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Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity

Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity

Professor David Christian D.Phil.
Macquarie University
Course No.  8050
Course No.  8050
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Course Overview

About This Course

48 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

About 100,000 to 60,000 years ago, a species of hominines—bipedal ape-like creatures—began to move out of its home territory in Africa and into the Asian continent. Today, homo sapiens, the descendants of those first hominines—live in nearly every ecological niche. We fly through the air in planes, communicate instantaneously over immense distances, and develop theories about the creation of the Universe. In Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity, you’ll hear this ever-evolving story—the history of everything—in its monumental entirety from the moment the Universe grew from the size of an atom to the size of a galaxy in a fraction of a second.

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About 100,000 to 60,000 years ago, a species of hominines—bipedal ape-like creatures—began to move out of its home territory in Africa and into the Asian continent. Today, homo sapiens, the descendants of those first hominines—live in nearly every ecological niche. We fly through the air in planes, communicate instantaneously over immense distances, and develop theories about the creation of the Universe. In Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity, you’ll hear this ever-evolving story—the history of everything—in its monumental entirety from the moment the Universe grew from the size of an atom to the size of a galaxy in a fraction of a second.

Taught by historian David Christian, Big History offers a unique opportunity to view human history in the context of the many histories that surround it. Over the course of 48 thought-provoking lectures, he'll serve as your guide as you traverse the sweeping expanse of cosmic history—13.7 billion years of it—starting with the big bang and traveling through time and space to the present moment.

A Grand Synthesis of Knowledge

Have you ever wondered: How do various scholarly discourses—cosmology, geology, anthropology, biology, history—fit together?

Big History answers that question by weaving a single story from a variety of scholarly disciplines. Like traditional creation stories told by the world's great religions and mythologies, Big History provides a map of our place in space and time. But it does so using the insights and knowledge of modern science, as synthesized by a renowned historian.

This is a story scholars have been able to tell only since the middle of the last century, thanks to the development of new dating techniques in the mid-1900s. As Professor Christian explains, this story will continue to grow and change as scientists and historians accumulate new knowledge about our shared past.

Eight "Thresholds"

To tell this epic, Professor Christian organizes the history of creation into eight "thresholds." Each threshold marks a point in history when something truly new appeared and forms never before seen began to arise.

Starting with the first threshold, the creation of the Universe, Professor Christian traces the developments of new, more complex entities, including:

  • The creation of the first stars (threshold 2)
  • The origin of life (threshold 5)
  • The development of the human species (threshold 6)
  • The moment of modernity (threshold 8).

In the final lectures, you'll even gain a glimpse into the future as you review speculations offered by scientists about where our species, our world, and our Universe may be heading.

Getting the "Big" Picture

While you may have heard parts of this story before in courses on geology, history, anthropology, biology, cosmology, and other scholarly disciplines, Big History provides more than just a recap. This course will expand the scope of your perspective on the past and alter the way you think about history and the world around you.

""Because of the scale on which we look at the past, you should not expect to find in it many of the familiar details, names, and personalities that you'll find in other types of historical teaching and writing,"" explains Professor Christian. ""For example, the French Revolution and the Renaissance will barely get a mention. They'll zoom past in a blur. You'll barely see them. Instead, what we're going to see are some less familiar aspects of the past. ... We'll be looking, above all, for the very large patterns, the shape of the past.""

Thanks to this grand perspective, you'll uncover the remarkable parallels and connections among disciplines that remain to be explored when you view history on a large scale. How is the creation of stars like the building of cities? How is the big bang like the invention of agriculture? These are the kinds of connections you'll find yourself pondering as you undergo the grand shift in perspective afforded by Big History.

Fascinating Facts

Along the way, you'll encounter intriguing tidbits that put the grand scale of this story in perspective, such as:

  • The entire expanse of human civilization—5,000 years—makes up a mere 2 percent of the human experience.
  • Approximately 98 percent of human history occurred before the invention of agriculture.
  • All the matter we know of in the Universe is likely to be no more than 1 billionth of the actual matter that was originally created.
  • The Earth's Moon was probably created by a collision between the young Earth and a Mars-sized protoplanet.
  • At present, we cannot drill deeper than about 7 miles into the Earth, which is just 0.2% of the distance to the center (4,000 miles away).
  • Between 1000 C.E. and 2000 C.E., human populations rose by a factor of 24.
  • Traveling in a jet plane, it would take 5 million years to get from our solar system to the next nearest star.

The Story We Tell about Ourselves

"To understand ourselves," says Professor Christian, "we need to know the very large story, the largest story of all." And that, perhaps, is one of the greatest benefits of Big History: It provides a thought-provoking way to help us understand our own place within the Universe.

