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

What Is Big History?
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....

32 min
Moving across Multiple Scales
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....

30 min
Simplicity and Complexity
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....

30 min
Evidence and the Nature of Science
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....

31 min
Threshold 1-Origins of Big Bang Cosmology
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....

31 min
How Did Everything Begin?
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....

30 min
Threshold 2-The First Stars and Galaxies
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....

31 min
Threshold 3-Making Chemical Elements
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....

30 min
Threshold 4-The Earth and the Solar System
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....

29 min
The Early Earth-A Short History
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....

31 min
Plate Tectonics and the Earth's Geography
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....

31 min
Threshold 5-Life
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....

30 min
Darwin and Natural Selection
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....

31 min
The Evidence for Natural Selection
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....

31 min
The Origins of Life
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....

31 min
Life on Earth-Single-celled Organisms
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....

29 min
Life on Earth-Multi-celled Organisms
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....

31 min
Hominines
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....

30 min
Evidence on Hominine Evolution
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....

31 min
Threshold 6-What Makes Humans Different?
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....

31 min
Homo sapiens-The First Humans
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....

31 min
Paleolithic Lifeways
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....

31 min
Change in the Paleolithic Era
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....

32 min
Threshold 7-Agriculture
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....

30 min
The Origins of Agriculture
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....

30 min
The First Agrarian Societies
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....

32 min
Power and Its Origins
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....

30 min
Early Power Structures
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....

31 min
From Villages to Cities
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....

32 min
Sumer-The First Agrarian Civilization
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....

33 min
Agrarian Civilizations in Other Regions
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....

31 min
The World That Agrarian Civilizations Made
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....

32 min
Long Trends-Expansion and State Power
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....

31 min
Long Trends-Rates of Innovation
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....

31 min
Long Trends-Disease and Malthusian Cycles
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....

29 min
Comparing the World Zones
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....

31 min
The Americas in the Later Agrarian Era
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....

31 min
Threshold 8-The Modern Revolution
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....

31 min
The Medieval Malthusian Cycle, 500-1350
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....

29 min
The Early Modern Cycle, 1350-1700
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....

29 min
Breakthrough-The Industrial Revolution
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....

32 min
Spread of the Industrial Revolution to 1900
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....

31 min
The 20th Century
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....

33 min
The World That the Modern Revolution Made
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....

32 min
Human History and the Biosphere
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?...

32 min
The Next 100 Years
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....

31 min
The Next Millennium and the Remote Future
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....

30 min
Big History-Humans in the Cosmos
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?...

33 min
David Christian

Doing a course on big history let me reach many smart and influential people with a powerful modern, science-based origin story linking cosmology, geology, biology, history, even futurology into a single coherent story! Fun!

ALMA MATER

Oxford University

INSTITUTION

Macquarie University

About David Christian

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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