Big history: Science’s origins story

For anyone who has read my blog, it’s no secret that I have been influenced by Carl Sagan, particularly his documentary series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Sagan described the universe using nothing other than scientific ideas and small shake of charisma, imparting a sense of wonder and clarity to his audience. However, it wasn’t just Sagan’s charm or wisdom that won him somewhat of a science-crazed cult following, it was his ability to weave together a narrative – a storyline about the universe, the solar system, the earth, the evolution of life and the scientists who contributed to this narrative, piece by piece.

Someone else who experienced a similar reaction watching Cosmos was Dr Joseph Voros, a futurist at Swinburne University in Melbourne. According to Dr Voros, it was because of the original Cosmos, produced and aired in 1980, that he returned to uni after initially giving up on it “in dismay at the fragmentation of it all”. He ended up finishing a PhD in theoretical physics (on mathematical extensions to the General Theory of Relativity) and today forms part of a crop of pioneering academics who are teaching the burgeoning field of “big history”.

This link between Carl Sagan and big history is hardly a coincidence. In fact, Dr Voros himself drew my attention to a passage in the final episode of Cosmos, Who Speaks for Earth? (embedded below), in which Sagan patiently summarises the history of the universe – as recounted in depth throughout the rest of the series. Clearly a precedent to later attempts by big historians to develop a scientific origins story, the segment starts off with Sagan saying: “But there is another perspective by which to measure human endeavours. Let me tell you a story about the beginning.”

Cosmos aired nine years before historian Professor David Christian first coined the term, “big history”. However, when discussing plans for how to go about introducing a new history program at Macquarie University in 1989, Prof Christian unconsciously blurted out the Sagan-esque line: “Why not start at the beginning?” Prof Christian’s subsequent Big History course – which attempted to describe human history in the context of cosmic time scales and integrate it with scientific perspectives – has been developed and massaged over the last 25 years to look like a more exhaustive and formulaic retelling of Sagan’s beginnings story.

And it’s this development of a kind of modern “scientific origins story” that both Dr Voros and Prof Christian feel is a vitally important academic pursuit. “Since the middle of the 20th century, we’ve actually started to get a sense, through science, of where we came from,” Dr Voros said. “Without putting down the original creation myths, the idea now is that we can tell a modern creation story that fulfils many of the same purposes as the original ones from a variety of religions or cultures and human societies. The difference is we’ve actually got access to more evidence than they ever had.”

However, along with having access to more evidence than our ancient ancestors, modern humans are also confronted with more questions – both because we understand more about the complexity of the world and universe around us and because the social world that has developed in-step with our scientific knowledge has grown perceptibly more complex as well. This has created a double-edged sword for traditional spiritual creation myths, as it can either draw people towards them or away from them, depending on where their epistemological priorities lie.

cosmic evolution

Big history weaves a coherent narrative out of underlying threads and commonalities which pervade the history of the universe, as collated by scientists. In sequencing this narrative into different stages, some big historians, such as Prof Christian, like to talk about “thresholds“, while others, like Fred Spier, “regimes“. Image: CFA Harvard

For Dr Voros, big history has given people a comprehensive framework for being able to, at the very least, approach these complex problems. “Big history has been called ‘an unusual coalition of scholars,’” he said. “The big history story, as revealed by science, has the potential to unify knowledge at a broad scale, so you can see how things fit together.”

It has also, Dr Voros said, given humans a sense of place. As in all other origins stories, humans are the referent points of big history. They are therefore positioned as the culmination of billions of years of what Harvard astronomer Eric Chaisson likes to call “cosmic evolution”. Whether by accident or through a long mechanistic process – that’s for the pupil of big history to decide for themselves – humanity (and its components, such as self-consciousness, cultural learning and technology) are shown to form part of a long, interconnected chain of cosmic events ranging from the big bang to the formation of the stars and galaxies to the rise of planets and life

Radically, big historians don’t stop with us, either. A physicist by training and futurist by profession, Dr Voros said big history “is an absolutely foundational course that absolutely scaffolds thinking about the future in a serious way”. “Futurists begin with the total sum of all human knowledge, so some way to organise all that knowledge would be very handy,” Dr Voros explained, adding that big history was one of the “very best ways” of organising human knowledge. “Big history is a very natural way to lead into sustainability because with a 14 billion year run-up, you don’t just stop today.”

One response to “Big history: Science’s origins story

  1. I think we all need to start thinking this way if we hope to have any chance of survival as a species. I’m a big fan of Sagan and hope to look up some of the stuff Prof. Christian has worked on if I ever find the time.

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