On Deep History and the Brain

By Daniel Lord Smail


University of California Press




Preface ix

Dedicated to his father, John R. W. Smail, who taught on similar subjects and got Alzheimer’s.


Introduction: Toward Reunion in History pg. 1

This is for people who believe history should start at the beginning!


Paleolithic is 2 million years ago to 10,000 years ago. The Neolithic goes from 4,500 to 2,000.


During the 19th century, science probed deeper back in time and history shored up at the dawn of civilization.


2 – Before that historians say ‘pre-history.’ To do less, they think, would suggest a connection between us and apes.


4 – We were to have started in Mesopotamia and the import here is to show what we are no longer.   This is the new garden of Eden.


5 – Paleolithic towns, numbering into the thousands, have been dug up.  These are complex without agriculture and had long-distance trading networks.


7 – Others used disease (Diamond) and dance, but Smail thinks the brain is the best way to show continuity between us and the pre-history.   James Harvey Robinson proposed this in 1912.


Evolutionary psychology is too presentist to help with deep history.

We must start in Africa.




This starts with a history of historical writing and finds them all wanting.


Bibilical catastrophism and starting with the Biblical flood are considered – and the lasting impact of this view.


20 - Vico starts with the deluge!  But he reconciles it with the idea of progress.  Vico’s enthusiasm was reflected in his redundancy! Lol.


People did time via counting generations.  And, geology, paleontology, ethnology too incorporated sacred chronology.


Darwin didn’t say how far back.  But he and Lyell were the avant garde of pushing the chronology back. 


People projected middle ages barbarians as the flood that started it all.  And, even Robinson, after posing the question of how far back we can go and discussing the ‘bottoming out’ of history, starts with the Romans.


36 – Vico and Ranke said documents and writing were what made the past knowable.


H G Wells’ outline was one of the first to break down the barrier.  But, the idea of starting with Neolithic times is remarkably resilient.




Part of Ranke’s strong bent for documents was trying to separate historians from philosophers.


48 – We need new vocabulary for pre-written evidence; artifacts, remains, then what of DNA?  He suggests the word ‘trace.’


A phoneme is a fossil.  Hmnn.  DNA is very similar to an edited text. But, DNA, and this is important, is not the result of someone’s intention.


And, we must affirm, people with no records did have a history.  If the Jew’s documents were all gone, they would still have had existed and have had a history - recorded or not.


And we do not need to have a persisting society to have had a past.  Gone civilizations had pasts too.

56 – This conversation teeters around Mercia Eliade’s cyclical history.  That is the idea that people did not have history before.  Life always was and always will be the same as now.  And, people used this to deny historicity.  People need a sense of their past and projecting themselves into the future to have ‘history’ proper.


But, Smails says he does not believe in this sort of history of needing consciousness of history to have had history.  “History is something that happens to peoples, things, and organisms, and is not made by them.”


60 – Ranke was aware that philology points to a history in words without writing.


64 – We also find traces in documents’ never meaning exactly what the author intended – in the style and motives of authors’ deceit (my thought) as well as information about the past that was not the intention of the document (Smail’s thought).


But we’re still wedded to this idea of history being the conscious tale of a community.


68 – Around 1927 culture started to predominate over biology.

The idea was that man was individual but became fully human by learning to subordinate their desires to the group.  Thus they shed their biological status as animals and became human. 


Vico, Hobbes and Rousseau echo this origin tale. 


But Herman Schneider did it in his 1927 general history of the world with this individual to group transition overt.


Is the big bang history?  What of other pre-human events? The evolution of the horse?  This is Natural History.  Can that be history?


70 – It is hard to take history as a history of written intentions.  Partially because we do not always know the intentions in documents and they players in history are often crowds and times – which are not fully conscious.


71 – when you brake on a freeway, there is a ripple impact of other cars slowing that isn’t part of your choice.   And, tens of thousands commit suicide in the US each year.  It is individual, but also a predictable group happening.


72 – “What has been little noted is how the macrohistorical perspective of social history dovertails with that of natural history. In both cases, the historians involved are reluctant to attribute agency to the large populations they analyze.”




75 – Eminent people carry out our ordained progress. Thus said early AHA president Fisher – who shaped our early curriculum.


76 – We see this in the metaphor of the ‘seeds of civilization.’


78 – Lakoff and Johnson have shown that these are not just metaphors: They do much of our thinking for us.


The seed idea parallels the idea that a civilization and man are born, hit their maturity and then wither in old age.   This is in the seeds of information such as the Magna Carta and the Dec of Independence.   This shows why the seeds are relevant to today.


But evolution is not consciously goal directed, the panda’s thumb did not evolve so that it could do what it does now.


82 – Lester Frank Ward was neo-Lamarckian in that human consciousness guided society – like the mind guides a human.


Carl Degler tells us that this neo-Lamarckian approach waned at the turn of the 20th due to eugenics.  But, from the 1920s it made a comeback due to A. L. Kroeber in his rejection of social Darwinism


But Carr was skeptical that men could consciously learn from history and guide culture.  So we had a division between Lamarckians and Darwinians.  But that divide need not persist.


86 – Stephan Jay Gould said when we started to think we jettisoned biology. 


The idea that we’re human because we have culture that evolves faster than biology has a new problem in that animals seem to have culture.


87 – Bird songs and migratory routs are learned.  Dolphins and Chimps.  And, these are not intentional, they are honed via a process of blind variation and selection. 


