at the Big Bang slowly transitions into a state in which no work can be done. No big revelations there. The second trend, however, is that at the same time, the complexity of how the energy is arranged seems to be exponentially increasing. Now, in a universe where energy was perfectly distributed, this would be impossible, but because it was not perfectly distributed, small bits of energy fused into matter, which, having mass, started drawing more matter together because gravity (I'm not a physicist so I'll leave it at that). Once enough matter was drawn together in a single place, the energy/matter-dense places (stars) created energy flows to empty space, and also started to construct more complex forms of matter. These are one of the first steps of a sort of domino effect of complexity, which uses the energy flow to maintain more complex structures despite the effects of entropy. The Big Bang and the creation of the Universe about 13 billion years ago. Christian divides these with eight "thresholds" marking an exponential increase in complexity.

  1. The Big Bang and the creation of the Universe about 13 billion years ago
  2. The creation of the first complex objects, stars, about 12 billion years ago
  3. The creation of chemical elements inside dying stars required for chemically-complex objects, including plants and animals
  4. The formation of planets, such as our Earth, which are more chemically complex than the Sun
  5. The creation and evolution of life from about 3.8 billion years ago, including the evolution of our hominine ancestors
  6. The development of our species, Homo sapiens, about 250,000 years ago, covering the Paleolithic era of human history
  7. The appearance of agriculture about 11,000 years ago in the Neolithic era, allowing for larger, more complex societies
  8. The "Modern revolution", or the vast social, economic, and cultural transformations that brought the world into the modern era   

For those with a bit more time, I'll let Dr. Christian himself go into more detail about his thesis

Fitting Christian into Gardener's theory of multiple intelligence is a bit tricky, because the roll of a historian, especially one like Christian, does not fit neatly into his given categories. Certainly, he is intelligent linguistically (It's hard to imagine how a professional historian could not be), but one of his biggest achievements is in spacial intelligence. The reason for this is because the ability to smoothly and naturally navigate widely varying scales without getting lost in the details was key to successfully create a coherent narrative for the Big History School (as he says in his Great Courses lectures "not losing the elephant in the wrinkles..." it makes sense in context). Finally, the sheer amount of interdisciplinary organization it took not only to compose a thesis, but to create  interdisciplinary college courses with muliple instructors and found an organized historical school belies no small amount of interpersonal intelligence too.

Big History represents a growing trend to re-unite once disparate fields of study. It doesn't really make that much sense that a historian ignore important things like ecology or chemistry, nor does it really help for a scientist to be unaware of the natural and human contexts in which he is studying. I doubt it will make any field of study obsolete, but thanks to David Christian, all the fields of science, natural and social can be observed into a single context, which makes our understanding of the universe, ever so slightly more precise.

Wikipedia: David Christian and Big History
Cosmic Timeline:
Christian, David (2008). Big History: The Big Band, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity. Chantilly, Virginia, USA: The Teaching Company.

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