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On Deep History and the Brain Hardcover – November 15, 2007
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"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
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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.