Review: On deep history and the brain by Daniel Lord Smail

By Juliana Adelman

When I was in college I took one class in paleoanthropology taught by Professor Richard Klein.  Klein was rather singular in appearance and, much more than my science professors, was exactly what I had imagined a university professor to look and speak like.  His subject was awe inspiring in its breadth and, in my mind, importance.  Listening to him talk about extinct hominid (hominin) lineages felt as weighty to me as an inspired Sunday sermon might feel to others.  For reasons I cannot pinpoint at this remove, I did not pursue paleoanthropology beyond that single course though it has remained something that I am curious about.

Smail’s explanation for his interest in the deep past is personal.  His father, also a historian, taught a course on the ‘Natural History of Man’, which Smail emulated nearly thirty years later.  A historian of medieval Europe by trade, Smail ranges across tens of thousands of years in On deep history and argues for the continuity between prehistory and history and particularly between paleolithic and postlithic humans.  His reasons for suggesting this continuity are compelling and simple: written records do not define history, it is evident that ancient humans had forms of culture, any boundary we draw between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is arbitrarily imposed and finally that human culture has a real relationship with the human body.  It is this final suggestion, not original to Smail, that forms the basis of a new kind of history which he suggests can be applied to all periods: neurohistory.  Neurohistory examines the reciprocal relationships between the ‘brain-body system’ and culture.

Neurohistory of a sort has been suggested by cultural historians examining the history of emotions, but Smail argues for the inclusion of all kinds of human behaviours as candidates for examination through neurohistory.  In particular, he is interested in the use of new knowledge in the neurosciences in the development of historical narratives.  Smail is not suggesting that we reduce history to a search for genetic mind states, but instead that we take into account the fact that cultural experiences (drinking coffee, riding rollercoasters, listening to Sunday sermons, singing) impact our physiological state and our neurochemistry.

As a scientist turned historian I found the book intriguing, but a bit disappointing as well.  Interestingly, the scientists seem happier than the historians.  Smail got the thumbs up from Science and Nature (see also a review in the NYTimes).  Opinions on Amazon are mixed.  A few history journals were not convinced, others more positive.

Smail was, to my mind, very convincing on the illusory nature of the border we have constructed between human prehistory and what we call history.  The difficulty seems to me that the book is trying to tie together two different things: ‘neurohistory’, to be applied to any time period and ‘deep history’, to be aspired to by the history profession.  Granted, one of the bases of continuity between modern times and the humans of the deep past is the shared biological reality of the human brain.  The roots of our brain chemistry are undoubtedly in the deep past.  Nevertheless, historians are unlikely to start studying time periods of tens of thousands of years.  And in fact all of Smail’s examples of neurohistory cover relatively traditional time spans of 100 years or so.  You are going to have to read the book for yourself to find out what a neurohistory might look like, but suffice to say it wasn’t quite as radical as I was hoping after reading the introductory chapters.  I do think, however, that Smail is correct to emphasise the potential uses of scientific data for historians (something that archaeologists have of course long since embraced).   As I have had reason to be reminded of recently, the average scientist is probably more open to, aware of and interested in other disciplines than the average historian and they may need to be first to extend the olive branch.  Any neuroscientists out there looking for a historian?

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One Response to “Review: On deep history and the brain by Daniel Lord Smail”

  1. What is the point? « Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] am nosy and I bet you are too.  People like to know about other people.  I have recently read (in On Deep History and the Brain by D L Smail) of a theory in neuroscience which suggests that gossip is a form of addictive […]

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