David Christian: the historian taking the longest view

New book sets human history in the light of the wider trends that have shaped the universe

June 3, 2018
Earth from space
Source: Nasa

“Frankly,” said David Christian, “I get more and more annoyed that the obligation of academics is to cover their backsides and never make a mistake. I’m not talking about playing fast and loose with the facts – if you get them wrong, you deserve to be spanked. But the risk of occasionally getting nuances wrong is a risk worth taking.”

There is no chance of Professor Christian himself, now a distinguished professor of modern history at Macquarie University in Sydney, shying away from such risks. It was at Macquarie, close to 30 years ago, that he brought together colleagues from many disciplines to present a pioneering undergraduate course in “big history” – from the Big Bang to the present – and he has continued to refine it, both at San Diego State University and, later, back in Australia. He now teaches the whole course single-handed and has distilled his ideas into a new book, Origin Story: A Big History of Everything (Allen Lane). This does indeed cover everything from supernovae and slime moulds to slavery and steam engines, taking readers through a series of eight thresholds eventually leading to the Anthropocene and the challenge of climate change.

Professor Christian much admired the French historian Fernand Braudel (1902-85) and his contention that “if you want a rich understanding of historical change, you need to know about fashions in food, peasant dwellings and material life” as well as the details of court intrigue or rulers’ decrees. Yet he was convinced that “the same argument applies well beyond Braudel’s longue durée. New things come into vision as the scale gets wider.”

A wide-angle lens, in Professor Christian’s view, can often illuminate even the kinds of developments that traditional historians study. His book makes much of the idea of “energy flows”, obviously relevant to cosmology and geology, but also offering an interesting perspective on social and economic history.

“Fossil fuels brought a staggering increase in the energy available to human beings,” he pointed out.  “I’m now teaching Russian history again and thinking about it through the lens of the ‘fossil-fuels’ revolution, rather than calling it the ‘Industrial Revolution’. In a traditional view, capitalism and innovation would have loomed large, which makes it rather hard to explain a country that abolishes capitalism and then proceeds to build a rich, modern, industrial society, as Stalin did. If you focus on how Russia managed to mobilise its energy flows, it illuminates many aspects of Russian history, including the fact that, as long as oil prices are high, the pressure is off Putin to undertake serious democratic or economic reform.”

Far more significant, however, is the way that centuries, never mind the five years of Russian history to which Professor Christian devoted his PhD, just don’t let us see some of the big stories. When humans arrive on the scene roughly halfway through Origin Story, the book makes clear that it “will barely touch on the things historians usually discuss: the wars and leaders, the states and empires, or the evolution of different artistic, religious, and philosophical traditions”.

Instead of the expected disciplinary shift from the biological sciences to the humanities, from natural selection to culture, at this point, Professor Christian told Times Higher Education, “I think that information is immensely important, and the amount of information you have may describe the power of your niche as a species. If you have a species in which information can accumulate in billions of brains, all the rules change. Information as power gives you control over energy flows and resource flows in the environment.”  

Furthermore, “something is happening right now that is strange on a scale of 4 billion years and, by definition, you can’t see it unless you spend a bit of time [thinking on that scale]. Now a single species has so much power that it will shape the next few million years of history of the biosphere and millions of other species.”  

Although the book is obviously a work synthesising the views of diverse experts, Professor Christian suggested that it offered the kind of “origin story” once offered by the great religions, and indeed “the first global origin story that works for all human beings rather than tribes. In a world of nuclear weapons, teaching a tribal story is bonkers. Yet all universities teach a national or civilisational framing of human beings.”

“We got very good [student] numbers [on the Big History course] for years,” Professor Christian added. “It made me think that there are a lot of people looking for a sort of coherence that at the moment educational structures and syllabi don’t offer.”


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Print headline: ‘A lot of people are looking for a sort of coherence’

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