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20210704 – On Deep History and the Brain




The main idea of this book is that traditional approach to history that includes accumulation of historical artifacts, their analysis, and consequential synthesis of the narrative of the past is not sufficient and should be supplemented, or maybe even supplanted by neurohistory that would be based on genetic, neurological, and biological analysis that would allow going back much deeper than any historical artifacts allow: not just a few thousand years, but millions of years, which would allow better understanding of humanity than ever before.


Introduction: Toward Reunion in History

In introduction author defines meaning of deep history as history of humanity going back not just a few thousand years of known civilization, but way further back:” A deep history of humankind is any history that straddles this buffer zone, bundling the Paleolithic and the Neolithic together with the Postlithic-that is, with everything that has happened since the emergence of metal technology, writing, and cities some 5,500 years ago. The result is a seamless narrative that acknowledges edges the full chronology of the human past.”  Author stresses that unlike other histories it would be based not only on archeological artifacts and written documents, but on everything that could be used including human DNA, traces of human impact on environment, human neurophysiology, but not evolutionary psychology that author consider not useful for understanding history. Author also stresses that history should start in Africa where contemporary humans came from.

1. The Grip of Sacred History

This chapter is pretty much dedicated to rejection of traditional history that explicitly or more often implicitly driven by biblical narrative, compressing history to narrow timeframe of a few thousand years and author diligently narrate how this was slowly rejected by emerging scientific evidence incorporated into the new ways of thinking developed by Enlightenment. Nevertheless, author believes that remnants of “sacred history” still remain and limit amounts of resources allocated to research of Paleolithic, the period of real beginning of human history.

2. Resistance

This chapter describes resistance to expansion of history deeper into the past and here is how author describes the problem of resistance:” What this genealogy indicates is that it was not the inertia of sacred history and the problems of plotting alone that have delayed the reception of humanity’s deep history. There was a certain degree of resistance, a lingering unwillingness to contemplate the dark abyss of time. Historians no longer think this way.’ But when resistance was active-when, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some historians were alive to the implications of that abyss-the exclusion of the deep past was motivated by genuine intellectual doubts and uncertainties. Their resistance absolved solved historians of the need to read deeply in the paleoanthropological evidence. This resistance is now dormant, but its legacy-a few dutiful pages on the Paleolithic, a sense that this is not the province of history-continues to shape our texts and our curricula.” Author reviews discussion of deep past inclusion into history and how proceed about it when there are no traditional evidences such as texts or sufficient levels of artifacts going all the way back deep enough.

3. Between Darwin and Lamarck

Author starts here with another critic of “Whiggish histories” and its writers going back mainly to XIX century. He allocates quite a bit of space to metaphorical “seeds of civilization” then jumping from this to ontogeny and phylogeny, positing that “in the potential confusion between ontogeny and phylogeny, that a deep history has to take a stand in favor of phylogeny. An ontogeny necessarily begins at a point of conception or germination: in the narrative of sacred history, the Garden of Eden. In contrast, the deep history of humanity has no particular beginning and is certainly driving toward no particular end.” He then reviews history of Lamarck’s and Darwin’s ideas, noting that cultural evolution works pretty much on Lamarckian pattern and provides huge acceleration of human development.  He then discusses literature on this subject and various theories of adaptation or maladaptation to environment resulting from interaction of random Darwinian change and directed Lamarckian change. Both these processes applied not only in human evolution, but also in evolution of animals that also have cultures. The huge difference, however, is that humans developed ability accumulate information outside of an individual brain via complex language and later variety of methods for information processing and accumulation from telling the stories, to using writing and computers with their infinite memory either in form of books or silicon chips. Author summarizes all this by saying that:” Examples discussed in this chapter suggest how some of the most important cultural achievements of the Postlithic era have been shaped by blind variation and selective retention.”

4. The New Neurohistory

Author begins this chapter by rejecting duality of mind and body often supported by argument that human mind is huge overkill for what is needed for relatively simple tasks of hunting and gathering. He makes very good point that there is no overkill if one considers complexity created by the need for survival in human group with its complex communications and relationships conducted using language and other complex signaling systems. Author then discusses emotions, their role and human interactions and their complex nature that combine universality of basic emotions with culture dependent specifics. Here how author applies idea of Neurohistory in this area:” A neurohistorical perspective on human history is built around the plasticity of the synapses that link a universal emotion, such as disgust, to a particular object or stimulus, a plasticity that allows culture to embed itself in physiology. By the same token, the universal capacity to feel disgust can be exploited in ways that are unique to a given culture.” Author also discusses here sociobiology and its use and/or misuse by many researchers that brought in their political attitude to support or reject ideas of combined evolutionary process with intertwining of genes and culture. Author completes this chapter by once again juxtaposing Neurohistory with traditional history:” Nevertheless, the perspectives of Neurohistory matter in the context of this book because they make it possible to see the brain as the narrative focus for a history that begins with early hominins and balances on the Neolithic era. This focus means we can construct a different historical narrative, one that does not have to depend on the framework of political organization, including the rise of the nation-state, that undergirds the grand narratives of general history. A neurohistory is a deep cultural history, offering a way out of the increasingly sterile presentism that constrains the historical imagination and contributes to the growing marginalization of early history in the curriculum. Our feet planted firmly in the deep past, we can look ahead with wonder at the ramifying cultural patterns, the wonderful life, that emerged as human neurophysiology interacted with the rapidly changing ecologies of the Postlithic era”.

5. Civilization and Psychotropy

Author begins this chapter by discussing neurochemicals, their functions, and how these functions could be impacting deep history. He then moves to cultural moderation of moods and behaviors referring to them as psychotropic mechanisms. He also expands it to consumer behavior. Author brings in dominance hierarchies, which he links to phylogeny based on their presence in behavior of our close relatives. Interestingly enough author discusses ideas of reverse hierarchy of hunter gathering societies when majority of weak easily suppressed a few strong. This was later turned around in agricultural societies and continues in form of variety of political dominance hierarchies to the present day. Author also discusses in details teletropic mechanisms used to influence behavior of people. These mechanisms include everything from drags to novels, gossip, and propaganda. He comes up with quite an interesting idea:” From the perspective of neurohistory, the progress of civilization is an illusion of Psychotropy. This argument is a deliberate rejoinder to other models of general or universal history that seek to offer explanations for history’s apparent direction.”

Epilogue: Looking Ahead

Author concludes this book by restating his believe that traditional history that he somewhat contemptuously refers as Western Civ is outdated and the new one should be developed. So here is the point:” I have suggested, in this book, that we add a neurohistorical perspective, with sets of tools and concepts that allow us to think about the historical implications of recent developments in neuroscience and human biology. This history is necessarily a deep one, since the genes responsible for building the autonomic nervous system are themselves of considerable antiquity. This history is also a world history, since the equipment is shared by all humans, though it is built, manipulated, and tweaked in different ways by different cultures. Finally, it is a history to which many of us can connect.”


I like idea of deep history a lot and I think that it already happening, but in forms quite different from what author presents in this book. I believe that recent developments in decoding DNA of fossils provides the great foundation for analysis of dynamic development of hominins and early humans as it was expressed in DNA changes over time and in different environments. DNA provides for understanding organism’s potential, but it is just a foundation. We now know that over lifetime of organism the process of living creates epigenetic changes, so it is not impossible that these changes also could be learned from the fossils. In short, I think that deep history probably has a great future, but we are at the very beginning of the road that may or may not lead to development of such deep history.


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