on 3 December 2006
This is a well-written academic book with >600 pages. I think I bought it because of the title and the very descriptive reviews it received. The sub-title mentions "big history" and I was surprised to learn that this is becoming a recognised domain of study and teaching. The idea to try to integrate both the physical, biological and social dimensions of our past is a great one, but I think the author could have found a less longwinded and repetitive way of setting the scene in his introduction. The idea, once explained, is obvious and does not need to be justified and defended in multiple ways. The book is divided into 6 parts and 15 chapters. The Inanimate Universe gets about 80 pages, Life on Earth gets another 60 pages, Early Human History gets 70 pages, The Holocene 130 pages, The Modern Era another 130 pages, and the Future around 30 pages (appendixes, notes, bibliography, and the index make up the rest).
Starting at the beginning with a 22 pages chapter on "the first 300,000 years" left me wondering about the level of detail I could expect. But clearly the author has to cover an enormous amount of space and time, and some compromises must be made. A very nice touch is that each of the 15 chapters ends with a short summary and a section on further reading. However I felt that the summaries could have been a touch longer, say 1-2 pages rather than the usual ½ page. And the "further reading" could have been more contextualised and explained to help the reader identify where best to go to delve more deeply. I was disappointed that from chapter to chapter the author did not more clearly identify and extract insights and patterns that would support the idea of "big history". Overall I found part I on "The Inanimate Universe" too superficial. For example, I have always wondered what happened between 11 billion years ago and the creation of the solar system some 4-5 billion years ago, and this book did not answer that question.
So I felt that Part I failed to capture the magnificent creation of the universe. But Part's II and III recovered well, in that I felt here the author was in his element, with clear, descriptive and analytical prose. In addition to what I felt was a very convincing and well balance description, the author also introduced his two/three critical concepts in the evolution of modern man - namely language, it's importance in enabling collective learning, and thus the move towards increasingly complex organised structures of human society. I have much sympathy with the recognition of language as a fundamental factor in the evolution of man, however beyond making statements of faith the author does not offer much in the way of concrete evidence. On the other hand I felt the discussion around the introduction of agriculture very well presented and convincing.
As we move into part IV "The Holocene" we see a desire by the author to pull together and list much information. I appreciate that this period was incredibly rich in the way society evolved, however I would have liked to see a more in-depth analysis on the way particular civilisations grew and declined. I would have also appreciated a clearer focus on essential messages and patterns supported by more statistical data.
What statistics were missing in part IV appeared in part V on the "The Modern Era". Here the concept of collective learning and its relationship to innovation was underscored, but not I felt developed to the full. So again in part V I felt that key concepts (language, collective learning, and innovation) were not sufficiently underlined, prioritised and discussed. The examples given on the way information migrated across the surface of the planet, and how centres of economic power emerged and developed could perhaps have benefited from some maps and diagrams. However I found the discussion on the relative importance of China in earlier times an eye opener worth following up in further reading. Another topic that incites me to read further is the constant (over?) reference to Thomas Malthus and the role of population cycles.
In part VI on "The Future" the author was commendably discrete and he did not make the mistake of trying to attract attention by making rash predictions.
On a more pedantic note I would have liked to see recognition given to those who had won Nobel Prizes for the work that was mentioned in the book. Another pedantic issue was the focus the author gave to explaining annotations such as 10-23 but not explaining what a spectral type G2 yellow star was - our sun. Finally I'm still not sure what a cubic molecule is, at least in the context mentioned on page 55.
So how to conclude? The author has tried to bring together elements of physical, biological, and social history into a single timeframe. And despite many criticisms, he has done a pretty good job. I would have liked a stronger focus on key patterns that emerge and are intertwined throughout the evolution of our planet. I would also have liked a more tightly argued and justified support for the importance of language, collective learning, and (technological) innovation as key to the evolution of man. The idea that these three elements represent the key steps in moving from chaos to increasingly complex, but structured, systems is present throughout the book, and I would have like to have seen this summarised and developed more, possibly in part IV on "The Future". One review I read mentioned that the emergence of the machine would be a valid topic for part IV - thinking about this I would say that the role of machines throughout human history has perhaps been played down in this book yet in many ways they encapsulate in a very clear way the importance of collective learning and the spread of technological innovation.
No matter how you look at it this book remains academic, but despite that it is very well written. I particularly liked the way the author, an Australian, avoided uniquely European-centric views by introducing experiences and examples from quite a variety of world cultures. Also just the idea of creating a historical narrative on a grand scale is certainly to be applauded.
In fact the author has done such a good job that I will forgive the mention on the book cover that the author's work is analogous to the way Newton united the heavens and the earth. More realistically the author has established a good de-facto standard in his field, which will challenge and stimulate many others to try to do better. To be honest this book is a great introduction to a complex and intriguing subject, and it is so reasonably priced that there is no excuse for not having a copy on your shelves. Finally this book succeeded in stimulating in me the desire to continue to read in and around "big history".