Big History as the Study of All Existence
* Article: Rodrigue, Barry H. 2022. “Big History — A Study of All Existence: Part 1: A World Connected.” Journal of Big History 5 (1): 1-47.DOI | doi
"This is a brief overview of the field of big history and my personal reflection on its significance."
The Great Drying
"Then another period of aridification began 8000 years ago—the Great Drying. In North Africa, wetlands evaporated as grazing herds compounded the climate problem. Prairies degraded into Sahara dunes. Some adapted to desert life, such as the Bedouin, but oth-ers relocated to new areas of water: the Mediterranean, Lake Chad, and the Niger and Nile rivers."
"Far from just a European phenomenon, the new global engagement had grown from the silk-road system into a planetary sphere of interaction that is more properly designated as ‘global civilization.’ Neo-Confucian scholar Miura Baien (1723–1789) merged Japanese concepts with Chinese and Euro-pean ideas to develop a new vision of the world and existence, as in his masterpiece, 玄語 [D e e p Wo r d s]. Miura’s work has been compared favourably with the later studies of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). Anthropologist Keiji Iwata, for example, sees Miura’s work as an expression of Eastern cosmology / existence, with Humboldt’s studies expressing Western perspectives. Humboldt had studied at the University of Göttingen, where his professors sought to unify knowledge and deploy it so individuals, society, and nature could coexist. His five-volume study, were big histories, since they began with cosmology (as it was then understood) and subsequently linked in the human genealogy.”
The evolution of 19th-20th Century Cross-Disciplinary Studies
"Despite growing institutional resistance to universal models of knowledge, holistic frameworks continued. Geographer Peter Kropotkin’s Siberian natural his-tory fieldwork in the 1860s and 1870s contributed to his theories of global social responsibility, as in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution in 1902. The next year, biogeographer Alfred Wallace, co-discoverer of evolutionary theory with Charles Darwin, released his syn-thesis of existence, Man’s Place in the Universe. Such macro-thinking percolated widely through popular and ecumenical culture. Author H. G. Wells’s Outline of History (1920) was updated with new scientific breakthroughs over the next fifty years. Engineer Hiram Maxim composed Life’s Place in the Cosmos (1933), which considered the existence of life beyond Earth, based on the latest scientific knowledge. Scholar, artist, and Nobelist Rabindranath Tagore encouraged the global-networking of science and philosophy, ideas that he collated in Bengali essays as विश्व परिचय हैै [Our Uni-verse] in 1937. Christian scholars like palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and astronomer Georges Lemaître advanced science and how it related to the human condition.15By the 1940s, universal notions entered primary education, as in Maria Montessori’s pedagogy of cosmic education, adopted from an English model and developed while she was interned in India during the Second World War.16 Similarly, ecologist Kinji Imanishi composed his thoughts of life’s commonalities in 生物の世界 [The World of Living Things] in 1941, on the eve of his military deployment. He survived the war and expanded on his concept of 自然学shizengaku or ‘deep nature thought’ as an integrated view of ex-istence.17Each rendition incorporated the latest discoveries of science and considered how they could be applied to society. In industry, cross-disciplines arose in new fields like astro/physics and bio/chemistry. The scientific and technological ferment of the World War and Cold War eras led to new data, which required ever-larger frames of reference, from aerospace and oceanography to medicine and computer science. It was a time of new frontiers. In 1949, the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO) set up a commission to assemble a history of all humankind, producing a multilingual, multi-volume series: The History of Humanity (1966, 2009).
The Space Race also galvanized efforts for new interdisciplinary discoveries, while so-cio-historical scholarship struggled to understand the post- colonial world through its many disciplinary and social lenses. Soviet scholars developed an integrated pedagogy that spanned the natural and social sciences.
Astrophysicist Josif Shklovsky wrote an early book of this new view of existence: Вселенная. Жизнь. Разум. [Universe, Life, Intelligence] in 1962. Four years later, an expanded English adaptation was produced with US astrophysicist Carl Sagan as Intelligent Life in the Universe. This international co-operation was not accidental as a similar macro-study had developed in the Unit-ed States. From the 1920s through the 1950s, Harlow Shapley had promoted cosmography, a study that examined the interlinked nature of stars, the Earth, life, and humanity at the Harvard College Observatory. In the 1960s, Carl Sagan offered his rendition, and, in 1974, astrophysicists George Field and Eric Chaisson began a course on cosmic evolution.
Likewise, in the 1970s, astrophysicist G. Siegfried Kutter integrated celestial studies with studies of life and society as part of the cutting-edge, interdisciplinary course structure at Evergreen State College. His synthesis appeared as Universe and Life: Origins and Evolution.
