The goal of Daniel Lord Smail’s book is close to my heart, in that one of the various projects he outlines is to broaden the use historians make of other disciplinary fields (beyond say sociology and archeology usually connected to history) to include genetics and neural psychology as tools of historical analysis. This appeals to me personally, both because I started out as a science kid, studying dinosaurs and dead things, and then moved on to studying dead humans, and because in a general sense, I’ve always felt acquiring even a rudimentary understanding of the sciences, of ecology, biology, chemistry, psychics, paleontology (or architecture, or art, or economics) is crucial to understanding our world both in a pressing, active, engaged way and for the sheer joy of knowing the world, and being baffled by it (plus, all my friends are scientists or technicians, and I don’t feel foolish around them and their languages of genomes and code). This is hardly a new project, or one that is not generally of interest or support amongst historians; the irony, of course, is that people in the sciences have always been willing to interact with history as a discipline, and almost any description of DNA or chemisty begins historically, even in the most rudimentary, remedial textbook, and because many fields (geology, paleontology) are themselves a kind of history, studying what Smail calls, quoting others, ‘deep time.’
It is the historians who have let us down, writes Smail, and so this book is really directed at them. Of course, anyone with any interest in either neuro-chemistry, human evolution, or history and its writing will understand and enjoy this book. Smail’s prose is clear and engaging, his arguments lucid and his examples generally well chosen. The main thrust of On Deep History and the Brain is not just to argue for more inter-disciplinary work to be done, but that the focus of history has still been far too presentist (should I point out that Smail is a French medievalist, and like many of their brilliant and cantankerous ilk resents the marginalization of his area of study?) and far too documentary in its attention; documents in the sense of written documents, whereas Smail argues for the older meaning of document, ‘that which tells,’ which basically means anything: DNA and archeology, studies of the brain, can tell us as much about our more distant past, and indeed are the only source for it; “all rely on evidence extracted from things” that “encode information from the past” (48). Why privilege the written word? Because it is privileged by historians, deeply imbedded since Vico and Ranke in the writing of history and excluding all non-written sources. Yet scientists have long considered their objects of research, in a metaphorical sense, to be texts, archives, information contained in remains and traces that can be used to tell a story. Take for instance genetics and brain chemistry. Progress in these fields, rooted in the evolutionary history of the human race, has made it possible to trace our past much further back than ever possible; no longer, says Smail, should the distant past be treated as totally alien and beyond us, there should be, in essence, no prehistory, no division between the glowing world of the written world and what was once claimed was a static, frightful, ignorant world. And why not? We have given voice to the voiceless, and no one, as Smail says, “would deny history of the Incans, Great Zimbabwe or to the illiterate slaves and peasants of societies past and present” (6). Why then our ancestors?
The problem is that historians have been trapped, even in the age of Hayden White, in the meta-narrative of Western Civilization. History begins with the written word, with cities and urban man, right in Mesopotamia where the Garden of Eden was placed in medieval and early modern history. We have secularized the story but not fundamentally changed its structure or its conclusions that human history, and therefore humanity worth studying, started at 4000 BC and led to Europe (despite the absurdity of some its claims, such as the idea of continuity between Babylon and Bolingbroke, its ignorance of archeological examples demonstrating much earlier urban civilization in Iran and Turkey, and its continuing marginalization of China, India, the Americas until the 70’s). Of course, there was resistance: H. G. Wells, for one, started his Outline of History in human prehistory. But by and large historians have insisted on a clear delineation between prehistory and history: only civilizations that write history, are aware of the past, can be modern, and only collective societies, united by writing and language in part, can be modern, beyond the mindless horror of prehistory. History is when evolution ceased to affect us, ceased to influence our behavior, when we broke the chain through writing and cities. Smail doesn’t seek to question the importance of writing or cities or agriculture in changing mankind, but he does question how epochal it was: housing has been around for tens of thousands of years, constructed at the size of later housing of hide and bone and centred around the hearth, oral histories for just as long, even agriculture and trade may be older than we imagine.
