Big History: Can life go on without a meta-narrative?

Big History: Gibt es ein Leben ohne Meta-Narrative?


Abstract: There is something attractive about ‘Big History’, David Christian’s approach to teaching the past. If World History is understood as an attempt to know the past beyond national categories, Big History seeks to understand the past at time scales that stretch from the human to the cosmic.[1] Its advocates refer to it as “the scientific creation story, from the big bang to the present”[2], and, as reported recently in The New York Times, it has gained a powerful ally in Bill Gates, who hopes to see Big History courses in schools.[3] But in its ‘coherent’ and ‘unified’ narrative of the past, does Big History lose sight of History?
Languages: English, Deutsch

There is something attractive about ‘Big History’, David Christian’s approach to teaching the past. If World History is understood as an attempt to know the past beyond national categories, Big History seeks to understand the past at time scales that stretch from the human to the cosmic.[1] Its advocates refer to it as “the scientific creation story, from the big bang to the present”[2], and, as reported recently in The New York Times, it has gained a powerful ally in Bill Gates, who hopes to see Big History courses in schools.[3] But in its ‘coherent’ and ‘unified’ narrative of the past, does Big History lose sight of History?

The big ambitions of Big History

David Christian coined the term ‘Big History’ while teaching an interdisciplinary course at an Australian university that synthesised natural and human history. According to Christian, Big History surveys the past at the largest possible scales, owing an acknowledged debt to the French Annales School of historiography and its concept of the longue durée.[4] Big History draws on insights from a range of scientific fields (including physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, climatology, etc.) in order to present a comprehensive account of the past. It parallels World History, in offering a vision of the past that is presented as an antidote to history as a national or ‘tribal’ story.[5] Advocates seek escape from history as a series of ‘fragmented’ narratives, by offering a grand unified vision of the past, present, and future. Operating at multiple geographic and temporal scales, Big History seeks patterns in the past, following Durkheim in the desire to understand life in the whole, and not in its parts.[6] Big History is presented as a coherent story of life and the universe; drawing together an ambitious synthesis of current knowledge in the natural and human sciences to provide maps of life within which ‘modern people’ can find their bearings in space and time. Its increasing popularity may be because it provides a big-picture view (new master narrative) that can satisfy those disheartened with religion and a panacea for the crisis of confidence that can arise in the encounter with conflicting accounts of the past.

Matter of fact, where’s the interpretation?

As much as I am attracted to the idea of a history that can operate at multiple levels of scale, get beyond national mythologies, and invite serious interdisciplinary speculation, something bothers me about Big History. The grand timelines it offers are easily recognised as a form of periodization, albeit following time scales that are more typical of geologists and cosmologists rather than historians. Christian’s timeline has eight periods, aligned with the emergence of different levels of complexity in the universe. Along with scale, complexity is one of the selective metaphors that underpin his narrative; and the complexity thresholds function as a thematic architecture for producing the Big History narrative and its teleology. Recently, Sam Wineburg, Executive Director of the Stanford History Education Group, challenged Big History on its lack of engagement with the history discipline’s methodology (which focuses on the interpretation of texts).[7] Big History accounts of the past often underplay interpretation. In Cynthia Stokes Brown’s recent Big History book, there are seductive matter-of-fact accounts of the expanding universe, the emergence of humans, advanced hunting and gathering, agriculture, early cities, and industrialisation; and the author claims to have never “knowingly strayed into speculation”.[8] That is, she claims to have stayed with the known ‘facts’, seemingly ignoring the fact that narratives always involve selectivity in terms of the facts they marshal.[9] The Big History perspective is naturalised in the process. Big History’s epistemology demonstrates more kinship with the natural sciences than it does with the humanities.[10] Furedi has argued that its over-emphasis on a history of matter, at the expense of a history of humanity, can be read as an attack on human agency.[11] What we can be certain of is that when looking at history through such large-scale lenses, the conflicting perspectives of our neighbours will seem to have little meaning.

A new historicism?

For Karl Popper, historicism represented an approach to the social sciences that assumes patterns, laws or trends can be discovered that underlie the evolution of history. In its seamless move from the natural science account of the distant past to its account of human social evolution, Big History claims the territory lost by Marxism (and other grand sociologies), and reveals itself as a new historicism. Popper believed historicism amounted to a misunderstanding of the scientific method. The way out of this problem was “to be clear about the necessity of adopting a point of view, to state this point of view plainly, and always to remain conscious that it is one among many”[12]. While Big History may acknowledge its large-scale point of view, it rarely seems to attend to the problems of interpretation. The consequence of this approach means that by reinstating a seductive, and largely uncontested story, history is taught as meta-narrative rather than as method.

