Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (California World History Library) Paperback – 1 Mar 2005
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"No work in this genre [macro-history] is better than David Christian's Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History.... [I]t is a brilliantly executed act of provocation." - The Times "Forges bold and ingenious connections between the physical and social sciences." - The Age "A good read, a fascinating prospectus for a new kind of history." - American Scientist"
About the Author
David Christian is Professor in the Department of History at San Diego State University. He is the author of Living Water: Vodka and Russian Society on the Eve of Emancipation (1990), Imperial and Soviet Russia: Power, Privilege and the Challenge of Modernity (1997), and A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia: Volume 1: Inner Eurasia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire (1998).
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Top Customer Reviews
It sets out to combine a natural history of the universe from the Big Bang onwards with what most of us think of as history, i.e. human history. These two main parts of the work are followed by a kind of epilogue – if that’s the correct term – where the author speculates about what might happen in the near and not-so-near future. This I found somewhat out of keeping with the “just the facts” approach earlier in the book.
As far as I can tell the author does a more than adequate job of the covering the non-human part of the work i.e. the first 13.7 billion years but I think the appeal of this book is its attempt to integrate human history into the history of the universe. In a way it is like an Agatha Christie novel. I don’t think many people read them for their character development, sparkling prose or insights into the human condition. They read them to find out whodunit.
Similarly, if one wants a history of the cosmos then a work by a scientist or professional science writer would probably do a better job. But this book includes a world history i.e. a history of humanity since the emergence of our species and – like the Christie reader who judges the book by the twists in and the ingenuity of the plot – so in the end I gave my rating based on the author’s treatment of human history.Read more ›
Cosmology (Big Bang 13 billion yrs ago) yields to astronomy (Solar system including Planet Earth formed 4.6 billion yrs ago) yields to geology, yields to microbiology ( Life begins 3.8 billion years ago) yields to zoology (Multicellular organisms evolve 600 million years ago) yields to primatology ( 70 million years ago) yields to archaeology (Bipedal hominines 7 million- 200,000 years ago and Homo Sapiens 150,000 - 10,000 years ago ) yields to pre-history ( early agricultural communities between 11,000 and 6,000 years ago), ancient history (early civilisations between 5,000 and 2,000 years ago) yields to history , geography and finally to current affairs - all in one sweeping narrative !
In a similar spirit to the principle of E.O. Wilson's `Consilience', it's a marvellous achievement to demonstrate that the disciplines will integrate so seamlessly.
I found I was more eagerly fascinated by some chapters than others, but enjoyed most of all the audacity of the overviewing sweep. Lots of good quality further reading recommendations are also included.
Definitely a worthwhile experience.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Maps of Time is one of the most significant books to impact upon my recent intellectual development, if not the most significant. Prior to this book, I was not even aware of the new genre of history known as "Big History". Now - and forever after - I will view everything - and I mean everything - through the prism of Christian's fascinating concepts, which essentially unite all of science and all of human history into a single grand discipline.
Christian launches his opus by promising the reader "a modern creation story" -- sans supernatural creatures - that explains how we got to be the advanced, networked, highly-intelligent 21st century beings reading this book, and he eloquently delivers. So we begin our human history not with the first cities in 3000 BCE or Neolithic villages in 8000 BCE or even the australopithecines circa 3 million years ago, but rather with the Big Bang event itself, some 13 billion years ago.
For the non-scientist, some of the physics concepts are a bit tough - it is difficult for me to "grok" the "theory of inflation," for example, which posits that ". . . for a fraction of a second, between ca.10-34 and 10-32 seconds after the big bang, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light . . . driven apart by some form of antigravity." But the overall ideas are easier to negotiate than with a Stephen Hawking book, and the science does not bog down the text, but rather enlightens it. I won't remember everything I read in that chapter, and I'll be even less competent regurgitating it at a cocktail party, but I was nevertheless filled with awe for both the magnificence of Big Bang cosmology and Christian's ability to distill it to a general audience.
And the book has amazing momentum, driven primarily by Christian's effortless movement from one discipline to another to highlight the ideas he articulates, as well as to provide fertile ground for wonderful metaphors - he refers to slaves as "human batteries" for example - that consistently remind us that despite the seeming chaos and randomness in human history and the universe itself, there is also an amazing sense of cross-disciplinary order that appears to affect everything. And that's where those outstanding metaphors and similes come in that make you smile and shake your head slowly from side to side in a kind of "I-am-not-worthy" appreciation of his skills as a writer and a thinker.
