Academic Member Feature - David Baker
David Baker studied his PhD in Big History under Professor David Christian at Macquarie University. He now teaches Big History alongside Fred Spier and Esther Quaedackers at the University of Amsterdam. He is writer of the YouTube series Crashcourse Big History, hosted by John and Hank Green in partnership with the Big History Project. Read more on his discovery of Big History and how he developed the script for CrashCourse Big History.
Tell us how you got into Big History as a field of academic interest.
I took my BA Hons and MA in History at University of Calgary. I then completed my PhD in Big History at Macquarie University. Originally, I was trained in the French Annales school of history (which, due to its interdisciplinary nature and broad chronology, relative to a lot of conventional history - typically covering 300-1000 years - was closer to Big History than a lot of genres). I also did a stint in primatology and evolutionary anthropology, and was able to take a few Masters level evolutionary biology courses. For a number of years, I have also been working with Peter Turchin on 'cliodynamics' which, like Annales also invokes population studies and goes a step further to find patterns in human history using mathematics. This is a nice combination of science and the humanities. Nowadays I am interested in Universal Darwinism: at the cultural, biological, geological, and cosmological scales.
During my Master's, I was getting a bit disillusioned with conventional history and the numerous elements of post-modernism that seemed to negate any idea of empiricism, evidence, and discovery, and the propagandistic nature of some genres of history. I took this graduate course in the evolutionary biology department, launched to celebrate Darwin's 200th birthday, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species. We spent the semester reading through each chapter of Darwin's book, discussing its relevance to science and history, and also reading numerous related articles. Around the table sat a number of biologists, some philosophy students, and me, the lone historian. At the time, I was amazed at how much more productive the conversation was, compared to most other seminars I had been to. I liked bringing the two cultures together. I remember thinking that there's no way we'd be able to make as many connections if we were all sitting in a room, only surrounded by people from our own disciplines. I wanted more of that. From there I got connected to Peter Turchin, and a little later on, David Christian, who, when I pitched my PhD project to him was kind enough to find me funding, and a place at MQ. Thereafter followed several years teaching an amazing and unique course, and pondering questions of great importance on the largest possible scales. I haven't looked back.
How did you develop the idea for the Big History CrashCourse series?
In July 2013 I wrote an email to John Green, one of the hosts of CrashCourse, proposing Big History as a new series for the channel. Miraculously, he responded to an unsolicited email! John was enthusiastic, and after a few months of discussions it was time to start writing.
I devised the episode progression and what would be covered. Then it was a matter of condensing the content of a full course into ten punchy 12-15 minute episodes. I'd been a Crash Course viewer for years, so was already familiar with the style of John and Hank's delivery, and did my best to match the tone. I was given a lot of room to write what I wanted. I really am grateful to John Green for taking me up on this, and giving me an opportunity to teach Big History to a great many people.
The first task of any Big History teacher is to tackle the Universe and the evolutionary epic in a way that is clear and easy to understand. And a bit of humour doesn't hurt.
The content of Big History is awe-inspiring, but at times it requires some deep philosophical reflection. This is where humour helps. If you can make them laugh, make them feel at ease, you can toss in something more serious here and there, that brings everyone down to Earth, and reminds them of the sheer magnitude and significance of the history we are discussing. There's definitely a balance there that needs to be struck.
Here's the first episode of the CrashCourse Big History series:
View the rest of the Big History CrashCourse series.