In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari recounts how humans have developed from brutes to demigods in the course of their evolutionary history: a grand narrative, one would think, but he perceives it as a comic-tragedy, and details it with mordant humor. Even the book’s subtitle, A Brief History of Humankind, is punning, making “Brief” the soul of wit. At slightly over 400 pages, the narrative is indeed concise, but Sapiens is also an extended brief about the suffering our species has caused itself and others. (The “historical record,” he summarizes for his jury of readers, “makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer.”) “Brief” is also used ironically, since Sapiens is manifestly “big” in key respects. Harari, an Israeli historian, may not have anticipated that his tome would become such a huge hit: Following its initial publication in Hebrew in 2011, it has become available in 26 languages, and the online lecture series derived from it has attracted 65,000 auditors. But Harari also knows that Sapiens is a characteristic work of “Big History,” a relatively new field of research that spans everything from the Big Bang (which Harari mentions in his first sentence) to speculations about the future (which Harari offers in his last chapter).
Because Sapiens summarily dispatches over 13 billion years of cosmic and terrestrial history in its opening paragraphs, focusing instead on our species’ trials and tribulations during the past 70,000 years, it might more accurately be defined as “Deep History,” another recent approach to historiography that extends the historian’s remit to the origins of the human species. Like Big History, Deep History views the lack of written records for human “prehistory” as an inspiring challenge to historians rather than an insurmountable obstacle, one that can be overcome by recent scientific findings and techniques. Both subfields have provoked controversy, but even more excitement, within and outside of academia. (Bill Gates has committed some of his personal fortune to institutionalizing Big History in high schools: See his bighistoryproject.com.) Deep History has brought historians and biologists into mutually beneficial conversations, both hoping to promote a degree of consilience while avoiding the reductive conclusions that plagued sociobiology in earlier decades, to say nothing of earlier pseudosciences like phrenology and eugenics. Histories Big or Deep by David Christian, Daniel Lord Smail, Jared Diamond, Ian Morris, and others have appealed to lay and professional audiences alike, especially over the past 10 years.
The similar global success of Sapiens raises the question: Why are works covering such vast timescales popular today, when in other respects we remain fixated on the hyperpresent, as manifested in tweets, instant news updates, and high-tech innovations that come so swiftly they have made “planned obsolescence” itself obsolete? One answer is that the Internet’s surfeit of information prompts a craving for the orientation provided by large narratives, those user-friendly global and historical positioning systems of the mind. These fell out of fashion in the heyday of postmodernism, when claims to objectivity and universality were regularly attacked for being subjective and self-interested. Contemporary “metanarratives,” however, tend to be more conscious of their status as provisional guides rather than God’s-eye views. And the new availability of Big Data and visualization tools for tracking patterns over time and space, such as Google’s Ngram Viewer and Stanford’s “Mapping the Republic of Letters” project, gratify this hunger for temporal and spatial bearings in handy ways.
Through the ubiquity of such tools, scholars and laypeople alike are slowly being acclimatized to thinking in the long term, an outlook encouraged by Jo Guldi and David Armitage in The History Manifesto (2014). They argue that an emphasis on what the historian Fernand Braudel called the longue durée back in 1958 is now the approach best suited to a world awash in data of extended times and climes. Critics of The History Manifesto reasonably point out that while Big and Deep may be appealing, even seductive, size matters: Extra-large will not fit all, and specific historical questions will always determine the scope and method of investigation. Yet the existence of the debate itself (quite lively on Twitter, of all places) is testimony to the reincarnation of Braudel’s project.