From humankind's place within the context of evolutionary history to our impact on the larger biosphere—both now and in our species' past—this course offers a broad yet nuanced examination of our place in creation. It also poses a profound question: Is it possible that our species is the only entity created by the Universe with the capacity to ponder its mysteries?

There is, perhaps, no more profound question to ask, and no better guide on this quest for understanding than Professor Christian. A pioneer in this approach to understanding history, Professor Christian has made big history his personal project for more than two decades. Working with experts in a variety of fields, he designed and taught some of the first big history courses, and has published widely on the topic.

Accept his invitation to get the big picture on Big History, and prepare for a journey through time and across space, from the first moments of existence to the distant reaches of the far future.

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48 Lectures
  • 1
    What Is Big History?
    Is it possible to tell a story of everything, from the big bang up to the present day? This lecture introduces the background and unique aspects of this broad, multidisciplinary perspective on history. x
  • 2
    Moving across Multiple Scales
    Most history courses cover time spans of a few decades or a few centuries, but big history requires us to survey the past over scales that span billions of years. This lecture explores ways to become more familiar with the immense scales needed to cover the modern creation story. x
  • 3
    Simplicity and Complexity
    In this lecture, we introduce one of the unifying themes of the course: the development of increasing complexity since the creation of the Universe. Here, we'll examine the definition of complexity and ask how our Universe builds more complex entities. x
  • 4
    Evidence and the Nature of Science
    Why should we trust the claims of modern science about events in the distant past? This lecture lays some ground rules about evidence for proving scientific claims and describes how new dating techniques have allowed scientists to peer further back into the past than previously thought possible. x
  • 5
    Threshold 1—Origins of Big Bang Cosmology
    We encounter the first threshold of complexity—the creation of the Universe at the moment of the big bang—and explore the scientific evidence that allows us to piece together this ever-evolving story of creation. x
  • 6
    How Did Everything Begin?
    This lecture surveys the history of different ideas about the creation of the Universe, from Ptolemaic theories of an Earth-centered cosmos to the modern notion of a constantly expanding Universe. x
  • 7
    Threshold 2—The First Stars and Galaxies
    How did the Universe change from a cloud of dust to a constellation of stellar bodies? This lecture describes how gravity was fundamental in crossing the second threshold of the course: the creation of stars and galaxies from huge clouds of hydrogen and helium atoms. x
  • 8
    Threshold 3—Making Chemical Elements
    Stars created the preconditions for crossing a third threshold of complexity: the formation of chemical elements. As stars collapse and die, they fuse to create new atoms that are the building blocks of all the complex chemicals that make up our Earth. x
  • 9
    Threshold 4—The Earth and the Solar System
    With this lecture, we shift from the scale of the Universe to that of our solar system. Here we examine the processes by which planets and solar systems are created and the evidence that helps us piece together this part of the story. x
  • 10
    The Early Earth—A Short History
    The tumultuous early history of the Earth is presented in this lecture, including the development of our planet's internal layers, the generation of its magnetic field, the creation of the first seas, and the appearance of its early atmosphere. x
  • 11
    Plate Tectonics and the Earth's Geography
    In this lecture, we examine the history of the Earth's surface and learn how the notion of our planet as fixed and unchanging was eventually overturned by a new vision of the Earth's crust as broken into plates that are constantly on the move. x
  • 12
    Threshold 5—Life
    With the consideration of the next threshold of complexity, life, we develop a definition of life itself, and begin to consider how life-forms adapt and change over time. x
  • 13
    Darwin and Natural Selection
    In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin revealed a new story: an account of how all living species change and adapt. This lecture recounts how Darwin arrived at his revolutionary theory, and how he shared his ideas with contemporaries who were making similar breakthroughs. x
  • 14
    The Evidence for Natural Selection
    In this lecture, we examine the various kinds of evidence Darwin used to establish his theory of natural selection, including the fossil record, similarities among species, and the geographic distribution of species. We also review modern evidence of natural selection. x
  • 15
    The Origins of Life
    How was life first created from non-life? Modern biologists tell a complex story of the creation of life which involves the development of organic matter from simpler molecules such as amino acids, nucleic acids, sugars, and proteins. x
  • 16
    Life on Earth—Single-celled Organisms
    How was life first created from non-life? Modern biologists tell a complex story of the creation of life which involves the development of organic matter from simpler molecules such as amino acids, nucleic acids, sugars, and proteins. x
  • 17
    Life on Earth—Multi-celled Organisms
    The fusion of single-celled organisms into larger, multi-celled organisms c. 600 million years ago marked a turning point in the development of life forms on this planet. In this lecture, we focus on the evolution of multi-cellular organisms, tracing four evolutionary steps leading to our own species, Homo sapiens. x
  • 18
    Hominines
    How did modern humans evolve from ape-like ancestors? This lecture surveys the evolution of primates and great apes, and then traces the adaptive development of hominines, a group of bipedal primates that appeared in Africa 7 million years ago. x
  • 19
    Evidence on Hominine Evolution
    To construct the story of hominine evolution, scientists rely on three kinds of evidence: archaeological evidence, evidence based on the study of modern primates, and evidence based on genetic comparisons between modern species of primates, including ourselves. x
  • 20
    Threshold 6—What Makes Humans Different?
    Human beings represent a new threshold of complexity in the story of life on Earth. In this lecture, we examine two things that make us unique: use of symbolic language and collective learning. x
  • 21
    Homo sapiens—The First Humans
    Does the archaeological record reveal when the first members of our species appeared? In this lecture, we examine evidence from the Stone Age and consider several theories of the early history of the first humans. x
  • 22
    Paleolithic Lifeways
    Using remains left behind by our ancestors and studies of modern societies that still use stone technologies, modern researchers have constructed a portrait of the Paleolithic way of life. In this lecture, we enter into this world and learn what life was like for our distant ancestors. x
  • 23
    Change in the Paleolithic Era
    Change was gradual over the course of the long Paleolithic era, but there were some significant shifts that altered lifeways for human beings. These include climate changes during two ice ages, the rise of various technological innovations, and adaptive migration to nearly all parts of the globe. x
