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Published by EH.NET (January 2006)

David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. xxii + 642 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-520-23500-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by J.W. Drukker, Department of Design History, Delft University of Technology.

Charles and Ray Eames rank among the most famous industrial designers of the twentieth century. Apart from that, they made films. One of them, Powers of Ten, is also considered a ‘design classic’ in its field. It is essentially a series of pictures of two picnickers in a park, with the area of each frame one-tenth the size of the one before. Starting from a view of the entire known universe, the camera gradually zooms in until we see the subatomic particles of a man’s hand.

What the Eames’ did in a film, you can also do in a book. The result is something like Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History by David Christian, Professor of History at San Diego State University, who was a well known authority on the history of Central Asia, before he got into what is called ‘world’ or ‘global history.’

Taking a extremely broad perspective, both in time and in space, is in itself not a novelty in our discipline. Fernand Braudel was famous for it, and so is Emmanuel Wallerstein. Rondo Cameron’s A Concise Economic History of the World: From Paleolothic Times to the Present, covering the whole world over a period of roughly 1.99 million years, is, to my best knowledge, champion in this field, even when one takes into account that the first 1.98 million years are only dealt with in the first two pages, while the rest of the book is devoted to the remaining 0.01 million years.

How big can history get? Believe it or not, but Cameron’s perspective is peanuts compared to Maps of Time. It does not only cover the whole history of our planet, but the history of the universe is also included. It does not only cover the whole history of the universe, but also its future, until its unavoidable collapse. So, while Cameron’s time scale is roughly two million years, David Christian’s story covers 13 billion years from then until now. When you also include his story on the future of the universe until it is definitely extinct, it amounts to (10 000 000 000) to the 76th power years, supposing that I did my powers of ten correctly. So, the subtitle “An Introduction to Big History” seems too modest; “An Introduction to the Biggest History You Can Possibly Imagine” would have been more appropriate.

Given the truly gigantic time span, one would expect that the book, despite its respectable size, cannot be more than extremely sketchy and superficial. Surprisingly, this is not the case. While the subject matter dictates that this book has to transcend the boundaries of history proper, it is rich in detail, and a pleasure to read. The author deserves our admiration, as he seems equally well read in such diverse disciplines as cosmology and chemistry (Part 1, from the Big Bang until the formation of the planet Earth), evolutionary biology (Part 2 and 3, the history of life on earth until the dawning of human civilization), prehistory and economic history (Part 4 and 5, from the origins of agriculture until our modern world), futurology and again cosmology (Part 6, perspectives on the future).

The book opens with quotes from Braudel, von Ranke, and … Omar Khayy?m of Naish?p?r, the medieval Persian philosopher, famous for his “Rub?iy?t,” a mystical poem about the nature of Creation. Bien ?tonn?s de se trouver ensemble? Not quite, because Christian essentially claims to offer with his book a “Modern Creation Myth,” based on scientific knowledge, to be distinguished from the “pre-modern” ones that are offered by different religions. With this, the author creates immediately a serious problem of composition for himself, because how to tell a coherent story about Creation when the familiar main character, God, is conspicuous by His absence? This problem is solved in an elegant way, as the author builds his chronologically ordered magnum opus strictly around a central theme, what he calls “the endless waltz of chaos and complexity,” by which is meant the truly stunning phenomenon that characterizes our world, namely the existence of order, that — at least temporarily — seems to withstand the second law of thermodynamics. With “order” as a central theme, David Christian’s creation myth is transformed from a straightforward chronology into a unified and fascinating story on growing complexity over time. In an oversimplified way, that does absolutely no justice to this remarkable book. Maps of Time tells the reader: A hydrogen molecule is a less complex structure than an amoeba, which, in its turn, is less complex than a human being. Hydrogen molecules were already there, when there were no amoebae, and human beings came even later into existence than amoebae, while you would expect, according to the second law of thermodynamics, that the order of appearance should be exactly the other way round. Isn’t that wonderful?

The theme of increasing complexity over time is in Part 4 and 5 carried over from organisms to the way in which human beings have organized their habitat since the days of early agricultural settlement, and there it enters the field of economic history. And it is exactly at that point that this reviewer becomes gradually more critical, which has probably more to do with his own limited background than with the overall quality of the book. Nevertheless, every economic historian will realize that building a chronologically ordered story on human organization around a central theme is not a novelty in our discipline: It is probably as old as our discipline itself. Isn’t this precisely the same approach as the German Historical School advocated from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, from Von Schmoller up to Rostow, so to speak? And, if this is so, then the unavoidable question arises, whether the standard criticism on the so called “Stufen”-theories, does not also apply to Maps of Time, that is to say, that the choice for one central theme, around which the story of development is woven, has the tendency to overshadow other important factors to such an extent, that the whole is in danger of becoming a bit one-sided, and therefore, speculative. I’m afraid this also applies to some extent to Maps of Time, especially where it deals with the future. When we read on p. 467: “Quantum physics shows that it is in the nature of reality to be unpredictable” (italics as in the original text), we would — in accordance with Wittgenstein’s “Wor?ber mann nicht sprechen kann” — expect the book to end exactly on that same page, but no, the author adds another forty-five pages, and these are, at least in this reviewer’s opinion, not the best ones, in the sense that here the imminent one-sidedness of Christian’s approach turns into pure speculation.

If you really want to talk about the future, one would expect, given the overall tendency of the first five parts, that the principle of growing complexity would be once more carried over, now from the forms of human organization to the nature of machines, as that is, as far as I can see, the most revolutionary change that is actually taking place, seen from a perspective of increasing complexity. Moreover, so far machines seem to survive better in orbit, than we do, and that is the place, according to Christian, where we are ultimately going. Not so: It is not so much complexity that is leading the waltz in Part 6, but chaos, looming in the dark. This part of the book is clearly inspired by late Meadows- and Brundtland-adherents, which explains the rather unexpected theme in the finale of this book, taken from Paul Kennedy’s Preparing for the Twenty-First Century: “a modern ‘Malthusian cycle'” (1750-2100)?” True, with a question mark added, but I think that only the gloomiest of my fellow economic historians would agree that Christian’s choice for his final theme is a lucky strike. Does Maps of Time therefore end in C (of Complexity and of Chaos) Minor? No. As a dazzling ‘Encore’ there is a really superb bibliography. Everything is well, that ends well.

J.W. Drukker is Professor of Design History, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. An English version of his last book, which was published in the Netherlands in 2003, will be on the market in the course of 2006 (The Revolution That Bit Its Own Tail: How Economic History Changed Our Ideas on Economic Growth, Aksant Publishers, Amsterdam). He is currently working on an introduction to design history, seen through the eyes of an economic historian.