Astronomer Tom Bania taught Cosmic Evolution: Search for Extraterrestrial Life at Boston University, while Earth scientist Michael Rampino had organized The History of the Universe from the Big Bang to the Big Brain at New York University.
This wide thinking reflected the high-stakes competition going on among the respective allies of the Soviet Union and the US in the second half of the twentieth century. Many of these scholars began to move beyond the technological rivalry of the times in order to look at the possibilities of peaceful coexistence, not just with other humans but with our habitat and other lifeforms. This progress toward assembling a big pic-ture of our place in the vast scheme of things emerged in other parts of the world as well. Hubert Reeves studied physics with developers of the atomic bomb and became an astrophysicist at France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique. He brought his studies down to Earth in popular books like Patience dans l’azure: l’évolution cosmique [Patience in the Azure: Cosmic Evolution] in 1981, where he explained the stars, along with the significance of water, Einstein’s dog, and jazz. His work has become a main-stay of the environmental movement and a youthful audience seeking to change the world.
In the 1980s, Chinese scholars, including the celebrated rocket scientist, Qian Xuesen, began studies of complexity. They developed a paradigm that served as a meta-synthesis of scientific knowledge, 开放的复杂巨系统 [The Open Complex Giant System].
Such global awareness took place in many fields and began to produce a wealth of integrated knowledge about our existence. Other works included bio-geologist Preston Cloud’s Cosmos, Earth and Man (1978) and astro-physicist Erich Jantsch’s The Self-Organizing Universe (1980). Mathematician Antonio Vélez in Colombia began a trilogy on universal history with Del Big Bang al Homo sapiens [From the Big Bang to Homo Sapiens] in 1984.
Evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis developed a universal view of existence via microbiology, which led her into collaboration with chemist James Lovelock to study self-regulating global systems; Lovelock’s friend and neighbour, author William Golding, helped to name this the Gaia hypothesis. 26 Some works became very popular. The television series, Cosmos, with Carl Sagan (1980), was viewed by over 500 million people in sixty countries, while the book, A Brief History of Time (1988), by astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, sold over nine million copies.27This search for meaning also found expression in various faith traditions. Philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti generated an understanding that embraced humanity, nature, and the cosmos, as in his Beginnings of Learning (1975). A global movement of ‘Teilhard as-sociations’ sprang up, based on Teilhard de Chardin’s thinking in Le phénomène humain (1955). One of these activists, cultural historian Thomas Berry, expounded a ‘new story’ that integrated a global narrative of hu-manity and nature, as in his The Dream of the Earth (1988). Both Krishnamurti and Berry set up organizations that developed education programs, multimedia productions, and converged with the new science and scholarship in the global articulation of holistic thinking.
Parallel to this activity, social and economic studies coalesced with international relations in an effort to comprehend the many faces of global development. Economic historian Andre Gunder Frank moved global studies outside Cold War frameworks to describe a one-world system, while social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein envisioned interlocking subsystems. This socio-historical work began to merge with larger paradigms, as when economist Graeme Snooks moved his Theory of Global Dynamic Systems to encompass Earth history."
"Physical scientists still use the term, cosmic evolution, while the other designations remain in use, such as open complex giant system among cybernetic scholars in China and the story among progressive Chris-tians, or under no special name whatsoever, when seen as just an extension of a discipline, as in mac-ro-sociology. This holistic trajectory continued, arising elsewhere quite independently and often acquiring regional identities. In China, some social scientists began to adapt ideas for an integrated view of history from their physical science colleagues. Historians Qi Tao (1991) and Cheng Ming (1994) each argued for interdisciplinary and holistic interpretations of ancient history. In 1996, science historians Dong Guangbi and Tian Kunyu published The Origin of Heaven and Earth—Natural Evolution and the Birth of Life. Three years later, historian Ma Shili, at Nanka University, extended his text on world history to include cosmic origins and the evolution of life. In 2000, historian Huang Liuzhu called for uniting natural science and human histories, urging his colleagues at Northwest University (Xi’an, Shaanxi) to initiate such a program.
