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The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction

Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History

by David Christian, foreword by William H. McNeill
University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2011
672 pp., illus. 56 b/w. Paper, e-book, $26.95
ISBN: 978-0-520271449; ISBN: 9780520950672.

Reviewed by Enzo Ferrara
Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica (INRIM) and Istituto di Ricerca Interdisciplinare sulla Sostenibilità (IRIS)
Torino, Italy


e.ferrara@inrim.it

The concept of historical consciousness emerged in the first half of the 20th century indicating the collective capability to understand and join the contemporary reality, recognizing the major events and actors that defined it, also advancing proper questions about its chance of continued existence. Two chief quantities at all times concur in determining historical consciousness: the limitation of the physical space and the awareness of the time scale people live in. Different meanings of life and humanity’s place in the universe are deducible if duration of time closes over six thousands years, as stated by literal reading of the sacred texts, or expands back to 13 billions years, as dated by science; the same applies if the perspective is limited by the Pillars of Hercules or able to appreciate even a faint gleam sinking into the most remote black hole.

Actually, historical consciousness delineates the way we look at complex questions of life, nature and society, broadening common understanding of reality and striving hard to unburden ourselves of the baggage of tradition and claims of modernity. Time and space have so much been enlightened by science that no thresholds remain to their conceptual extension. Wide awake to this concept, David Christian, historian at San Diego State University, was able to provide modern historical consciousness with its own sense of meaning. With the help of colleagues who gave lectures on geology, biology, and anthropology, Christian constructed what has been called Big History: an issue embracing all the cosmic, natural, and cultural passages that gave birth, eventually, to such a modern disenchanted idealism able to embed even the ephemeral story of humankind into the notions of infinity and eternity. His book was first published in 2005, with a new preface in 2011.

Before being registered in encyclopaedias, Big History formed in minds and discourses blending human memories and scientific evidences; it is the history on the largest possible scale, from the beginning of the world until its end. The maps of time provided by Christian’s title can, in principle, help to find a place for everything but with large uncertainty. This idea is captured in the image created by environmental historian Alfred Cosby –– found on the back cover of the book –– and its caption “You are here” placed above an arrow pointing about halfway on a poster of the Milky Way galaxy. The book includes cosmology, geology, archaeology, environmental studies, and starts with what the author dubitatively puts forward as A Modern Creation Myth: the scientific narration of the origins of galaxies, stars, and planets in the inanimate universe. The discourse moves then on the appearance of life and its expansion on Earth as biosphere. The ensuing steps tackle the birth of humankind and its expansion until the present, thanks to the capability to take control over nature, delineating major socio-cultural and political achievements (cities, states, technology) in the long era of agricultural civilizations. Later on – schematizing as much as possible the centuries – recurrent courses of innovation, commercialization, and globalization forged the world approaching modernity, until the great technological acceleration of the XIX and XX centuries. Features of the contemporary age are much condensed in the title accompanying its appearance on the book: One World – to be compared with the previous Many Worlds (Early human history), and Few Worlds (The Holocene) – order, unity, and alliance are fundamental notions to the idea of progress. Maps of Time closes with perspectives on the possible future examined at different levels: the near future (centuries), the intermediate future (millennia), and the remote future (billions of years). Each chapter ends with a summary; most have a timeline as a useful accompaniment. In a first appendix, a review of dating techniques is provided along with A Chronology for the Whole of Time, an outline with estimated dates and brief descriptions of the fundamental transitions dealt with in the text.

All of the depicted passages, from the origin of the universe to the industrial revolution, are reduced in a second appendix to a succession of Chaos and Order, whose cooperative endeavour, which we call complexity, aims but “for the second law of thermodynamics to work more efficiently towards its bleak goal of a universe without order” (p. 509). The increase in the level of complexity from simpler entities over the course of time is a consequence of natural processes, Christian explains. Such passages of Big History as the formation of stars from cosmic dust, multi-celled organisms from organic substances, and cities from sparkled groups of settlers, have a number of common features: All are “transitions to greater complexity [that] come about through the creation of new forms of interdependence, as entities that once existed more or less independently are incorporated within new and larger structures” (p. 139). As preset by Nobel Prize Phil Anderson [1], Christian too remarks that “as new levels of complexity have appeared they seem to operate according to new rules (emergent properties, in the jargon of complexity theory)” (p.140).

Complexity is suitable to embody modern historical consciousness, and interdependence is a further possibility for evolution. Unfortunately, science makes clear that the total energy of the universe is constant, but its amount usable to create complex entities (free energy) can only decrease, while unusable energy (entropy) can only increase. Complexity is but a brief anomaly grown-up in energy differentials, ending in greater chaos. Successive steps in complexity and interdependence have determined the course of Big History until humans emerged. The need to corroborate human skills with universal coordinates is probably the driving force also of Maps of Time––the only myth coherently available for human beings educated in the bitter regret of scientific traditions, and conscious that “from the standpoint of an inconceivably distant future, when the universe contains no more than a depressingly thin sprinkling of photons and subatomic particles, the 13 billion years covered in this book will seem like a brief, exuberant springtime” (p. 491).

References:

1. Philip W. Anderson, More is Different, Science, Vol. 177, No. 4047, Aug. 4, 1972, pp. 393-396.


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