Big History: Why We Fail to See Life as Life Sees Itself

My assumptions about history began to change 13 years ago. I was teaching a class called Media, Stereotyping and Violence when the tragic events of 9/11 overtook our lives. In the days that followed, my students and I confronted a question: Is all this violence inevitable?
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My assumptions about history began to change 13 years ago. I was teaching a class called Media, Stereotyping and Violence when the tragic events of 9/11 overtook our lives. In the days that followed, my students and I confronted a question that seemed only too inevitable those days: Is all this violence inevitable? Is it the way it's always been?

Is this a "clash of civilizations?"

Many wars, terrorist attacks, barbaric beheadings, reckless and destructive actions of individuals and institutions later, I wonder if we have invested enough of our intellectual resources in addressing questions like these. Too often, by focusing on specific acts of violence and possible specific causes, ranging from religious fundamentalism to gun proliferation, we forget about the big picture, our deepest assumptions about the place of violence in nature and history. We hope, somehow, that reason, science and history will save us from all this, but we rarely examine the way science and history tell us a story about ourselves.

The Big History project is an admirable attempt by Professor David Christian to make history interesting to students (and a commendable effort by Bill Gates to make it more accessible.) A good story about the past is like learning to ride a bicycle. Once you discover its pleasure, once you grasp the fact that it is not all just tedious dates and names to memorize, you perhaps never go back to ignoring it. On that note, the project is indeed fascinating.

The problem, however, with Big History, and indeed, with history as it is taught today in the modern curriculum, is that it perpetuates certain biases and assumptions about nature and violence (I discuss these in my new book, Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence.) These are not biases about nations or races. Today, we are to a large extent beyond those sort of stereotypes (though a little more can always still be done, as an important, new legislation in California is trying to do.) The Big Bias in how we narrate history is that we presume and project a template into the past that is not as universal as it assumed to be. It projects the social and cultural view of nature, human beings, animals and life peculiar to a particular time and place in history into the past and onto everybody.

Most of our "story of everything" narratives today begin with a physical account of the origins of the universe and earth, followed by a physical-chemical explanation of the beginnings of life, and a rather ruthless and bloody tale about evolution as competition, conflict, survival and extinction. Then, we move into human history, where once again we see a story about conflict and survival, although now it is punctuated with developmental milestones of tools made of bones, stones and rocks, and eventually, metals, electricity and the present silicon age. We fill out a narrative arc of what we consider progress, moving from primitive tools to sophisticated technologies, which we view as signs of our growing intelligence.

The problem with this template is that it rests, for the most part, on the normativity of violence, cruelty and exploitation. It assumes that the wars and conquests it talks about are natural, an extension of the violent survivalist core it attributes to life in nature. Think of virtually any wildlife show you might have watched. Flip through any book on dinosaurs you might have in your shelf. Notice what the pictures depict, especially the imagined recreations about prehistoric life. Notice the emphasis on jawbones and talons, on predators and prey, on blood and carcass. Notice the voiceovers in the nature shows, even shows for children on innocuous creatures like butterflies in which death and dismemberment are always played up. Our culture is repeatedly telling us that nature is but an operation of machines -- fighting machines, killing machines, mating machines and reproducing machines.

Consider how the story of early humans is told in Big History. This episode might not be sensationalist or violent, but the picture it imagines of early human life reproduces the same template of living beings as no more than surviving machines. We are told that our early human ancestors foraged and made communities in places where, in one case, lots of moths could be feasted on. We are told they danced and played too. But why do we not imagine them on terms that human beings still live by? Were these early humans (or most animals and birds, for that matter), just objects gravitating towards food and sex, lacking any subjective capacity for affection, kindness, happiness, aversion to harm and perhaps, love? Or were they living beings that could feel what you and I feel, and maybe more, even?

Invariably, such questions bring us to questions about the history of religion, another area of study in which the templates are somewhat inadequate. Despite the useful contributions of writers like Reza Aslan and Karen Armstrong, we still lack a popular discourse today that helps us understand how people thought about the divine in the past. In the case of Hindu history, the lack is compounded by a seeming disdain among some scholars for how Hindus view their own past and present. Given the absence of a founder, founding event or even a foundational text, Hinduism's origins seem to demand a historiographical paradigm of their own, free of the colonial and orientalist condescension much scholarship about Hindus has had in the past. As I attempt to show in my new book, there is a need for a much wider imagination than before in exploring what it meant to view the world as a Hindu (or whatever one was in the Indian region before the term "Hinduism" was coined). That kind of imagination, I believe, can come about only if we address the deeper presumptions we have about nature and history. By turning to religion not simply as either doctrine or blind faith, but as a cultural resource for ethical striving, we might possibly be able to see how our ancestors viewed the world more accurately too, and not dismiss their thought as mere superstition about spirits and talking trees. Our ancestors, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, other, were listening to nature in ways we cannot fully understand perhaps given our highly anthropocentric and dominating attitude towards it in the modern world. But we must try.

Interestingly, the Big History segment on the beginning of agrarian civilizations features a drawing of a cow numbered according to cuts of meat (and perhaps without irony, is followed by an photo of cows and people in India as the voiceover explains how finding certain meats tastier led to domestication and animal husbandry.) We need to ask if this kind of normativity about an exploitative and objectifying approach to animal life is accurate. The place of the cow in world history is especially significant, as Jeremy Rifkin and Florian Werner have shown us. Colonial propaganda has obfuscated some of that significance, erasing the modern mind's ability to recognize its debt to nature and turning even the one enduring example of reverence for the cow's life into a myth about Hindu beliefs about reincarnation.

It may be the case that most humans in most parts of the world ate, and continue to eat, some animal, bird or fish flesh. But what we forget is that humanity has also been full of philosophical struggles about the use of violence to sustain one's way of life. Our ancestors struggled with ethics in their idioms, and sought to find ways of reducing that violence, even if through taboos on certain animals being killed. Today we blindly assume that the past, history, pre-history, was all about killing-or-be-killed, and we perpetuate an unchecked mythology about nature, history and animals even in well-meaning productions (on a related note, we must also wonder why brilliant and ethical Caesar would resort to hunting rather than agriculture in Planet of the Apes)

I sometimes wonder what Mahatma Gandhi might have made of the classic opening scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey in which we see a killer's club become, so to speak, a space station. Did we really evolve from brutal savagery to some serene post-violent epitome of progress? Distinguished thinkers like Steven Pinker have argued that we have become less violent than before. But we have to wonder if this view of the past and the present is indeed accurate, or true for all of this world. For one thing, I doubt if even a hungry caveman could leave the sort of violence-footprint on nature that an average, peaceful modern consumer guzzling oil, paper, packaging, water, electricity, fast food, all of this pleasure, indirectly does. We need a Big History that will help us recognize this, and inspire our children to work towards changing it. For that we have to tell a story about the past that goes well beyond mere surviving and foraging and exploiting, but really about living, and about seeing the living world as life would see it.

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