  • 24
    Threshold 7—Agriculture
    The appearance of agriculture set human history off in entirely new directions by increasing human control of food, energy, and other resources. The development of agriculture brings about changes in the environment and lays the foundation for the development of more complex human societies. x
  • 25
    The Origins of Agriculture
    Why, after 200,000 years of foraging, should human communities in quite different parts of the world take up agriculture almost simultaneously? In this lecture, we explore the different factors leading to this innovation. x
  • 26
    The First Agrarian Societies
    Although early agrarian societies left behind no written record, there is evidence of many important new developments during this period. Here, we explore the lifeways of these societies, and question whether agriculture meant the early farmers lived better than their forager ancestors. x
  • 27
    Power and Its Origins
    Approximately 5,000 years ago, the human species saw the rise of a new form of social organization: the first "tribute-taking" states. We begin our consideration of these states by asking how power is defined and what forms it takes. x
  • 28
    Early Power Structures
    How did humankind move from kinship clans and small agricultural villages to enormous centralized societies? This lecture surveys the archaeological and anthropological evidence used to reconstruct the evolution of power structures and theorizes how these larger societies took shape. x
  • 29
    From Villages to Cities
    This lecture introduces the 5,000 years of human history that were dominated by the huge and powerful societies: agrarian civilizations. With the development of writing, we get the first era of recorded history. x
  • 30
    Sumer—The First Agrarian Civilization
    How did the buildup of human and material resources during the early Agrarian era lead to the development of the first tribute-taking states and the first real cities? Here, we'll examine one of the earliest agrarian civilizations, Sumer in southern Mesopotamia, to learn how these new developments arose. x
  • 31
    Agrarian Civilizations in Other Regions
    How typical was Sumer of agrarian civilizations in general? This lecture briefly surveys six different areas where agrarian civilizations appeared early, including northeastern Africa, northern India, China, and the Americas. x
  • 32
    The World That Agrarian Civilizations Made
    Despite the limited contact among them, early agrarian civilizations the world over shared many features. In this lecture, we'll examine these features and speculate why agrarian societies seem to develop along similar lines despite regional differences. x
  • 33
    Long Trends—Expansion and State Power
    In this lecture, we begin to take the long view of agrarian civilizations, marking two trends that occurred during the course of 4,000 years: the expansion of civilizations to cover larger regions and incorporate more people, and the increasing power and reach of their rulers. x
  • 34
    Long Trends—Rates of Innovation
    Agrarian civilizations were able to expand because they developed new ways to extract resources and manage populations. This lecture examines how features such as population growth, commerce, and tribute-taking states helped encourage innovation. x
  • 35
    Long Trends—Disease and Malthusian Cycles
    Throughout human history, we see periods of innovation, population growth, increasing trade and urbanization, political expansion, and cultural efflorescence. Then, sometimes quite suddenly, there is a crash. In this lecture, we examine the factors that contribute to this cycle of boom and crash, referred to as the Malthusian cycle. x
  • 36
    Comparing the World Zones
    The previous two lectures describe factors that both stimulated and limited growth in the era of agrarian civilizations in Afro-Eurasia, the largest of the four world zones of human history. Here, we begin to question whether these same features and processes appear in American, Australasian, and Pacific zones. x
  • 37
    The Americas in the Later Agrarian Era
    In this lecture, we see that American agrarian civilizations experienced many of the same developments as those in Afro-Eurasia, but these developments appeared much later and never spread as far as in other world region. x
  • 38
    Threshold 8—The Modern Revolution
    In the last millennium, the pace of change accelerated sharply and decisively. Since then, humankind has experienced a number of astonishing changes, including accelerating innovation, the formation of larger and more complex societies, the integration of the four world zones, and the growing human impact on the biosphere. x
  • 39
    The Medieval Malthusian Cycle, 500–1350
    This lecture describes the medieval Malthusian cycle, which lasted from the decline of the Roman and Han Empires to the time of the Black Death. We will focus on Afro-Eurasia, the largest and most significant of the four world zones, and the region that drove change in the early stages of the Modern Revolution. x
  • 40
    The Early Modern Cycle, 1350–1700
    During the Early Modern cycle, for the first time in human history, the four world zones became linked through global exchange networks which stimulated both commerce and capitalism. Yet for other world zones, these changes were catastrophic, bringing disease and population collapse. x
  • 41
    Breakthrough—The Industrial Revolution
    By 1700, many elements of modernity seemed to be in place, yet global rates of innovation remained slow. This lecture describes the breakthrough to modernity after 1700, focusing on one country, Britain, where the transformation has been studied most intensively. x
  • 42
    Spread of the Industrial Revolution to 1900
    Within just two centuries, industrialization had transformed the entire world. No earlier transformation in human history had been so rapid or so far-reaching. This lecture describes the impact of industrialization before 1900. x
  • 43
    The 20th Century
    In this lecture, we examine the hallmark events of the 20th century, including major worldwide wars, two waves of innovation, huge population growth, and an enormous surge in energy use. x
  • 44
    The World That the Modern Revolution Made
    In this lecture, we attempt to describe, as we did for Paleolithic and agrarian societies, the lifeways of the Modern era. What emerges is a portrait of a single, world-spanning community of more than 6 billion people supported by ever-increasing technological innovation. x
  • 45
    Human History and the Biosphere
    How has our increasing power over the natural world affected our relationship to planet Earth? Are we becoming a malignant presence within the biosphere, driving other species to extinction and impacting global climactic systems in unpredictable ways? x
  • 46
    The Next 100 Years
    After surveying 13 billion years, can we resist peering into the future? We take a tantalizing glimpse into speculations about which historic trends may continue into the next century. x
  • 47
    The Next Millennium and the Remote Future
    Our speculations into future developments continue with an examination of several theories about what life will be like 1,000 years in the future. Then we'll jump even further ahead, with scientific theorization about the ultimate fate of the Universe. x
  • 48
    Big History—Humans in the Cosmos
    In the final lecture of this course, we pause to ask some fundamental questions about meaning: What is the place of human beings in the Universe? Are we, perhaps, the only creations of the Universe that have consciousness? x

