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The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization
The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization
Brian Fagan
Basic Books, 2003
304 pp., 27.69

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Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History
Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History
David Christian
University of California Press, 2004
664 pp., 84.75

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Donald A. Yerxa


The Return of Universal History

Taking the long view.

My parents' library was not exactly well stocked, unless sentimental devotional literature was your fancy. But below the Funk & Wagnall's encyclopedia (purchased in weekly installments at the grocery store) was a thick book that captivated me as a young boy: H.G. Wells' The Outline of History. There it all was: the history of everything, so it seemed. Learn that, and you've mastered history!

Universal history, the grand project of a single overarching story of the past, appealed both to my curiosity and to an untutored conviction that the past had to be a story full of meaning. As I became better acquainted with the methods and practices of academic historians, I realized that my childhood fascination with universal history was at best naïve. Not only does universal history lie beyond the grasp of the historian's method, it is also beyond the historian's appointed task. Because the past has no shape other than what we impose on it, I learned that no reputable historian should presume to write such a speculative story. Still, I would on occasion pause to peruse the impressive multi-volume works by Toynbee and the Durants and privately marvel at the boldness of their vision; could it be that universal history was not such an intellectually bankrupt enterprise as I had been taught to believe?

In recent years some of the impulses behind universal history seem to be undergoing rehabilitation. In part in response to globalization, historians are scrambling to find the conceptual tools (units of investigation, periodization schemes, etc.) to make better sense of humanity's past. This is an extraordinary intellectual development still very much in its initial stages. What is already clear is that historians and scholars from other disciplines, particularly the natural sciences, are asking questions that force us to examine the past in very large chunks.

Indeed, what makes this venture more respectable than the old universal history is an increasingly sophisticated set of tools borrowed from the sciences. One of the most fruitful uses of the new scientific evidence is in the exploration of how climate and environmental factors have influenced history. As was the case with universal history, for decades historians were suspicious of anything that smacked of environmental determinism, especially since early practitioners of this approach—viz., Ellsworth Huntington, whose Civilization and Climate (1924) created a hierarchy of civilizations based upon climactic advantage or disadvantage—came dangerously close to racist conclusions. But many of these suspicions melted away with the enormous success of Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997) and his current bestseller Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

Also notable in establishing the new universal history were Brian Fagan's Flood, Famines and Emperors: El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations (1996) and The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850 (2000). Now Fagan has completed a "climate and history" trilogy with his most ambitious offering to date: The Long Summer. Drawing from an impressive array of studies (from standard archaeological finds and tree ring analyses to deep ice core samples, the study of pollen grains (palynology), and amazing forensic techniques that one might expect to see on an episode of CSI, Fagan assesses the impact of various climatic shifts on the long sweep of history.

Careful at the outset not to overstate his case, Fagan cautions against a simplistic view that climate drove history. But he makes a convincing argument that climate change has been "a major historical player," and certainly not a benign one. For example, Fagan explains how the sudden shift of the Gulf Stream forced people in the ancient Near East to switch from hunting and gathering to early forms of agriculture; how the implosion of the Laurentide ice sheet in Canada c. 6200 bc triggered a rapid rise in the world's oceans that separated England from the continent; and how another rise in the waters of the Mediterranean around 5600 bc led to a catastrophic flood that transformed the Euxine Lake into the Black Sea in only two years. Fagan's scientific toolkit serves him well when he recounts the interplay between climate and prehistoric peoples and early civilizations. His chapters on the early Mesopotamians, Hittites, Egyptians, and Mayans are riveting. Fagan is less convincing, however, when he reaches the more familiar historical terrain on the Romans. Here he seems to exaggerate the impact of climate and undervalue the complex roles played by leaders and cultural forces—always a danger when dealing with the past from such a lofty vantage point. To be fair, this book is primarily about prehistory, and Fagan's treatment of Rome is almost a postscript. Still, we may wonder whether, if our knowledge of those earlier societies were more extensive, we might not find his accounts of them equally unsatisfactory.

But Fagan's bold attempt to use climate to understand history seems downright timid compared to the project of "Big History," the attempt to offer nothing less than a grand unified story of natural and human history. In Maps of Time, Australian historian David Christian, now based in San Diego, has given us a state-of-the-art instance of Big History, a work of breathtaking synthesis wherein Fagan's prehistory is but a blink of the eye—well, actually, a couple of chapters. It's all here: big bang cosmology, the formation and drift of galaxies, the origins of the Earth, the origins and evolution of life and the biosphere, human evolution, prehistory, the emergence of agriculture, settled communities, agrarian civilizations, global networks of exchange, the birth of the modern world, and the "great acceleration" of the 20th century.

Christian has done his homework. He freely draws from the best and brightest science writers, economists, sociologists, and world historians. A very truncated list includes such luminaries as Stephen Hawking, Stephen Weinberg, Paul Davies, Lynn Margulis, Lee Smolin, E.O. Wilson, Freeman Dyson, Stephen Jay Gould, Ernst Mayr, William and J.R. McNeill, Alfred Crosby, Jared Diamond, Robert Wright, Eric Wolf, Anthony Giddens, Joel Mokyr, Daniel Headrick, Charles Tilly, Geoffrey Parker, and, of course, Brian Fagan.

