Friday, July 21, 2017

Big History

I’m a fan of history, but not just the recent history of the last 5,000 years since humans learned how to write, but also of what happened in the 95,000 to 195,000 years of Homo sapiens existence before that.  And what about the 1,000,000 to 1,600,000 year history of our Homo erectus ancestors’ migration from Africa?

I didn’t know it but there’s a name for this type of history – big history.  But big history doesn’t just trifle with the last 2,000,000 years.  "Big History,From the Big Bang to the Present,” author: Cynthia Stokes Brown (no relation), copyright 2007, takes us back to what’s known about the beginnings of the universe.  She covers the first 13 billion years in 71 pages before we even get to early agriculture beginning around 8,000 BC as a precursor to the start of early cities around 3,500 BC.

Of course, as time goes on we know more about what has happened, but it’s a real mistake to think that humans (or even any kind of life is anything but Johnny come lately.

I’ve seen these kinds of projections before but here are some excerpts from a table cited in chapter 3 compressing the creation of the universe into 13 years (Source: David Christian, “World History in Context,” Journal of Would History, December 2002, 440.). 

“If the universe had begun 13 years ago,” we would see the following milestones in history: 

·         Existence of Earth – last 5 years
·         Many celled organism – last 7 months
·         Asteroids that killed off dinosaurs – 3 days ago
·         Emergence of Homo sapiens – 53 minutes ago
·         The entire history of civilization began – 3 minutes ago
·         Modern industrial societies began – last 6 seconds
Later in the last six seconds, the book ends with a discussion of human “experiment with Earth.”  It put forth some not so happy scenarios regarding population growth and resource utilization.

Reading the book reinforces to me the miracle and fragility of human existence.  It reminds me that we largely live our lives out of context with what has come before.  We assume that all the progress of the last 6 six seconds is normal, has been here all along and is guaranteed to continue indefinitely – none of which is true.  We abuse our only planet when we have no viable alternative home and bicker with each other about politics, money, power, religion and other trivial matters instead of working together to address existential matters for our species and its survival.

Here’s hoping that we can somehow come together and get our act together before it’s too late.

An interesting factoid among many mentioned in the book is that consumption of sugar in Europe went up from 4 pounds per capita in 1700 to 18 pounds per capita in the early 1800s.  That’s quite a change in an instant of time.  But consider that in the US, we now consume more than 125 pounds of sugar per capita.  Hmm…think there’s a connection to our obesity crisis?


  1. This sounds like an interesting read. Thanks.

  2. As we celebrate the birth of a new granddaughter I have to wonder what does the future hold for her and our other granddaughters?