Am I Biologically Fit for History?

Apparently it’s been too long, and I’ve forgotten how to blog. That, or my brain isn’t functioning at the appropriate evolutionary level, or my neurons are somehow messed up which, actually, wouldn’t be surprising. So, instead I’ll offer these words as offerings to the internet , and hope that they make some sort of sense:


  1. I still appreciate how carefully constructed this course seems to be. I’ve noticed it in other classes as well, but it’s always such a delight to be doing a new reading and to “get” the insider historian lingo. To understand a reference to a theory or to start seeing the puzzle fit together into a wider historiography. To see a reference to someone (like Geertz in this week’s assignment) and say “Oh hey, world, I’ve read some of his work. I know some of his thoughts.” I appreciate this new and developing feeling of being rooted in this discipline very much.
  1. Deep History and the Brain. When I first read this title, all I could think about were those tanks of brains in that one Harry Potter book, and how they had tentacles or something growing out of them and how they’d latch on to people. Maybe, I thought, maybe this book was about how history latched onto your brain? I also assumed that this book would be about how history is like a brine in which you pickle your brain—that to deeply study history, you need to be immersed and saturated and constantly reaching for more content. Instead, as I found out, the concept is more like that of “deep space,” as opposed to pickled brains. We are all deeply connected.
  1. When Smail wrote, “But evolutionary psychology, with its inexorable presentism, is not, I think, the way to go,” I literally laughed out loud with sheer delight.[1] I absolutely love the fact that Smail is disagreeing with this approach not because of its factual validity or invalidity, but because it is a limited and limiting approach that he cannot accept. Presentism is not to be tolerated in historical study. I find this hilarious and awesome.
  1. I was a bit surprised by reading this. I had always assumed that a scholarly history of deep history was accepted and existed, but that I hadn’t been exposed to it since it was beyond my area of focus. I suppose I never took the time to think critically about the moniker “pre-history,” and the implication that anything existing prior to this subjective date of creation “history” didn’t exist. I’ve always thought that “pre-history” was a part of history because, as Smail explains, historical record is like a fulcrum point on a teeter-totter, a recorded moment that ties both to the past and to the present through an endless strand of time. [2] As someone interested in food history, I’ve read studies tracing the evolution of certain varieties of crops. I assumed that this was widely accepted and found throughout the discipline.
  1. Smail’s approach was, to say the least, troubling. I’m not particularly interested in how brains function, or functioned, and am a bit uneasy thinking that at least a passing familiarity with neurohistory is requisite to understand cultural or social history…to think that a human brain needs to be understood in order to help understand the defined culture surrounding it. I can understand his argument, yet it is unsettling. It suggests that history needs to become even more of a “social science” than it currently is, with a deepening dependence on interdisciplinary studies. A working knowledge, or understanding of, anthropology, biology, and archaeology, just to touch on a few, would be needed to study deep history. Can we still understand history if we don’t have an understanding of neurohistory? Where is a line drawn between what must and may not be understood while the study of history, in some form, can still be appropriately undertaken? Instead of continuing to wonder at these questions, I must step back and ask myself—what should be taken away from this book? First, I think it’s important to take into consideration the fundamental, biological and genetic traits that inform behavior. Without acknowledging that humans function first and foremost as a product of their physiology does leave out an important aspect to consider in the study of human history, and Smail certainly shows this. Also, as with the evolution of mankind and the planet, so must history evolve and adapt. His theory supports those of others we have read this semester, advising that history must adapt and become increasingly interdisciplinary. Smail’s argument is a bit more unique than the others since it advocates a closer connection with science proper, but it continues the theme seen earlier that history cannot exist in a vacuum. I know this, I appreciate this, and yet it brings me back to the question: where is the line drawn that separates the potential to study history, and the dreadful impossibility of never knowing enough to do so?




[1] David Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 8.

[2] Ibid., 14.


Filed under Historical Methods Assignment

3 Responses to Am I Biologically Fit for History?

  1. Laura Keith


    I agree with you on a few levels this week: (1) I, too, had forgotten how to blog. I think my brain may now be fully on the downward spiral that is the holidays (though I am not about to complain, I love this time of year). (2) Smail’s argument is unsettling. Although I have always had a knack for science, I have never particularly enjoyed it. And now my beloved history has to be intertwined with science, at least to some extent? No, I think I’m good. Thanks though! But in all seriousness, I do see where he is coming from, at least to some degree. I just don’t necessarily like it. (3) I really like your last question and though I do not know how to answer it myself, I would love to hear what everyone has to say about it on Tuesday. Happy Sunday 🙂

  2. David Atkins


    Don’t fret, all our brains may not be operating at the optimum level at this time of the year. As to the questions in your last point, I think that what makes history so interesting to study is that we may never know enough to get a clear and accurate picture of the past. This doesn’t mean that any efforts to create understanding or meaning from the past is pointless or impossible (not that I think you were implying this). I also think an interdisciplinary approach to any history, deep or not, adds value and increases not only our level of understanding but also our knowledge base as scholars. My dad used to always tell me you can’t beat a man at what he knows, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from the experience and walk away better off than you were before the encounter. At the time I thought my dad was talking about a specific trade or mechanics but I think the idea is an appropriate way to think about interdisciplinary studies.

  3. Tiny

    I recall a certain conversation with Dr. Jones, where she said (in regards to our not enjoying math, etc.) “Well, there is a reason that we are historians.” This has really stuck with me and I understand that to move the study of the various disciplines forward, we must start to delve deeper into other aspects of the past to fully understand the big picture, however that means that other disciplines must also look into the field of history to further understand their respective studies. This does not mean that I am completely comfortable with the changes, as I like history, I struggle with the concepts of other fields sometimes…but change is often meant to be for the better, but not always good to start with.

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