Big History

Today’s post will feature another veering-off into a pet interest of mine.

Roughly 75,000 years ago, one of the earth’s most massive “supervolcanic” eruptions ever occured. It’s called the Toba Event by researchers today, and while its potentially dramatic effects on the human race are still debated, its staggering impact on the planet is not. Toba’s ejection was powerful enough to cover all of South Asia in up to 6 inches of volcanic ash. Toba’s resulting crater lake can clearly be seen from space. The gases and ash it sent into the atmosphere probably cooled the entire planet significantly, and possibly accelerated a larger global cooling trend that lasted almost 1,000 years. The global climatic effects of Toba had a major effect on where early humans (and other hominids, like the Neanderthal and Denisovans) migrated, how they interacted, and which populations survived (or didn’t). Earlier research suggested that Toba’s eruption even caused a genetic bottleneck for early humans, dramatically altering our very evolution as a species (though that theory is still controversial).

Yet despite being arguably one of the most important events in the history of the human race, most people have never heard of the Toba volcano. And that’s bonkers.

“History” is typically presented to us as beginning with something in Mesopotamia, or the Yangtze or Indus valleys. This is how we learned World History in school. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how myopic a view this really was. In the history of all things, and certainly that of the Earth itself, humans are only a very tiny part, of course.

To step back and consider that jellyfish are hundreds of millions years older than trees sets things like the Mayan Empire and Soviet Union into a somewhat different context, I think. That’s what considering history properly really requires, after all – a sense of mental context for how to conceptualize things that came before us in time, and how they relate to one another. Most people know, for example, that the Civil War came before World War II, but it actually matters how much longer before it came, too, in order to actually understand what each of those two historical events were.

The problem with “History”

Most “history” today is learned topically. We learn American history, or Chinese or European history, or the history of some war or empire another. While this allows for greater depth, it’s a highly insufficient way to learn about things that came before.

The problem is that topical or area studies like these lack the appropriate level of context for how those historical events exist(ed) with their contemporaries. Without that context, history feels like a big collection of puzzle pieces that are scrambled back in a timeline. This is what leads many heads to explode at these email-forward types of facts that are actually true:

  • Cleopatra lived closer in time to the founding of Pizza Hut than she did to the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza
  • Those pyramids of Giza were already 1,000 years old when the last woolly mammoths died out in North America
  • The great migration along the Oregon Trail was just kicking off when the first fax machine was invented
  • More time separated the Stegosaurus and the Tyrannosaurus Rex (roughly 85 million years) than does the T-Rex and modern humans (roughly 65 million years)

In other words, nothing at all makes sense until you have an idea of what else was going on at the same time.

Big History

I first heard about “Big History” after Bill Gates recommended a book by the same title by Cynthia Stokes Brown, and I read about his interest in turning this field into a broader basis for the instruction of history itself. I read the book and was blown away.

Big History is essentially a perspective of examining history in the broadest context possible: that of the universe. It “begins” with cosmology, the Big Bang, and continues through the formation of stars and planets, to the Earth itself, and then to the formation of life, all the way up to mammals, humans and, eventually, ancient Egypt, Rome, the Titanic and Dancing With The Stars. For me, the approach of placing all of history into its proper context – then this happened, and this came before that, and that was way later – was immensely eye-opening.

Big History makes you feel small – as you should. Humans only live about 75 years (give or take), so our sense of history is heavily overweighted towards the minutiae of the very recent, relatively well-documented past. Much bigger mysteries loom the further back you go – where did humans evolve, really? How did our species emerge? What other hominid species did we interact with, and where, and how? As I’ve written about before, many of these questions still remain completely open.

The origin of the species may not have much to do with the price of bread in Topeka, but it’s likely one of the first fundamental questions that an alien would have upon visiting us, and similarly, a basic one for any human. It’s one of those questions that eventually prompted me to write my speculative fiction book, The Second Transit (which you should obviously check out).

If you’ve never been that interested in history as a topic, I recommend you check out Brown’s book anyway. It’s not your typical “history” book, and presents the topic in a radically different perspective. If you are a history nut, like me, then you have only more reason to check it out.

 

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