The Asian Big History Association came together as a result of this work in China, Japan, and Korea. Its organizational meeting was held at the second IBHA conference in San Rafael, California with Sun, Tsujimura and Kim as organizers, along with Barry Rodrigue. Their initial work forged more solid links between its members. In 2014, Rodrigue accepted an offer as visiting scholar in big history at Shandong Normal University in Jinan, Shandong Province, China. This was arranged by Sun Yue with historian Qi Tao, who had advanced big history models twenty years earlier and had become deputy governor of Shandong Province. This assignment was in preparation for the International Congress of Historical Sciences, held the next year in Jinan. In 2013, English translator and historian Sun Yue joined the IBHA board and, as editor of the Global History Review, produced, with his colleagues, the first issue of a journal on big history in China.55 In Beijing, CITIC Press also began publishing a series of books on big history, which its editor, Ma Xiaoling, wrote “... gives us all a broader vision, more possibilities and more attention to our common human future.”56In August 2015, Rodrigue and Sun organized a panel on big history for the ICHS conference in Jinan, where they joined the board of the Network of Glob-al & World History Organizations, along with Low-ell Gustafson of the IBHA. Sun described his studies about the twin sides of humanity’s perplexing search for social stability: its need for harmony and creativity that exists alongside witch hunts and conflict. He sees its resolution as a central issue of big history. Atmospheric scientist Alexis Lau 劉啟漢 taught at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology for twenty years and served as director of its Institute for the Environment. He thought about cancelling their general education course on climate change because he saw how students became pessimistic after taking it. Then he heard about big history from his colleague, Robert Gibson, and, in 2015, merged it, along with sustainability studies, into the climate change course. The result was dynamic. The next year, graduate student Aidan W. H. Wong 王瑋軒 joined him in this work and attended the third IBHA conference in Amsterdam. Their course, Big History, Sustainability and Climate Change, remains in the core curriculum. In 2017, they collaborated with the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education on a macro-sustainability course for secondary students. Two years later, Wong worked with Hong Kong scholars to publish a course book, Big History: A Scientific Origin Story (2019).58A public advocate in Taiwan, Gavin Lee first learned of big history in 2017 while he was writing a book on The Maritime Silk Road and World Civilization. He found that big history provided a more holistic way to understand the world’s interconnectedness. The next year, he started Worldviews Academy as a vehicle to encourage big history, beginning with a six-class sequence for the general public and for high school. After Taiwan’s K-12 education reform in 2019, Ming Dao High School added this course as an official elective under the guidance of its principal, Albert Wang. Oters followed."
Overview of the more recent Big History approaches
"Sociologist Johan Goudsblom and biochemist/social historian Fred Spier first encountered big history upon reading David Christian’s “The Case for ‘Big History”’ (1991). On a visit to Australia the next year, Goudsblom met Christian and brought back a copy of his syllabus. He and Fred Spier started a course in big history at the University of Amsterdam two years later.
Spier then produced
- The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang until Today (1996), in which he outlined the parameters of the new field. He also introduced big history at several other universities, such as Eindhoven University of Technology and Amsterdam University College. These initiatives continue through the work of Esther Quaedackers, who herself contributed the important concepts of little big history and local big history to encapsulate focused studies in a big history context. In this way, three generations of a dynamic academic lineage have given continuity to big history in the Netherlands and Europe.
Eric Chaisson’s works serve as a standard for physical scientists, as with
- Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature (2001).
Akop Nazaretyan synthesized his principles in
- Civilization Crises within the Context of Universal History: Self-organization, Psychology and Forecasts (2001).
David Christian developed his
- Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (2004), while Cynthia Stokes Brown produced
- Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present (2007), which she worked into a continuum of world history.
Fred Spier produced his own overview in
- Big History and the Future of Humanity (2010).
These and other works have been translated into world languages and appear in new editions; thus, a solid core of literature came into service of the field. These works also drew scholars whose works had already moved in these directions. "
- Brown, Cynthia Stokes. 2007. Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. New York: The New Press
- Christian, David. 2004. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley: University of California.
- Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. Eric Chaisson. (2001)
"In 1954, the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) formed, which included astronomer Harlow Shapley, a founder of cosmography, which had led to studies in Cosmic Evolution at Harvard University. IRAS helped found Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science twelve years later, and its contributors included leading scholars and educators in macro-historical studies, like astrophysicist Eric Chaisson and biologist Ursula Goodenough.74Archbishop Lazar Puhalo of the Orthodox Church in America had been a dynamic and early advocate for science, rationalism, and faith. His book, On the Neurobiology of Sin (2010), served as a bridge between the two cultures. He joined the dialogue of big history, speaking, along with other big historians, at the Global Futures 2045 conferences in Moscow (2012) and New York (2013). He raised important moral questions about issues like immortality and artificial intelligence and participated in the IBHA conferences.
