Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Science as History and Big History

Dan Allosso

The past finds its way into all types of disciplines. Historical speculation is done by everyone, including scientists and popular science writers. I recently read a really interesting little book by British science writer Colin Tudge. Called Neanderthals, Bandits & Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began, this 50-page essay speculates wildly about the fate of the Neanderthals, ascribes the origin of global Great Flood myths to dim memories of rising sea levels after the last ice age, and suggests that agriculture spread with the original human migrations, rather than being simultaneously discovered in many places afterward. It’s short on “facts” and long on speculation, but it’s really fascinating speculation. (I wish I had this guy’s agent!)

The sciences all deal with change over time. Evolution is history. So it’s no surprise to people who read science that they are reading history. But recently science has leaped onto the history shelves in the form of Big History. I wonder if history-readers excited about Big History are aware that in many cases they’re just reading science. We may be impressed by the novelty of a view that goes back to the big bang, but this is nothing new to the science-readers. Even Bill Bryson had a bestseller out (A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003, which is a really good read) when David Christian’s Maps of Time was making waves among historians. Other good examples of science-histories include Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe and Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace, both of which are stories of both the history of the universe and of our expanding knowledge of it: or, histories and historiographies.

Actually, the heritage of that science-reader type of big history goes back to some very interesting documents like Robert Chambers’ 1844 Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which presents a case for evolution and has been credited with causing Darwin to keep his ideas secret for decades. But unlike these science texts, what big history does, is try to contextualize “small history.” This is something the scientists aren’t concerned with. Big History doesn’t do what Fernand Braudel did, and add scope—it actually undercuts regular history (at least momentarily) by its sheer geological and cosmic scale. Maybe it sometimes goes too far, and passes a point where the comparison becomes meaningless. But at least it reminds us that the world didn’t begin when people started keeping records.

The context that history like Braudel's brings is environmental, which is also not what the scientists are doing. Except perhaps in the sense of the Anthropic Principle, which argues (circularly) that things “had” to be this way because these are the basic cosmic conditions that enable life. The scientific perspective is usually materialist, but not determinist in the human sense. While some scientists argue that given complete information about the initial conditions of the universe, a sufficiently powerful computer could predict the future, others point to quantum uncertainty as the way out of this trap. Still others, following the hints of scientifically-inclined humorist Douglas Adams, might suggest that there’s only one computer big enough to solve this equation, and it already exists: the universe itself.

There are evolutionary biologists, and evolutionary psychologists. Are there actually any evolutionary historians, who have deliberately applied the ideas of modern evolutionary theory to history?


Randall said...

Dan: Thanks for this post. Very interesting. I enjoy reading essays from Arts and Letters that explore these topics. I also like to think about how our discipline compares and differs from others, something that John Lewis Gaddis looked into in his Landscape of History.

On your last question, perhaps Daniel Lord Smail's On Deep History and the Brain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008) fits?

hcr said...


This sounds like a project for Malcolm Gladwell.

I think that American historians, at any rate, have steered away from this venture because it smacks of the idea that we're all moving forward toward a glorious future.

I can see how such a history wouldn't have to do that, but I can also see why someone would hesitate to jump in to that sort of a project, considering how thoroughly historians have chewed over Whig history.

Unknown said...

Funny you should say that, Heather. I was considering a post on teleology. I think it's interesting that it was pushed aside by historians as they professionalized, and even postmodernism couldn't bring it back. But among non-historians, did it ever really go away? Even if you set aside people who have a religious belief that history really is "going somewhere," I think many people misinterpret scientific ideas like evolution and even thermodynamics, and believe they say we're "progressing" to some future state of increasing perfection.

I was reading something recently (can't recall what, just now), where a historian made a reference to the tension between the evolutionary concepts of gradualism and punctuated equilibrium -- I was wondering if ideas like this have any value either as paradigms or metaphors, for historians? (I'm also fascinated by the difference between paradigms and metaphors, but that's another tangent --- can you tell I really don't want to get back to today's comps reading on labor and the Cold War?)

Lisa Clark Diller said...

I really appreciate taking a breath and sitting back to see the perspective Big History gives. But I agree with Heather that most historians today, by temperament as well as training perhaps, are wary of anything that implies inevitability. We are usually comfortable being located in the humanities, which means that we are focused on human action, and Big History takes a dim view of humans. I need that bigger perspective, sometimes, but it is always going to be hard for me to dwell too long at the 100 million year viewpoint.

Unknown said...

To put it another way, I don't think science writers have any sense of inevitability -- probably just the opposite. I think a lot of them (Bryson included) are trying to help the general public understand what's been going on in science the last 50 years or so.

The way I was thinking evolution might be used, was more in the sense of understanding what evolutionary psychologists have been saying recently about the survival values of different types of behavior. A lot of this is not too far from some of the classic sociological sources historians use, but with a slightly different theoretical basis. I was just reading Alf Hornborg's _Power of the Machine_, which tries to apply a thermodynamic metaphor to world system theory. It's not quite history, but I think it has huge implications for historians, once we decide how far we're willing to ride the analogy.

On a lighter note, scientists have recently confirmed, as I've always suspected, that Neanderthals mixed with "moderns." Up to 4% of the European genome is Neanderthal. Really.