History has addressed a number of Big Questions through the years. As Daniel Smail notes, however, the biggest one has been "Where to begin?" For centuries, the answer seemed simple: the "Creation". Scholars in Christian Europe were able to begin history with the couple in Eden, building from that well-defined starting point. Later, the historians "guild" shifted their foundation. The result was a mélange of opening chapters, ranging from the founding of "civilisation", through the beginning of writing to particular societies such as the Greeks, Sumerians or Egypt. Smail dismisses all of these as short-sighted. He wants a realistic view of history to encompass "Deep Time". In this enthralling book, he urges historians to take up some science and rewrite history to encompass the early days of humanity.
As a professor of history, Smail deftly summarises the various schools of historiography. Early history is dubbed "sacred" for its reliance on Biblical origins. Time was fixed and man's place in those histories was determined. This type persisted until "the bottom dropped out of time" with the advent of geology, paleontology and particularly, biology demonstrating the inadequacy of sacred history. Disputes arose, he notes, during the 19th Century carrying through well into the 20th Century, over the "starting point". Providing many examples, he laments that even as it became clear that human origins extended far back in time, history texts failed to acknowledge early human input worthy of notice. In some cases the view of "pre-historic" humanity even portrayed them as solitary wanderers on the landscape. Agriculture, in this view, was the foundation of human communities, hence discernible history.
Smail's recognises the many advances made in archaeology, genetics and cognitive sciences in recent years. The Paleolithic, he argues, is no longer a "time before history". The key to his thesis is the brain didn't suddenly shift into high gear with the coming of agriculture or the development of writing. In fact, he argues that if we truly need a "starting point" for history, it should rest with the onset of speech and language. These skills forged stronger ties among members of human communities. Those communities, in turn, formed identifiable groups we now decree are "cultures". Cultures bind and reinforce ideas, behavioural standards and even diet. These can be traced back in time to approximate origins, creating a history without texts. Humans may be one species, but uniformity is lacking. In historic terms, our cultures have deep divisions.
History without text means a way must be found to derive those origins from today's evidence. Smail introduces what he hopes will be adopted as a new discipline - "Neurohistory". It's important to remember that humans are the product of natural selection along with the rest of the animals. While the development of our brain was rapid by evolutionary time-scales, it still remains a product of natural selection. Smail warns against assuming a neurophysiological approach means "genetic determinism" - our brains allow too much variation for such a simplistic approach. Even so, patterns seen in other primates have equivalence in our species, and historians must at least be aware of them. Nothing better refutes the "Great Man of History" school of thinking more than the knowledge that the "Great Men" and the populations they ruled carried the same neurotransmitters in their brains. Which ones were triggered and by whom?
Smail goes on to explain the fundamentals of how the brain and body operate. Genes are essential in the various processes, but there are influences among the genes, from other cells and from environmental conditions. Humans don't react the same way to a given stimulus. Bush trackers, for example, have been raised in an environment where small details stand out from the background - a disturbed pebble means a passing gazelle. This same astute observer might well be run down by a speeding car while crossing a busy street if he's never been in a city. The point for Smail is that all these differences must be considered when composing a history of human activities down the ages. Almost inevitably, Smail is led into a discussion of Edward O. Wilson's 1975 classic, "Sociobiology" and the tumultuous years after its publication. Yet, as Smail notes, that work is a foundation for the type of science-based history he wishes to encourage.
That new discipline is well-summarised in the Epilogue to this comprehensive and persuasive analysis of the field of history teaching and its future. The trappings of civilisation didn't alter our brain chemistry, which must be the root of any new growth in the field. He calls for a closer alliance between history and science, particularly cognitive science. He's planted a seed which we can only hope will develop into a strong, informative blossoming [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]