Telling the story of planet Earth across its billions of years of existence is an ambitious goal. But it’s the aim of Prof. David Christian’s latest book, “Origin Story.”
As its subtitle proclaims, the book is “A Big History of Everything,” from the Big Bang to the present day — and even includes some thoughts about the future. Big history is Christian’s specialty at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He has helped develop this academic field, promoting it with a TED talk in 2011 and through a friendship with a fellow big thinker, Bill Gates. With “Origin Story,” published last year, Christian brings his message to the general public.
“There is, embedded within the colossal amount of knowledge that exists within modern scholarly disciplines, something like a modern origin story, a story that holds together modern knowledge and makes it manageable and accessible,” Christian told The Times of Israel in an email. “I love encyclopedias and I am a huge admirer of resources such as Wikipedia; but we also need to see the underlying meaning of that knowledge, the story that holds it all together.”
“Origin Story” mixes history with science, archaeology with anthropology, as it journeys from the beginning of the universe to what some call the Anthropocene or human-dominated era of today. The book’s latter sections focus on how humans reached this dominance over millennia — with 7 billion people on Earth now — as well as their collective impact on the planet and each other, from the positive (advances in overall life expectancy) to the negative (threats to the environment). It’s a timely read for this Monday’s Earth Day.
Christian likes thinking big. He was originally a scholar of the world’s biggest nation (by area) — Russia. Some 30 years ago, he switched his focus towards a discipline that would synthesize multiple academic fields to explain where the Earth came from and where it is going. Today he teaches the subject in the classroom at Macquarie and online through the Big History Project and Big History School.
“I suppose the basic idea was: If history can help us understand the world we live in, why not teach about the whole of history and the whole of time?” Christian said. “That’s what Big History tries to do.”
He describes it as similar in intent to the origin stories once regularly taught in most human societies.
“They were embedded within all the great religious traditions,” Christian said, “and even in societies without written traditions, it was normal to assemble the best available knowledge of the world we live in and present it in accessible ways to young people as part of their education. Doing this can help young people get a clearer sense of what it is they are part of, and what roles they can play in the future.”
But, he said, these origin stories became overshadowed by the rise of modern scientific knowledge in the late 19th century: “[Educators] were so daunted by the sheer amount of knowledge becoming available, and the speed at which older knowledge seemed to date, that they gave up trying to teach unifying stories or universal histories.”
Christian sees a science-based origin story as a way for people to find meaning in their lives, although he recognizes the conflict this might pose with religion. In a 2015 interview for Edge.org, he recalled discussing big history with Creationist students in San Diego, who hold that the creation story depicted in the Bible is the literal truth.
“They had the courage to say to me that they struggled with all of this,” he said in the interview. “One of the things I found was that many of them are struggling in a way that is admirable. They’re looking for a big story. They don’t find it in science because we don’t teach it that way. Eventually they go to their churches because they do find a big story there.
“Quite a few, I realized, are a bit uneasy about this, because they realize there’s a mismatch between the big story which they get from their churches, and the science that created the iPhone that they carry in their pockets. They’re a bit uncomfortable about this. The reason they will go to that story, despite the discomfort, is precisely because science does not present itself as containing an alternative story,” he said.
In Christian’s view, it’s time to tell that alternative story.
As detailed in the book, this new narrative is structured around eight key thresholds — “moments at which more complex things appeared,” he said.
In threshold one, the Big Bang occurs over 13 billion years ago, creating the universe. It’s a universe that “was really quite simple,” Christian said. “It was dominated by a sort of thin mist of hydrogen and helium atoms, embedded within flows of energy and forms of matter that we don’t fully understand [so we call it dark energy]. There were no stars, no planets and certainly no living organisms.” In thresholds two through five, the picture becomes fuller, he said: The first stars are created; dying stars and supernovae yield new and more complex atoms; and planetary bodies such as Earth appear.
Then, 4 billion years ago, living organisms emerged. In explaining life on Earth, Christian cites “Goldilocks conditions,” referencing the eponymous heroine who tasted the Three Bears’ porridge bowls until she found one that was “just right.” The conditions on Earth that are “just right” for life include water in liquid form and a surface temperature that has basically stayed between zero and 100 degrees Fahrenheit over 4 billion years.
Living organisms “evolved over time, eventually forming large, complex organisms such as the first multi-cellular life forms,” Christian said. Yet even under Goldilocks conditions, the survival of life has not been a certainty.
“[We] also know there were times when temperatures threatened to wobble beyond those limits,” Christian said. “Life could easily have died out then. And there were other catastrophes, such as massive volcanic eruptions or asteroid impacts that wiped out huge numbers of species,” including the mass extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.
Life somehow survived the catastrophes and extinctions and went on to take new forms — including a species that Christian calls “one of the strangest and most powerful to have appeared in the four billion year history of life on Earth” — human beings.
“What makes us different is that the information available to us seems to expand, without any clear limit,” Christian said. He added that “over time, the pool of knowledge available to all members of a community can expand in a way that no other species can match.”
Reflecting their importance, the last three thresholds of the book relate to humans: first, their entrance onto the planet; then the emergence of agriculture-based societies 10,000 years ago; and finally, over the past 200 years, the rise of modern societies based on fossil fuels such as oil.
Throughout, Christian explores the role played by human knowledge. Farming, for example, was “a whole suite of new technologies that gave humans more control over the energy and resources of their environment,” he said. “And with more energy, human numbers grew, and human societies became more complex, creating the whole history of what we call human ‘civilizations.’”
Today, Christian continued, “this sharing of knowledge goes on across the planet between billions of individuals, so the knowledge available to us is expanding faster than ever. That explains our colossal power in the new epoch in which we live today.”
The concluding part of the book sounds a note both salutary and cautionary about this new epoch.
On the positive side, Christian said, human life expectancy has nearly tripled in the past 100 years. At the same time, humanity increasingly lives above a basic subsistence level and most babies survive to adulthood, while billions of people have enough food to eat and are “healthier than all previous generations of humans.”
Yet, he said, there are also increasing dangers.
“The ‘Good Anthropocene’ depends on flows of energy so massive that they are beginning to disrupt the biosphere,” Christian said. “They are disrupting the climate system by pumping into the atmosphere huge amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. And that threatens to increase temperatures at the earth’s surface and in its oceans.”
Meanwhile, he said, “we humans are now using so many of the biosphere’s resources, that other species are dying off at a terrifying rate.” And recalling the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs, he said that today, “we humans have invented nuclear weapons that could do as much damage as that asteroid strike if we are foolish enough to use them.”
Despite that dismal image, Christian is optimistic that humans will harness their knowledge to steward the Earth across future thresholds.
“What we have to do is to learn to manage an entire planet,” Christian said, so that future generations can live equally well — or even better.
“Will our children and grandchildren be up to that challenge?” he asked. “I believe they will, particularly if we teach them the stories that can help them see the challenges they face, and see those challenges clearly enough to face them with courage and intelligence.”