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Storytelling and Science in Big History


Part 1

I mean this to be an extension of a discussion that took place in panel #13, titled “Research Open Roundtable”, on Friday, August 13, 2014, at the International Big History Association conference in San Rafael, California.

I expressed the opinion that much that had been earlier discussed at the conference seemed to me to be science rather than history. The aim of science was to discover patterns or laws in nature that would explain phenomena. Discussions related to per capita energy consumption or increasing complexity in the universe, while illuminating, were more in the nature of science than history. History, on the other hand, was story telling to explain things, though in a different way. Don’t neglect the story-telling aspect of Big History, I urged.

In the ensuing discussion, one of the most accomplished and respected members of the IBHA commented that, in his field of study, story telling was not respected. If we emphasized this, the IBHA would lose credibility with academics.

So the lines were drawn. Would it be science or would it be historical story telling? Which should the IBHA prefer?

Let’s begin with the observation that Big History is in its creative, expansive phase; and the International Big History Association hosts a “big tent”. There is room both for scientists and story tellers within its framework of activity. As an advocate of story telling, I acknowledge the value of scientific efforts to find explanatory patterns in history. Let the creative juices flow where they may. From diverse activities may come a consensus regarding the type of scholarship associated with this organization.

In the meanwhile, however, let me continue to advocate on behalf of story telling as a form of knowledge. It is a most ancient form which the IBHA may wish to update with the discoveries of modern science in telling the story of creation.

Part of good story telling would be the skill with which the author tells the story. It would lie in choice of words, the rhythms and flow of expression, and so on. However, the works of Big History ought not to be a literary production whose worth would reflect the author’s personal skill. The style of writing is less important than content.

In this case, the story’s content would be elements of knowledge or experience that best explain how our world came to be. We start with nothing and end with the universe that exists today. How we got from one situation to the other is what the stories of Big History should narrate. What were the critical events that caused significant and lasting change in the world?

When we look at Big History this way, we find a need for discipline in telling stories. We need, first, the discipline of historical and scientific accuracy. Even more important, we need a sense of how events flowed. We need to identify significant events that led to or caused the world in which we live. We need completeness in the range of stories that tell how our world was created. In all that, there is room for criticism and thoughtful correction. Academics can find a role in this enterprise. Big History is not “anything goes”.

I would suggest that Big History should consist of grand narratives about the creation and development of the universe. Each narrative would contain a set of stories - about the development of the cosmos, the appearance of life on earth, and human communities and culture.

We already have such narratives in books published by distinguished members of the IBHA. David Christian’s book, Maps of Time, is an example of Big History. So are Cynthia Stokes Brown’s Big History, Fred Spier’s The Structure of Big History, and the textbook, Big History: Between Nothing and Everything coauthored by David Christian, Cynthia Brown, and Craig Benjamin. And I plan to publish my own version of this story in the near future.

Let me propose that a basic work in the field of Big History might be a narrative up to or around 500 pages in length like David Christian’s Maps of Time. It should be written as much as possible in the form of stories whose events are arranged in chronological order. Now, of course, deviations from this form may be necessary as when events in different nations or regions proceed on separate tracks or where technical explanations of subjects are required. But, in the main, storytelling takes the form of “first this happens, then this, then that” as we move from one situation to another and the world is changed. We are, of course, talking about stories from the different domains of astronomy, geology, biology, archeology, anthropology, and history, all assembled in a single piece of writing.

To date, storytelling has been mostly an individual endeavor. What we need in this case, however, is a collaborative effort. Theoretical science is the model. Individual scientists do research in various areas and develop theories that are communicated to the scientific community. Others test the theories. Some become generally accepted while others are rejected. Theories change as new evidence is introduced. From this diversified activity comes a consensus of what scientists believe to be true.

I believe that much the same model can be applied to historical story telling. It, too, can be collaborative in nature. And the International Big History Association can be the prime facilitator of collaborative Big History.

We start with basic models - books like David Christian’s Maps of Time. However, this is not the only model of Big History that should be accepted. Christian himself stated at the conference that he wanted to encourage other approaches to be considered as well. So we need to throw several different works into the hopper. Ideally, these would be narratives of Big History that are roughly 500 pages in length. They would be seamless sets of stories covering the subjects of Big History. The IBHA would post these different models on a web site. Here is where the collaboration begins.