A big ‘end of history’ for schools?

Undoubtedly, there is a place in history education for a big-picture view of the past, or for examining the past at varying levels of scale. I think Big History advocates are correct when they recognise the need for human beings to locate themselves in time and space. But is the only solution to this the construction of a meta-narrative? Must we locate ourselves in a single story of the past? There are dangers in presenting history as something that exists beyond the messy process of interpretation. Big History, as one narrative resource among many, has some exciting potentials. Big History, as a replacement school curriculum, risks misrepresenting the nature of history.


Further Reading

  • David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).
  • Bruce Mazlish, “Big History, Little Critique,” Historically Speaking (2005), vol. 6, no. 5, 43–44.

Web Resources

[1] David Christian, “The Case for ‘Big History,’” Journal of World History (1991), vol. 2, no. 2, p. 223.
[2] Cynthia Stokes Brown, Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present (New York: The New Press, 2012), x.
[3] Andrew Ross Sorkin, “So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class …,” 5 September 2014, New York Times. Available online: (last accessed 01.10.2014).
[4] See David Christian, Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity (Virginia: The Great Courses, The Teaching Company: 2008). The idea of the longue durée was first advocated in Fernand Braudel, On History, translated by Sarah Matthews (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980) [Original French publication: 1969].
[5] See the introduction to David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); or the series of recorded lectures attached to Christian’s Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity.
[6] See, for example Emile Durkheim, Suicide. A Study in Sociology, translated by J. A. Spaulding & G. Simpson (New York: Free Press, 1951), p. 299.
[7] Andrew Ross Sorkin, “So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class …”. 5 September 2014, New York Times (; (last accessed 01.10.2014).
[8] Cynthia Stokes Brown, Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present, p. 13.
[9] The philosopher of history, Frank Ankersmit, goes as far as saying that historical narratives always exceed the sum of the referential statements (facts) they marshal. See his Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012).
[10] It has been argued that in its synthesis of the natural and human sciences, Big History ignores the humanities. See Bruce Mazlish, “Big History, Little Critique,” Historically Speaking (1991), vol. 6, no. 5, 43–44. The rest of the articles in this special issue are also worth reading for someone interested in Big History.
[11] Frank Furedi, “‘Big History’: The annihilation of human agency,” 24 July 2014, Spiked. Available: (last accessed 01.10.2014).
[12] Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (London: Ark Paperbacks, 1986, [Original publication 1957], p. 3.


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Recommended Citation

Parkes, Robert: Big History: Can life go on without a meta-narrative? In: Public History Weekly 2 (2014) 35, DOI:

Es liegt durchaus etwas Attraktives in der Big History, David Christians Ansatz, die Vergangenheit zu lehren. Wenn man die Weltgeschichte als einen Versuch versteht, jenseits der nationalen Kategorien die Vergangenheit zu interpretieren, so strebt die Big History danach, die Vergangenheit in einem zeitlichen Maßstab zu verstehen, der vom Menschlichen zum Kosmischen reicht.[1] Seine Befürworter bezeichnen dies als “die wissenschaftliche Schöpfungsgeschichte vom Urknall bis heute”[2]. Kürzlich berichtete die New York Times, dass diese Vorstellung mit Bill Gates einen prominenten Anhänger hat, der darauf hofft, dass die Big History zum Bestandteil des schulischen Lernens wird.[3] Aber verliert die Big History nicht unter Umständen mit ihren “kohärenten” und “vereinheitlichenden” Narrativen den Blick auf die Geschichte?

Die großen Ambitionen der Big History

David Christian prägte den Begriff Big History während seiner Zeit als Hochschullehrer in einer interdisziplinären Lehrveranstaltung an einer australischen Universität, die die Natur- und Menschheitsgeschichte synthetisierte. Laut Christian stellt die Big History die Vergangenheit in ihrer größtmöglichen Spannweite dar und lehnt sich damit an die französische Annales-Schule und ihr Konzept der longue durée an.[4] Big History stützt sich auf Erkenntnisse aus einer ganzen Reihe von wissenschaftlichen Bereichen (wie z.B. Physik, Kosmologie, Evolutionsbiologie, Anthropologie, Klimatologie usw.), um eine umfassende Darstellung der Vergangenheit  zu präsentieren.[5] Seine Anhänger versuchen sich von der Vorstellung von Geschichte als einer Reihe von Fragmenten zu lösen, indem sie eine große, einheitliche Sicht auf die Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft anstreben. Sie arbeiten dabei an vielfältigen geografischen und zeitlichen Skalen und suchen nach Mustern in der Vergangenheit. Damit folgen sie Durkheim, der versucht, das Leben als Ganzes und nicht in seinen Einzelteilen zu verstehen.[6] Big History wird als zusammenhängende Geschichte des Lebens und des Universums präsentiert, die eine ehrgeizige Synthese der aktuellen Forschungsergebnisse der Natur- und Geisteswissenschaften herstellt, um Karten des Lebens bereitzustellen, auf welchen “Menschen der Moderne” ihre Orientierung in Zeit und Raum finden können. Die zunehmende Beliebtheit der Big History rührt wohl daher, dass sie eine Großbild-Perspektive anbietet (eine neue Meistererzählung), die vor allem diejenigen befriedigt, die mit der Religion hadern. Sie stellt ein Allheilmittel gegen die Vertrauenskrise zur Verfügung, die aus einer Begegnung mit den widerstreitenden Beschreibungen der Vergangenheit erwachsen kann.

