On Trends and Periods in Big History


Robert Aunger


Over nearly fifty years, Big History has evolved as an interdisciplinary approach, connecting cosmic, geological, biological, and cultural phenomena into a unified narrative of increasing complexity. This paper critically examines various theoretical frameworks within Big History, focusing on their scientific soundness. While progress has been made, challenges persist in establishing a theoretical core and achieving consensus. Commonalities exist, such as the recognition of a trend toward increasing complexity, the division into temporal eras and periods, and the acknowledgment of unique dynamics defining these phases. However, a consensus on the best foundational principles and canonical periods remains elusive. The paper suggests three strategies for theory development: employing cross-disciplinary theories, generalizing discipline-specific theories, or inventing novel theories. Each approach requires further refinement and empirical testing to contribute to consensus building. Big History is argued to have utility based on its ability to contextualize events within a broader framework, but more ambitious rationales and empirical work may be necessary for skeptical audiences. Despite ongoing theoretical debates, immediate progress can be achieved through empirical endeavors, contributing to the discipline's reputation.


Author Biography

Robert Aunger, The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Robert Aunger is Associate Professor in Evolutionary Public Health. He has a Masters in Urban Planning from the University of Southern California, a PhD in biological anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and did post-doctoral work in psychology at the University of Chicago and King’s College, Cambridge. He has published books on cultural evolution (with the Free Press and Oxford University Press), the evolution of human behaviour (with Oxford University Press), and ethnographic methods (with Altamira Press), as well as papers on hunter-gather nutrition and belief systems, genetic diversity, the psychology of motivation, the evolution of technology, and global history. He is the lead developer of a novel approach to behaviour change called ‘Behaviour Centred Design’ which has its origins in evolutionary biology, ecological psychology and commercial marketing. For over a decade, he has helped implement research- and large-scale public health projects in water, sanitation, hygiene, nutrition and HIV using this approach in multiple countries on the African and Asian continents, including designing creative materials for mass media and community activation.