On Deep History and the Brain.
Daniel Smail's provocative inquiry into the roots of history, the relationship between historians and their evidence, and the potential for fruitful exchanges between historians and neurochemists or evolutionary biologists offers an engaging text on historical methods. I'm tackling a subject that should be of interest to all academic historians, Smail confronts some of the probing questions that define our discipline.
The book begins by questioning the origins of history, and thus attempting to redefine the depths of the discipline and its relationship to humanity. By pointing to different generations of historians, Smail demonstrates how historians have used various methodological resources to address this question. For Judeo-Christians, catastrophic, earth-changing events, such as the Deluge or great flood, provide the necessary evidence for justifying the beginning of history. For nineteenth-century historians such as Leopold yon Ranke, however, history only truly began when documentary, textual evidence became available, relegating all unrecorded activity to the realm of prehistory or irrelevance. Others, Smail continues, tried to reorient this discussion by identifying the origins of history at the birth of civilization, or when political organizations became recognizable features of human interaction. Social and cultural historians predictably sought the kinds of origins that identified starting points respectively at the first signs of societal or community structures, or evidence of cultural expression, even in rudimentary forms such as early art or jewelry. As Smail makes clear, whether historians make these claims explicitly or implicitly, their methodologies make use of different forms of evidence that ultimately relate back to questions of origin.
Offering a new methodological tradition, Smail recommends a "neuro-historical" approach that locates the beginning of history at a moment when humans approach a state of consciousness; he defines this moment in neuro-biological terms as the evolutionary stage that separates humans from animals. Pinpointing this moment, he argues, requires careful collaboration with scientists to sift through new kinds of evidence--biological and neurochemical evidence--to reinterpret the origins of history. Much more than simply calling for interdisciplinary communication, however, Smail walks readers through a convincing and synthetic analysis that takes into account biological and neuropsychological theories which paint a composite image of human consciousness as it pertains to an understanding of historical evidence. By searching for evidence in the brain, and by contextualizing human history on an evolutionary scale, Smail proposes a radically new way of conceptualizing historical evidence and methodology.
Part of the justification for Smail's neurohistory is that it offers a deeper, richer account of humanity by acknowledging different kinds of evidence and by prioritizing biological traces as part of the historical record. Shifting the historian's gaze away from political structures, social arrangements, or even cultural expressions, neurohistory focuses first on the history of the brain. In doing so, Smail offers an account of human interactions that does not emphasize the relative sophistication of a particular religion or political category, but rather relegates humans to a longer history, as relatively more passive objects in the context of human evolution.
This new paradigmatic view of human history relies on new sources of evidence, primarily available through interdisciplinary cooperation, but it also widens the chronological lens in a manner that risks making individual human agency irrelevant. However, Smail maintains that there is still room for agency within this new theory. For example, by looking closely at the behaviour of neurotransmitters and chemical messengers, it has become clear to scientists that we (and even animals to some extent) exhibit some level of control over our emotions, stress, and anxiety, through behaviour, even when that includes drug-taking behaviour which chemically changes the responses of neurotransmitters. The degree to which these activities always form part of our conscious actions remains unclear, but what is more clear is that these patterns of behaviour have become part of our evolutionary history. That self-regulating behaviour is also, however, part of human culture; behaviour is shaped through cultural customs, consumption patterns, political structures, and social interactions. In other words, Smail contends that "culture is indeed coded in human physiology" (p. 159). Based on this assertion, historians can and should now make use of new "bodies" of evidence.
Smail's analysis of history and its methods offers a rather timely contribution that encourages historians to reconceptualize their craft in light of developments in modern science that promise to provide a complete and "true" history (and future) of humanity based on the coded evidence contained in our DNA. Conversely, the global ascendancy of pharmaceutical industries suggests that our twenty-first-century cultural desire to alter our neurochemical makeup might have evolutionary consequences, marking another example of how culture and evolution are deeply entwined. For scholars interested in interrogating the interpretive frameworks used by historians, and in the kinds of evidence that support those interpretations of history, this book provides a highly readable and stimulating examination of the discipline and some of the consequences of our actions.
University of Saskatchewan
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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