Lecture Titles

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David Christian
D.Phil. David Christian
Macquarie University

Dr. David Christian is Professor of History at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He earned a B.A. in History from Oxford University, an M.A. in Russian History from The University of Western Ontario, and a D.Phil. in 19th-Century Russian History from Oxford University. He previously taught at San Diego State University. Professor Christian's course on big history stems from an experimental history course he developed in the late 1980s with the help of colleagues in astronomy, geology, biology, anthropology, and prehistory. In addition to Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (which won the 2005 World History Association Book Prize), Professor Christian is the author of numerous works including This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity. Professor Christian is a member of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities. He was one of the editors of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History and also participated in the creation of the world history website World History for Us All.

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Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 131 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by SPACIOUS Yet again, another stellal course from TGC. Big History is a must have. The interdisciplinary dissection of past, present, and future utilized by Professor Christian left me very motivated to learn "the details" of the broad subjectect matter covered by his course. After disc 4 - I was inspired to jump into Biological Anthropology (course no. 1573). Also, Big History fueled my interests in the Earth Sciences which has me watching Professor Wysession and his course on Geological Wonders (course no. 1712). I have no complaints with this course at all; it was really well rounded. For a new customer to this site, I'd highly recommend this as your first course. November 21, 2013
Rated 4 out of 5 A fine history of the universe...and of us A giant review of history---starting before the Big Bang---in digestible, understandable and fascinating pieces. October 16, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 Big History Great Course no pun intended. All should sign up. Provides a realistic yet unusual presentation of history on earth, particularly of the human. Quite credible and extensive threading the key drivers of how the planet earth and we got to where we are. Even the predictions of the future seemingly plausible and noted by Prof. Christian, as largely "educated" guessing were helpful in getting one's head around where are we headed. George Mauer October 15, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 An absolute must! This series is the best set of lectures I have ever seen. Not only is the material fascinating and important, it is also beautifully presented by an absolute master! David Christian is quite simply the best there is! He has managed to take an extraordinary array of material and make it wonderfully accessible. The entire approach in this series represents a complex amalgam of disciplines into a coherent and integrated package. I hope that a lot of young people will take this journey in Big History before they settle down to whatever particular interest attracts them. October 15, 2014
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