World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        

The Small History of the Big History Course at the University of Amsterdam1

Fred Spier
University of Amsterdam

Big History—the term was coined in 1990 by the historian David Christian—is an effort to place human history within the context of the history of life, the earth, and the universe. In 1989 at the history department of Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, David Christian started a course in which this grand sweep of history, starting at the beginning of the universe and ending with life on earth today, was presented by specialists from the various fields, ranging from astronomers to historians.2 As of 1994, I have been organizing a similar annual Big History course at the University of Amsterdam. Students from all departments are welcome to take the course as an elective module.
    In this short essay, I offer an overview of the short history of our course, in the hope that it may encourage other academics to organize similar courses elsewhere. Those who are interested in the current course contents should visit our web site, which offers information in English (and also in Dutch) on the current course program as well as on a range of big history related topics, including literature references and web links.
    How did we become aware of the Australian initiative? While visiting Macquarie University in 1992, the Dutch sociologist Johan Goudsblom became acquainted with David Christian's course. After Goudsblom returned to Amsterdam, he approached me to jointly organize a similar course. For Goudsblom, this was a logical extension of a life-long career in which his interests had been widening. While advancing the sociology of Norbert Elias, Goudsblom had become increasingly interested in human history, most notably through the work of William H. McNeill. At the University of Amsterdam, Goudsblom was stimulating students to take an interest in human history, while he had also published a number of general studies on this subject.
    I had pursued a very different career. In the 1970s, I acquired a master's degree in biochemistry specializing in genetic engineering. Increasingly worried about environmental issues which were then becoming apparent, I decided to change course. For a few years, I worked at an ecological farm and travelled overland in the Middle East, Africa and India, in order to see with my own eyes what the world looked like. Next came my study of cultural anthropology with a focus on Andean Peru, where I studied in detail how one comparatively traditional agrarian society worked in practice. In the early 1980s it was not yet possible in the Netherlands to formulate an environmental research project, because that field of study did not exist. As a result, I opted for a study of religion and politics, hoping that the Andean peasants would express much of their ecological thinking in religion. After more than ten years of intensive studies on, and in, Peru, including historical and anthropological research in the Andean village of Zurite (which became my second home), I was able to place the history of this small village within the context of both Peruvian and human history. 4
    In the meantime, I also kept up as much as possible with the most recent scientific developments, in which I had been interested for as long as I can remember. I considered all of this from a big history perspective without knowing it, since I was not yet familiar with the term. Yet thanks to my scientific background, I had never thought of history other than as the integrated history of the world, of life, humanity, and the universe. In my youth, the Apollo trips to the moon in general, and the famous Apollo 8 Earthrise photo of December 1968 in particular (which showed the earth above the stark lunar surface) greatly stimulated this way of looking at reality. After having seen such photos, it became impossible for me to think of human beings other than as one single network of biological and cultural creatures, embedded within their terrestrial and cosmic environment. So when I became familiar with David Christian's big history approach, I felt this was the project I had been waiting for.
    My career had not only been different from Goudsblom, but our academic positions were also rather unequal. While Goudsblom had been a full professor for more than twenty years, I had just completed my Ph.D. on Peru. As a result, we decided to divide the tasks. Goudsblom would take care of all the high-level institutional contacts, while I would do all the organizational work. Although our project was certainly unusual, Goudsblom succeeded in convincing the university administrators to give us a chance. Finding enthusiastic lecturers proved to be easy. Not only were they willing to give the lectures, but they also gave valuable suggestions concerning the program. Getting permission from the university departments to allow their students access to the course was more difficult, because of all the institutional interests involved.
    After more than a year of intensive preparations we were ready to offer our course to the world. Fortunately, our university weekly Folia featured our course prominently on their front page with the headline Super Lectures. Possibly as a result, our lecture hall, with a capacity of two hundred seats, was packed. At the same time, the Dutch educational radio service Teleac approached us to broadcast a twenty-part series based on the course. We were rather reluctant to do so, since we had no idea of how the course would turn out. Yet their passionate director Jan Boorsma convinced us this was a good idea. The radio program ran for two consecutive years, while it was also broadcast on the Dutch World Service. Apparently, big history generated a big interest.
    After such a successful start, we wondered how things would go during the following years. Would we have exhausted the supply of enthusiastic students? This proved not to be the case. As I have found out over the years, our best publicity is the student grapevine. Yet some additional publicity proved necessary, since not all of the students interested in following the course were reached in such ways. In 1996, our program received a big boost when William H. McNeill was awarded the prestigious Erasmus Prize, and even more so, because he donated half of the prize money to our initiative (see: ). After Goudsblom retired in 1997, I became solely responsible for the course.
    The Big History course was a tremendous source of education not only for the students but also for the organizers. Suddenly we found ourselves in contact with many prominent scholars, ranging from astronomers to sociologists, who were very sympathetic to the project and who freely offered us their latest knowledge. Yet in order to be able to fruitfully discuss the contents of all these different lectures, I needed to gain good overviews for myself of all the fields involved, which required years of intensive reading on a wide variety of subjects.
    Since the course was new and experimental, there was considerable room for improvement. This was not such a big problem for the natural science portion of the course up until the origins of humans, since in all the sciences there are now dominant historical paradigms accepted by most scholars: astrophysicists share the 'big bang' paradigm; geologists have plate tectonics; and biologists agree on natural evolution. In each discipline there are controversies, of course, yet the core issues are usually not under attack (at least not all the time). As a result, it was fairly easy to transform this part of the course into a reasonably integrated whole. In human history, by contrast, no single paradigm exists that would unite most historians. It has, therefore, been far more difficult to find suitable speakers for this section, while those who participate are less willing to reflect upon their place within the grand view. As a result, over the course of time I have found myself doing an increasing number of lectures on human history.
