On Deep History and the Brain Paperback – 18 Nov 2008
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"Dazzling." --"Boston Globe Book Section"
"[An] intriguing little book."--"American Scientist"
"An intelligent disquiet runs through these pages."--"New York Times Book Review"
"Relax and enjoy. It's a good read, and it makes you think."--"New Scientist"
"A creative and compelling synthesis of ideas, Smail's book provides an engaging and invigorating analysis of our history."--"Science (Aaas)"
"A provocative thesis. . . . Radically rethinks the relationship between biology and culture."--Steven Mithen"London Review Of Books" (01/24/2008)
"A pioneering work."--Brendan Wallace"Fortean Times: The Journal Of Strange Phenomena" (07/01/2009)
A provocative thesis. . . . Radically rethinks the relationship between biology and culture. --Steven Mithen"London Review Of Books" (01/24/2008)"
A pioneering work. --Brendan Wallace"Fortean Times: The Journal Of Strange Phenomena" (07/01/2009)"
-A provocative thesis. . . . Radically rethinks the relationship between biology and culture.---Steven Mithen-London Review Of Books- (01/24/2008)
-A pioneering work.---Brendan Wallace-Fortean Times: The Journal Of Strange Phenomena- (07/01/2009)
From the Inside Flap
"This is surely a new paradigm for the study of history that will be regarded as revolutionary but which is also well justified. To my knowledge, no other book integrates the study of human history with principles of biological and cultural evolution on such an ambitious scale."--David Sloan Wilson, author of Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society"This is one of the most exciting books I've read in years. It is so accessible, so groundbreaking, so stimulating, so important that I imagine the next generation of historians will be deeply influenced by what Smail has to say here. Simply dazzling."--Lynn Hunt, author of Inventing Human Rights See all Product description
Top customer reviews
I suspect that like me many people acquired this book because we read the title and glowing reviews and could readily see an opportunity to apply relatively recent scientific knowledge and beliefs to both extend the timeline of history and explore fresh interpretations of how we got to where we are and how we might get to wherever we're going. Can someone suggest a book or papers with more direction and much less circumnavigation?
As a professor of history, Smail deftly summarises the various schools of the guild. Early history is dubbed "sacred" for its reliance on Biblical origins. Time was fixed and man's place in those histories was determined. This type persisted until "the bottom dropped out of time" with the advent of geology, paleontology and particularly, biology demonstrating the inadequacy of sacred history. Disputes arose, he notes, during the 19th Century carrying through well into the 20th Century, over the "starting point". Providing many examples, he laments that even as it became clear that human origins extended far back in time, history texts failed to acknowledge early human input worthy of notice. In some cases the view of "pre-historic" humanity even portrayed them as solitary wanderers on the landscape. Agriculture, in this view, was the foundation of human communities, hence discernible history.
Smail's recognises the many advances made in archaeology, genetics and cognitive sciences in recent years. The Paleolithic, he argues, is no longer a "time before history". The key to his thesis is the brain didn't suddenly shift into high gear with the coming of agriculture or the development of writing. In fact, he argues that if we truly need a "starting point" for history, it should rest with the onset of speech and language. These skills forged stronger ties among members of human communities. Those communities, in turn, formed identifiable groups we now decree are "cultures". Cultures bind and reinforce ideas, behavioural standards and even diet. These can be traced back in time to approximate origins, creating a history without texts. Humans may be one species, but uniformity is lacking. In historic terms, our cultures have deep divisions.
History without text means a way must be found to derive those origins from today's evidence. Smail introduces what he hopes will be adopted as a new discipline - "Neurohistory". It's important to remember that humans are the product of natural selection along with the rest of the animals. While the development of our brain was rapid by evolutionary time-scales, it still remains a product of natural selection. Smail warns against assuming a neurophysiological approach means "genetic determinism" - our brains allow too much variation for such a simplistic approach. Even so, patterns seen in other primates have equivalence in our species, and historians must at least be aware of them. Nothing better refutes (the?) "Great Man of History" school of thinking more than the knowledge that the "Great Men" and the populations they ruled carried the same neurotransmitters in their brains. Which ones were triggered and by whom?
Smail goes on to explain the fundamentals of how the brain and body operate. Genes are essential in the various processes, but there are influences among the genes, from other cells and from environmental conditions. Humans don't react the same way to a given stimulus. Bush trackers, for example, have been raised in an environment where small details stand out from the background - a disturbed pebble means a passing gazelle. This same astute observer might well be run down by a speeding car while crossing a busy street if he's never been in a city. The point for Smail is that all these differences must be considered when composing a history of human activities down the ages. Almost inevitably, Smail is led into a discussion of Edward O. Wilson's 1975 classic, "Sociobiology" and the tumultuous years after its publication. Yet, as Smail notes, that work is a foundation for the type of science-based history he wishes to encourage.
