Our brains, ourselves…

After our two week blogging holiday, I’m back! And this time things are going to get deep.


As in, deep history. Deep history is the study of the far past, what many would call “prehistory.” As Daniel Lord Smail argues in his book On Deep History and the Brain, the distinction historians have made between documented history and the time before is a false one, a leftover of medieval histories that began with the Garden of Eden and thus had a clear beginning. Since the 1860s, when Darwin’s theories and other scientific revelations began to break down people’s conceptions of time, sacred history has metamorphosed into secular terms, but generally starts at the same place. The fertile crescent of Mesopotamia replaced Eden and the birth of civilization, not the creation of man, became square one for understanding human history.

Smail challenges this new timeline. He disputes the need for written documents to constitute “history:” “what does it matter that the evidence for the deep past comes not from written documents but from the other things that teach—from artifacts, fossils, vegetable remains, phonemes, and various forms of modern DNA?” (6). Anything can be a historical document if approached with a critical eye. The question becomes, then, to what extent is the use of this kind of evidence really “history?” Is there a clear line between history and anthropology, or biology, or other fields that study human life in the past? Smail says no. He writes, “The archeologists, anthropologists, molecular biologists, and neuroscientists who study the deep past are also historians, regardless of the archives they consult. This book is designed to show how we might bring about reunion within all these realms of history” (11).

Smail’s purpose in writing this book is not just to draw our attention to broad scope of history outside the written word, though. His last two chapter seek to convince readers of the utility of brain studies in thinking about deep history. He refers to “neurohistory” to describe the application of recent scientific work on the human brain to questions of “pre”-history. It’s pretty complex stuff. The point that jumped out at me was that “Culture, in some fundamental sense, has been revealed as a biological phenomenon” (154). The example he gives is one of accidental cultural implications: the ingestion of alcohol or tobacco by pregnant mothers. In cultures where this is acceptable behavior, the activities of these mothers result in biological consequences for their unborn babies. When those children grow up, they may have a predisposition to alcohol or tobacco use, which then permeates the culture around them. It’s almost cyclical in this understanding. As Smail goes on to say, “Civilization enabled important aspects of human biology” (155). This leaves us with the age old question: which came first, the chicken, or the egg? Culture, or biology?

The deep past, Smail argues, can help us understand and answer this question. The end result is a history devoid of any grand plan or teleology, whether it be God’s or evolution’s. We often think in terms of progress, one generation moving further along towards…something. In fact, as Smail argues, “We are being swept along by the things that have arisen as our new physiologies have interacted in unpredictable ways with the new ecology formed by our Neolithic ancestors” (189). By seeking to understand people who lived an unfathomably long time ago, before the dawn of what we consider history, we can really come to understand ourselves. You can take it or leave it, but Smail’s book is certainly food for thought.




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