What is history anyway? Most people would say it’s what happened in the past, but how far back does the past extend? To the first written sources? To what other forms of evidence reveal about pre-literate civilizations? What does that term mean—an empire, a nation, a city, a village, a family, a lonely hermit somewhere? Why stop with people: shouldn’t history also comprise the environment in which they exist, and if so on what scale and how far back? And as long as we’re headed in that direction, why stop with the earth and the solar system? Why not go all the way back to the Big Bang itself?

There’s obviously no consensus on how to answer these questions, but even asking them raises another set of questions about history: who should be doing it? Traditionally trained historians, for whom archives are the only significant source? Historians willing to go beyond archives, who must therefore rely on, and to some extent themselves become, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, archeologists? But if they’re also going to take environments into account, don’t they also have to know something about climatology, biology, paleontology, geology, and even astronomy? And how can they do that without knowing some basic physics, chemistry, and mathematics?

This inaugural volume of the SFI Press (the new publishing arm of the Santa Fe Institute) attempts to address these questions via thoughtful essays on history written by distinguished scholars—including Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann—from across a wide range of fields.

Purchase History, Big History, & Metahistory

Table of Contents

Introduction: An Inquiry into History, Big History, & Metahistory, David C. Krakauer, John Lewis Gaddis, & Kenneth Pomeranz 

1: A Single Historical Continuum, David Christian

2: A Paleontological Look at History, Douglas H. Erwin

3: War, Peace, & Everything: Thoughts on Tolstoy, John Lewis Gaddis

4: Regularities in Human Affairs, Murray Gell-Mann

5: Metahistory’s Dangerous Dream, Geoffrey G. Harpham

6: The Star Gazer and the Flesh Eater: Elements of a Theory of Metahistory, David C. Krakauer

7: Homogeneity, Heterogeneity, Pigs & Pandas in Human History, J. R. McNeill

8: Labeling and Analyzing Historical Phenomena: Some Preliminary Challenges, Kenneth Pomeranz

9: Complexity in Big History, Fred Spier

10: Toward Cliodynamics—an Analytical, Predictive Science of History, Peter Turchin

11: A Historical Conspiracy: Competition, Opportunity, & the Emergence of Direction in History, Geerat J. Vermeij

12: Can there be a Quantitative Theory for the History of Life & Society? Geoffrey B. West