Study Guide

Maps of Time

by David Christian

Maps of Time Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Big History movement was founded in the late 1980's, largely in response to two long-established intellectual trends: the diminishing significance of humanity in cosmological systems and increasing specialization in science and the humanities.

Over many centuries, Earth and the human race have been moved steadily away from the center of cosmology. In the Ptolemaic worldview, dominant through the European Middle Ages, Earth was innermost among concentric transparent spheres. In the sixteenth century, Nicolaus Copernicus argued that Earth revolves around the sun. A century later, Giordano Bruno suggested that other stars could be separate suns, perhaps with planets of their own. The notion of infinite time and space, dwarfing humanity, was common by the eighteenth century. By the twentieth century, cosmology made Earth and the human species seem so insignificant that Albert Camus could write of “the benign indifference of the universe.” An important Big History goal is to put humanity back into the cosmological equation, without necessarily returning it to the core.

Meanwhile—in what some see as an inevitable trend—a given field of study in science or the humanities that has yielded new knowledge has tended to divide into subspecialties. As these proliferated, they have grown apart, sometimes ceasing to communicate. Ultimately, according to David Christian, a cofounder of the Big History movement, specialization presents obstacles to a supremely important intellectual achievement—a “creation story,” a cosmology that would afford human beings a sense of their place in the universe. “It is one of the many odd features of modern society,” he says, “that despite having access to more hard information than any earlier society, those in modern educational systems do not normally teach such a story. Instead, …we teach about origins in disconnected fragments. We seem incapable of offering a unified account of how things came to be the way they are.”

Such a unified account is the objective in Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, addressed to lay readers and professional scholars alike. The book grew out of Christian's Big History lectures, first at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and later at San Diego State University in California. Maps of Time “unites natural history and human history in a single, grand, and intelligible narrative,” asserts world historian William H. McNeill in the foreword. McNeill equates this achievement with those of Sir Isaac Newton, who “united the heavens and the earth under uniform laws of motion,” and of Charles Darwin, who united “the human species and other forms of life within a single evolutionary process.”

Big History has been but one of the forces seeking a unified modern cosmology. Actually, despite the specializing trend, much of the unifying impetus has come from scientists. For example, Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time (1988) took on the challenge of integrating theories from vastly differing spatial scales: the general theory of relativity and the theory of quantum mechanics. Preston Cloud's Cosmos, Earth, and Man (1978) aimed at integrating the largest timescales—from the creation of the universe to the creation of Earth—with the more modest scale of human history.

Christian takes an approach similar to these In Maps of Time; but, as one would expect from a historian, he focuses much more closely on human societies than Hawking the cosmologist or Cloud the biogeologist. Christian explains that Big History tries to put “human history in context, by seeing it as part of an even larger story that includes the past of the earth and the Universe as a whole. It therefore provides a natural bridge between the history discipline and the historical sciences of Biology, Geology and Astronomy.”

Thus, the “modern creation myth” aims at reestablishing a place for humans in cosmology, while also reflecting “a growing sense among scholars in many fields that we may be close to a grand unification of knowledge.” The word “myth” does not refer to the exploits of gods and heroes but conveys that the earliest chapters of the story, while plausible, cannot be scientifically verified. This creation myth, however, does incorporate the most recent findings of many scientific specialties; indeed, science relates more of the story than does history.

Christian's chronology begins with the big bang, “now the central idea of modern cosmology.” (McNeill, in the foreword, recounts how, “in the course of a discussion about what sort of introduction to history the department at Macquarie ought to provide for its students, David Christian blurted out something like ’Why not start at the beginning?’ and promptly found himself invited to show his colleagues what that might mean.”) Christian is “looking at the past on all timescales,” but detailing the human era, the way a...

(The entire section is 2030 words.)