Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present

Posted by nliakos on February 28, 2013

by Cynthia Stokes Brown (The New Press, 2007)

Actually, the title should be “From the Big Bang to the Future,” because the final chapter, “What Now? What Next?” looks at the present and takes a stab at predicting what the future might bring; she concludes, “Either people will be able to curb their growth and use of resources, or nature and human nature will do it for them (disease, starvation, warfare, genocide, and social collapse)….” But I am getting ahead of myself.

Brown really does start out from the beginning of the universe according to the Big Bang Theory and works forward from there, outlining the history of the planet and all its life forms, including us; as she reaches the historic past, she not surprisingly slows down and provides greater detail, but she still has to confine whole books, maybe libraries, of knowledge into mere chapters and paragraphs, as she does in Chapter 11, “Connecting the Globe (1450 – 1800 CE)” when in the section ‘The Major Empires’ she covers the Qing Dynasty, the Moghul Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire, the Hapsburgs, and rural European life during the period in ten paragraphs.

For someone like me who never had a good course in world history (and I suspect I am not alone, especially in America), but who has just picked up a little knowledge here and there by reading, watching public television and listening to NPR, this book identifies and briefly explains all those terms I have heard but did not really understand (like Safavid Empire), but more importantly, it looks at them as part of a larger whole, so we better understand some of the forces that drove the events we have heard about.

There were many things that I had previously had no idea of (but in retrospect, should have)–like the concept that with the birth of agriculture began the process of environmental desecration that continues today (deforestation, soil contamination, and overpopulation). I guess I just assumed that prior to industrialization, humankind did not do much damage to the Earth. I should have known better, because I have seen the arid hills of Greece which were stripped of their vegetation by goats so long ago. The goats are still there, but the vegetation, for the most part, is long gone.

And then there’s the occasional surprising factoid, like the belief of many scholars that a half of one percent of the men in the world may be descended from Genghis Khan. It’s unprovable, at least until somebody locates Genghis’ remains somewhere in Mongolia, but is apparently quite likely. (Brown devotes about nine pages  to the rise and demise of the Mongol Empire; what she says about it is in basic agreement with Jack Weatherford, whose book she cites on one occasion.)

So in a mere 248 pages, Brown seeks to explain pretty much everything that has happened since the universe began. Not surprisingly, she seems to run out of steam somewhat towards the end. Each chapter concludes with several unresolved questions about the era covered in the chapter, like “How much cannibalism was there among the Aztecs?” or “Can the Garden of Eden and the Biblical flood be located historically?” And for twelve chapters, she answers those questions as best she can, mentioning evidence for various responses. But in the final chapter, she does not even attempt to answer the questions. Maybe that’s because no one can answer them: (1) Are current world policies leading to a sustainable future or to some kind of collapse? (2) Can new technologies alter the long-range tendency of world systems to grow and collapse? (3) Can the market system allocate resources in a sustainable way? . . . (4) Can industrialized people learn to live in harmony with nature? Can they share with less industrialized people? (Personally, my guess is (1) to a collapse, (2) No, (3) No, and (4) No and No. How pessimistic is that?)

Before I end this, I have to mention a very weird sentence on page 207: “Only Europe and China built oceanic navies, and China retracted its.”  I teach grammar to students of English as a second language, and all the texts say that the pronoun it has no possessive form (There is a possessive adjective: its navies is certainly correct.).  I am well aware that ESL grammar often tries to simplify and regularize that which is very complicated and irregular, and that we frequently tell our students to follow rules that native speakers pay no attention to; but this sentence does sound awfully strange to me. Am I just an old grammar fuddy-duddy, or was Brown’s editor out to lunch on this one? Leave me a comment if you want to weigh in.

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