Some Thoughts on Deep History

When I told one of my colleagues in another department that this semester I was going to teach history since the big bang, he responded, “that’s not history.”

This wasn’t meant to be an accusation or a criticism. It was, for him, simply a statement of fact. The history of the written word — maybe even the early history of human material culture (notably termed “pre-history”) could be included in history books — but not the history of animals, plants, and geology, and certainly not the Big Bang or the formation of stars and galaxies. These were not history. History was about humans and their societies; it was not about the natural world.

I disagree. I think that the project of fusing the history of humanity with natural history — and, in the process forging a multidisciplinary endeavor — provides us with one valuable way to bridge the strong divide between what C.P. Snow once termed the “two cultures.” Likewise, just as the development of World History encouraged scholars to think at different temporal and spatial scales, I think that deep history can shift our historical perspective and lead to valuable insights.

Here are a few thoughts on ways that I think deep history can be meaningful to students and scholars of history — as well as a few thoughts about the adoption of this approach in the classroom and in scholarship.

  • Deep History — sometimes termed Big History — does not displace other approaches to history. Rather, it enhances them by bringing the humanities, social sciences, and STEM fields into closer dialogue. It provides yet another scale to analyze our pasts.
  • There is much to be said for the potentials of deep history as a scholarly approach. Its engagement with STEM gives historians additional tools to combat pseudoscience, anti-science, and fundamentalism. However, this engagement with STEM always has the potential for the narratives of deep history to echo the ideological frameworks of dogmatic scientism. Consequently, scholars of deep history need to embed critical theory at the heart of their analysis — taking on overly reductionist or ideological positions.
  • The study of deep history parallels an approach that we have seen in environmental studies, which recognizes the entangled relationships between humans and their environments. In seeing the human past as wrapped up in a larger natural history, it implicitly recognizes the fact that seeing humans and the natural world as separate is an artificial distinction. In many cases this distinction can be intellectually limiting. In others, it can ultimately lead to circumscribed (or even false) conclusions.
  • David Christian has argued that the Big History approach creates a new, integrated modern mythology — a secular cosmology grounded in science that parallels those that we see in ancient societies. This, he argues, is a valuable endeavor. While I am optimistic about the potential for Big History to provide meaningful insights, I nevertheless have a slightly different take that is less optimistic. It is true that Big History has the potential to play a part in modern myth-making — framing the human experience in a rich narrative that reaches across millennia and informs the way we see ourselves in the world. However, as scholars in STS and the History of Science has shown, science is a historically situated practice that is deeply embedded in cultural, social, economic, and political structures. A simplistic, linear version of deep history that effaced the discontinuities and complexities of human history would ultimately be shallow from both a descriptive and a critical perspective. A deep history that equated human agency with biological mechanisms would be reductionist and would ignore the complexities of both human culture and experience. A deep history that ignored the construction of difference and the structuring and functioning of power and privilege would not only be deficient, but it would serve the interests of those who benefit from inequality.

This semester, we will be tackling many of these ideas in our readings and our classroom discussions (visit course website here). I haven’t been able to put everything that I would have liked into the syllabus. So, unfortunately, many wonderful books and articles have been left out. I welcome your input regarding supplementary readings, blog posts, videos. I’ll be happy to share them with the class.

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