Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Review of 'Maps of Time' by David Christian

Back in the summer of 2016 I went looking for a book that detailed out the history of the world from a high level. After some searching and asking around I stumbled on Maps of Time, which turned out to be one of the more fascinating books I've read in years (hence the review).


For a little background on the book the author, David Christian, is the father of 'Big History', a field that tries to understand the broad currents of our past. In other words, it looks at our history from the highest perspective possible, rather than focusing on the minutiae and details.

In the work Christian offers an introduction to the field of Big History, and does a step through of the history of the universe up until the modern era. He starts out with theories on the origins of the universe itself, to the origins of our solar system and planet, and then the evolution of life, to the various modern societies of people themselves.

When I was making my way through Christian's book I couldn't put it down. Because broad currents of time are exactly what I'm interested in, this was the work that I had been waiting for for some time. An enormous amount of my curiosity was sated with it's content. It'd be hard for me to go into much detail because there is so much packed inside, but the two main themes I took way from the book were energy intensification and collective communication.

Christian describes energy intensification as a process where people have gained the ability to extract more and more energy from the earth per square unit of area over time. So it goes that when population densities increase there becomes a need for more food production, and so the technology to produce more food ends up being invented (necessity is the mother of invention, type thing).

In effect, this has meant that as people have become more successful in growing their numbers, they've also become more successful at using the earth's resources, with obvious implications that most of us are aware of today.

Collective communication is a process where the total body of knowledge among us grows over time. In prehistoric days tribes were quite isolated and so information exchange was rare. But with populations becoming more dense over time, and more technologies being invented to record and transmit our knowledge, these communities of people started becoming smarter, faster.

One of the most important events here was the advent of the printing press, which arguably led to the modern era. These days the internet age also has the potential to radically transform the world.

There is also a ton of other interesting content packed away in the book, but it'd take a few blog posts to detail it all out.

What I can say about Maps of Time these days is that it's a shame that Christian wasn't able to do a better job of marketing it during it's initial release. Such a wonderful book had a lot of potential, but instead it seemed to stay within the arena of academics and historians.

And unfortunately newer, similar titles like 'Sapiens' by Yuval Harari have been getting a lot of attention even despite more fantastical and far-fetched writing. Although this seems to be the way it goes. Few are interested in reading a subdued explanation of the facts, they want their non-fiction to be equal parts entertaining.

It looks like Christian has recognized this marketing mistake, however, and recently released a more consumable book called 'Origin Story' (even repped by Bill Gates). But we'll have to see if it gains any ground into the public consciousness.

What I liked so much about Maps of Time was that like many of the books I read it took on an academic tone with the aim of relaying a well researched and accurate understanding of our history, rather than one that was simply appealing to the broadest number of people. But at the same time Christian also managed to tread that line and present a book that was still equal parts fascinating and readable. Unlike some other books I've tackled, this was one that didn't tire me out after reading 10 - 20 pages.

It's content also gave me an enormous amount of context to understand the other histories I've read. It's one thing to study 19th century Canada, or the medieval period, or Ancient Greece, but it's another thing entirely to take those histories and put them in the context of the complete history of people themselves.

And so broadly speaking Maps of Time offered a framework within which to place everything else I know about history, and this framework has been incredibly valuable in my understanding of our past.

For the most part I'd say that Christian's work is a must read, but I also think it will appeal especially to the knowledge seeker, whether interested in history or not. If you have any curiosity at all about how we got to where we are today, Maps of Time is well worth it's price.

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