Why Davos Man Loves Big History

On the face of it, David Christian’s Origin Story doesn’t look like the kind of book that demands a political analysis. Subtitled A Big History of Everything, I imagine it will strike most readers as a weightier, less amusing, version of Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything – a book for the interested non-specialist, if not the shameless dilettante. Its author, an Australian academic, is the sort of populariser that can communicate complex concepts with an energy and enthusiasm bordering on showmanship. His 2011 TED talk ‘The History of Our World in 18 Minutes’ has been viewed over eight million times. No doubt they’ll be a TV series, or Netflix doco, down the road. Make room, Prof. Neil Degrasse Tyson.

Unlike space and time, however, books do not appear ex nihilo, and the story of how this particular book came to exist is an interesting one. A book, of course, should be judged on its contents, not on the circumstances of its conception. Nevertheless, the events leading up to the publication of Christian’s opus, which purports to be a history of humankind told from a universal perspective, and to furnish our embattled species with a new and globalising mythos, strike me as inseparable from its thesis. So what is the origin story of Origin Story?

Notwithstanding the creation of atoms and molecules and intelligent life and the printing press, it all began with Bill Gates. In 2008 the tech billionaire was exercising on his private treadmill and watching a series called Big History, which took its title from the approach to history pioneered by Prof. Christian (then at San Diego State University) – an approach combining numerous disciplines from both the humanities and sciences, and beginning, not with farming and the invention of writing as per traditional history, but with the creation of the universe itself. Impressed with its ambition and scope, Gates decided to track Christian down, and to bung him a cool $10m to develop a course for high-school students. The resulting course, The Big History Project, is essentially Origin Story in embryo.

Nor was Gates the only rich-lister to be impressed by the concept of Big History. In 2015, Christian was invited to address the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, and his speech (introduced by Al Gore) seems to have touched off an enthusiasm for histories of the longue durée variety. In the last two years especially, there has been much discussion amongst the Davos faithful about the newish concept of the Anthropocene – a geologic designation describing the profound effect that the human species has had on the planet, pressed into service, more often than not, in debates around anthropogenic climate change. In 2016 Davos was abuzz with the news that the International Commission on Stratigraphy was considering a recommendation to make the designation official, while last year the executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Johan Rockström, was invited to present a talk entitled ‘Beyond the Anthropocene’. The excitement has even extended to the decor. In 2017 the meeting featured Tomas Saraceno’s installation Aerocene, the purpose of which, according to the artist, was to propose a new, post-Anthropocene epoch, ‘where we together learn how to float and live in the air, and to achieve an ethical collaboration with the environment’.

Christian’s Origin Story, then, did not appear in a cultural vacuum. To adapt one of the author’s favoured metaphors – the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears – it emerged, or is emerging, at a time when the conditions for its reception were/are ‘just right’ – at least amongst a certain, influential cohort. The question is: What is it about Big History that so appeals to this powerful cohort? Why are the global elite so taken with the new historiography?

Well, it’s reassuringly global, for a start. Eschewing the microscope for the telescope, Big History takes a species-level view of humankind’s development, which must be reassuring indeed when the economic class to which you belong is in the frame for massive inequality, economic and environmental collapse, and a host of other planetary evils. I’m not being facetious here. Big History in its various forms necessarily obscures much messy detail in favour of a panoramic perspective. Referring to ‘the Anthropocene narrative’ and how it operates ideologically in the debate on anthropogenic climate change, Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg summarise the issue thus:

The Anthropocene narrative portrays humanity as a species ascending to power over the rest of the Earth System. In the crucial field of climate change, this entails the attribution of fossil fuel combustion to properties acquired during human evolution, notably the ability to manipulate fire. But the fossil economy was not created nor is it upheld by humankind in general […] Steam-engines were not adopted by some natural-born deputies of the human species: by the nature of the social order of things, they could only be installed by the owners of the means of production. A tiny minority even in Britain, this class of people comprised an infinitesimal fraction of the population of Homo sapiens in the early 19th century […] Capitalists in a small corner of the Western world invested in steam, laying the foundation stone for the fossil economy: at no moment did the species vote for it either with feet or ballots, or march in mechanical unison, or exercise any sort of shared authority over its own destiny and that of the Earth System.

Even if the Davos faithful are genuine in their desire to combat climate change and environmental degradation more generally, they are unlikely to warm to a narrative that points to the devastation wrought by a system based on endless growth. But with its focus on the species as a whole (and thus on no one in particular) the Anthropocene narrative circumvents this problem. As Malm has put it elsewhere: ‘Climate science, politics, and discourse are constantly couched in the Anthropocene narrative: species-thinking, humanity-bashing, undifferentiated collective self-flagellation, appeal to the general population of consumers to mend their ways and other ideological pirouettes that only serve to conceal the driver.’

