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Deep History

Public lecture:
Professor Daniel Lord Smail (Harvard University) “Deep History: Neurosciences and History Writing” (24th October 2011).

At the beginning of the new academic year 2011-12 we were lucky to be able to bring Professor Daniel Lord Smail to Warwick for a guest lecture Professor Smail has written widely on early global history and teaches at the History Department at Harvard University. In his lecture he introduced us to his most recent research interest that aims at discovering what he calls “humanities deep history”. The overarching intellectual idea is to identify and develop new frames or narratives for binding human history together. Smail is working from the radical hypothesis that “history is not a political science designed to explain the present. It is an anthropological science designed to help us understand humanity”. Most recently Smail has been exploring the potential of the contemporary neurosciences for the study of history, more precisely of human behavior in the past. In his most recent monograph On Deep History and the Brain (2008) he proposes the idea of a “neurohistory,” a history, “that explores how cultural structures shape patterns of the brain-body system and alter forms of endocrine regulation”.

Smail proposes that this new viewpoints will allow us to add a new interpretative dimension to our understanding of cultural transformations. “It offers, so he argues, “a way to incorporate the neurosciences into history without having recourse to historically sterile versions of evolutionary psychology (notably approaches that rely on strong theories of massive modularity and evolved dispositions).” Professor Steve Fuller from the sociology department who introduced the speaker enthusiastically praised Smail’s work and compared the potential importance of his monography for the practice of history-writing to that of Hayden White’s publication of “Metahistory” (1973).