“Big History” did not confine itself to any particular topic, or even to a single academic discipline. Instead, it put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth. Standing inside a small “Mr. Rogers”-style set, flanked by an imitation ivy-covered brick wall, Christian explained to the camera that he was influenced by the Annales School, a group of early-20th-century French historians who insisted that history be explored on multiple scales of time and space. Christian had subsequently divided the history of the world into eight separate “thresholds,” beginning with the Big Bang, 13 billion years ago (Threshold 1), moving through to the origin of Homo sapiens (Threshold 6), the appearance of agriculture (Threshold 7) and, finally, the forces that gave birth to our modern world (Threshold 8).
Christian’s aim was not to offer discrete accounts of each period so much as to integrate them all into vertiginous conceptual narratives, sweeping through billions of years in the span of a single semester. A lecture on the Big Bang, for instance, offered a complete history of cosmology, starting with the ancient God-centered view of the universe and proceeding through Ptolemy’s Earth-based model, through the heliocentric versions advanced by thinkers from Copernicus to Galileo and eventually arriving at Hubble’s idea of an expanding universe. In the worldview of “Big History,” a discussion about the formation of stars cannot help including Einstein and the hydrogen bomb; a lesson on the rise of life will find its way to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. “I hope by the end of this course, you will also have a much better sense of the underlying unity of modern knowledge,” Christian said at the close of the first lecture. “There is a unified account.”
I am intrigued by this idea. However, from what I have heard on the Big History web site, I am dissatisfied with Christian's version of history. It does indeed seem to be so big picture as to be very vague -- too pixelated for me. For example, Christian lumps human history from the invention of Agriculture until the modern era together as the Agricultural Era, whereas I would say that the origin of what we used to call civilization was a very big deal, and I would split this period into a Neolithic Era and a subsequent era of Agrarian Civilizations. I also find it a bit bloodless. In the parts I have listened to there is no fighting whatsoever; empires just “expand,” without anyone being killed in the process, and the ideas that matter have more to do with astronomy than politics. I would say on the contrary that one of the most important things about the Era of Agrarian Civilizations was the constant warfare and the associated dominance of society by a military elite. Christian is a lot more interested in trade and the exchange of information than warfare, but these societies were not ruled by merchants or scholars, and this strikes me as important.