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Book Review: ‘Maps of Time’

 “Maps of Time. An Introduction to Big History”Ignoring Genocides & Holocausts

David Christian (a professor of Modern History at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia) has written a big book entitled “Maps of Time. An Introduction to Big History” (University of California  Press) that combines the history of the universe over 13 billion years with the history of man (Homo sapiens)  over 200,000 years and the history of city-based human civilization over 5,000 years. This huge work fails absurdly in the important arena of moral compass because while there is nothing man can do in the face of the forces of nature, from superstorms to the death of the Sun and the eventual thermal death of the universe, man can and must learn from his bloody history and try to avoid the mistakes of the past. However David Christian has compounded this immense “apples and oranges” error by extraordinarily deleting the very biggest of avoidable human atrocities (and even the WW2 Jewish Holocaust) from his “Big History”. Some “Big History” indeed. Put succinctly, “Maps of Time” stands condemned from the perspective of human moral compass and rational risk management by the aphorism “History ignored yields history repeated”.

Eminent American historian William H. McNeill (University of Chicago) argues otherwise and lavishes hyperbolic praise on this book: “Maps of Time unites natural history and human history in a single, grand, and intelligible narrative. This is a great achievement, analogous to the way in which Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century united the heavens and the earth under uniform laws of motion; it is even more closely comparable to Darwin’s nineteenth-century achievement of uniting the human species and other forms of life within a single evolutionary process… I venture to say that Christian’s discovery of order amid “the endless waltz of chaos and complexity” is not just one among other unifying themes, but the supreme achievement of this work” (Forward, “Maps of Time”, pxv).
Indeed David Christian concludes his book with the following cosmological self-appraisal: “Being complex creatures ourselves, we know from personal experience how hard it is to climb down the escalator, to work against the universal slide into disorder, so we are inevitably fascinated by other entities that appear to do the same thing. Thus this theme - the achievement of order despite, and perhaps with the aid of, the second law of thermodynamics – is woven through all parts of the story told here. The endless waltz of chaos and complexity provides one of this book’s unifying ideas” (p511).
Modern historian, non-chemist, non-physicist, non-cosmologist   David Christian writing in 2005 has re-discovered the problem solved for small scale inanimate systems by physicists like Lord Kelvin back in the 19th century as summarized in the First Law of Thermodynamics (“the energy of a closed system remains constant”)  and the Second Law of Thermodynamics (‘the entropy [disorder] of the universe increases to a maximum”) and solved for both cosmos-scale and sub-atomic systems by mathematicians like Albert Einstein, quantum mechanics   and cosmologists like Stephen Hawking (”the net energy of the universe is zero”). Thus amphipathic molecules (e.g. detergents like soap) that have parts that are water-repelling (hydrophobic and other parts that are water-attracting (hydrophilic) can spontaneously form remarkably ordered vesicle structures in water. Some highly compact small protein molecules that have been reduced (by breaking disulphide bonds) and denatured to form random coils will spontaneously snap back into a unique, compact, 3-dimensional arrangement when the denaturant is removed and reducing conditions are replaced with oxidizing conditions (indeed as a biological chemist I purified and structurally analyzed scores of such bioactive proteins; see Gideon Polya, “Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds”).  Similarly, at a cosmological level spiral galaxies aggregated from dispersed, relatively disordered, gaseous matter through gravitational attraction without violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Complex living systems represented a challenge to physicists in the mid-20th century (e.g. see Nobel Laureate Erwin Schrödinger’s “What is Life?” 1944) but have proved not to be “exceptional” in relation to  the laws of thermodynamics. . Biologist Nobel Laureate Jacques Monod  in his book “Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology” (1971) posed the apparent paradox that the information content of the unique, compact,  3-dimensional structure of a protein is apparently vastly greater than the information content of the  linear amino acid sequence of its linear polypeptide precursor. This apparent paradox is solved when one considers that the polypeptide has to fold up to its final minimum energy, unique 3-D structure in an aqueous environment with a multiplicity if hydrophilic and hydrophobic interactions coming into play (and, as we now know today, with the help of chaperone proteins that assist the folding).
Put simply, living systems are highly ordered systems that repair and replicate themselves, extracting the free energy (G) for these entropy (S)-reducing processes from the chaotic universe. The “trick” of life on earth has been mutable DNA coding for the catalytic proteins (enzymes) and non-catalytic proteins crucial for water-based life, with an astronomical number of structural possibilities that can be selected via mutation of DNA and evolutionary natural selection (for a concise summary of biochemistry, or the science of the chemistry of life, see “Biochemistry- the chemistry of life”, Chapter 2, Gideon Polya, “Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds”).  Human behavioral evolution  (crucial for man’s history) occurred not just through mutation of DNA (genes) but also through the social selection of “ideas” i.e. of  “memes” (e.g. “love thy neighbor as thyself” and  “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) as explored by Professor Richard Dawkins in his seminal book “The Selfish Gene”. Unfortunately, non-biologist   Christian barely mentions “memes” in passing in 1 sentence in relation to “capitalism” (pp359-360).
The  Big Problem with this book on “Big History” are its ignoring of Big Events as illustrated already with the foregoing examples of “Maps of Time” ignoring Big Events such as largely ignoring the fundamental  behavioral evolution of man via selection of “:memes” and  the ignoring of the horrendous atrocities of WW2, notably the WW2 Jewish Holocaust. Some other egregious omissions from “Maps of Time” are briefly listed and discussed below in relation to variously eminent authors who have written extensively on such matters that have been largely or completely ignored in this book. 
1. The natural selection of “memes” represents a major mechanism in the evolution of man and society (see Richard Dawkins, “The Selfish Gene”). While Richard Dawkins, “The Selfish Gene” and “memes” were mentioned, this vital mechanism was ignored in “Maps of Time” which also ignored Richard Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion” and the biological evolution of the meme of “God”.
2. Although “Maps of Time” is about the evolution of man and society, it totally ignores Professor C.D. Darlington’s classic book “The Evolution of Man and Society” and the devastating consequences of eliminating useful ideas (now called “memes”) and genetically and culturally progressively-disposed elements  in society (e.g. through genocide or emigration).
3. Although “Maps of Time” quotes Professor Jared Diamond’s famous book “Guns, Germs and Steel”,  it remarkably fails to enunciate the core position of this important book, specifically the  impact of inanimate geography on human history e.g. rapid agrarian and industrial cross-fertilization in East-West axis Eurasia as opposed to isolated Australia and North-South axis Africa and the Americas.
4. Fundamental to consideration of the inanimate-human interaction is land carrying capacity, sustainable use of resources and human memory of how to deal sensibly with nature. However, “Maps of Time” extraordinarily ignores Professor Jared Diamond’s important book “Collapse” that deals with numerous examples of how societies have collapsed. 
5. Famine is an extreme case of catastrophic lack of food resources or, more specifically, according to Nobel Laureate Economics scholar  Professor Amartya Sen, the lack of entitlement to food and the money to purchase it. However Professor Amartya Sen and his vitally important works are absent from “Maps of Time”.  Indeed “famine” per se gets relatively limited mention in “Maps of Time”.  Thus Christian briefly mentions the association of famine with the agrarian revolution, population build-up and crashes due to transient insufficiency and lack of protective innovation (pp 223, 265, 271, 311, 316, 352-353 and 451). 