Cosmologist Brian Swimme worked with Catholic philosopher Thomas Berry and began the Center for the Story of the Universe in 1989, which was affiliated with the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. This led them into deeper collaboration with religion scholars John Grimm and Mary Tucker, who founded the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University in 2006. Their production of The Journey of the Universe (2011) was a multimedia synthesis of Berry’s and others’ views of spiritual meaning in the cosmos. Parallel to this work, the Philadelphia Center for Religion and Science had grown into the Metanexus Institute by 1997 and, through its director, William Grassie, became a supporter of big history. Jennifer Morgan, a journalist and educator, also grew out of this tradition of the Universe Story. After participating in an Earth Literacy Program at Gene-sis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey, she composed the Universe Story Trilogy for children between 2002 and 2006, consulting with noted scholars like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and anthropologist Jane Goodall. She then developed the Deeptime Network (2014) with a mission to unite all faith traditions with each other and with science.77Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’, On Care for our Com-mon Home (2015) led to renewed actions by Catholics around the world to conserve the planet. Among them, in 2016, Prashant Olalekar and Orla Hazra merged these ideas with Thomas Berry’s “New Story” and a big history paradigm to establish their course, Awakening to Cosmic Compassion, at the Department of Interreligious Studies, St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.78Educator Luis Calingo had served as Provost of Dominican University of California when it added big history to its core curriculum. In 2015, he became President of Holy Angel University, a major research institute in central Luzon, Philippines (his home area) and, two years later, sent professors to the Summer Institute in Big History at Dominican. Holy Angel then began a two-course big history sequence the following year. With the largest Roman Catholic population in Asia, but acknowledging the Philippines’ Islamic and animistic traditions, Holy Angel promotes big history along with its many philosophical traditions.79While much of the overt and well-publicized efforts at rapprochement between science and religion exist in a western context, especially among Christians, that does not mean that such efforts do not exist elsewhere. Besides helping Malaysia’s farmers adapt to changing land and climate, soil scientist Shamshuddin bin Ju-sop also had been active in guiding Muslims to see how Islam and modern science are bound together, as in his popular text, The Earth Story: Lessons from the Quran and Science (2006). Similarly, physician H. Su-darshan, a Vedic scholar living among the Soliga tribal people of South India for over forty years, adapted his worldviews and medical practices in a complex weave of science and community service, as delivered by his medical/educational NGOs, the Karuna Trust, and the Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra.80While big history discussions often centre on urban forms of education, it must be kept in mind that many tribal societies from which civilization grew maintain holistic and inclusive concepts of existence. It is acknowledged that their low-impact survival strategies could help correct the lifestyle of dominant societies. Far from being an exotic primitivism, or a return to nature, tribal experience encompasses Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), while connecting with the scientific community, as in the 1994 founding of the Alaska Native Science Commission. Traditional societies have a major potential to re-envision our future in a big history context. Such bridges have already been opened, as in biologist Edward Wilson’s The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (2006) and recently led to the global anthology, Science, Religion, and Deep Time (2022), edited by big historians Lowell Gustafson, Barry Rodrigue, and David Blanks."
- the first college-level textbook, Big History: Between Nothing and Everything
Visualizations and Timelines
"Eric Chaisson and his colleagues visualized their evolutionary models in
- Cosmic Origins: A Logarithmic Rendering of Look-Back Time (2001) and
- Arrow of Time: A Linear Rendering of Forward Time (2007).
Designer Roland Saekow and Walter Alvarez worked to develop their own highly interactive time-line, Chronozoom (2010)."
"The first world conference on big history took place at the International University of Nature, Society and Humanity in the Soviet-era science city of Dubna, Russia in November 2005 on the theme of Big History and Synergetics. As a result of this gathering, an edition of Social Evolution & History was devoted to big history that year and included many of the field’s innovators.
In October 2009 The question was discussed by the panel for Macroevolution: Hierarchy, Structure, Laws and Self- Organization at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Fifth Conference on Hierarchy & Power in the History of Civilizations in Moscow in 2009. Barry Rodrigue, with other big historians, began assembling a global directory and bibliography to see who was doing such macro-studies.
In 2011, the IBHA fielded six panels and two roundtables at the 20th World History Association conference in Beijing, where board member Craig Benja-min was a keynote speaker.47 In February 2012, most of the board presented at the Global Futures 2045 conference in Moscow, which Akop Nazaretyan and Barry Rodrigue co-organized with media executive Dimitry Itskov. The inaugural conference of the IBHA was held at Grand Valley State University in Michigan in 2012 on the theme of Teaching and Researching Big History: Exploring a New Scholarly Field. Independent efforts sprang up and joined with big history associations, such as Wendy Curtis’s The Big-gest Picture: From the Formation of Atoms to the Emergence of Societies (2013). Besides the IBHA, several independent regional centres formed, often with additional themes of action. In 2011, the Eurasian Center for Megahistory & System Forecasting came together in the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Oriental Institute.
They focused on the predictive potential of historical trends to understand human activity and avert crisis, and co-present conferences. Akop Nazaretyan, a scholar and advisor in conflict resolution, served as its first director. The Eurasian Center continued its study of macro-history with Uchitel Publishing, managed by Leonid Grinin and Andrey Korotayev. Their almanac, Evolution, is devoted to big history."