Little History, Big History
I’m in one of those seminars whose focus has little, if anything, to do with the course title: Advanced Stratigraphy and Tectonics. It’s actually about chance events that change everything, sometimes by going smashy-smashy (which I like), and finding other good excuses to put paleontologists and geophysicists in the same room, and what happens if you dry up the Mediterranean, and so on. This week’s assignment is to think about, and make a list of, the greatest events in history.
All of history. The Big Bang through my earthshattering purchase of new socks last weekend. Big History. It’s an arrogant idea that puts human society on the same conceptual scale as the whole damn universe. Did I mention my new socks? They have cherries on them. Those cherries can be situated in the context of modern nostalgia for Pac-Man and the dawn of computers, a 200-year tradition of Orientalism and forcing elementary school students to write bad English-language haiku about the sakura*, thousands of years’ worth of human fruit cultivation, or millions of years of flowered-plant/pollinator co-evolution. Perhaps, if we are sufficiently clever, we can weave my socks into a narrative that encompasses the slow gravitational processes of the galaxy – without creating yet another bland restatement of the anthropic principle.
I kind of like this idea, because I’m an arrogant person and I like my socks. So here are some events I think are profound and crazy important, with only weensy explanations (it’s approaching bedtime):
- My birth. If the appeal of Big History is primarily psychological – questions about the past all pushing the same little button that says Wow! What was it like? – there’s no sense hiding behind a blanket of unbe-ego’d curiosity.
- The Permian-Triassic extinction. The obvious choice, but it’s impossible to omit.
- The first subducting plate. It’s fun to invoke plate tectonics to explain why Earth is better than Venus or Mars. Better! Let’s not shy away from the value judgment here, it’s not like Venusian resurfacing events are going to make anyone’s list.
- Aw, fuck it, the Venusian resurfacing event. I’m such a smartass.
- Initiation of Quaternary glaciation cycles.
- Moon-forming impact. As cliché as the PT boundary, but again, impossible to omit.
So, gentle readers, at whatever scale you feel most comfortable with – what would you add to this list?
*I actually suspect that my socks are printed with strictly Western cherry imagery. But what the fuck do I know about art history? Almost nothing!