However Christian gets close to the nub of things when he states “In this [globalization] project, the power of the newly industrialized armies, with modern, mass-produced weapons, and of better transportation  systems such as steamships and railways could prove decisive – so decisive that Europe was able to import Indian grain even during the subcontinent’s horrifying famines of the late nineteenth century” [he refers to Mike Davis’ book “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño famines and the making of the Third World”). There is no specific mention in “Maps of Time” of the 1769-1770 man-made Bengal Famine (10 million killed), the 1942-1945 Bengal Famine (6-7 million killed), or of numerous famines in between under the rapacious British under whom 1.8 billion Indians perished from violently-imposed deprivation between 1757 and 1947 (see Gideon Polya, “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History”, now available for free perusal on the web)

6. Although Christian refers to Mike Davis’ book “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño famines and the making of the Third World”, there is otherwise no other mention of the term “holocaust, nor indeed of “genocide”. Thus Christian  failed to mention  the horrendous, pre-20th century,  European colonial genocides  on all continents, and similarly ignored the following 20th – 21st century holocausts and genocides (deaths from violence or violently-imposed deprivation in parentheses): the  Namibian Genocide (0.1 million killed), the Armenian Genocide (1.5 million killed), the Ukrainian Genocide (5 million killed), the Soviet Genocide (20 million killed), the WW2 Jewish Holocaust (5-6 million, 1 in 6 dying from deprivation), the WW2 European Holocaust (30 million Slavs,  Jews and Gypsies killed),  the WW2 Chinese Holocaust (35 million), the WW2 Bengali Holocaust (6-7 million Indians killed),  the post-1950 Global Avoidable Mortality Holocaust (1.3 billion killed), post-1950 US Asian wars (38 million), the Chinese Great Leap Forward (30 million died in US-sanctioned China), the Palestinian Genocide (2 million killed since 1936), the Iraqi Genocide (4.6 million killed since 1990), the Afghan Genocide (5.6 million killed since 2001), the Muslim Genocide (12 million killed since 1990)  and the worsening climate genocide (5 million dying annually from climate change of carbon pollution with 10 billion to perish thus this century due to unaddressed man-made climate change) (Google  “Climate Genocide”, and Muslim Holocaust Muslim Genocide”, and see Gideon Polya, “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950”, now available for free perusal on the web). Some of Christian’s fellow Australian historians, notably Professors Tony Taylor and Geoffrey Blainey, have similarly  ignored horrendous UK and US genocidal atrocities of the last 70 years (see Gideon Polya, “Genocide Book Review: “Denial. History Betrayed” by Tony Taylor”, Countercurrents, 28 January 2010, and see Blainey, G. (2000), A Short History of the World (Viking, Melbourne) and Blainey, G. (2004), A Very Short History of the World (Viking, Melbourne)).