Tatsache, oder reine Interpretation?

So sehr mir auch die Idee von einer Geschichte gefällt, die auf mehreren Ebenen stattfindet, über nationale Mythen hinausreicht, oder zu ernsthaften interdisziplinären Spekulationen einlädt, so sehr stört mich auch etwas an der Big History. Die großen Zeitleisten sind als einfachste Form der Periodisierung leicht zu erkennen, obwohl sie doch eher typisch sind für Geologen und Kosmologen als für Historiker: Christians Zeitleiste umfasst acht Perioden, die sich orientieren an der Entstehung unterschiedlicher Komplexitätsstufen im Universum. Nebst dieser Skalierung ist “Komplexität” eine der selektiven Metaphern, die seine Narration untermauern. Daneben identifizieren die Komplexitätsschwellen die Funktion der thematischen Architektur zur Produktion einer Big History-Narration und ihrer Teleologie.

Fakten. Nur Fakten?

Kürzlich hat Sam Wineburg, Geschäftsführender Direktor der Stanford History Education Group, die Big History kritisiert wegen ihrer mangelnden Auseinandersetzung mit der disziplinären Methodik der Geschichtswissenschaft (die sich auf die Interpretation von Textquellen konzentriert).[7] Big History-Darstellungen der Vergangenheit spielen oft die Interpretation herunter. In Browns aktuellem Big History-Buch finden sich verführerische Tatbestandsdarstellungen zur Entstehung des Universums und des menschlichen Lebens, zur fortgeschrittenen Jäger-und-Sammler-Gesellschaft, zur Entwicklung der Landwirtschaft, den frühen Städten und zur Industrialisierung; die Autorin behauptet, sie hätte sich dabei noch nie “wissentlich in Spekulation verirrt”.[8]. Das heißt, sie behauptet, stets bei den bekannten “Fakten” geblieben zu sein und ignoriert dabei anscheinend die Tatsache, dass Erzählungen in Bezug auf die Fakten immer auf der Selektivität ihrer Auswahl beruhen.[9] Die Big History-Perspektive wird somit zum natürlichen Bestandteil dieses Prozesses gemacht. Ihre Epistemologie demonstriert eher Nähe zu den Natur- als zu den Geisteswissenschaften.[10] Furedi argumentiert darüber hinaus, dass die Überbetonung einer Faktengeschichte auf Kosten der Menschheitsgeschichte als Angriff auf menschliches Handeln gelesen werden kann.[11] Wenn wir Geschichte durch solch großangelegte Perspektiven betrachten, können wir davon ausgehen, dass die gegensätzlichen Perspektiven unserer Nachbarn wenig Bedeutung zu haben scheinen.

Ein neuer Historizismus?

Für Karl Popper repräsentierte der Historizismus einen Zugang zu den Sozialwissenschaften, der davon ausging, dass Gesetzmäßigkeiten, Entwicklungen oder Tendenzen entdeckt werden könnten, die dem Fortgang der Geschichte zugrunde liegen. In ihrem nahtlosen Übergang von den naturwissenschaftlichen Darstellung der fernen Vergangenheit zur Darstellung der gesellschaftlichen Entwicklung beansprucht die Big History Gebiete, die vom Marxismus (und andere große Soziologien) preisgegeben worden sind und offenbart sich somit als ein neuer Historizismus. Popper nahm an, der Historizismus liefe auf ein Missverständnis der wissenschaftlichen Methode hinaus. Die Lösung dieses Problems bestehe darin, “sich darüber klar zu werden, worin die Notwendigkeit zu einer Annahme liegt, und sich darüber bewusst zu werden, dass es stets eine unter vielen ist.”[12] Während die Big History ihre großmaßstäbige Betrachtungsweise einräumt, scheint sie sich doch kaum der Probleme der Interpretation bewusst zu werden. Die Konsequenz dieses Ansatzes besteht darin, dass durch die Wiedereinführung einer verführerischen und weitgehend unbestrittenen Großerzählung Geschichte eher als eine Meta-Narration denn als eine Methode gelehrt wird.

