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Life, the Universe and Everything

Anthony Grafton

Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. David Christian. xxii + 642 pp. University of California Press, 2004. $34.95.

All historians—so the great French scholar Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie once remarked—are either truffle hunters, their noses buried in the details, or parachutists, hanging high in the air and looking for general patterns in the countryside far below them. David Christian is one of the grandest parachutists of them all—so grand that he's almost a space traveler. In Maps of Time, working on the most immense scale imaginable, he has set out to trace the history of the world from the standpoint of an immortal, if not omniscient, observer.

His book begins at the beginning—the very beginning as far as most scientists are concerned, namely the Big Bang. Christian starts there and goes on to describe the development of stars and planets, the formation of the solar system and the Earth, and the evolution of life. In his story, human history—even that of the very earliest humanlike beings—forms a relatively late element, which started no more than 7 million years ago and constitutes no more than an instant in the 4.5-billion-year history of the Earth, to say nothing of the far longer history of the universe.

The history of recognizable human societies is shorter still. This complex story of small groups whose multiple achievements in communication and mastery of their environment gelled, somehow, into organized bodies of men and women who could communicate with one another really begins, according to Christian, some 50,000 years ago. Seen in this perspective, the subjects most historians study—empires and republics, laws and religions, technology and science—occupy only the last minuscule segment in a very long time line. No wonder that Christian and some of his colleagues in inquiry describe their books and courses as "Big History."

Compared with what the rest of us historians do, this is very big history indeed, and in many respects it is quite novel. It relies, in the first place, not only on the tools and data historians normally work with—documents, statistics, books—but also on findings from a vast range of other disciplines, including a number of the sciences. Christian surveys the work of modern cosmologists, geologists, evolutionary biologists and archaeologists, and offers an exciting, if necessarily general and provisional, account of life, the universe and everything. His summaries naturally do not rest on firsthand knowledge, but they seem judicious for the most part, and he offers substantial reading lists for anyone who wants to pursue a particular field in more detail.

Big history, as Christian practices the art, thus starts off as scientific popularization on a high level, and it has much to offer virtually any general reader. Christian may or may not be right when he suggests, citing Edward O. Wilson, that the sciences are really moving toward a unified picture of the world. But he certainly has crafted a kind of history in which the story of the human race forms part of a larger story of nature itself.

Big history concentrates, in the second place, not on the conscious plans and motives of human actors, but rather on the larger economic, social and political structures that men and women create over the centuries, on the ways in which they move across space, and on their relations with the natural environment. It follows these developments, moreover, on a global scale, never assuming that what happened in any particular corner of the world mattered most. The big historian, accordingly, eliminates from history thousands of individuals who seemed, in their own day, to cast long causal shadows. Christian finds no room to mention Augustus Caesar, Attila, Justinian, Julius II, Luther, Calvin, Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler or Mao Zedong. But these omissions are perfectly justified, because his work dwells on structures and institutions, and the gains that this approach yields are considerable.

Although Christian does not offer vivid sketches of rulers or rebels, he does trace in detail the stitchery of trade networks that connected civilizations across the world at surprisingly early dates. He also describes the development of sophisticated commercial techniques, which arose at times and in places that many readers may find surprising. Asia, as he shows, remained until very recent centuries the richest, and perhaps the most vibrant, part of the world. China and India rivaled the most developed parts of Europe for economic productivity and far surpassed Europe in the production of luxury goods and amassing of precious metals. What makes this big history so interesting is that it articulates a genuinely new and distinctive vision of the past.

Big history casts its results, finally, in a whole range of forms. In addition to writing a sharp, clear prose, which makes his complex arguments easy to follow, Christian uses time lines, graphs and diagrams deftly. In many works of history, illustrations like these are largely ornamental. In Maps of Time, however, they play essential roles, laying out the relevant quantitative data more clearly and more usefully than prose can. Having these figures, and the book's tables, on hand makes it possible to follow and compare the complex, interlocking series of timescales on which the events traced in the text took place. This material also makes some of the complex causal relationships described in the book more vivid and cogent. Figures clarify the feedback loops, typologies of settlements and exchange networks that are central to Christian's story.

