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On Deep History and the Brain [Paperback]

Daniel Lord Smail
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Nov. 18 2008
When does history begin? What characterizes it? This brilliant and beautifully written book dissolves the logic of a beginning based on writing, civilization, or historical consciousness and offers a model for a history that escapes the continuing grip of the Judeo-Christian time frame. Daniel Lord Smail argues that in the wake of the Decade of the Brain and the best-selling historical work of scientists like Jared Diamond, the time has come for fundamentally new ways of thinking about our past. He shows how recent work in evolution and paleohistory makes it possible to join the deep past with the recent past and abandon, once and for all, the idea of prehistory. Making an enormous literature accessible to the general reader, he lays out a bold new case for bringing neuroscience and neurobiology into the realm of history.

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Review

“An intelligent disquiet runs through these pages.”
(New York Times Book Review 2008-03-16)

“A creative and compelling synthesis of ideas, Smail’s book provides an engaging and invigorating analysis of our history.”
(Science (AAAS) 2008-08-15)

“A provocative thesis. . . . Radically rethinks the relationship between biology and culture.”
(Steven Mithen London Review Of Books 2008-01-24)

“Relax and enjoy. It’s a good read, and it makes you think.”
(New Scientist 2007-11-24)

“[An] intriguing little book.”
(American Scientist 2008-09-01)

“Dazzling.”
(Boston Globe Book Section 2007-11-18)

“A pioneering work.”
(Brendan Wallace Fortean Times: The Journal Of Strange Phenomena 2009-07-01)

From the Inside Flap

"This is surely a new paradigm for the study of history that will be regarded as revolutionary but which is also well justified. To my knowledge, no other book integrates the study of human history with principles of biological and cultural evolution on such an ambitious scale."—David Sloan Wilson, author of Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society

"This is one of the most exciting books I've read in years. It is so accessible, so groundbreaking, so stimulating, so important that I imagine the next generation of historians will be deeply influenced by what Smail has to say here. Simply dazzling."—Lynn Hunt, author of Inventing Human Rights

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A guide for the guild Feb. 16 2008
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
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.
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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
75 of 78 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Deep History and the Brain Nov. 9 2007
By Stephen Balbach - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a fairly short book that Harvard professor of history Daniel Smail describes as a series of connected essays. It is essentially an argument to include all of human history, not just written history, in academic survey courses and textbooks. Most of the book is an interesting historiographical survey of how historians essentially ignore "pre-history"; the problems with periodization; and a post-modern rejection of Christian Universal History metanarratives which are stealthily still lurking in much of western secular historiography to this day.

Smail suggests using evolution as a new approach - one idea, he suggests, is that changes in brain chemistry, from external and internal forces, play a role in shaping human history. For example the widespread adoption of caffeine in Europe in the 17th century altered Europeans brain chemistry and thus the track of history. Similar investigations could be done with "pre-historic" periods. Smail doesn't go into many specifics, this is a concept book about how to approach history, not a definitive scientific analysis or conclusion - it is part of the larger ongoing discussions on how the ideas of evolution can be applied scientifically to the humanities (history, literature, etc) . Overall I was intellectually stimulated throughout and greatly enjoyed the ideas and perspectives, Smail is well versed in western historiography and the philosophy of history. Even if you are not convinced by the titles premise (almost a sort of hook), discussed in only one chapter, there is a lot to learn in this short but pithy work.
54 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A guide for the guild Feb. 16 2008
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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]
34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing but not bad Aug. 20 2008
By Roger Sweeny - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is kind of a bipolar book. The first three quarters criticizes the way other people do history or social science. Smail holds everyone to extremely high standards and finds everyone deficient. The end of the book is a first cut at a history he wants to see, a history that focuses on the human brain. After all, everything humans do is caused by their brains. Here, he is impressionistic and unrigorous. The Smail of the first part would give this book one star. The Smail of the end would give it five. I give it three.

Smail argues that people's brains cause them to act so as to achieve certain levels of chemicals in the brain. Two centuries ago, the English utilitarians tried to found a social science on something similar. People, said Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, try to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. To the extent they do, they experience "utility." The idea of trying to maximize utility became a part of what was then called political economy. Eventually, it became conventional wisdom that a pleasure/pain principle was too simple, so economists redefined utility to mean preference, and dropped the question of where these preferences come from. If neurology can put some flesh back on the bones of "preference," it may indeed form a basis for a better economics and history.

Smail likes the metaphor of a "drug." The stresses of modern life cause undesired levels of some brain chemicals. Some people shop to change the levels to more desired ones. Thus, shopping is a drug. Similarly, in medieval times, attendance at church services--experiencing the communal ritual, the smoke, etc.--acted to change brain chemicals in desired ways. But when more powerful drugs, like the caffeine in coffee, came to Europe in "the long 16th century," attendance at church went down.

