Review of On Deep History and the Brain

The most recent issue of Isis contains a fascinating review by David Sepkoski of the book On Deep History and the Brain by Daniel Lord Smail (U. California Press, 2007). In essence, the book argues that historians should look past history to evolutionary pre-history (especially of the brain) in order to understand otherwise mysterious historical movements. To quote form the review:

Drawing on recent cognitive psychology, Smail argues that neurochemical states in the brain—the production of hormones in response to stimulus or stress, for instance—can explain historical phenomena otherwise obscure or unintelligible to traditional historical methodology. The centerpiece of this argument is an examination of “teletropic” and “autotropic” behaviors in humans—respectively, behaviors in which humans either regulate the stimulus-response patterns in others (as a form of dominance or control) or produce them in themselves (as a way of seeking pleasure or relief from stress). This is indeed a provocative—even revolutionary—argument, and perhaps Smail is giving us a glimpse of a fundamentally new way of joining history, biology, and psychology. Modern cognitive science has demolished many of the old claims for mind/body dualism, and as historians we should probably try to accommodate this perspective in our work by critiquing our tendency to think of historical “actors” simply as vehicles for intentions. Cultural historians who have been saying this for a quarter century are now apparently joined by neuroscientists, and we should probably listen.

Quoting from the book itself, one example might be that “European societies, between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries, witnessed a tectonic shift away from teletropic mechanisms manipulated by ruling elites toward a new order in which the teletropics of dominance were replaced by a growing range of autotropic mechanisms available on an increasingly unregulated market” (p. 186).

This is, in some ways, a radical new departure for historical scholarship, but it is not one that is likely to be accepted without a great deal of opposition. As the reviewer puts it: “where Smail claims to offer a brand new discipline I see only a potential new tool. It is an interesting one, to be sure, but not one I’m convinced many of us would have much need for.”

See also at AHP: Is History Really About Altering Our Neurochemistry?

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.