That new discipline is well-summarised in the Epilogue to this comprehensive and persuasive analysis of the field of history teaching and its future. The trappings of civilisation didn't alter our brain chemistry, which must be the root of any new growth in the field. He calls for a closer alliance between history and science, particularly cognitive science. He's planted a seed which we can only hope will develop into a strong, informative blossoming [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
Debunks earlier historians' pretensions while arguing for history's redefinition within a larger timescale, a place 'where history intersects with biology and neurophysiology'; as such, he is equally concerned with the now. He's having a ball, particularly where historians would chunter 'it isn't history'. Extensively annotated, thorough and convincing, it puts the new buzzword(s) (deep and history) on the map
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
I bought this book because it got a good review in Science, which is not known for its attention to the historian's craft. True to form, Smail is a fine writer who can put together a coherent argument, as is the case for his Chapter 2, which analyzes insightfully why historians generally believe history begins with settled agriculture, urban life, and the written record.
Generally, however, this is a meandering, unfocused book that seems like the author's attempt to learn elementary paleontology, anthropology, brain science, and evolutionary psychology. There is no real history in the book, although there are good (if somewhat casual) introductions to modern sociobiology and neuroscience (especially the neurotransmitters and their role in human sociality). I especially liked his gentle but devastating critique of Evolutionary Psychology, of the sort that characterizes modern Homo sapiens as a "stone age mind in a modern skull."
What is missing most from this book is what it's title promises: a deep history of human society as seen through the evolution of the human brain. Indeed, it is difficult to find such a deep history anywhere, and if it were to be written, it would have to be in the context of the evolution of craniates and vertebrates, of which our species is but one member.
The author's main thesis in the first half of the book is that historical study has been dominated since the nineteenth century by the insistence on written records and by the religious ("sacred history") and "great men" paradigms. What he has called "deep time", namely the geological view of time as expressed in the fossil record, was replaced in the nineteenth century by one whose origin was identified with the "rise of civilization." "History should begin at the beginning", he argues, and his defense of this statement is highly convincing and fascinating in every way. The author is optimistic about the possibilities that his "deep time" approach to historical analysis will take root, and when reading the book one gets the impression that the payoff in this approach is more than just a philosophical one, for it reveals that the deep past is far more interesting than was hitherto reported. An example of this is the presence of complex political arrangements that existed in pre-agricultural societies, countering the view that such was not the case: in that the beginnings of agriculture signaled the beginnings of political complexity.
In the author's view, it is the brain that makes the deep past intelligible, and in the last half of the book he articulates on this view. The Cartesian distinction between mind and body collapses in this view, and in its place is a view of the brain as evolving to fill the need for humans to deal with highly complex social arrangements. His view is a refreshing one, for it eschews (perhaps without intending to do so) philosophical meanderings about the mind-body problem, and their consequent weakness in giving useful explanations about historical events and why humans acted as they did throughout history. "History as sacred", as an expression of a deity's will, does not find a place in neurohistory. "History as that of great men", as an expression of the influence and domination of famous individuals, does not find a place in neurohistory.
What does have a place in neurohistory are the sometimes powerful moods and emotions of humans, the author argues. These feelings have been induced by drugs such as caffeine or opium, and even by music or reading, but they are powerful enough, in the author's view, to drive historical events (and progress if such a thing is measurable). Along these same lines, possibly the only objection that one can make against the author's view is the role that curiosity played in the workings of human history. Only beginning to be studied by the techniques of cognitive neuroscience, curiosity has in this reviewer's opinion, been the major driving force behind human history. No doubt further research will reveal how it begins and is manifested in the brain, and then it will certainly play a powerful role in the scientific narrative called neurohistory.
Smail suggests using evolution as a new approach - one idea, he suggests, is that changes in brain chemistry, from external and internal forces, play a role in shaping human history. For example the widespread adoption of caffeine in Europe in the 17th century altered Europeans brain chemistry and thus the track of history. Similar investigations could be done with "pre-historic" periods. Smail doesn't go into many specifics, this is a concept book about how to approach history, not a definitive scientific analysis or conclusion - it is part of the larger ongoing discussions on how the ideas of evolution can be applied scientifically to the humanities (history, literature, etc) . Overall I was intellectually stimulated throughout and greatly enjoyed the ideas and perspectives, Smail is well versed in western historiography and the philosophy of history. Even if you are not convinced by the titles premise (almost a sort of hook), discussed in only one chapter, there is a lot to learn in this short but pithy work.
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