At its worst, big history can be dismal—too dry to stimulate, too devoid of humanity to provoke, too general to make the reader think. Christian's work suffers from relatively few of these defects. A prolific and distinguished historian who has written a great deal about Russia, Christian has a nice sense of his readers' need for some sort of human detail. Quotations from primary sources and nicely chosen anthropological parallels dot the book and vary its tone. More important, they underpin one of the author's main points: that for most of organized human history, the modes of human experience and forms of human organization varied radically from any given locality to the next one. Big history has to couch its theses as generalizations. But Christian does about as good a job as anyone can of grounding these, briefly, in the lived reality of individuals.

This book depends, necessarily, on secondary literature, and at times Christian reposes too much confidence on outdated, polemical or empirically flawed work (Alfred Crosby's pioneering but problematic The Columbian Exchange is a case in point). Big history, like the related genre of world history, sets out to de-center the discipline as a whole from its traditional concentration on "The West" (whatever that is). Many world historians had their specialized training, as Christian did, in non-Western fields. They sometimes sound as if they are less investigating the past than rallying the troops to prove that Europe could boast few, or even no, unique features until it achieved its brief political, and much longer economic and cultural, hegemony. Maps of Time, like other recent efforts in this vein, now and then gives off a faint effluvium of political correctness.

Unlike most historians, Christian takes a serious interest in the results of contemporary science. Unfortunately, he seems less interested in the history of science, which he treats in a drastically oversimplified way. This brilliant and learned student of structures and communities treats scientific ideas as the creations of disembodied intellects, and he foreshortens the development of such ancient subjects as geology and biology.

If big history in the form taken here is new, the genre itself is ancient. The author of the book of Genesis, to cite one well-known example, offered a similarly comprehensive account of the history of the universe and the human race. So did the Christian world historians of late antiquity. One of them, Eusebius of Caesarea, devised around 300 A.D. the first comparative tables of world history. He arranged the rulers and magistrates of some 19 different societies, as well as major inventions and cultural achievements, on a single, tabular time line and showed that all of history led up to the Roman Empire and Christianity. Jewish, Persian, Islamic and Chinese big historians all tried their hands, each in a distinctive way. Despite their radically different assumptions, all of them, as Christian notes, had one thing in common: They took the beliefs and values of their own time as the larger patterns of history itself. History, properly mapped on the grand scale, revealed the hand of providence or the influence of the heavens, or both at once, hard at work shaping people and events.

In Maps of Time, providence has yielded to other mechanisms, and the eclipses and conjunctions that once provided the chronological benchmarks for history's series of empires have made way for markers of a very different kind: the advent of new devices for cultivating the land, for example, and the domestication dates for various breeds and crops. Information, and the growth of effective networks for its exchange, loom very large in Christian's story—just as they do in the world we all inhabit, and within which he crafted Maps of Time.

This emphasis seems eminently sensible now. Surely the tidal wave of new information that swamped Western Europe after 1500, powered by the printing press, had something to do, as Christian argues, with the origins of modernity. But in their days, the very different categories that Orosius and Ibn Khaldun and H. G. Wells imposed on the past in their Big Histories also seemed very reasonable. Orosius and Wells look pretty quaint now, although Ibn Khaldun does not. It would be fascinating to know how Maps of Time will strike readers in another hundred—or thousand—years.

Sadly, historians generally make poor prophets. Even Christian, in the last, predictive chapter of his book, sometimes descends to the merely quaint—as in his discussion of the chances for space travel. As a whole, however, his book is at once a good read, a fascinating prospectus for a new kind of history, and a challenge to those of us who go on doing history in the old-fashioned way of the truffle hunter—to pull our snouts out of the archive and use our research skills to examine the long-term evolution of human society in its natural environment.

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