Less than three decades ago an American historian named David Christian who was teaching at an Australian university at the time launched a new approach to world history. His unique take on the subject took the discipline far beyond the limits of the written word. Calling it Big History, Christian started his new course at the beginning of time itself: the Big Bang.
Christian enlisted guest lecturers from the fields of astrophysics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, biology, and other scientific fields. Incorporating their specialized knowledge into his comprehensive survey of Big History, Christian summed up what is known about the birth of the universe, the emergence of stars, the formation of the Earth, the turbulent formation and shifting of the continents, and the painfully slow advent of the most primitive, single-celled life. From this perspective, the several million years since humans first emerged, much less the 5,000 years of recorded history, must be seen as only the latest and briefest chapter in a story that will continue for billions of years longer.
Since Christian’s inspired initiative, others have flocked to the new discipline. A body of Big History literature has begun to emerge. The best-known contribution to the new discipline is Jared Diamond’s bestselling book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. But others have made notable contributions as well, adding insight and perspective to our understanding of our place in the universe.
Below I’ve listed eight books I’ve read and reviewed in my own venture into Big History. Not all span the life of the universe. But they all survey world history with the broad strokes that characterize this fresh approach to understanding how the past affects today’s world. They’re listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names, and all are linked to my reviews. I recommend them all. I also recommend the 48-lecture course David Christian recorded for The Great Courses. It’s titled Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity. This is world history as it should be taught.
A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves, by Walter Alvarez
The geologist who explained to us how the dinosaurs went extinct ventures outside his academic bailiwick to track the story of the Earth from its earliest antecedents in the Big Bang to the emergence of homo sapiens as the dominant form of life on the planet. Emphasizing geological events throughout, he illustrates how radical changes in the natural environment have shaped the course of human events—and the very nature of our bodies themselves.
Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present, by Cynthia Stokes Brown
While David Christian leaned on colleagues in the sciences to carry the story for its first 13.65 billion years, Cynthia Stokes Brown took it all on herself. With a good deal of simplification but relatively few obvious errors, she surveys the prehistorical past with great skill. For anyone who thinks history is the story of wars and generals and presidents, Big History is a worthy remedy.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
It’s easy to get the impression that science has answered all the big questions and is spending more and more time and money focusing on the little ones. Read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and you will quickly be disabused of that illusion. Truth to tell, the human race is still abysmally ignorant of some of the most fundamental matters that determine how, why, and where we live.
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond
Published 20 years ago, Diamond’s thesis is the only persuasive argument I’ve ever encountered for the huge wealth gap between the “West” and the “developing” nations of the Global South. He finds the roots of the problem in the history of the last 13,000 years. This is one of the most important books of the last half-century.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari
Harari sees history as divided by three broad-brush “revolutions”: the Cognitive Revolution, about 70,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens acquired the gift of speech and began to walk out of Africa; the Agricultural Revolution, which began around 10,000 years ago and ushered in a new world of towns, cities, empires, and a fast-growing human population; and the Scientific Revolution, only about 500 years old, which has shaped the world as we know it today. Big History, indeed.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann
Forget just about everything you learned in school about the peoples who lived in the Western Hemisphere before 1492—and about the land, too. It turns out that yesterday’s historians, anthropologists, paleontologists, and ecologists got it pretty much all wrong. Latter-day investigations in all these fields have turned up persuasive evidence that the Americas before Columbus were far more heavily populated, the leading civilizations far more sophisticated, and their origins far further back in time than earlier generations of scholars had suspected.
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann
Chances are, you’re aware that the potato originated in Peru and smallpox in Africa, and that both species crossed the Atlantic shortly after Columbus. You probably know, too, that the potato later became a staple in many European countries and that smallpox decimated the native population of the Americas. However, what you may not know is how profound was the impact on the course of history of the much more extensive exchange of animals, plants, minerals, and microorganisms from the Old World to and from the New. Historians call this phenomenon the Columbian Exchange. From the perspective of Big History, this event was one of the most significant phenomena of the last 13,000 years.
Why the West Rules—for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, by Ian Morris
Five years after Jared Diamond’s path-breaking book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, historian and archeologist Ian Morris laid out his own, more comprehensive view of the course of human history, reaching back 15,000 years and venturing into the 22nd Century. While many historians still engaged in the stale debate about whether “Great Men” or social forces are dominant in world history, Diamond and Morris convincingly laid out the case for the greater influence of the larger context in which human history takes place, delving into biology, sociology, and archaeology as well as history itself.