Pspealman's Reviews > Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History

Maps of Time by David Christian
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's review
Dec 13, 2007

really liked it
Recommended for: Uninspired Historians
Read in December, 2007

This book's main endeavor is to flesh out what is, apparently, the nascent field of 'Big Picture' research in history. That 'Big Picture' sense of history is mostly very large scale trends and very little attention to individuals. Which would hardly qualify as new if your family with the dialecticians and their ilk (Hegel, Marx, my grandmother) with their insistence on predictable progress, goal minded evolution, and over-arching narrative.

This is actually this first issue we encounter in the book. Cosmology, by another name, is this weaving of interpreting meaning on what we observe - or for the post-modern - it is the meta-narrative of our world. That the author embraces this tactic but also maintains his insistence that it his undertaking is different from these predecessors is entertaining if not altogether convincing. But, unlike most, he is forthright in his interpretations and knowingly unconvinced in their purported completeness.

The book really begins at the dawn of space and time at the moment of the universes birth, and quickly we spin through the cosmological portions of physics from the inflation to the birth of solar systems, planets, geological bits about continent formation, and finally the birth of life. Moral of this story is that dumb physical processes can produce complexity by the selection of structures that can handle larger and larger levels of energy.

Now I don't want to dismiss the rest of the book but the meta-narrative of this first portion was really quite my favorite. That complex forms are part of a energy-management gradient of existence with the later complexities building of the energy management techniques of their predecessors is really a neat idea, and definitely a good bit to read if you are in the mood for something like that.

The rest of the book tolls off the processes of biome formation, the diversification of life, the rise of the hominids, man, and civilization going into details about the possible reasons that certain trends emerged and certain contingencies occurred. While some bits of this were rather breathless the moral of complexity arising by further energy extraction and management systems still holds, the author - notably - goes to great lengths to prove this out in several cases. The general push of the argument is rather agreeable to me so I found it quite convincing.

For it's closing "Maps of Time" takes into account the future and draws from our current momentum and knowledge a projection of near, middle, and long term possible futures. This is bleak and tragic stuff - not that it is made melodramatic or histrionic by the author - it's just that we've got a bit of work to do if we're going to be doing well for ourselves and our world. And also there is the eventual death of the Universe itself, which is a bit depressing really.

In closing this is a great book - some parts need improvement but the author is able enough for the task at hand and the subject matter makes for a good meta-narrative. I would advise anyone who is into the big picture to consider checking it out.

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