Monthly Archives: November 2013

Already Deep and Now Broad

Last week we discussed deep history and how historians should consider human development in their discipline.  I feel like this week’s reading of McNeil’s and McNeil’s The Human Web complimented our discussion from last week’s class .  Although the authors do “squeeze the history of humankind into” 327 pages, the connections they draw constitute a broad approach (xvii).  They link contemporary societies and cultures together into webs or a single web (depending on the time period being analyzed).   Thus, these two methods of historical study, broad and deep, provide historians with two methodologies that will be useful in the future, especially as human society grows more and more complex and cohesive.

J.R. and William H. McNeil’s book is certainly world history, but I doubt few, if any, world histories have been written like The Human Web.  Although they mention all the important technological developments and ruling empires, these specificities are not the most important topics.  Rather the authors track the linkages between human groups since humans’ ability to speak to the present day.   This allows the reader to understand that no human society developed completely independently without interference or assistance from other peoples.  Along this line, I found it interesting that some of the world’s most influential cultural practices, for example bureaucratic government and iron metallurgy, actually spread due to warfare.  I think we have this idea that invading armies always negatively impact the population being invaded, but sometimes these people learn inventions or ideas from the invaders that facilitate cultural development that would have been impossible otherwise.   By not focusing in-depth on any particular group, the McNeils do not fall into the trap of organizing their narrative around the hub of one society.  This way, all web/s are given equal treatment, and none appear superior to the others because of bias.  Linkages are the subject, not the different cultures, societies, and peoples that make up these links.

Continuing the connection to last week, I was particularly aware of the McNeil’s periodization.   They did not use common terms that we, as Americans and Westerners, are accustomed to, like the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, or the Enlightenment.   Smail describes to us how the names of historical eras can affect how we interpret history, and I think the McNeils put this idea in practice.  By not using such familiar descriptions, they are able to discuss all contemporary human webs equally.  Although the Old World Web seems to take center stage for most of the book, other webs are not discounted, nor only analyzed from their importance to Western Europe.  I hope to discuss this further in class because the McNeils really hit Smail’s point home for me that historians are displaying inappropriate bias through period nomenclature.

Also, I would like to discuss in class how we can use this broad, all-inclusive methodology for our more specific thesis and research paper topics.  I think it is important, but I do not know how I would use it in a study of nullification on North Carolina, for example.


Deep History: Is Prehistory Relevant for Historians?

Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain reminded me of some anthropology courses I took as an undergraduate.  In physical anthropology, we discussed human evolutionary development and specifically focused on the emergence of Homo sapiens.   I never considered that this era of the human experience could be the subject of historical study until this week.  I am still not entirely convinced that prehistory is relevant for historians, but I thought that Smail’s book was very interesting and certainly thought-provoking.  As always, I am excited for our class discussion so we can hash out whether or not Smail’s argument for the historical study of this period works.

Almost like Darwin’s Origin of Species, Smail spent a significant portion of the book dismantling many of the critiques against approaching human evolutionary development from a historical perspective.  In doing this, I thought he was very effective.  My favorite part was his comparison of “modern” (whatever that means) humans to the “prehistoric” people.  I did not consider that many of our characteristics are both based in our DNA and have developed over time based on our species’ changing environment.  In doing this, Smail’s approach straddles between the nature vs. nurture debate that is a constant tension in anthropology, sociology, and psychology.   I also thought that the discussion in the article about historians’ constant need to use “pre” to distinguish the beginning of a certain period was intriguing, too.

In dismissing supposed critics Smail was successful, but that did not convince me that historians can successfully contribute to out understanding of human development.  Since I am leading discussion, I am going to wait until class to discuss this further, but there are some things I hope we can focus on in class.

1.  I hope everyone has the chance to read carefully, Smail and Shryock’ article in the forum because I want to discuss some of the ideas presented there.

2.  Consider how eerily some of Smail’s ideas fit with the idea of social Darwinism.  This make me a little uncomfortable.

3.  Look at how Smail proposes to study prehistory: sources, approach, etc.

These topics should serve as good starting points for discussion, and I am going to mine the blog posts for what other people thought was important from this week’s reading.