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?