Christian, David. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2004). 642 pp, $34.95.
This book had to be written. Although the
scientist and social scientist Fred Spier published a more modest book concerning
Big History in 1996, his focus was primarily scientific and cosmological.1
Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History is the first attempt
by a professional historian to view all of human history within the context
of what we know about the history of our entire universe.
This book has triumphant moments and it has
flaws; it has far more of the first than it does of the second. I must admit
to a bias toward the author. To anyone vitally interested in, and committed
to, the field of world history - and I have been since William McNeill invented
and defined the field with his publication of The Rise of the West in
1963 - David Christian has been a figure of major importance in the field's
evolution. A professor in the Department of History at San Diego State University,
he gradually moved from the field of Russian history, in which he received
his Ph.D. at Oxford University in 1974, to become a pioneer in world history
courses as well as a mentor to those in high school and college who were
creating such courses. He continues today as a teacher, author, and activist,
regularly contributing to world history discussions in journals and on the
Big History is not yet taken seriously as
a specialty by the specialists. One critic referred to this book as a tour
de force. I would reply that so, too, was the first printed book. It proved
to be a template for much which was to follow.
This book is not, as one might first presume,
a history of the universe. It is rather a book which attempts to place the
history of humanity within the context of the history of the universe in
an attempt to measure humanity's significance to the universe, and the significance
of the universe to humanity. It is about human beings in context. To use
the author's term, it is mythic, in the grandest sense of creating and shaping
meaning for that extremely bizarre and astonishingly recent subspecies,
Homo sapiens sapiens.
Viewing human history in this fashion and
on this scale, it is impossible to reduce it to the more traditional historians'
myths we are used to in which states, nations and empires, personified as
Olympian deities, wage wars, feel envy and anger, swell with pride or groan
under the burden of humiliation.
In the 49 pages of Chapter 10, 'Long Term
Trends in the Era of Agrarian "Civilizations",' the author quite effectively
presents the major historical characteristics, progressions and evolutions
from 3500 BCE to 1750 CE. There is - fortunately - little room for these
other, older, more familiar and often misleading kinds of breathtaking epics,
although their power and impact are in no way neglected.
Of what use is this book to teachers of world
history courses on the high school, community college or college level?
It would not serve well as a textbook, although I would find myself sorely
tempted to build a course around it. The book is too far ahead of its time.
In a world of public education which still finds the conflict between evolution
and creationism to be a hot button issue, and a world of academic historians
enamored of minutiae, not even private institutions could persuade their
constituencies to consider our subspecies within the context of thirteen
to thirteen and a half billion years and call it a course in history. As
David Christian points out, if the thirteen billion years were compressed
to thirteen years, our species would occupy the last fifty minutes.
No. It is not a textbook. It is a book which
is crucial for all history teachers - of any history at all - to read. It
spends critically important time on the inexcusably neglected millennia
of gathering/hunting societies, and village gardening societies, which shaped
us in ways crucial to our understanding of contemporary families, religions,
obsessions and compulsion. In one swift stroke of historical integrity,
David Christian even replaces the ghastly term "lifestyle" with "lifeways",
thereby ending for all time the implication that the lives of African slaves,
Russian peasants, Yeshua of Nazareth, and Chinggis Khan were merely the
result of peculiar and fanciful stylistic choices which appealed to them.
It is a book which is able to correct dozens of similar common and destructive
One is forced, as well as compelled, to confront
the terrifying brevity of the human experiment, as well as the devastating
and unprecedented velocity of changes in the condition of this species since
1900 - the year my mother was born - as well as the tenuous nature of its
immediate future. Think of it - in 250,000 years of human history, the last
two generations have been like a Big Bang of their own.
At the same time, I must say that the last
chapter - Futures - I consider to be to be a major and critical flaw and
failure. As the author concedes at the very beginning, prediction is neither
a possible nor proper role for the historian. This chapter should have been
a statement of what had been learned from viewing human history within the
context of universal time. Why bother? What was gained? I feel this strongly,
for I feel an enormous amount was learned - a great deal gained, a great
deal corrected. These questions are the questions posed by Big History's
critics, and this was the place to answer them, having just presented 464
pages of provocative, specific and persuasive data.
Big History really is the history of the future,
should we be swift enough and capable enough to create and ensure such a
Emma Willard School, emeritus