Bedeutet dies das “Ende der Geschichte” für Schulen?

Unzweifelhaft gibt es einen Platz im Geschichtsunterricht für die große Perspektive auf Vergangenheit oder für eine Untersuchung der Geschichte in unterschiedlichen Maßstabsebenen. Ich denke, Big History-Befürworter liegen richtig, wenn sie die Notwendigkeit erkennen, dass der Mensch ein Bedürfnis nach Orientierung in Zeit und Raum hat. Aber liegt die einzige Lösung in der Entwicklung einer Meta-Erzählung? Sollen wir uns in einer einzelnen Geschichte verorten? Die Gefahr liegt in der Präsentation von Geschichte als etwas, das sich jenseits eines schmuddeligen Interpretationsprozesses befinde. Big History als eine mögliche Erzählung von vielen hat durchaus spannendes Potenzial. Big History als Ersatz-Schullehrplan riskiert die Fehldarstellung des Wesens der Geschichte.



  • Christian, David: Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley 2014.
  • Mazlish, Bruce: Big History, Little Critique. In:  Historically Speaking 6 (2005) 5, S. 43–44.


[1] Christian, David: The Case for ‘Big History’. In: Journal of World History 2 (1991) 2, S. 223.
[2] Stokes Brown, Cynthia: Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. New York 2012, S. x.
[3] Ross Sorkin, Andrew: “So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class …” In: New York Times, 05.09.2014, verfügbar unter: (letzter Zugriff 01.10.2014).
[4] Vgl. Christian, David: Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity. Virginia 2008. Die Idee der longue durée wurde zunächst entwickelt durch Fernand Braudel: On History, übersetzt von Sarah Matthews, Chicago 1980. [Französische Erstausgabe: 1969].
[5] Vgl. die Einführung zu David Christian: Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley 2014; oder die Reihe aufgezeichneter Vorträge im Anhang von Christians Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity.
[6] Vgl. z.B. Durkheim, Emile: Suicide. A Study in Sociology, übersetzt von J. A. Spaulding & G. Simpson. New York 1951, S. 299.
[7] Ross Sorkin, Andrew: So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class …”. In: New York Times 05.09.2014, verfügbar unter: (; (letzter Zugriff 01.10.2014).
[8] Stokes Brown, Cynthia: Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present, S. 13.
[9] Der Geschichtsphilosoph Frank Ankersmit geht soweit zu sagen, dass historische Narrative immer die Summe der referenziellen Statements (Fakten) ausklammern, die sie ordnen. Vgl. ders.:
Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation. Ithaca 2012.
[10] Es wurde argumentiert, dass in der Synthese von Natur- und Humanwissenschaften die Geisteswissenschaften nicht beachtet werden. Vgl. 
Mazlish, Bruce: Big History, Little Critique. In: Historically Speaking 6 (1991) 5, S. 43–44. Die weiteren Artikel dieser Spezialausgabe sind für an Big History Interessierte ebenso lesenswert.
[11] Furedi, Frank: ‘Big History’: The annihilation of human agency. In: Spiked 24.07.2014, verfügbar unter: (letzter Zugriff 01.10.2014).
[12] Popper, Karl: The Poverty of Historicism. London 1986. [Erstausgabe 1957], S. 3.



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Übersetzung aus dem Englischen

von Marco Zerwas

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Parkes, Robert: Big History: Gibt es ein Leben ohne Meta-Narrative? In: Public History Weekly 2 (2014) 35, DOI:

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3 replies »

  1. This article is really spot-on. A [limited] Big History pedagogy would tell us that there is no ‘race’, and that nations are constructed by powerful elites for various political purposes. None of this is a ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ consequence of human action, or even the laws of the universe, but is a construct that shows on the one hand how insignificant our petty disputes are, and on the other, how small we are in the universe.
    And this is the potential of Big History, to show us this through science and reason.

    But one cannot be a Big Historian, without first being an historian.

    Retracting the lens to view everything in the refraction of the Big Bang is in danger of creating Asimov’s Foundation. A structure with no human agency, no human freedom, and simply a mathematical calculation of where we are to arrive in a million years, and as such what we do now is immaterial.

