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Book Review


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. 1
     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 internet. 2
     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. 3
     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. 4
     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. 5
      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. 6
     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. 7
     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 perceptual errors. 8
     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. 9
     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. 10
     Big History really is the history of the future, should we be swift enough and capable enough to create and ensure such a future. 11
Jack Betterly
Emma Willard School, emeritus

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