If the story of Big History appears in a 500-page book, there is no reason why a 5,000- page book should not later be written covering the same material in greater detail even if few persons would be interested in reading such works in their entirety. The basic model would provide an outline of where the story should go. Each grand narrative told in a book already published would be substantiated with smaller stories that descend to the level of immediate or personal experience. And so we would have a pyramid of history arranged from the general to the specific. Specialists in the field would write that part of the story that they know best. They would fill in the details of the generalized stories in a collaborative effort.

The collaboration might also take the form of correcting the basic models themselves. Each book of Big History, no matter how well researched, will contain factual errors needing to be corrected. Beyond that, each book involves a certain selection of materials to be covered, which necessarily means that other areas of experience will not be covered. The author must exercise judgment as to which events and stories best represent the way our world developed.

Not all big historians think alike. Not all will focus on the same sets of stories. Therefore, we open the existing stories up to criticism and comment with the idea that they might be modified to produce a more complete, balanced, and accurate representation of the world.

I have in mind a Wikipedia-like enterprise devoted to producing larger and better expressions of Big History. However, some guidance from the IBHA would also be needed to ensure quality. The collaboration would, of course, be computer-based. Here is how it might work:

The IBHA, with the help of computer experts such as Microsoft Research, would first set up a web site to display the basic models of Big History that were selected as being worthy of further study. It would gain the consent of the book authors to waive copyright protection of the displayed works in certain respects.

The next step would be to number the book chapters and the paragraphs in each chapter. So, for example, we would have “Christian 3-26” to indicate the 26th paragraph in the 3rd chapter of David Christian’s book, Maps of Time. (This is the paragraph that introduces the idea of plate tectonics to the earth sciences.) This would identify the place where further work might be focused.

At the end of each paragraph posted on the web would be a link to another page where work might be done to improve or expand upon information in the paragraph.

First, it would be helpful if the author of the basic model would indicate the source of information upon which his or her statements are based. For example, where did Christian encounter the idea of plate tectonics and learn that this theory became generally accepted in the late 1960s?

Second, there might be a place on this page where an outside reviewer might make comments about materials in the paragraph. He or she might question Christian’s source of information. If a substantial challenge is made to the veracity or relevance of the author’s assertions, the reviewer might rewrite the paragraph and propose that it be substituted for what the author wrote, after offering a reason to make the substitution based upon scientific evidence or interpretation.

Third, there might be a place on this page where the outsider could present an expanded version of the story told in the basic model. Slowly the base of the historical pyramid would be filled, each scholar contributing what he or she knows, until we had a complete 5,000-page book.

The idea here is to construct a continually expanding and improving set of stories in each work of Big History. Let specialists in each area do the work and hope that eventually a well-rounded and more accurate history will emerge. There would be several different models of Big History. Interested persons could pick whichever model he or she wished to amend, leaving the others alone. In such a way, each original model would acquire a body of proposed changes, additions, or corrections upon which to base a new version.

The next step then is to compile the amended work. Let’s call the book Maps of Time “Christian, version 1.0”. Using proposed materials submitted by outside reviewers, “Christian, version 1.1” would be created.

Who would decide which proposals would be accepted for the new work? Let’s say that the original author - in this case, David Christian - would have the authority to accept or reject the various proposals. Alternatively, another person considered to be of sound judgment who is associated with the IBHA, or perhaps a committee of such persons, would be authorized to produce version 1.1 of Christian’s book. It all depends on who is willing to do the work. In any event, the production of the new structure of writing would be a collaborative effort involving not only the original author but also other persons who have something to contribute to the emerging work.

Let’s return to the idea that academics dislike stories. And since the IBHA is a professional organization of scholars in various academic disciplines, we do not wish to offend those who fund our conferences or otherwise contribute to the discipline that we are building.