This catalogue of topics and sources does not do justice to the sophistication of the argument in Maps of Time. For example, Christian's chapter "Globalization, Commercialization, and Innovation" is not only a brilliant synthesis of the period from 1000-1750, it also contains the best treatment of Europe's distinctive role in the modern world I have ever encountered. His discussion of the changing topography of global exchanges, whereby Western Europe moved from the margins to the hub of exchanges within the Afro-Eurasian world zone, is especially helpful.

Yet such insights do not satisfy Christian's ambitions. In a brief appendix, he reflects on the "endless waltz of chaos and complexity" at the very core of Big History. Drawing from the theoretical work of Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, he offers a thermodynamic explanation for why similar patterns operate at multiple scales. None other than William McNeill, the doyen of world history, hails this as "the supreme achievement" of the book. Indeed in his foreword, McNeill calls Maps of Time an "intellectual masterpiece," likening it to the breakthroughs of Newton and Darwin. Christian's account of the rise of complexity (increased order) in an overall entropic cosmos is clearly motivated in part by a desire to steer clear of religious explanations for the emergence of complex and durable patterns, and with all due respect for the judgment of William McNeill, we may want to wait a few decades before anointing the next Newton.

What is gained when we attempt to render the past on such expansive canvases? For Fagan the payoff is didactic. By taking a very long view—and it's precisely here that he's most persuasive—he is able to argue that civilizations arose during a remarkably long summer, one of the longest periods of relatively stable climate on record. We have no idea when this summer will end. But we do know that the greater the complexity of human societies, the more vulnerable they become to climatic events. They cannot swing with the climatic punches. While the developed world has gained a measure of security from short-term events, it would be foolish to suppose that we are now immune from disastrous climatic changes. It is not just drought and famine that should concern us. Fagan reminds us how vulnerable the crowded coastlines of the world, where millions live and work, are to changes in sea level brought about by climatic shifts.

For Christian the rewards are theoretical and even border on the religious. In the same appendix that delighted McNeill, Christian provides an intriguing discussion of how the concept of emergent properties, borrowed from complexity theory, can be useful for historians using a very wide lens. Emergent properties are features or rules that emerge at one level of complexity but are not present at other ones. For example, one could say that at one level all humans—indeed, all living organisms—are molecular beings, but certainly chemistry cannot come close to exhausting the complexity of human cognition or interaction. What all this suggests is that history on a very large scale is more than the sum of any number of local histories. This has significant implications, as one of Christian's colleagues, Marne Hughes-Warrington, has noted recently. The hierarchical notion that large-scale history is simply derivative of small-scale histories is called into question, as is the presumption that the latter has more methodological rigor and greater access to historical meaning. I would add that an emergentist approach to historical inquiry would imply that methods and explanations appropriate at the smaller scales may well be overly reductionistic and unsatisfactory when history is done at larger scales.

Tellingly, Christian admits that in Maps of Time he is doing much more than synthesizing a lot of scholarly work. He is, in fact, composing what amounts to a modern, scientific creation myth. In doing so, he consciously addresses a fundamental need of humans to raise and offer answers to the big questions. The academic disciplines have failed in this regard, offering at best fragmented accounts of reality. By carving up the intellectual world into separate disciplines we have made it all but impossible to offer a unified account for why things came to be the way they are. Worse still, the studied avoidance of the big questions results in an academic culture wherein many historians find the meaning of the past in things like a 16th-century miller's testimony before the Inquisition, a massacre of cats in Paris in the late 1730s, or the journal of a Maine midwife in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Creative, even brilliant, as these historical excursions are, they testify to how deflated the notion of meaning becomes when we ask too little of the past.1

And this brings us back to that discredited notion of universal history. With the appearance of books like The Long Summer and especially Maps of Time, it is fair to ask a number of questions: Should universal history still make us blush with embarrassment? Is it really too pretentious for historians to raise the big questions? Or is the pretension primarily a function of the answers one gives? Does history as it is presently practiced exhaust what we can know about the past? What are the limits of historical inquiry?2 If humans have a basic need to render the chaos of the past—yes, maybe even all of it—into some sort of coherence, who should do the heavy lifting? Philosophers? Science writers? Theologians? Historians? This is not to argue for the enduring value of what Wells, Toynbee, or the Durants wrote. Far from it. But perhaps Louis O. Mink got it right when he claimed in 1978 that "the concept of universal history has not been abandoned at all, only the concept of universal historiography." The big questions never do go away.

Donald A. Yerxa is professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College and editor of Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society.

1. I am indebted to Bruce Mazlish, who made a similar observation in the service of a very different argument in a 1999 review essay, "Big Questions? Big History?", History and Theory, Vol. 38, No. 2 (May 1999), pp. 232–48.

2. For a provocative examination of this question, see Constantin Fasolt, The Limits of History (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003).

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