Daniel Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain
By Julia Bourke
Every history has a beginning. But if you were attempting to write a complete history of human beings, where would you choose to start? Daniel Smail attempts to answer this question in his book On Deep History and the Brain, which looks at history from a completely different perspective than a historian normally would.
For Christian historians in the period that I study, the Middle Ages, the answer to this was relatively simple. History began with the Creation of the world, and with Adam and Eve. For you, writing in the twenty-first century, the problem of where History begins is more complicated. If, while compiling your complete history, you pressed your academic colleagues for their advice, most would suggest that you begin your story of history around six thousand years ago in Ancient Mesopotamia, the ‘cradle of civilization’. Maybe some would put the date a little more recently, in Ancient Greece or Rome. Perhaps (if there were no medievalists in the room) they might even say that the history of the modern world does not really begin until the end of the medieval period, around 1450-1500 CE.
Daniel Smail calls into question this periodization, and the divide between ‘history’ and ‘prehistory’, in his book On Deep History and the Brain. His ‘deep history’ incorporates the Paleolithic (the age when humans started using stone tools, beginning about 2.6 million years ago) and the Neolithic (from the first agriculture 10,000 years ago to the invention of bronze tools 5,500 years ago), as well as the more familiar Postlithic. The idea that human history could be the history of the human species probably makes sense to anyone who never had to do a foundational ‘Western Civ’ subject. (Mine was called ‘From Homer to Hollywood’, thus opting for Ancient Greece as its start-point.) But to those historians trained in a system where the sum total of history is about 6,000 years, deep history is quite a challenge.
The narrative thread that would run through this long history and provide some common ground across deep time is, for Smail, a feature of our biology: the human brain. This leads him to what is the most exciting suggestion of the book, the proposal of ‘a new neurohistory’. Neurohistory combines a traditional historical approach–which, as Smail points out, relies on psychology anyway–with the insights of modern neuroscience. Smail also introduces the idea of ‘psychotropic mechanisms’, or ‘the mood-altering practices, behaviours, and institutions generated by human culture’. One of his case studies is the introduction of coffee shops to England in the seventeenth century, which can be understood in a new way when we consider the neuro-biological effects of caffeine.
Of course not every history has to include deep time, and not every historian has to be a neuroscientist. Part of the reason I love this book, though, is that it makes me think about the possibilities of history: what it can tell us about ourselves and the past, what its scope should be, and what kinds of historical sources we can use. So if you asked me, how you should go about writing your complete history of the world, my answer would be to begin with Smail.
Where to buy: All major book sellers
Or borrow a copy of it in the UL or a public library!