    The Amsterdam Big History course began as a cross-disciplinary effort, united only by its chronological time scale. Yet even while I was preparing the first course in 1993 and 1994, I began to discern some larger patterns in big history that would escape one's attention if one were to focus only on smaller time scales. While attending the World History Association Conference in Aspen in October of 1994, I suddenly realized that by structuring the course, I was actually structuring big history itself. This new insight led to my book, The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang Until Today,3 which has served as the theoretical backbone of the course ever since. By systematically applying the approach advocated in this book, our course increasingly became an interdisciplinary enterprise. Unfortunately, most human history teachers were not very interested in this type of approach, and preferred to steer away from such discussions. The natural scientists, by contrast, wholeheartedly supported my angle on big history.
    Since that time, I have made considerable progress in gaining a better understanding of the large patterns that appear to govern big history and, as a consequence, also human history. Especially Eric Chaisson's book Cosmic Evolution: the Rise of Complexity in Nature, and David Christian's magnum opus Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, have been very influential in further shaping my thinking.4 Right now, based on their work, I am developing a model of big history that will allow us to at least partially explain the course of big history. This may sound very ambitious, yet it is only by looking at the entire trajectory of big history that one may be able to discern such patterns. For me, making such unexpected discoveries has been one of the most exciting aspects of this enterprise.
    The first formulation of my new approach to big history will be published in 2005 as an article by the English-language Russian journal Social Evolution and History with the title "How Big History Works: Energy Flows and the Rise and Demise of Complexity."5 Not only does this new model help to explain history to some extent, it also allows us to organize a shared big history research program, in which all the disciplines involved can collaborate as part of one single research program. This new approach is also stimulating another round of discussions with the intention of better integrating the course. 13
    From the very beginning we have followed a policy of inviting at least one distinguished guest speaker every year who would contribute his or her special expertise. Most of them were contacted either at conferences or through email. Although we have very little to offer in the way of financial rewards, almost all the speakers I have contacted so far were willing to come and lecture, presumably because they are enthusiastic about the enterprise. Our list of distinguished guest speakers includes the ethnologist Adriaan Kortlandt (Oxford), big historian David Christian (now at San Diego State University), economic historians Dennis Flynn and Arturo Gíraldez (University of the Pacific, Stockton, Ca.), world historian William H. McNeill, physicist James Trefil (George Mason University), archaeologist Andrew Sherratt (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), paleo-ethnologist Elizabeth Vrba (Yale University), astrophysicist Eric Chaisson (Tufts and Harvard University), socio-historian Paul Lapperre (Eindhoven University of Technology, NL), world system theorist Immanuel Wallerstein (Binghamton University), historian Piet Emmer (University of Leiden), paleo-anthropologist Milford Wolpoff (University of Michigan), and psychologist Akop Nazaretyan (Moscow State University). For 2005 I have invited the ecological historian Vaclav Smil (University of Manitoba, Canada). In addition to all the excellent lectures we have been able to offer to our students, this policy of inviting guest speakers has led to a growing, rather unique, worldwide network of scholars.
    From the very beginning we have attracted considerable numbers of students. Now, we limit ourselves to 350 participants, mostly because of the limits of our lecture hall. Especially during the past two years, there has been far more interest than we can accommodate. As a result, before the first lecture starts we have to post the entrance doors to make sure that students who have not registered would not take up the seats of those who have. As of now, we have become the largest and most popular course at the university. This is not an isolated situation. In 2003, I started a similar, but much shorter, course at the Eindhoven University of Technology. There, we are facing a similar situation. In the fall of 2003, I taught the same short big history course at another educational institution in the Netherlands, and again we had a full house. Also in the U.S. similar things have been happening. In the 1970s and 80s, the astrophysicist Eric Chaisson and the astronomer George Field jointly taught a course in Cosmic Evolution at Harvard University (Cosmic Evolution is Big History from an astronomical point of view). Very soon, or so Eric Chaisson told me, it became the biggest science course on campus. His colleague Tom Gehrels at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona, tells similar stories about their course: The Universe and Humanity: Origin and Destiny, while David Christian has been having comparable experiences both in Australia and in the U.S., where he now teaches at San Diego State University.
    So why are we having problems keeping students out? I think it is, as David Christian argues in Maps of Time, because we are addressing the large questions people have been asking for as long as we know, such as: Where do we all come from? What is our place in space and time? How has everything we know come about? How can we place all the bits and pieces of history within a larger framework? We may not be providing all the answers, but apparently the students like what we are doing. As I see it, they are voting with their feet: they keep coming.


Akop Nazaretyan



Astronomer Ed van den Heuvel



Astrophysicist Eric Chaisson



David Christian



Folia 1994



Fred Spier and Johan Goudsblom, 1995



Historians Dennis Flynn and Arturo Giraldez



Historical sociologist Bart Tromp



Immanuel Wallerstein



Paleao-anthropologist John de Vos



Paleoanthropologist Milford Wolpoff






William H. McNeill




Biographical Note: Fred Spier is Senior Lecturer in Big History at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. He is also the author of The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang Until Today (1996).


1 This essay has benefited a great deal from Gina Giandomenico's most stimulating commentary.

2 Actually, David Christian's Big History course ends with a projection of the future at all time scales, ranging from the human time scale to that of the universe as a whole.

3 Fred Spier, The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang Until Today (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996).

4 Eric Chaisson, Cosmic Evolution: the Rise of Complexity in Nature (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001); David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley; University of California Press, 2004).

5 Fred Spier, "How Big History Works: Energy Flows and the Rise and Demise of Complexity," Social History and Evolution, (2005), Moscow, `Uchitel' Publishing House, (forthcoming).


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use