For thousands of years, humans had a narrow, human-centered view of history. As a result, history was either passed down by word of mouth, dependent on the biases of the storyteller, or often based on the few monuments and records that were available.
Over the last four hundred years, this view of history has changed radically. We now know that the universe is ancient and gigantic. We have discovered its changing form from the big bang over 13.8 billion years ago to the billions of stars in each galaxy and the billions of galaxies in the known universe. The great astronomer and humanist Carl Sagan said, “We are made of star stuff.”
Evolution shows that life began on Earth as one cell. Multicellular life then emerged, and humans are the most recent evolutionary occurrence. While original, narrow history puts humans at the center, long history teaches us to be humble. We are a tiny spec in space-time on a recently formed planet in a magnificent and old universe.
While old history is rigid and definite, big history is based on rational scientific findings and is thus always open to new evidence and change. Big history integrates all aspects of rational human knowledge.
Historian David Gilbert Christian first began teaching big history in 1989. It is now rapidly becoming popular with many schools and colleges. David Gilbert explains, “All knowledge systems, from modern science to those embedded in the most ancient creation myths, can be thought of as maps of reality. They are never just true or false. Perfect descriptions of reality are unattainable, unnecessary, and too costly for learning organisms, including humans. Trying to look at the whole of the past is, it seems to me, like using a map of the world. No geographer would try to teach exclusively from street maps. Yet most historians teach about the past of particular nations, or even of agrarian civilizations, without ever asking what the whole of the past looks like.”
Old history depends on where it is taught. Each culture and country imposes on its people a story akin to propaganda. Millions then believe in this story as if it were fact. These different stories are then turned into a purpose of life for the population at large.
David Gilbert says that old history supports “kings, dictators, high priests, emperors, prime ministers, presidents, governors, mayors, generals, admirals, police chiefs, judges, lawyers, and jailers, along with dungeons, jails, penitentiaries, and concentration camps. [Old history makes] human beings learn how to bow, grovel, kneel, and kowtow. [This is] the descent of the world from freedom to slavery.”
Big history frees us from falsehood, and it also puts on us the responsibility and freedom to determine our purpose in life. What are you going to do with your precious, short life? What creative, happy, kind, and wonderful activity will you focus on? You are the captain of your ship. Big history asks us to select our own paths. Peace and prosperity are in our grasp – but we need to choose light over darkness.
© Kaikhushru Taraporevala