Less than three decades ago an American historian named David Christian who was teaching at an Australian university at the time launched a new approach to world history. His unique take on the subject took the discipline far beyond the limits of the written word. Calling it Big History, Christian started his new course at the beginning of time itself: the Big Bang.
Christian enlisted guest lecturers from the fields of astrophysics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, biology, and other scientific fields. Incorporating their specialized knowledge into his comprehensive survey of Big History, Christian summed up what is known about the birth of the universe, the emergence of stars, the formation of the Earth, the turbulent formation and shifting of the continents, and the painfully slow advent of the most primitive, single-celled life. From this perspective, the several million years since humans first emerged, much less the 5,000 years of recorded history, must be seen as only the latest and briefest chapter in a story that will continue for billions of years longer.
Since Christian’s inspired initiative, others have flocked to the new discipline. A body of Big History literature has begun to emerge. The best-known contribution to the new discipline is Jared Diamond’s bestselling book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. But others have made notable contributions as well, adding insight and perspective to our understanding of our place in the universe.
Below I’ve listed more than a dozen books I’ve read and reviewed in my own venture into Big History as well as Christian’s own most recent survey of the field. Not all span the life of the universe; in fact, scholars would characterize some of these books as pertaining to world history, not the more expansive concept originated by David Christian. But they all survey world history with the broad strokes that characterize this fresh approach to understanding how the past affects today’s world. They’re listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names, and all are linked to my reviews. I recommend them all. I also recommend the 48-lecture course David Christian recorded for The Great Courses. It’s titled Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity. This is world history as it should be taught.
The geologist who explained to us how the dinosaurs went extinct ventures outside his academic bailiwick to track the story of the Earth from its earliest antecedents in the Big Bang to the emergence of homo sapiens as the dominant form of life on the planet. Emphasizing geological events throughout, he illustrates how radical changes in the natural environment have shaped the course of human events—and the very nature of our bodies themselves.
The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection by Tamim Ansary
If you think history is a cold recitation of dates and the names of kings and battles, you owe it to yourself to check out Big History. And the best introduction I’ve found to that fascinating new field is Tamim Ansary‘s brilliant 50,000-year survey, The Invention of Yesterday. Unlike many of the pioneering books in Big History, Ansary’s is written in a breezy, conversational style that brings the past to life. And, in never straying from the 30,000-foot perspective that characterizes the field, it’s crammed with insight that’s missing from conventional histories that illuminate the trees but miss the forest. Tamim Ansary will help you understand human history as an extraterrestrial might view it.
While David Christian leaned on colleagues in the sciences to carry the story for its first 13.65 billion years, Cynthia Stokes Brown took it all on herself. With a good deal of simplification but relatively few obvious errors, she surveys the prehistorical past with great skill. For anyone who thinks world history is the story of wars and generals and presidents, Big History is a worthy remedy.
It’s easy to get the impression that science has answered all the big questions and is spending more and more time and money focusing on the little ones. Read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and you will quickly be disabused of that illusion. Truth to tell, the human race is still abysmally ignorant of some of the most fundamental matters that determine how, why, and where we live.
Here is David Christian’s own brief survey of the 13.8-billion-year story. Citing findings from a broad array of physical and biological sciences as well as the lessons learned by historians and social scientists, Christian devotes half his book to the run-up to the advent of the human race 200,000 to 300,000 years ago, and the last half to the emergence and spread of our species.
Published 20 years ago, Diamond’s thesis is the only persuasive argument I’ve ever encountered for the huge wealth gap between the “West” and the “developing” nations of the Global South. He finds the roots of the problem in the history of the last 13,000 years. This is one of the most important books of the last half-century.
The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World—and Globalization Began by Valerie Hansen—When did globalization begin?
Most historians date the emergence of globalization to the Columbian Exchange, the transfer across the Atlantic of goods, mineral resources, edible plants, slaves, and contagious diseases that began shortly after Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World. Yale history professor Valerie Hansen begs to differ.
In The Year 1000, Hansen presents a detailed case for backdating globalization to the global upsurge in trade and religious conversions around the end of the first millennium. Her case rests largely on archaeological and documentary evidence of the robust trade in goods that accelerated around the year 1000. It’s a provocative argument.
Harari sees history as divided by three broad-brush “revolutions”: the Cognitive Revolution, about 70,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens acquired the gift of speech and began to walk out of Africa; the Agricultural Revolution, which began around 10,000 years ago and ushered in a new world of towns, cities, empires, and a fast-growing human population; and the Scientific Revolution, only about 500 years old, which has shaped the world as we know it today. Big History, indeed.
Global warming and ocean are far from the only causes of the current species die-off. Invasive species, a reality since the Columbian Exchange, wreak havoc in ways both large and small. The habitat loss that comes with the expansion of cities, the building of roads and railroad tracks, and the desperation of poor farmers who turn to more and more marginal land for sustenance is another significant factor. Put it all together — the changing climate, the dying oceans, and the accelerating species die-off — and this is nothing less than the largest-scale ecological catastrophe since the disappearance of the dinosaurs sixty-six million years ago.
Forget just about everything you learned in school about the peoples who lived in the Western Hemisphere before 1492—and about the land, too. It turns out that yesterday’s historians, anthropologists, paleontologists, and ecologists got it pretty much all wrong. Latter-day investigations in all these fields have turned up persuasive evidence that the Americas before Columbus were far more heavily populated, the leading civilizations far more sophisticated, and their origins far further back in time than earlier generations of scholars had suspected.
Chances are, you’re aware that the potato originated in Peru and smallpox in Africa, and that both species crossed the Atlantic shortly after Columbus. You probably know, too, that the potato later became a staple in many European countries and that smallpox decimated the native population of the Americas. However, what you may not know is how profound was the impact on the course of history of the much more extensive exchange of animals, plants, minerals, and microorganisms from the Old World to and from the New. Historians call this phenomenon the Columbian Exchange. From the perspective of Big History, this event was one of the most significant phenomena of the last 13,000 years.
Why the West Rules—for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, by Ian Morris
Five years after Jared Diamond’s path-breaking book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, historian and archeologist Ian Morris laid out his own, more comprehensive view of the course of human history, reaching back 15,000 years and venturing into the 22nd Century. While many historians still engaged in the stale debate about whether “Great Men” or social forces are dominant in world history, Diamond and Morris convincingly laid out the case for the greater influence of the larger context in which human history takes place, delving into biology, sociology, and archaeology as well as history itself.
Historians of the ancient world have been telling us for centuries that from about 5,000 to 10,000 years ago larger and larger human communities formed in places like the Fertile Crescent, South China, the Indus River Valley of today’s western India and Pakistan, and Central America. To secure enough food once their population had grown to a level unsustainable by hunting and gathering, those communities turned to agriculture. Food surpluses, seized by local rulers, enabled the establishment of the empires that dominated the world. However, as modern scholarship has shown, little of that is true. James C. Scott tells a somewhat different story that will challenge everything you’ve been taught about ancient history.
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