The best big history books

2 authors have picked their favorite books about big history and why they recommend each book.

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Guns, Germs and Steel

By Jared Diamond,

Book cover of Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years

Guns. Germs and Steel is an absolutely thrilling ride through world history in pursuit of the deepest answers to the question: why was it that European powers came to dominate those of the Americas from the sixteenth century, and not vice versa. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and is a cracking example of what has come to be known as ‘Big History’.


Who am I?

I’m a science researcher and writer living in London. My research field is astrobiology and the possibility of life on other planets – it brings together lots of different areas of science with engineering and space exploration and so is deeply ‘interdisciplinary’. And as a science writer, I try to bring this same broad perspective and unifying approach to other profound questions. My fascination with understanding our own origins was sparked by my childhood growing up in East Africa, the cradle of humanity. In Origins I explored different ways that planet Earth has influenced our human story across the millennia - it’s an example of ‘Big History’.


I wrote...

Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History

By Lewis Dartnell,

Book cover of Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History

What is my book about?

When we talk about human history, we often focus on great leaders, revolutions, and technological advances. But how has the Earth itself determined our destiny? How has our planet made us? Geological forces drove our evolution in East Africa; mountainous terrain led to the development of democracy in Greece; and today voting behaviour in the United States follows the bed of an ancient sea. The human story is the story of these forces, from plate tectonics and climate change, to atmospheric circulation and ocean currents.

Explore through millennia of human history, and billions of years into our planet’s past, to see the vast web of connections that underwrites our modern world - the ultimate origin story.

The Human Web

By J.R. McNeill, William H. McNeill,

Book cover of The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History

The historian William McNeill studied the effects on world history of diseases and contact between different civilizations; ideas which have been hugely influential on other books such as Guns, Germs and Steel (above). In this book, he teams up with his son John, to deliver one of the best overviews of the grand themes and trends within human history that I’ve read.


Who am I?

I’m a science researcher and writer living in London. My research field is astrobiology and the possibility of life on other planets – it brings together lots of different areas of science with engineering and space exploration and so is deeply ‘interdisciplinary’. And as a science writer, I try to bring this same broad perspective and unifying approach to other profound questions. My fascination with understanding our own origins was sparked by my childhood growing up in East Africa, the cradle of humanity. In Origins I explored different ways that planet Earth has influenced our human story across the millennia - it’s an example of ‘Big History’.


I wrote...

Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History

By Lewis Dartnell,

Book cover of Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History

What is my book about?

When we talk about human history, we often focus on great leaders, revolutions, and technological advances. But how has the Earth itself determined our destiny? How has our planet made us? Geological forces drove our evolution in East Africa; mountainous terrain led to the development of democracy in Greece; and today voting behaviour in the United States follows the bed of an ancient sea. The human story is the story of these forces, from plate tectonics and climate change, to atmospheric circulation and ocean currents.

Explore through millennia of human history, and billions of years into our planet’s past, to see the vast web of connections that underwrites our modern world - the ultimate origin story.

The Human Swarm

By Mark W. Moffett,

Book cover of The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall

Moffett is a leading specialist on social insects, and the core of his penetrating insight is that we ought to clearly distinguish between collective behavior and social behavior. Our ability to see that one stranger belongs to our society, while another stranger does not, is utterly crucial, and Moffett speaks with authority when he claims that humans are the only animals where different societies merge over time. In particular, he correctly notes that time and time again there has been a fusion between human societies under the heel of a conquering force. By carefully considering our bee-like nature, as well as our chimp-like nature, The Human Swarm reveals how mankind has created sprawling civilizations of unrivalled complexity and provides some valuable insights into what it will take to sustain them.


Who am I?

I am a scientist and inventor, who has always been drawn to grand, overarching narratives, and unifying ideas. I have degrees in Mathematics and Architecture, a PhD in Biophysics, and spent 11 years studying fungal networks at the University of Oxford. I am currently working with the award-winning architect Ben Allen, to commercialize a patent for making POMB (poly-organic mycelium blend): a light-transmitting, thermally insulating, carbon-negative building material.


I wrote...

A Brief History of Mathematical Thought

By Luke Heaton,

Book cover of A Brief History of Mathematical Thought

What is my book about?

A Brief History of Mathematical Thought, by Luke Heaton, is concerned with the big transitions in mathematical thinking, and the connection between developments in mathematics and the broader reality of human experience, from pre-historic rituals to the age of computation. 

The great edifice of mathematical theorems has a crystalline perfection, and it can seem far removed from the messy and contingent realities of our daily lives. Nevertheless, mathematics is a product of human culture, which has co-evolved with our attempts to comprehend the world. Rather than picturing mathematics as the study of pre-existing ‘abstract’ objects, we can describe it as a poetry of patterns, in which our language brings about the truth that it proclaims: a world of inter-related symbols, that we can put to work.

