Commentary / Japan

Big history helps understand today's issues

by Haruaki Deguchi

A symposium titled “Big History and Liberal Arts” was held in late November at J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo.

Big history involves super-interdisciplinary studies, and a movement to explore the position of humankind in the universe and tackle today’s pressing issues on a global scale, by looking back at the 13.8 billion-year history of the universe and mobilizing knowledge from a multitude of disciplines such as cosmo-physics, geology, biology, anthropology and historiography.

The symposium — in which professor David Christian from Macquarie University in Australia, who authored the best-seller “Origin Story” and was visiting Japan for the first time, and professor Barry H. Rodrigue from Symbiosis International University in India spoke and held a panel discussion along with this writer — turned out be quite stimulating and I learned a lot from it.

In my recent book “A World History of Philosophy and Religion,” I took up nearly 100 religious thinkers and philosophers, ranging from Zoroaster of ancient Persia to Claude Levi-Strauss. The motive for writing the book was my observation that the world today appears to pursuing an integration of knowledge, not fragmentation of it.

The trend of the times is represented by the political framework of democracy and incessant technological innovation as symbolized by artificial intelligence. But both democracy and technological innovation have a tendency to drive society toward fragmentation.

In the feudal age, the feudal lords alone needed to be engaged in politics; there was no need for the common people to be involved. I do not want readers to get me wrong, but I dare say that since democracy as a system presupposes the existence of autonomous individuals, society under democracy cannot help becoming atomized. Technological innovation has given rise to an environment in which people can get their jobs done on personal computers not only at workplaces but at home or wherever they are. This is a wonderful development, since in the past workers needed to gather at the same workplace to carry out their work. This is yet another example of how technical innovation tends to atomize society.

Such is the trend of the times that I thought that integration of knowledge and an attempt to rebuild the fragmented world into a unified one — and to understand the world holistically — are necessary. That is why I penned the book. The big history project has a strong affinity with philosophy and religion in that it tries to understand all things in an integrated manner.

The usefulness of big history is not limited to that. It offers numerous hints in discussing today’s social system. Homo sapiens were born in eastern Africa about 200,000 years ago and lived as hunter-gatherers wandering about the world for about 190,000 years. According to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, Homo sapiens lived in groups, each consisting of about 150 members.

For example, a group that found a water spring would decide to camp nearby for a while. Babies were gathered in one place, where injured or elderly members took care of them. Adults who were able to work — men and women alike — went into the woods to gather food for the evening. Otherwise the members of the group could not survive. In short, humans are animals that nurtured sociality through group living. An implication of this fact is that society as a whole, not each individual family, should do household labor, raise children and provide nursing care, and that men and women should share the work equally.

A glance at the history of living creatures shows that the history of life spans about 4 billion years. The Phanerozoic Eon, or the current geological eon, which has lasted 541 million years, experienced five rounds of mass extinction called the Big Five. In the mass extinction on the Permian-Triassic boundary, which is considered the largest extinction in geological history, a whopping 90 to 95 percent of living creatures died out. One of the causes cited for the extinction is radical climate change caused by greenhouse gasses released into the air through large-scale volcanic activity. If that is the case, the frustration of Greta Thunberg, who was chosen as Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019, will be more understandable.

A similar thing can be said of the refugee issue. Since ancient times, Homo sapiens — sometimes ridiculed as Homo mobilitas — have had the habit of constantly moving to new places to avoid difficulties whenever their living environment worsened. This means that the emergence of refugees is only natural.

The refugee issue has become politicized because of the establishment of nation states in the 19th century, which artificially created national boundaries and tightened border control. From the outset, humans have had the instinct and the right to migrate. Such a grand perspective is necessary to grasp the essence of the refugee issue.

As we prepare to greet the new year 2020, it is important to look back anew on big history and philosophy and religion, which represent the sincere efforts of humankind to understand the world as a whole.

Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and author of more than 40 books, he founded Lifenet Insurance in 2008 after a career spanning nearly 35 years at Nippon Life Insurance Co.