He liberally borrows from and incorporates the work of others (always with appropriate credit) to weave an even tighter narrative. I remember having to pause and sigh when I came upon this in a discussion of the explosion of human populations and the dominant role of our species in the biosphere: "Humans have become [according to Margulis and Sagan] . . . a sort of "mammalian weed" . . . [and according to Cipolla, it is as if we are] . . . in the presences of the growth curve of a microbe population in a body suddenly struck by some infectious disease. The `bacillus' man is taking over the world." Heady stuff indeed!
This is a big, dense, long book, and I took my time reading it over several months, while I read other books at the same time. Maps of Time is not really intended, in my view, for a cover-to-cover read that swallows all the material in a sudden gulp, but rather in slow, meaningful sips that will treat your intellect to some serious and repeated "treats" that you will marvel at even as you find your entire perspective towards history and the sciences irrevocably altered by this monumental work.
David Christian is Professor of History at San Diego State University, and he teaches courses on big history. For my recent birthday, I received as a gift the Teaching Company audio set of 48 lectures for his course "Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity," which I look forward to keeping me company in the car for many hours to come. Moreover, it is not entirely out of the question that one day I will read Maps of Time again, if only to relive the intellectual rapture I experienced on my first time through.
Don't miss this book! It will forever change the way you conceive of yourself as a part of the universe, and perhaps your macro view of the universe itself.
If you are unsure of whether you want to attempt the book, find it at your local library and read the second appendix in which Christian succinctly covers its key points and chronology. If that grabs your attention, order a copy that you can annotate, start at the beginning and take the time to integrate the stages and savor the cosmic and scientific implications. There are points that demand that the reader accompany Christian on a temporal leap and make a note to fill in a blank later. To that end, Christian provides helpful lists of reference books along with chapter summaries at the end of each chapter. Even with the occasional leap, Christian has provided us with an investment that is well worth the time.
It was for me the book at the center of my expending library, because it comes with a extensive bibliography from which I'm now selecting books about the different parts of the big everything to continue reading.
The best book I've read in years (and I read a lot of (non)fiction books, about a large variaty of subjects).
Christian can be kind of fuzzy. For a book of history there are remarkably few dates, and I often found myself asking, "Just when did this take place?" I was also bothered by the way Christian didn't "define his terms." For example, a fair amount of the last part of the book talks about Europe becoming "commercial." But he never tells us just what he means by commercial, or how we can tell when one country is more commercial than another, or how we can tell whether a country has gotten a lot more commercial or just a little more commercial.
I was especially frustrated by a section near the end. He seems to say, "The modern world is capitalist. The modern world has tremendous poverty. Therefore, capitalism has caused tremendous poverty." This seems silly. Most people would agree that capitalism involves well-defined and well-protected property rights, and a large amount of freedom to engage in economic transactions without interference by a government. By this standard, much of the world isn't all that capitalist. Moreover, in general, the less "capitalist" the country, the poorer it is. Blaming capitalism for poverty seems like blaming medicine when people refuse to allow their children to get vaccinated and then the kids get sick. No doubt Christian means something different by capitalism--but since he doesn't say what, it is impossible to know how to agree or disagree.
A major theme of the book is that for most of the last two thousand years, the richest areas of the world were southwest Asia (mesopotamia and Persia), south Asia (India) and east Asia (China). As late as 1800, a "man from Mars" would have reported back to his home planet that India and China, not Europe, were where people lived best. The book then seems to say that a century later, China and India were poverty-stricken. Yet aside from a reference to the Opium Wars (and some reading between the lines about population increase), there is no explanation of how such a monumental change happened.
Sometimes Christian doesn't realize the power of simple arithmetic. If one farm family can produce enough food to feed one family, just about everyone has to be a farmer. If technology improves so that one farm family can feed two families, one half of the farm families will have to cease being farmers. If technology means one farm family can feed three, two thirds of the farm families have to get out of the ancestral business. Whether the process will be negative ("thrown off the land") or positive (peasants flee "the idiocy of rural life" for the increased stimulation and opportunity of urban areas) will depend on a lot of things, but the fact that it happens follows directly from the increased productivity. High agricultural productivity dooms a peasantry.