Dominican Professor Examines Big History

In her newly released book "Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present," Dr. Cynthia Stokes Brown melds traditional history with the latest scientific thought to create an accessible narrative of world history.

In Big History the history of humankind starts 13.7 billion years ago with a single point the size of an atom and ends, for now, with the dominant species contemplating extinction at its own hands. Big History synthesizes archeology, astronomy, physics, biology, geology, and other fields to provide a picture, to scale, of the history of humankind and its relationship to the earth.

“We are now able to think in scientific terms about the timescales of the universe we are part of – its beginning, middle, and end – and thus with current thinking we are able to put the story of our planet into its larger context,” Dr. Brown, professor emerita of education at Dominican, said.

This big-picture view of global history provides a framework on which students can hang additional knowledge and understand current issues.

Big History, for example, notes that 99 percent of the species that have ever lived are extinct; the sun has burned for about half its expected lifetime; no new basic food plants have been domesticated since about 3000 B.C.; and deforestation has accompanied the development of all human society.

“This is a history for an age in which our understanding of the origins of the universe must be placed alongside the reality of global warming and other ecological challenges directly attributable to our presence on the planet,” Brown said.

If one looks at history as Big History and says, for example, that the universe began 13 years ago, then Earth would have come into existence five years ago and modern industrial societies would have existed for six seconds.

If you extend the human story backward for the 5,500 years of recorded history, it tells only a millionth of the lifetime of Earth. Yet, during that interval, humans have had a powerful impact on the natural world. 

Big History takes in prehistoric geology, human evolution, the agrarian age, the Black Death, the voyages of Columbus, the industrial revolution, and global warming with urgent critiques of population growth, global disparities, racial tensions, and illiteracy.

In the book, Brown visits the Vikings, the Mayas and Aztecs, the Incas, the Mongol empire, and the Islamic heartlands. Along the way she creates a stunning synthesis of historical and scientific knowledge of humanity and the earth we inhabit.

Brown retired from full-time teaching at Dominican in 2001 but continues to teach courses at the University. She has written works on history and biography, including Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement, which won the American Book Award, Connecting with the Past, and Refusing Racism.

Posted October 29, 2007