7. Christian’s “Big History” alludes to the ultimate end of the universe but makes no mention of Australian physics Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt who discovered that the universe is actually expanding in an accelerating fashion (see “Brian Schmidt”, Wikipedia).
8. Christian correctly adverts to the nuclear peril: “ca. 50 years ago. The first use of a nuclear weapon takes pace (humans learn to use the explosive power present at the origin if the universe, and are in danger of destroying themselves and the biosphere” (p502). However Christian is unfortunately less alarmed by man-made global warming: “Warming may increase ecological productivity in some areas, but it will certainly have a worldwide impact. Whether benign or harmful” (p461). Indeed the whole cosmological and geological emphasis of the book has the effect – whether intended or not - of downplaying the crucial existential problem of 7 billion people living in a crowded planet with, as Christian concedes, about 2 billion already suffering malnutrition. 18 million people currently die avoidably each year from deprivation and deprivation-exacerbated disease. Man-made climate change will, if unaddressed, increase the average avoidable death rate this century to 100 million per year.

9. David Christian gives a passable layperson’s summary of the biochemical basis of solar energy-based life on earth in Chapter 5, “The evolution of life and the biosphere”, and notes that we are dangerously burning the fossil fuels laid down over hundreds of millions of years.  However there is no summary of the solution to man-made warming that involves cessation of fossil fuel burning, other greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution  and deforestation coupled with urgent re-forestation, 100% renewable energy and massive carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestration by conversion of  agricultural and forestry biomass waste to biochip (carbon, charcoal) through  anaerobic paralysis. Leading scientists say that we must urgently return the atmospheric CO2 from the current nearly 400 parts per million back to the pre-Industrial Revolution level of 300 pap CO2 for a safe planet for all people and all species (Google “Return atmosphere CO2 to 300 pap CO2”). “Maps of Time” doesn’t mention biochip that is key to human and biosphere survival.

10. Christian admits the massive human impact on biodiversity but responds rhetorically “Can change continue to accelerate without dangerous consequences for human society and the biosphere as a whole?” (pp459-464). The biosphere   is already suffering the worst calamity for 65 million years with a species extinction rate 100-1,000 times greater than normal. Paleoclimate and earth scientist Dr Andrew Glikson (Australian National University) has published an important article entitled “Another link between CO2 and mass extinction of species” ((The Conversation, 22 March 2013) in which he concludes: “Mass extinctions due to rapidly escalating levels of CO2 are recorded since as long as 580 million years ago. As our anthropogenic global emissions of CO2 are rising, at a rate for which no precedence is known from the geological record with the exception of asteroid impacts, another wave of extinctions is unfolding… Continuing emissions contravene international laws regarding crimes against humanity and related International and Australian covenants. In the absence of an effective global mitigation effort, governments world-wide are now presiding over the demise of future generations and of nature, tracking toward one of the greatest mass extinction events nature has seen. It is time we learned from the history of planet Earth.”


“Maps of Time. An Introduction to Big History” by David Christian is a seriously flawed book that ignores horrendous man-made famine, holocaust and genocide atrocities. This flaw violates the fundamental dictum of history and historiography that “History ignored yields history repeated”.  The combination of cosmological and geological history with 5,000 years of human history absurdly mixes galactic things we can do nothing about with lessons that can help save humanity from itself. M. Aarons and J. Loftus in their book “The Secret War Against the Jews. How Western Espionage Betrayed the Jewish People”) commented: “The hidden parts of history, the covert sides, are more orderly and rational, but can be seen and understood only if you are told where to look. The holes in history are what make sense of the thing.” In my view, the most important things for Humanity and the Biosphere in relation to “Maps of Time” are things that historian David Christian has ignored. We are badly running out of time to deal with the nuclear, poverty and global warming threats against Humanity and the Biosphere.

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