Maps of Time and (Very) Big History

In Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, David Christian attempts to present what he calls a modern-day creation myth.  He begins the book by describing the import and value of creation myths to human societies throughout history.  Creation myths answer the big questions of human existence: “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?”  Every human culture, from Western Judeo-Christian civilization(s) to the smallest most isolated Amazonian tribe has some type of creation myth.  They present a cogent narrative of the universe’s origins, and in so doing effectively situate our own place and role in it.  Christian argues that the increasing expansion and diversification of human knowledge since the Enlightenment has yet to be satisfactorily presented in any kind of unified narrative, and that this failure to codify a new narrative of our origins has contributed in large degree to “the subtle but pervasive quality of disorientation in modern life that the pioneering French sociologist Émile Durkheim referred to as ‘anomie’: the sense of not fitting in, which is an inescapable condition of those who have no conception of what it is they are supposed to fit into.” Christian proposes that knowledge about our origins – cosmological, biological, anthropological – needs to be collected into one grand narrative.  This is not to say that the innumerable specialized studies lose their own value.  Rather, it is, in keeping with the creation myth model, a helpful and previously unavailable tool for answering those initial big questions.

I found Christian’s to be a particularly persuasive argument for “big” history in general.  The analogy of the work to a creation myth was especially appealing to me.  I spent the last few weeks of this summer teaching a seminar on “world cultures through storytelling” to a group of Chinese high school students in Beijing.  For the first meeting of each class I always began by asking the students why we tell stories to begin with and then by reading a few short creation myths from around the world and discussing them.  The universality of the creation myth was instantly apparent.  The students were excited and engaged by the creation myths I shared from radically different cultures (Chumash from California and Yoruba from Nigeria) and drew obvious parallels to Chinese mythology.  We talked about the similarity between the Chumash and Chinese explanations for lunar eclipses.   The creation myths closed the cultural divide and language barrier between my Chinese students and I to a surprising degree.  In the same way I found the book’s framing device, as modern-day creation myth, was effective in bridging the gaps between the disparate disciplines Christian incorporates.

Just as creation myths, in earlier societies, were meant to collect a culture’s knowledge and belief system in one coherent record, Maps of Time serves as a digest of human knowledge where it currently stands.  In this project Christian abides to the origins of the word digest, which comes from the Latin digesta, meaning, “matters methodically arranged.”  The book is massive in scope (indeed it would be impossible to write on a more massive scope than this, from the Big Bang to the present.)  It is arranged chronologically and divided into six parts:

1)   The Inanimate Universe

2)   Life on Earth

3)   Early Human History: Many Worlds

4)   The Holocene: Few Worlds

5)   The Modern Era: One World

6)   Perspectives on the Future

Christian is an historian by training, specializing in Russian history.  He is a professor of history at San Diego State University in California, and his previous books include titles such as Living Water: Vodka and Russian Society on the Eve of Emancipation (1990) and A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia: Volume I: Inner Eurasia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire (1998).  The project he attempts with this book seems both odd and ambitious considering this background, but he pulls it off well.  Though the book discusses everything from cellular biology to astrophysics to epidemiology, the weight of its content is in history, and Christian deals well with subjects outside his disciplinary expertise.  He is good at summary, and has a useful penchant for incorporating helpful illustrative images from other writers when describing subjects outside his forte (“As Timothy Ferris puts it: ‘If the entirety of an inflationary universe were the surface of the earth, the observable part would be smaller than a proton.’”) Because of this, Maps of Time may not be as attractive a read to a professional physicist or chemist, who may be put off by the laymen’s language, but for the historian-in-training, or the general interested public, I can see this book successfully fulfilling the goals Christian sets out for it.

Another advantage to this type of “big” history is the ability to see patterns and themes in (very) large perspective.  Christian relates it, in his introduction, to taking off in a plane and flying over a landscape.  One may miss the details that are apparent from the ground, but geographic features that were too large to be visible before, suddenly become evident.  As Christian writes in an appendix essay, “the most fundamental [pattern] is the existence of pattern itself…Wherever we look, we see organized structures, or regimes.”  There are several points in the narrative where Christian draws these parallel structures explicitly, such as when he compares the foundation of the first cities to the formation of stars and galaxies in the early universe: “Like stars, cities and states reorganize and energize the small objects within their gravitational field.”

Given the size and density of this book – though relatively speaking, for covering 13 billion years of cosmic history, Christian’s 500 pages are admirable for their concision – and the fact that I had to make my way through it in a single weekend, I would like to go back and read the middle chapters with more detail and attention than I was able to this time around.   All in all, I felt like this was a very well done introduction to big history, which incorporates diverse disciplines while leaning primarily on more traditional history for the majority of its content.