Cover Page

Praise for the first edition

‘Brilliant. It pushes the project of theorizing big history a lot further, in exactly the right way, alert to the dangers of over-theorizing or theorizing on too limited information. It will be a major contribution to the discipline.’

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

‘This book has convinced me not only that Big History is interesting and exciting, but has established a genuine intellectual basis for integrating historical knowledge, and historical method, with those of the natural world. This is a framework in which, ideally, all history should be investigated, taught and discussed.’

R. I. Moore, Emeritus Professor of History, Newcastle University

‘The most exciting book that I’ve read in 30 years. A masterpiece!’

Barry Rodrigue, University of Southern Maine

‘Narratives don’t come much grander than the current scientific view of the history of the Universe … Spier is one of a small band of exponents of big history, the effort to put the whole story together in an academically rigorous way … Everyone should have access to this.’

Times Higher Education Supplement

To William Hardy McNeill:
The historian I admire the most in the whole wide world.

We remain submerged in a vast evolutionary process that began with the Big Bang (probably) and is heading to an unknown future – a system in which matter and energy evolve, stars form and break apart, the solar system took form and will eventually collapse (but not before life does), and human societies emerged on planet Earth, beginning an evolution whose end is not in sight.

(William H. McNeill, The Global Condition (1992), pp. xiv–xv)




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Figure 1.1: Alexander von Humboldt in his library, Oranienburger Straße 67, Berlin, Germany. Chromolithograph, copy of water-color drawing by Eduard Hildebrandt, 1856 CE. (Original in possession of the author)

Figure 2.1: Goldilocks falling from a tree. Apparently, she has overstepped her boundaries. Soon, her complexity will be damaged as a result of the impact caused by gravitational energy. (Drawing by Giulia Spier, 2007 CE, then 4 years old)

Figure 3.1: The variation in the cosmic background radiation provides evidence for the first emergence of greater complexity. (Source: NASA)

Figure 4.1: The solar system habitable zone, orbits of planets not drawn to scale. (Source: NASA)

Figure 5.1: Earth as seen by the astronauts of Apollo 17. The effects of geothermal and solar energy are clearly visible, including the shape of the continents and the location of deserts, which contribute to define the Goldilocks circumstances for life. (Source: NASA)

Figure 6.1: A human effort to recreate the African savanna elsewhere on the planet, Amsterdam, Westerpark, winter 1995–6 CE. (Photograph by the author)

Figure 7.1: The essence of agriculture: deciding what is going live and what is going to die; the Cconucuyca family weeding potatoes in January of 1986 CE near the village of Zurite, Anta, Peru. (Photograph by the author)

Figure 7.2: Religious-political remnant of early state formation? The Temple (literally: Altar) of Heaven, Beijing, China, where Ming and Qing emperors took part in annual ceremonies to procure a good harvest. (Photograph by the author, 2011 CE)

Figure 7.3: Firth of Forth Railway Bridge near Edinburgh, Scotland, exemplifying the industrial revolution: steel connecting distant shores carrying powered transportation linking the country. (Photograph by the author, 1970 CE)

Figure 7.4: The amazing expansion of human control over matter and energy during the twentieth century: the Apollo 8 astronauts during the roll-out of the Saturn V rocket that would propel them into lunar orbit and back, fall 1968 CE. (Source: NASA)


Origin of Cosmic World Views

Big History and Other Histories

De historiae utilitate and Mercator sapiens

Little Big Histories

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

More Power Density Calculations by Eric Chaisson

How Guano Changed the World: An Example of Energy, Matter and Goldilocks Circumstances

A Very Short History of Astronomy

Composition of the Chemical Elements

Climbing the Pyramid of Complexity (1): Nuclei of Chemical Elements

Climbing the Pyramid of Complexity (2): Large Structures

Exoplanets and Astrobiology

Climbing the Pyramid of Complexity (3): Atoms and Molecules

Key Molecules of Life

Climbing the Pyramid of Complexity (4): Life

The Origin of Feelings, Intuition, Creativity, Art, Humor, Religion and Empathy

Climbing the Pyramid of Complexity (5): Culture

William McNeill and Skills in Human History

Alexander von Humboldt on Agriculture and Collective Learning

Norbert Elias, Interdependencies and the Civilizing Process

Origin of Moral Behavior

Middle Classes and the Sciences, the Arts and Philosophy

How Violent Have Humans Been?