Christian, David: Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History

In Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, David Christian attempts to describe nothing less than the complete history of the universe, from the Big Bang up to the present day (and even beyond). While I am not convinced that the book needed to cover quite that broad a time span, I found it a useful look at the large-scale forces that have shaped the world as we know it today.

The first three chapters cover the inanimate universe, from the origins of the universe through the formation of the Earth. These are the chapters that I am least sure are necessary: not only are they radically different from the chapters that follow, but they include some of the most difficult material. And though Christian is not a physicist, he seems to have internalized enough physics concepts to toss off, just in passing, a couple of remarks that sent me running to Chad to ask, “why didn’t anyone ever tell me this?!” Which somewhat disrupts the reading process.

(They were, for the curious, that photons and electrons interact (I know that photons and atoms interact, but no-one ever mentions electrons), and that energy has mass (I know that energy and mass are two forms of the same thing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are also each other at the same time; after all, photons don’t have mass). Chad is working on a popular science book that frequently uses photons as examples, so maybe I’m just sensitive to photons at the moment.)

So I think I would have been just as happy with a book that told the history of life on Earth, though I freely admit my species-centered bias here: what most interested me was the look, from a very wide perspective, at the way human societies have developed over time. And here I think the book is both clear and illuminating. It explores the factors that result in the crossing of different thresholds of complexity, with an emphasis on the networks of exchange in which information is shared. It takes an emphatically global perspective, particularly arguing for the importance of India and China up to the Industrial Revolution. And it does its best to avoid describing pretty much anything about humanity as though it were inevitable or a simple straight path of progress all the way. (I should note, though, that my background in history is so weak as to be nearly nonexistent, and so I’m relying on my general-purpose filters to catch problematic attitudes.)

The comparison that probably comes to mind immediately is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. While I haven’t read that book, my impression is that people interested in the subject matter of Diamond’s book, at least, might well want to take a look at Maps of Time. At about 500 pages, plus endnotes, it’s a substantial read, but generally accessible. I didn’t internalize as much as I would have liked, but that’s partly because I was reading it in chunks over a long period of time. I’ll be acquiring a copy for our own library (I read a copy borrowed from Union College) and look forward to having it on the shelf for reference and re-reading.

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