First, let me point out, somewhat contentiously, that academic professional associations, especially in the humanities, are beginning to wither as higher education in the United States moves increasingly toward a business model of operation. Today’s colleges and universities are not as willing to fund faculty trips to attend conferences in distant locations as they used to be. Instead, they are investing in amenities-rich faculties to attract students who can pay the high tuitions if not in high-powered marketing efforts to attract paying students. So if the IBHA stakes its future on development of an academic discipline alone - as important as this is - it could be making a mistake. Non-academics also play a role in this organization. Big History is directed as well toward the public at large.

Second, the disciplined activity of building larger and improved structures of Big History may attract support from academics in the so-called “silo-based” disciplines, especially if they themselves choose to participate in this project. An archeologist may wish to write his own version of history in the chapter related to archeological discoveries; a geologist may wish to rewrite geological history, etc. As more academic specialists become involved in the project at a level of greater detail, their support for Big History as its own discipline may increase. There need not be deliberate courting of such individuals for the field itself to gain academic respectability.

But again, Big History, like any other history, starts with story telling. Stories are a legitimate vehicle for expressing knowledge. We need not be ashamed.

(Note: The above article was published in the September, 2014, newsletter of the International Big History Association.)


Part 2

Big History is a creation story whose content and design are provided by contemporary science. It presents the history of the universe from the big bang to events in our own time. However, this universe involves not only various bodies in outer space but also the earth, living creatures on earth, and the societies and culture of humanity. Three types of being - matter, life, and thought - are included in a single set of stories.

A creation story narratives a series of events leading from the beginning of existence to the present situation. The big bang, launching physical existence, happened 13.8 billion years ago. Life first appeared 3.5 billion years ago. The first civilizations appeared in the fourth millennium B.C. All three realms of being coexist at the present time.

This means that, apart from its conclusion, much of the story in each area of Big History consists of events from the distant past. The storyteller did not live in those times and, therefore, did not personally experience the events. How, then, does the narrator of Big History know what occurred in the past or which events to put in the story? Simply put, we cannot return to the past to see what happened then. Yet, we want the stories to be fact-based. There seems to be a contradiction here.

The stories of Big History are, metaphorically, like frames in a movie. We take snapshots of a scene at successive points of time and put them together to create the illusion of motion. Likewise, the big historians describe the situation at the beginning, tell what happened next, and then next, and so on, until we come to the present situation at the story’s end. But how do we know the beginning situation or, indeed, any of the intervening events before the present? Unless we lived through those previous times, we would have no direct knowledge of them.

Big historians rely upon empirical science to provide content for their stories. Science gathers this information from direct observation of nature. Nature is observed through the senses - seeing, hearing, smelling, etc. Sight may be the most important mode of observation. The point is, however, that observation always takes place in the present. It takes place at a particular moment in time when the observer is focusing attention upon an object in the natural world and seeing or recording it.

There is, then, another contradiction: Big History tells a story taking place over a period of time. We must know a series of events, both present and past, to tell this story. However, empirical science, the source of the stories, knows only what can be observed in the present. Where does it get its information about the past?

Modern science has a way of guessing what happened in past times from evidence gathered in the present. But it has taken a long time for science to develop the techniques of guessing accurately about such things. This means that years ago, before this capability was developed, there could not have been creation stories based on science that would inspire the confidence in its knowledge that we have today. In other words, we needed to have better instruments of observation, better theories, and a much larger base of scientific information before Big History could become a viable discipline.

The techniques of observation and analysis differ for each of the areas comprising Big History. The main areas would be: (1) the development of physical existence (matter) in the cosmos, (2) the development of life on earth, and (3) the development of thought-based civilizations. The scientific fields to supply information for stories in these respective areas would be: (1) astronomy, physics and chemistry, (2) biology and paleontology, and (3) anthropology, archeology and history. Let us consider briefly how these various fields of knowledge emerged.

Knowledge of the cosmos comes mostly from astronomical observations supplemented by known principles of physics and chemistry. The challenge is to bridge the huge time disparity between events concerning stars and galaxies and the life span of human beings. None of us will live long enough to experience significant galactic events directly. The story of Big History takes place over billions of years. As individuals, we live only for several decades.

Some astronomical events occur quite quickly. For example, the earth rotates once every day on its axis. The earth orbits the sun once a year. Human beings individually experience these cycles but not the larger ones affecting the creation of the sun and the earth and other such bodies. Those events happen much too slowly.