Smail moves on from criticism of the traditional divide between history and prehistory in the second half to argue why neurological history and genetic studies are useful to the study of the past. He is very careful not to argue that biology informs culture, and that all human activity is essentially driven by the need for food and sex, in the vein of Desmond The Naked Ape Morris (ie, politics is all about getting more children) and is critical of the relentless presentism of much evolutionary biology and neurological studies, that is, the assumption that a present day test group can stand in for human behauviour throughout all of our past. Instead, Smail offers up a sophisticated explanation of the deep and muddled relationship between our brains and our history:
…moods, emotions, and predispositions inherited from the ancestral past, where they evolved at the intersection of human biology and human culture, form a structural backdrop for many things we do and have done. They are interesting for how they tease or suggest. They are also interesting for how they are violated, manipulated, or modulated. And this is precisely where it becomes so important to think with neurohistory. Although the fact is not widely known among historians and is generally overlooked by psychologists and biologists, cultural practices can have profound neurophysiological consequences. Key elements of human economic, political, and social activity, as I shall be suggesting here and in the final chapter, emerged precisely because humans possess relatively plastic or manipulable neural states and brain-body chemistries. The effect of the Neolithic transformation, in this neurohistorical perspective, about the conditions necessary for a rapid increase in the range of economic, political and social devices that serve to modulate the body states pf self and others. …range from liturgies, sports, education, novel reading, military training…commerce in alcohol, coffee, and opiates. (117)
In another passage he remarks:
…one wonders how many potential synaptic connections were lost to members of the civilized world when their ancestors abandoned a foraging lifestyle and settled in villages, towns and cities. Anyone who has seen an African tracker scan a featureless plain and locate a distant pride of lions, invisible to anyone else in the car, will appreciate the impoverished nature of the synapses in his or her own visual cortex. (137)
Our behaviour changes and is changed by the way in which our societies are organized our brains expand and change as we grow and are modified and activated, or submerged, depending on the way in which we must survive, in the broadest sense. From there Smail argues that seemingly irrational impulses of violence, lust or hatred can be understood as directly related to the interplay of biological and political factors; the castellans of the 10th and 11th century in France that Smail studies were extraordinarily violent, so much so we might call it pathological now, but made sense, in a twisted way, to control a rebellious and diffident populace unwilling to bow to armed bands with tenuous noble status. Politically, such violent, nearly insane activities serve a purpose, a reasonable explanation if chilling (for the more naïve) in its implications. Along the way Smail takes a few digs at Richard Dawkins about how applicable memes actually are to historical theory (or current social situations) and finishes by laying out a plan for a history of modern civilization written from the vantage point of the search for drugs and mind-altering substances. Impressively, it’s already been done, at least for the classical Greco-roman world: The Chemical Muse, by D. C.A. Hillman though I can’t attest to the actual quality of it, and its thesis smacks of the old tosh about Chrsit being a mushroom hallucination. If that is where Smail’s suggestions for a new neurohistory lead, then I probably won’t want to follow. Strangely, Smail also seldom mentions other scientists and their approach to human society, especially E. O. Wilson’s idea of consilient history: not history done just with science in mind or even done scientifically, but history done with human biology treated as an essential cause and effect of the stories that history tells, and as a key without which history cannot make sense. Perhaps that is because Wilson has gone to far in that regard, and as like many scientists actually doesn’t understand history much better than I understand evolutionary theory (in the broadest outlines, that is, Wilson is still a brilliant scientist and writer, but I reject any history in which biological explanations are given precedence as not explaining much except in the big picture, and as Calvin (from Calvin and Hobbes, not the 16th century theologian: nobody likes the big picture people)
If all of this seems uncritical, it is because I am largely uncritical of Smail’s book. It sets up in diffuse terms a framework for a reconsideration of both large and small scale historical processes, while at the same time refusing to reduce human history to behaviourism. His dismantling of Western Civ as it is known in North America and his appreciation of deep time and ‘pre’ history dovetails nicely with the writings of radical anthropologist Christ Knight, amongst many others, who argue that studies of our earliest ‘uncivilized’ human ancestors can shed light on social structures and politics that initially seem to be more advanced. That being said, how far his reevaluation can be taken is open to debate. How neurohistory can modify research on the Third Republic of France or the rise of the Manchus is not immediately apparent to me; a reappraisal of Boulanger may indeed involve some nods to human psychology, but does it actually add anything to the analysis. Indeed, a neurologist studying crowds (in the baleful tradition of Gustave LeBon) may sweep up the Boulanger Affair as an example, but would a historian do the same in reverse? Perhaps that is the problem Smail is arguing against, and I need to activate some further synapses.