The same point could be made about Christian’s universal focus in Origin Story, which is similarly instrumental in its desire to instil a global consciousness that can be weaponised in the fight against climate change. His central idea is that the universe in general, and human societies in particular, have developed across certain ‘thresholds’ that have led to ever-greater complexity – this in the teeth of the more general tendency towards entropy that will do for us all in the end. Christian identifies eight key thresholds that have brought humanity to its current juncture: the creation of matter in the wake of the Big Bang; the formation of stars and galaxies; the emergence of chemical complexity; the formation of the Earth and solar system; the emergence of life on Earth; the emergence of Homo sapiens; the development of agriculture; and the dramatic and possibly catastrophic emergence of the modern world, or Anthropocene. But however fascinating it may be to think about the development of human life in these terms, the effect of such a narrative is to collapse natural and human history in a way that ‘naturalises’ the latter. In one sense, the idea that human beings evolved from other animals, which emerged from rudimentary life-forms, which are composed of molecules and atoms, which formed after the Big Bang, is a tautology: who is claiming otherwise, apart from creationists and other oddballs? But to insist that human history be viewed as part of this broader process is something else entirely, and nothing like as value-free as Christian makes it sound.

To his credit, Christian is not deterministic. He knows that what he calls ‘collective learning’ differentiates humans from other species: that our knowledge accumulates over generations, with the result that we are no longer at the mercy of nature, and can argue for different versions of the future. But if this is the case – and I believe it is – then what is the point of the Big History narrative, other than to provide a bit of inspiration? A truly instrumental history would stress, not humanity’s ‘origin story’, but the ways in which the exploitation of nature and dangerous inequality are mapped into a system based on waged labour, profit, property and perpetual growth. Christian’s Carl Sagan-like wonderment is affecting and sincere. But his belief that such a posture will be politically and economically effective is unconvincing.

It’s also, it seems, a cause of mild tension between Christian and his principal patron, Bill Gates. Consider, for example, this revealing passage from Gates’ laudatory review of Origin Story, published on his website, gatesnotes.com:

The book ends with a chapter on where humanity – and the universe – is headed. David is more pessimistic about the future than I am. He gets a little stuck on the current economic and political malaise happening in the West, and I wish he talked more about the role innovation will play in preventing the worst effects of climate change.

So: The one occasion on which Christian’s thesis approaches politics and economics is the one from which the billionaire recoils. No doubt the ‘innovations’ that Gates believes will deliver us from climate change are of a determinedly non-political nature.

In the words of educationalist Diane Ravitch, one of Gates’ most strident critics: ‘When I think about history, I think about different perspectives, clashing points of view. I wonder how Bill Gates would treat the robber barons. I wonder how Bill Gates would deal with issues of extremes of wealth and poverty.’ Drawing explicitly on the ideas of complexity theory – a species of computer science that explains how complexity increases over time – Big History necessarily obscures such questions of distribution and power in a way that is no doubt appealing to Gates. Indeed, the very language of Big History is implicitly flattering to the billionaire and his analogues. In Origin Story, the evolution of human brains under social pressures is explained in terms of ‘computational tasks whose complexity increases exponentially as groups get larger’, while the Big Bang itself is described in terms borrowed from computer science: the cosmos, writes Christian, ‘bootstrapped’ itself. Not since the conservative historian Niall Ferguson described the six ‘killer apps’ of Western civilisation (competition, science, property owning democracy, modern medicine, the consumer society and the Protestant work ethic, in case you’re interested) has a metaphor so clearly identified the black-skivvied ‘gurus’ of Silicon Valley with the progress of the human species.

And that, surely, is the key point about Big History: that in making increasing complexity the measure of human development it obscures the ideological aspects of that desperately uneven process and makes such development as is yet to happen identical with the ‘complexity’ that Gates and his Silicon Valley pals have effectively privatised in the pursuit of profit. In the rarefied air of Davos-Klosters, Prof. Christian’s ‘origin story’ becomes a just-so story for the global elite – a universal history for the Masters of the Universe.

Marx and Engels were overstating the case when they said that all history was the history of class struggle; but they understood that human history was a site of conflict and exploitation – that humans, though bounded by their material nature, were also unique in their ability to recreate the conditions of their own reproduction. In recent times, and thanks in no small part to writers such as Naomi Klein, we’ve come to see how the exploitation of human labour and the environment are part of the same process of capitalistic development, and that the existential challenge we face is matter, nor just of technology, but of political economy. In that sense, these panoramic histories strike me as a giant leap backwards. The last thing we need is an origin story in which Davos Man can cast himself as the agent of our species’ progress.