12 Days of Books: Big Bang, Big Brains, Big History

By Pamela Toler  (Wonders and Marvels Contributor)

Mankind: The Story of All of Us is the history of the world from the Big Bang to the 21st century—told in six two-hour television episodes and one 437-page book.

Writing the companion book for a television series is different than writing a book based on your own concept. You have to work within the constraints of other people’s visions of what the book should be. You have to match the style and structure of their vision while still creating something that stands on its own and is recognizably yours. You have to leave stuff out that you really, really want to include. (Alas, the Indus Valley civilization did not make the cut.)

I will admit that I was slow to catch on. “Think the Bourne Ultimatum” made me want to bang my head on the table. “Think Man as the hero of his own story” made me grind my feminist teeth. But “Think Big History” caught my attention. This was a concept I could work with.

Big History integrates many academic disciplines in order to look at human history as a tiny part of the history of cosmos. Basically, it’s the opposite of the academic mantra “not my field”. This TED talk by Big History promoter David Christian sums up the general principles:


In a true Big History book, homo sapiens would appear in the last chapter.  Maybe even on the last page.  Obviously that wouldn’t work in a book called Mankind.  But the principles of Big History did encourage me to ask different questions.  Not just how the salt trade functioned in ancient times, but why our bodies need salt.  Not just when did farming start, but how was grain domesticated.  Not just the role of fire in making tools, but the role of fire in making modern man.

Ultimately Big History helped me write big history.


Pamela Toler is a freelance writer with a PhD in history, a large bump of curiosity, and a red-hot library card.  She is the author of The Everything Guide to Socialism and Mankind: The Story of All of Us, a companion book to the History Channel Series of the same name.



  1. mrspie says

    The new book also sounds fascinating. This 12 Days thing (even if is on the wrong side of Christmas) has been the best kind of disaster for my book budget.

  2. librarypat says

    I had not heard of this book. I can remember discussion of this topic when I was in high school. This should be an interesting exploration of the topic and the lives it affected. Thank you for participating.

  3. cregal says

    Both books sound intriguing. The histories of science and medicine are a Pandora’s Box of horror and delight. Your process as a writer is of interest, too. I spent 10 years in Minnesota, a most fascinating place full of quirks and quivers.

  4. says

    This is amazing. I am fascinated by the entire story, beginning with Moniz and the Nobel Prize. I *must* read this, so you’re wasting a free copy if you give me one, because I’m buying it too lol. Horrifying… but needs to be told. Thank you for writing this!

  5. Elissa Lindberg says

    Looks fascinating, if a bit gruesome. The evolution of mental health as a concept and the treatments used is so interesting!

  6. says

    Normally I wouldn’t give something associated with the history channel a second look. But if wonders and marvels thinks I should I’ll give it a try. Wonder if it’s on netflix. To the net!

  7. says

    I caught the first couple of episodes of this series, but then didn’t have time to keep watching. Hope to catch again some time. Would love to have this companion book! Thanks for the chance.

  8. librarypat says

    I caught some of this series, but not nearly enough of it. This is the way I like my history. I don’t want to know just the what, but the why and how they are connected. I will have to check our local libraries to see if any of them have the DVDs. This looks like a great book. I have found the companion books to many of the PBS, History Channel, and Discovery Channel series to be excellent and enjoyable.

  9. A Philosopher says

    This is an important story to be told. I’ve read _Great and Desparate Cures_, and the problem of passionate people who propose a quick technical “fix” for a problem for which people are desperate is always with us. I definitely want a copy of this book.

  10. Meridth Gimbel says

    I had no idea that lobotomies where still preformed in the 1960s. That blows my mind. This sounds like a very interesting read.

  11. librarypat says

    What luck. The History Channel started running this series this week and will continue it over the next week. Started watching the episode with Captain Cook. Very good. They cover so much in such a short period. I kept saying “but I want to know more.”

  12. Emily Jane says

    Sounds awesome! This book would be a very welcome addition to my collection of gore filled history, and also very helpful in my MA studies this year in the history of science and medicine at Kent.

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