What to make of this? In the words of Deirdre McCloskey, "all theories are metaphors, and all metaphors are lies." No theory is perfect but many theories are useful. Centering a history on modern knowledge of how the brain works may lead to significant new insight. I look forward to seeing what Smail does with the idea.

I would recommend this book to people 1) who are fascinated by listening to historians talk about how to do history, 2) who want a very short explanation of the modern resolution of the nature/nurture question (an easy-to-read longer version is Matt Ridley's Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human), or 3) who want to see what an early attempt at neurohistory looks like.
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing Dec 14 2008
By Jared B. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
You know how when some popular musician or movie star comments on a subject out of his field of expertise (say, on politics or some scientific field) and says something ridiculous and the intelligentsia pokes fun at him? It turns out that when a Harvard professor does the same thing, those intelligentsia are too intimidated to criticize him.

I originally read this book for two reasons. First, I'd heard of Dr. Smail (as a historian of late medieval Spain) but had never read any of his work. Second, in spite of reading reviews of this book in both the NY Times and The Economist, I still had little idea what this book was really about. I was intrigued.

Dr. Smail makes two basic points. The first is wholly uncontroversial but still very much worth making--that historians would benefit from updating the psychological models of human behavior they use in their analyses. He illustrates his point nicely by providing two examples from his own field of research where recent psychological models shed light on behavior that would otherwise be difficult to explain. While few historians would dispute this point, Dr. Smail still does the field a service by reminding them (and all of us) that the models of behavior that we make our analyses with may be outdated.

The second point is the one that has created the stir. Dr. Smail claims that historians should somehow look into writing histories of the time before the invention of written records (what he calls "deep history"). He makes this claim although (1) that time period is already well-studied by archaeologists, paleontologists, evolutionary developmental biologists, and others, and (2) historians lack the training to add very much to the discussion among those fields.

Dr. Smail criticizes historians' traditional focus on texts as the primary raw materials for analysis, pointing out (rightly) that inscriptions, oral history, historical linguistics, and archaeology can provide us with insights into the history of a time period. Of that list, of course, when it comes to "deep history", only archaeology is truly useful (though historical linguistics may provide some insights). But trained experts have already been hard at work at these problems for quite a long time. What exactly can historians add to this?

Most damningly, Dr. Smail does not provide a single example of what such a history would look like. While it's true this book is an exploratory work, it seems unreasonable to me to fail to provide even ONE solid example of what he's talking about. Readers are left wondering what exactly he's proposing, and we get incomprehensible reviews like those in the NY Times and The Economist.

My own personal view is that historians lack the training to contribute to the study of "deep history". They are primarily trained to read historical texts (often in multiple languages), and use them to tell a story. It's very difficult and important work, and we're all indebted to them for what they do. But if a scholar were to want to study "deep history", she'd be far better off going to one of the academic fields that has developed tools to understand it. Historians simply have very little to add to this field, just like evolutionary developmental biologists would have very little to say about Dr. Smail's own field of late medieval Catalonia.

In fact, by encouraging historians to focus on a time period that is not amenable to their core competencies, Dr. Smail unwittingly illustrates why this is such a bad idea. When discussing the value of using updated psychological models, he is able to provide two insightful examples from his own field, but he is unable to do the same when discussing "deep history". If even Dr. Smail cannot do what he proposes, how can other historians do it? It's unfortunate that the intelligentsia is too intimidated to make this obvious point.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A meandering first cut at deep history for historians May 22 2009
By Herbert Gintis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Daniel Lord Smail is a historian at Harvard University. He is perhaps motivated to write this book because his father, John R. W. Smail was a professor of Southeast Asian history who, out of step with his times, taught an undergraduate course called "The Natural History of Man."

I bought this book because it got a good review in Science, which is not known for its attention to the historian's craft. True to form, Smail is a fine writer who can put together a coherent argument, as is the case for his Chapter 2, which analyzes insightfully why historians generally believe history begins with settled agriculture, urban life, and the written record.

Generally, however, this is a meandering, unfocused book that seems like the author's attempt to learn elementary paleontology, anthropology, brain science, and evolutionary psychology. There is no real history in the book, although there are good (if somewhat casual) introductions to modern sociobiology and neuroscience (especially the neurotransmitters and their role in human sociality). I especially liked his gentle but devastating critique of Evolutionary Psychology, of the sort that characterizes modern Homo sapiens as a "stone age mind in a modern skull."

What is missing most from this book is what it's title promises: a deep history of human society as seen through the evolution of the human brain. Indeed, it is difficult to find such a deep history anywhere, and if it were to be written, it would have to be in the context of the evolution of craniates and vertebrates, of which our species is but one member.
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