    Further, Big History seems to fly far too close to the heat of ‘common sense’ which is the anti-thesis of Popper’s ‘reason’. If people claim to have a ‘common sense’ view of what Big History shows us, then there needs to be some empirical evidence, and far more problematic things to do with both narrative, power, and very fact-selective problem as outlined by both Popper and Weber. The Cynthia Stokes Brown work is a good example of this problematique, in ‘the seductive matter-of-fact accounts’ of the expanding universe.

    Both Furedi and Parkes have some important cautionary tales to deliver on this, and we should be wary of those interested parties that seek to support Big History as part of a curriculum in history at any pedagogical level.

  2. Big History. Sticking fingers in open wounds

    Big History becomes more and more popular at U.S. high schools and colleges. Today, there is an obvious need for historic orientation that encompasses a much longer time span than history lessons usually do. The Big History Project can be seen as a reaction to this need and gives a comprehensive and cohesive narrative that includes the entire history since the Big Bang and thus periods and developments that are usually taught by disciplines like astrology, geology, chemistry, biology and anthropology and others.

    Big History is not a new discipline, but another complementary course from a rich spectrum of courses. At some schools or colleges a new course called “Big History” may constitute a threat because it could potentially compete for students with other history courses, but it could never substitute the discipline itself, its epistemology, methodology or didactics. Big history is nothing more than a supplement to other classes, and some of these history courses like “Western Civilizations” are highly questionable in their narrative and categories, too.

    The attraction of Big History is to offer a framework that is much broader than those of the different disciplines and its master narrative seems to be clear, to give easy and scientifically approved answers to the “big questions” like: What is the role of mankind in the history of the universe? (What European historians often tend to ignore is that Big History is also a reaction to Christian fundamentalist’s ambition to install new courses of creationism in public schools.) The entire narrative is built around a concept of progressing complexity and it is based on a terminology that relies on a minimal consensus among the collaborating scientific disciplines. This interdisciplinary collaboration on equal terms means that the expectations and usual categorizations of a single discipline (like history) may be violated and can be disputed. Therefore, this approach is easy to criticize.

    Also, teachers often complain about the fact that many students are not able to see the parallels between the topics taught in different courses and to link the concepts and knowledge imparted in one discipline to that of a neighboring one. Often there is no transfer between the disciplines. Can Big History not be helpful in this respect? Once, it was philosophy that framed the many insights from different disciplines, but nowadays this cannot be mastered by a single discipline, so there is no alternative to an interdisciplinary cooperation.

    From the perspective of the historic discipline Robert Parkes’ and Robert Imre’s critics are completely right:
    • the way of conceptualizing humans mainly as a biological species is unacceptable;
    • the threshold model of raising complexity leaves neither space for alternative developments nor for peoples’ agency (Furedi: “a tendency of writing humanity out of history”);
    • the narrative is much based on models from natural sciences and ignores the political, social and cultural differences (i.g.: INGREDIENTS + GOLDILOCK CONDITIONS = NEW COMPLEXITY);
    • although the Big History project openly explains its intentions, there is no discussion of alternative interpretations of facts or alternative concepts, the mono-linear narrative is an authoritarian way of presenting scientific results and does not stimulate discussions of different view-points or perspectives;
    • the development of scientific knowledge about the universe is often presented as some kind of hagiography: of how great canonized men (and very few women) made the history of science.

    Finally, one has to express respect and appreciation for the ambitious intellectual project whose results should not easily be brushed aside without offering a better alternative. We will have to think of how to include the political, social and cultural dimensions of this long term narrative and of how to write humanity back in this narrative.

    But Big History is sticking its fingers in some open wounds of how we think history: Of course, in any introduction into our discipline we refer to Braudel’s concept of the longue durée. But how often do we really use this long term perspective when teaching history or doing research?
    What about the material dimension of history (not in the sense of the socialistic concept of historical materialism, but more as some kind of a history of material cultures), has it ever reached the mainstream of our discipline?

    Of course, Big History and its courses need a thorough examination and the material the project has published and produced for electronic learning is an excellent source to teach students of how to deconstruct a history narrative. But where is the long term narrative from our historic discipline that could replace the threshold narrative of the Big History project?

  3. Replik

    There seems to be agreement here. Looking at history at multiple scales can be powerful for helping us to see the past from new viewpoints, but we need microscopes, not just telescopes, to do justice to the complexities of human social history.

    The road map, weather map, and topographical map may all accurately represent the same physical place, but none offer the complete picture. Different schools of historiography should be treated this way too. Big History as supplement to current ways of teaching and thinking about history is useful. Big History as a replacement curriculum arguably throws out the road map for the weather map, or the weather map for the topographical map.

    The best history courses will acknowledge the historiographic perspectives from which their stories of the past emerge, and will make available to students the methods and insights of multiple historiographic traditions.

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