Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

History, "Big History" and the Sciences

David Christian.

"Big History" attempts to survey the past across all disciplines, from cosmology to History. It therefore raises in a particularly acute form the problem of the relationship between History, the Sciences, and the Humanities. I will argue that this is a good time to revisit the old debates about the relationship between History and the Sciences. And I will argue that we may be moving close to some core ideas about history that may play something of the organizational role that Thomas Kuhn attributed to scientific paradigms. These ideas focus on the distinctive notion of 'collective learning', the capacity, unique to humans, to share learned information with precision and in exquisite detail. So powerful is collective learning as an adaptive mechanism that it outstrips the Darwinian mechanisms of natural selection, rendering them largely irrelevant for the understanding of those features that distinguish the human species from all other species on earth. The notion of 'collective learning' can help us define what is distinctive about our species and our history, and it can generate a powerful research agenda for the humanities in general.


David Christian  (United States)
Dept. of History
San Diego State University

BA and D.Phil., Oxford University, History. From 1975-2000 I taught Russian History and World History at Macquarie University in Sydney. My original training was in Russian and Soviet History, but from the late 1980s, I have become increasingly interested in History from very large scales, including World History. At San Diego State, I teach World History, the history of the Silk Roads, and also Russian History. Publications include: R.E.F. Smith and David Christian, 'Bread and Salt: A Social and Economic History of Food and Drink in Russia', Cambridge: CUP, 1984; 'Living Water: Vodka and Russian Society on the Eve of Emancipation', Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990; 'Imperial and Soviet Russia', Macmillan/St. Martin's Press, 1997; 'A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia: Vol. 1: Inner Eurasia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire', Oxford: Blackwell, 1998; 'Maps of Time: An Introduction to "Big History"', Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004; 'The Case for "Big History"', Journal of World History, 2, No. 2 (Fall 1991), 223-38; 'World History in Context', Journal of World History, 14, no. 4 (2003), 437-58.

  • History
  • Big History
  • History and Science

(Plenary Session Speaker, English)