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On Deep History and the Brain Paperback – November 18, 2008

3.5 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"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)"

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

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (November 18, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520258126
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520258129
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #890,142 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Stephen Balbach on November 9, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a fairly short book that Harvard professor of history Daniel Smail describes as a series of connected essays. It is essentially an argument to include all of human history, not just written history, in academic survey courses and textbooks. Most of the book is an interesting historiographical survey of how historians essentially ignore "pre-history"; the problems with periodization; and a post-modern rejection of Christian Universal History metanarratives which are stealthily still lurking in much of western secular historiography to this day.

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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Format: Hardcover
History has addressed a number of Big Questions through the years. As Daniel Smail notes, however, the biggest one has been "Where to begin?" For centuries, the answer seemed simple: the "Creation". Scholars in Christian Europe were able to begin history with the couple in Eden, building from that well-defined starting point. Later, the historians "guild" shifted their foundation. The result was a mélange of opening chapters, ranging from the founding of "civilisation", through the beginning of writing to particular societies such as the Greeks, Sumerians or Egypt. Smail dismisses all of these as short-sighted. He wants a realistic view of history to encompass "Deep Time". In this enthralling book, he urges historians to take up some science and rewrite history to encompass the early days of humanity.

As a professor of history, Smail deftly summarises the various schools of historiography. 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.
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Format: Hardcover
This is kind of a bipolar book. The first three quarters criticizes the way other people do history or social science. Smail holds everyone to extremely high standards and finds everyone deficient. The end of the book is a first cut at a history he wants to see, a history that focuses on the human brain. After all, everything humans do is caused by their brains. Here, he is impressionistic and unrigorous. The Smail of the first part would give this book one star. The Smail of the end would give it five. I give it three.

Smail argues that people's brains cause them to act so as to achieve certain levels of chemicals in the brain. Two centuries ago, the English utilitarians tried to found a social science on something similar. People, said Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, try to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. To the extent they do, they experience "utility." The idea of trying to maximize utility became a part of what was then called political economy. Eventually, it became conventional wisdom that a pleasure/pain principle was too simple, so economists redefined utility to mean preference, and dropped the question of where these preferences come from. If neurology can put some flesh back on the bones of "preference," it may indeed form a basis for a better economics and history.

Smail likes the metaphor of a "drug." The stresses of modern life cause undesired levels of some brain chemicals. Some people shop to change the levels to more desired ones. Thus, shopping is a drug. Similarly, in medieval times, attendance at church services--experiencing the communal ritual, the smoke, etc.--acted to change brain chemicals in desired ways.
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