Prisoners of Geography, 1

By Tim Marshall,

Book cover of Prisoners of Geography, 1: Ten Maps That Explain Everything about the World

Tim Marshall has had a long and illustrious career in journalism as a foreign correspondent and Prisoners of Geography absolutely sparkles with his fascinating insights and clarity of thought. How have the development and fate of modern nations been defined by their locale? This is Big History lapping right up to the newspaper headlines of today.


Who am I?

I’m a science researcher and writer living in London. My research field is astrobiology and the possibility of life on other planets – it brings together lots of different areas of science with engineering and space exploration and so is deeply ‘interdisciplinary’. And as a science writer, I try to bring this same broad perspective and unifying approach to other profound questions. My fascination with understanding our own origins was sparked by my childhood growing up in East Africa, the cradle of humanity. In Origins I explored different ways that planet Earth has influenced our human story across the millennia - it’s an example of ‘Big History’.


I wrote...

Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History

By Lewis Dartnell,

Book cover of Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History

What is my book about?

When we talk about human history, we often focus on great leaders, revolutions, and technological advances. But how has the Earth itself determined our destiny? How has our planet made us? Geological forces drove our evolution in East Africa; mountainous terrain led to the development of democracy in Greece; and today voting behaviour in the United States follows the bed of an ancient sea. The human story is the story of these forces, from plate tectonics and climate change, to atmospheric circulation and ocean currents.

Explore through millennia of human history, and billions of years into our planet’s past, to see the vast web of connections that underwrites our modern world - the ultimate origin story.

Maps of Time

By David Christian,

Book cover of Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History

Few thinkers have done more to advance and popularize the discipline of Big History in recent years than David Christian. He coined the term and has worked with Bill Gates to deliver Big History teaching to high school students around the world. The book I’ve picked out here is a little more academic and detailed than the others, and provides a really solid overview of this approach to integrating large-scale history from the Big Bang to the present. 


Who am I?

I’m a science researcher and writer living in London. My research field is astrobiology and the possibility of life on other planets – it brings together lots of different areas of science with engineering and space exploration and so is deeply ‘interdisciplinary’. And as a science writer, I try to bring this same broad perspective and unifying approach to other profound questions. My fascination with understanding our own origins was sparked by my childhood growing up in East Africa, the cradle of humanity. In Origins I explored different ways that planet Earth has influenced our human story across the millennia - it’s an example of ‘Big History’.


I wrote...

Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History

By Lewis Dartnell,

Book cover of Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History

What is my book about?

When we talk about human history, we often focus on great leaders, revolutions, and technological advances. But how has the Earth itself determined our destiny? How has our planet made us? Geological forces drove our evolution in East Africa; mountainous terrain led to the development of democracy in Greece; and today voting behaviour in the United States follows the bed of an ancient sea. The human story is the story of these forces, from plate tectonics and climate change, to atmospheric circulation and ocean currents.

Explore through millennia of human history, and billions of years into our planet’s past, to see the vast web of connections that underwrites our modern world - the ultimate origin story.

How Iceland Changed the World

By Egill Bjarnason,

Book cover of How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island

To understand a country, you need to understand its history. This book is the most accessible account of Iceland’s history and is also very funny. I wish it had been written ten years ago when I started out on my Iceland odyssey. Egill covers the whole of Iceland’s history from Ingólfur throwing his home pillars into the sea in 874 to decide where he should land, to the great women’s strike of 1975 when 90 percent of Icelandic women stopped doing what they were expected to do and the country came to a stop. Also includes my favourite bit of Icelandic history. On 9 May 1940 Hitler invaded Belgium and Holland and that same day Britain invaded Iceland, an action so mildly embarrassing that we never really talk about it. Egill does, though. 


Who am I?

In 2009, when I decided to set a crime series in Iceland, I embarked on a decade of research into the country, its people, its literature, its culture, and its elves. I visited the country, I spoke to its inhabitants and I read books, lots of books – I couldn’t find an elf, but I was told where they live. I needed to understand its criminals, its victims, its police, and most of all my detective Magnus Jonson. These are the best books that helped me get to grips with Iceland.


I wrote...

Where the Shadows Lie

By Michael Ridpath,

Book cover of Where the Shadows Lie

What is my book about?

One thousand years ago: An Icelandic warrior returns from battle, bearing a ring cut from the right hand of his foe. Seventy years ago: An Oxford professor, working from a secret source, creates the twentieth century's most pervasive legend. The professor's name? John Ronald Reuel Tolkein. Six hours ago: An expert on Old Norse literature, Agnar Haraldsson, is murdered.

Everything is connected, but to discover how, Sergeant Magnus Jonson must venture where the shadows lie...

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