big history

Grand narratives

In a well anthologised quotation, the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard defined the postmodern condition as “incredulity towards metanarratives”. We all need more  incredulity, especially towards the large, totalising explanations of the world and history that Lyotard had in mind. The narratives offered by religions,  national myths, and pre-packaged political ideologies obviously need to be met with virile scepticism. But what if there actually is a “grand narrative” or “metanarrative” that we can more or less empirically discern?

The nascent movement of Big History attempts this and succeeds fairly admirably in my humble et cetera. You can find in the works of David Christian in particular, an academic historian’s attempt to widen the lens to all of history from the earliest moments we know of up to the present. Once we prescind from the details of years or decades, the broader trends loom into resolution. What makes these trends anything other than constellations of thought, arbitrarily chosen by Christian and his history-gazing colleagues? Might others not read Big History and spy different constellations? There are some surprisingly convincing ways of looking at the basis of the narrative the historians offer, including a measure of the energy rate density, which seems like a fairly non-arbitrary way of charting a rise in complexity over aeons.

I do still think any discernment of a narrative in anything is prone to and is the narrative fallacy. With that massive caveat in place I also need to say that narratives are very powerful (our life choices are based on them), dangerous (see ideologies) and beautiful (in the case of fiction and well crafted true stories). What’s interesting is that if ever we were going to establish a less subjective, more inclusive, less ideological narrative, perhaps one of these big picture narratives is a candidate. There are many ways to divvy up the last 13 billion years, but I can think of four reasonably real sub-narratives:

  1. Big Bang to stellar evolution.
  2. The increasing complexity of life, starting from strange self-replicating things moving to complex, conscious animals.
  3. Homo sapiens‘ journey from subsistence to a high tech, long-living species.
  4. And, weirdly, the knowledge of this very story and how it requires an extraordinary sequence of events to instantiate that selfsame understanding.

That Homo sapiens has been around for over 150,000 years, but that it has only been planting things, writing things down and erecting things (easy) for less than 10,000 is, to say nothing of its significance, true. More recently, it’s notable that Homo sapiens started generating power, building instruments that could enhance our senses, landed on our major satellite and started manipulating other species’ genomes. We’ve even learnt enough to know how significant it is that we’re able to learn. And we know enough about the scale and scope of the universe to see that our knowledge of this knowledge is itself extraordinary.

All grand narratives are political. Hopefully the narrative of the cosmos and the story of Homo have benign political subtexts. The fragility of the ecosystem is an obvious one, as is the subsequent importance of its preservation. The other subtext is getting close to the unpopular idea of progress in human affairs; but the facts do seem to suggest that humanity has come a long way and that the positive trends in life expectancy and freedoms and the negative trend in violence have all accelerated with the advent of technological advances such as agriculture, urbanisation, literacy, birth control, labour saving devices, vaccines, etc. This suggests a political program comprising a promotion of: new technologies, at least a vague liberalism, unfettered access to education and women’s control of their own bodies.

Some will conflate this with “an Enlightenment dogmatism”, to use a John Gray sort of phrase. But whereas critics of the Enlightenment idea of progress see exclusion of non-white, non-male voices and misplaced faith in science and reason, the narratives of these big histories give us a perspective abstracted from the level of magnification where such exclusions could even begin. And as for the faith in science, the best defence of science is that it allowed us to have this extraordinary new panorama, to see beyond our senses and to provide a narrative, or “myth” if you prefer, about creation that dwarves the countless myths offered by cults and demagogues throughout the relatively recent past.

Image credit: Macquarie University Big History Institute.

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