Big History: An Introduction

What is big history? This emergent and interdisciplinary field, enriched and pioneered by Dr. David Christian of Macquarie University, encourages a more holistic understanding of human events than does the traditional study of history. While historians are concerned with understanding the past in context, and considering cause and effect in human terms, big historians are concerned with understanding the past not only in its immediate human historical setting, but in the context of scientific and physical laws of nature as well. If history is written by the victor, then big history is written in the stars themselves.

Screenshot 2015-12-20 at 1.39.32 PMDr. Christian, bolstered by the support of philanthropist Bill Gates, first injected big history into the public sector with a 2011 TED Talk, providing an 18 minute overview of world history. In this sensational talk, which has garnered more than 5 million views since its publication, Dr. Christian identifies the basic principles of big history, including the concept of Goldilocks conditions and the various “thresholds” of complexity that we observe in the universe. At various moments in the cosmic past, Christian states, certain Goldilocks conditions have come about, in which “not too little, and not too much” of certain components — usually energy or mass — have allowed the universe to reach states of increasing complexity.

Starting at the Big Bang and the first moment of time itself, Christian traces the cause-and-effect of each moment and identifies these thresholds. He highlights the six universal thresholds of complexity as follows:

  1. The Big Bang represents the first level of complexity, in which the universe emerges into existence, roiling and rapidly expanding.
  2. The formation of stars, the first complex object in the universe, represent the second threshold.
  3. The emergence of complex atomic structures, wrought by nuclear fusion in solar cores and spread out into the universe by supernovae, are the third level of complexity.
  4. The creation of our solar system, including our watery world in a Goldilocks orbit around our Sun, is the fourth threshold.
  5. The emergence of life on Earth is the fifth threshold of complexity. Like the creation of the solar system, this threshold was reached when Goldilocks conditions on the young Earth allowed for early complex structures to encode and replicate DNA, the information source of life.
  6. The appearance of humans and human language is the final threshold Christian identifies in this talk. He argues that the appearance of our species constitutes a threshold because, for the first time, information is able to transcend rote biology and, through human speech and writing, become passed down through the generations.

Big history argues that the exponential combination of these thresholds, each one made possible and propelled forward by the one before it, is responsible for the exquisite complexity of the universe that we observe today. While humans are the drivers of traditional history, big history is a tale spun by the more ancient and fundamental forces of nature long before human activity comes into play.

So what does the study of big history mean for secular humanism? As Christian notes during the closure of his talk, things that appear to us to be very complex are also, by their nature, very fragile. The interconnected modern world that has resulted from eons of increasingly-complex transformations is immensely delicate. It balances now in a sort of Goldilocks condition of its own, propped up by the pillars of its less-complex predecessors and preparing even now for whatever threshold lies beyond this present one. Even so, there are certain aspects which threaten this delicate balance, many of them human made. Christian identifies two — namely, nuclear war and climate change — which threaten to degrade the present complexity we enjoy. However, it can be extrapolated that many acts of violence or ignorance — from the terrorism of recent months and years to the oppressions of corrupt governmental, economic, or religious systems — could spell doom for human life and advancement on Earth.

The study of big history is bolstered by a secular humanist ideology, which turns its logical awareness of the possibility of destruction into an injunction away from our baser urges and towards a sustainable, conscientious, and equitable management of the complex planet and information ecosystems we find ourselves a part of. While big history empirically provides for how we might encounter insurmountable challenges to our complexity, it is secular humanism that provides an imperative to preserve and encourage our present and shared intricacy. This is a fact not lost on Dr. Christian, who, in a recent interview, stated that one dimension of big history is that it provides for modern humans a new story of our origin. He states of his studies in big history:

“In modern science, and I include the humanities here, science in a German sense of science—rigorous scholarship across all domains—in modern science we’ve gotten used to the idea that science doesn’t offer meaning in the way that institutional religions did in the past. I’m increasingly thinking that this idea that modernity puts us in a world without meaning—philosophers have banged on about this for a century-and-a-half—may be completely wrong. We may be living in an intellectual building site, where a new story is being constructed. It’s vastly more powerful than the previous stories because it’s the first one that is global. It’s not anchored in a particular culture or a particular society. This is an origin story that works for humans in Beijing as well as in Buenos Aires.”

If Dr. Christian is right to say that we are “living in an intellectual building site, where a new story is being constructed,” then it is not unreasonable to expect that, as humanity becomes more and more unified under a common narrative, that secular humanism will be an important component of the global origin story being told.

The video of Dr. Christian’s TED Talk can be viewed below:

To learn more about big history, you can visit the Big History Project, an online educational outreach program started by Christian and Gates that is open to the public and available for use in secondary schools.

Onward and upward,

Francis Adams


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