Therefore, astronomical knowledge initially consisted of what could be immediately observed. Primitive man organized stars in constellations suggesting the outline of animals. Certain “stars” which changed positions in the sky over weeks or months were later understood to be planets in the solar system.

Astronomers later learned to separate types of incoming radiation by wave length. They learned which chemical elements absorbed certain types of radiation and which were their source. They recognized how the Doppler effect would affect wave lengths to suggest relative motions. Even so, such knowledge described a static universe or, at least, a universe observed at a certain moment in time. It took more and better observation and new techniques of analysis to develop the picture of a changing universe which would support a story.

For example, the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which correlates a star’s luminosity (or brightness) with its surface temperature, represents an advance in that direction. The great majority of stars are plotted on a graph along a downward sloping line that leads from stars with high temperatures and high luminosity to stars with low temperatures and low luminosity. These are the so-called “main sequence” stars. Stars plotted along this line are at various stages in their life cycle as they convert hydrogen into helium and gradually run out of fuel. Stars outside this sequence such as red giants or, on the other hand, white dwarfs represent the same group in a later, post-exhaustion phase.

By understanding stars in this way, astronomers do not have to live the billions of years necessary to watch a star move down the line toward lower temperatures and luminosity. They need only observe a number of different stars representing different phases in the stellar life cycle. Robert Carneiro calls this the “comparative method”. Many different stars observed in various stages of their life cycle suggest how a particular star might develop over millions and billions of years. Because of the time disparities, none of this could be observed directly.

The theory of an ever expanding universe came from astronomer Edwin Hubble’s realization that the fact that light illustrating the Doppler shift toward the red end of the spectrum was present in all parts of the sky meant that stars in all directions were moving away from earth. That, in turn, meant that, instead of earth moving in a particular direction, the whole universe was expanding. If the universe was expanding, it also meant that the universe was once much smaller than it presently is. In fact, this entire universe must have once existed in a single spot before the “big bang”. More advanced techniques of observation have recently allowed us to measure the subsequent movement in time and space with some precision.

The earth has also undergone changes since it solidified as a body orbiting the sun 4.56 billion years ago. Originally molten, its surface has acquired a crust of basalt and granite rock. Whole continents have changed shape and position as portions of the crust have shifted. Geologists using carbon-dating techniques based on rates of radioactive decay to analyze rock have been able to track those changes over time. Therefore, a story can be told of what has happened over millions of years to make the earth what it presently is. Originally, geology was able only to identify various kinds of rocks. Now it can help tell a story about the earth’s development.

The biological sciences have likewise developed beyond schemes of classification. Aristotle and his followers observed types of wild life from various regions which Alexander the Great’s armies visited. The Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus developed a scheme of classifying species of plant and animal life that is still used today. However, it was Charles Darwin who developed and popularized the idea of species evolving from previous ones over long periods of time. Homo sapiens, our species, evolved from primate ancestors whose descendants also include monkeys and apes.

While the progression from one humanoid species to another does not take place before our eyes, biologists and paleontologists can recognize bodily features characteristic of the various kinds of primates and can tell which came sooner or later than others. Those features are recognized in skeletal remains unearthed in various places. A more recent technique using live specimens is DNA analysis.

The history of human culture is divided between prehistoric and historic times. Our knowledge of prehistoric culture is based largely on tools and other artifacts found near human remains. Experienced archeologists recognize from the design of objects which people have created them and when. Tribal peoples today also provide knowledge of their ancestral ways. Similarities between words in several languages offer insights into the origin and development of language itself.

Written language is the key to acquiring knowledge about events taking place in historical times. Through ancient scripts that have been deciphered we have a direct surviving link to what people were thinking at a distant time in the past. Video and audial recordings made since the 19th century add a sensory dimension to verbal expression. History begins to exist in real time.

In summary, modern science has developed various ways of knowing what has happened in the past to feed the many and diverse stories of creation. Once specific events are known, they can be pieced together in a story synchronized to human consciousness. But before a credible story can be told, natural science must provide the best available information concerning events and developments along the way. The new field of Big History is therefore a composite of science and storytelling.


See paper presented by William McGaughey at the 2014 IBHA conference.

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