Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle -- February 1, 2004

Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History

David Christian
University of California Press, 588pp, $34.95

by Ian Garrick Mason

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." So begins the creation myth relied on by European civilization for centuries. Like humankind's other creation myths, it provided an explanation for the origin of the world and man's place in it. Yet although this myth has lost its validity for many people today, it has not been replaced with anything, and David Christian, a professor of history at San Diego State University, thinks this is a mistake.

As he writes in Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, living without a creation myth "contributes to the subtle but pervasive quality of disorientation in modern life [known] as 'anomie': the sense of not fitting in, which is an inescapable condition of those who have no conception of what it is they are supposed to fit into." In a very real sense, then, Christian's book is an attempt to provide a new, science-based creation myth for our global civilization. And in trying to answer the fundamental question "how did we get here?," he really does begin at the beginning: the origin of the universe.

Starting with the Big Bang, he proceeds swiftly onward, describing the emergence of fundamental particles, the separation of matter and energy in a hot, rapidly expanding universe, the gravity-driven coalescing of gas that led to the ignition of those sustained fusion explosions we call stars, and the creation of the solar system that includes planet Earth.

From this rather awesome cosmological scale, Christian down-shifts to the scale of life and evolution. He discusses our admittedly tentative understanding of the origins of life and provides a highly readable explanation of genetics and the operation of natural selection. Through these mechanisms, more complex forms of life gradually appear (to his credit, Christian warns that "we must be careful not to assume that 'more complex' means 'better' "): single-celled life evolves into multicelled; multicelled evolves into plants and animals; animals evolve into mammals, then into primates, into hominids, into us.

At this point in the tale, 250,000 years or so ago, Christian drops into yet another gear. His focus is now on the development of human society and technology, on our slowly accelerating transition from self-sufficient Paleolithic bands of foragers, to agrarian states and tribute-seeking empires, and finally to our own technology-driven global civilization. Christian maintains a scientific tone throughout, always seeking to discover and explain the dynamic patterns that drive long-term change and that push us over thresholds into new levels of complexity. Intriguingly, his theorizing is heavily indebted to both Karl Marx's historical materialism and Thomas Malthus' ideas about population growth and its limits. Whatever one thinks about the continued relevance of these 19th century thinkers, Christian's synthesis of their ideas is both systematic and clear.

Where he seems on weaker ground, however, is in his "world systems" approach to explaining differing rates of innovation. He makes a compelling argument that adjacent human civilizations -- at least those on the Afro- Eurasian landmass -- have always had some form of contact with each other, and his description of the Near East as a "hub" region between European and East Asian "centers of gravity" seems accurate. Asserting that "the size and variety of information networks, as well as the intensity of exchanges within them, shaped average rates of innovation over long periods," he concludes that the Industrial Revolution was largely a result of the sudden emergence of Britain and Western Europe as the hub of a global shipborne network of exchange. Yet the majority of European technical innovations he cites -- the steam engine, textile and dye technology -- originated not from knowledge newly acquired from overseas, but rather from knowledge already possessed and only recently applied to specific industries.

Another problem that Christian's history suffers from is that the differences between its various time scales are too large to allow them to serve as subcomponents of a single theory. As a narrative, the book travels smoothly from the cosmological scale down to the scale of 20th century states, and this is indeed part of the "grand unified story" that Christian is seeking. But though the time scales connect to each other, they don't interrelate on a continuing basis. The evolution of species, once started, is rarely impacted by the life and death of stars or galaxies, and the development of human society, once started, is rarely impacted by the evolution of species. Since the forces that drive change at one scale are not the forces that drive change at smaller scales, a unified theory remains elusive.

Indeed, when Christian ramps back up to the cosmological scale after completing his journey to the modern age, we realize just how insignificant and trivial our little world is by comparison. Though we can't predict what will become of humanity in the next millennium, he explains, we can be sure that one day, billions of years hence, the stars will begin to go out and our universe will become nothing more than a frozen graveyard of inert matter. As the final chapter of a creation myth, this ending is surely too depressing. We're sensitive souls and crave a special relationship with our gods. Christian's big history is a fascinating read and a worthwhile endeavor, but it's no cure for the modern blues.