This includes those of crows who clip twigs to create hooked tools to retrieve insects from crevices.   Those who did this behavior out bred those who didn’t.


88 - If we admit that cultural traits among animals can be selected according to a principle of blind variation and selective retention, it applies to early humans as well.


Folsom hunters could improve a spear without being aware of it.  Variation in spear design is natural.   Spears don’t kill animals immediately, they run off.  But, the better spear would mean the animal runs less far.  That is the spear that is retrieved and copied.


And even when we get to modern watchmakers, can we leave all the natural selection part of invention out once we hit the Neolithic?


90 – Drug use does not seem to be adaptive, but it is in a lot of cultures.


Here we have memes or ‘culturegens’ that inhabit the minds of hosts purely for their own interests.  Credulity necessarily leads to the accumulation of erroneous ideas.


91 – DS Wilson said even intentions become a form of blind variation when they interact with other intentions amd produce unseen consequences.”


Family forms fit land use systems.


92 – When people don’t assimilate we see cultural inertia.


Culture is not so finely tuned to a specific environment as rigid adaptionist models would hope to find.   When people move to new countries cultural inertia happens, not rapid adaption.


93 – Man is the animal most dependent on out-side-the skin mechanisms to guide behavior.   And so culture supplants genes in guiding behavior. 


94 – Elliot Sober and D S Wilson both think group selection accounts for altruism.


96 – We are the mechanisms for passing on memes.


It means that cultural traits are not necessarily adaptive.  But, wouldn’t they need to be adaptive at some level? Otherwise, why culture?


98 – He thinks, though, that celibacy, for example, did bleed off the middle ages unemployed and keep the church’s assets from being given to priest’s heirs.


99 – As Gould notes, change has been changing faster and faster.


100 – But natural selection changes fast on an evolutionary scale.  Especially with small organisms like fruit flies.   And Mickey Mouse and the Word ‘father’ have changed over time while conserving much.


101 – Richerson and Boyd say evolution happens at the level of individuals and society in parallel.   They say on – the – whole individual’s ‘adaptive nudges will be adaptive.


103 – But not all is adaptive.  We have to consider traits, and evolution generally, from the perspective of the thing being sustained or evolved.   Did we domesticate wheat and horses or was it the other way around?


105 – In Benedict Anderson models, census forms make populations.   But bureaucracies are not aware of transforming groups.  It does not come in order to increase state power by an individual.  Also censuses as a concept evolved from medieval times.  


106 – Property and verbal mapping preceded the census.  Street addresses emerged and this happened to further notaries ends in the breakdown of trust.  There is an evolved grammar of deeds.


110 – We do not have to assume a designer when we see the appearance of a design.  Seeing this means we minimize genius and foresight in human history.  We naturally read purpose into things, but this is to providential history.


Not all is guided variation and biased transmission.  States can understand the power of the census.  But the intention of the inventor, as with the internet’s invention, can be dwarfed by the outcome.




113 – Our brains evolved over 1.7 million years to allow individuals to negotiate the escalating complexities of social living.


Emotions are physiological entities.  They are in hormones and nuerotransmitters such as testosterone, androgens, estrogens, serotonin, etc.  And, Each of these chemicals has its own natural history.


114 – But this is not deterministic.  Our predispositions and emotions are plastic and do different things in different historical cultures.


Darwin was disgusted by a savage who touched his meal.  The savage was disgusted by Darwin’s cured beef.


115 – And programmed emotions may not arise in any particular individual.  Some deadbeat Dads just don’t feel it.  And, we cannot just inject the dad with oxytocin because he must have receptors that are willing to take it up.


Hrdy noted that brain receptors are more numerous in species where males bond with their mates and participate in raising offspring.  But ‘for some reason’ some men have less.


Furthermore, such chemicals do not dictate behavior, they create a mood that influences decisions.  Few just lung at an attractive woman. 


We like to, Joseph LeDoux said, “Modulate” our emotions.  Teens thrills for example.  But, just because the responses aren’t hardwired, doesn’t mean we can write them out of our cultural analysis either. 


Neither horror movies nor rock climbing would exist without vertigo and terror.


118 – Other cultural neurotransmitter modulators include: religious liturgies, sports, education, novel reading and military training.  Alcohol, caffeine and opiates do so too and some facilitate agricultural n industrial lifestyles.


119 – Ethology starts with Konrad Lorenz’s 1937 paper.  It believes traits are past adaptations.   Dawkins looks at Black Headed Gulls’ removing of eggshells.  Many thing the sunlight shining off the white shells attracts crows.


120 – So cleaning crows out-reproduced others.   This does not mean, though, that traits will remain adaptive.  There is evolutionary lag and hangover – things hang on after they’re no longer needed.   Gulls in zoos continue cleaning.


121 – Ethology becomes sociobiology when it focuses on adaptive behaviors that contribute to the formation of animal societies.


122 – Sociobiology was big (if not in name) in the early 20th.  It began to slip in the 1920s.   All became culture.  The return in the 1970s meant bringing back genes.


He says it is curious that neo-cons and politicians took it.  As “The theoretical core of sociobiology is neutral on the question of whether there are innate racial or sexual differences.”  The bio message could also be that we’re all the same deep down.


124 – IN some ways poststructuralism was a reaction to ‘biological differences postulated by pop sociobiology.”  The posties found nothing is normal.


Oddly Darwin himself is anti-structuralist.  All is change.


In a marine crustacean (Paracerceis sculpta) the medium size males mimic the female courtship displays so that dominant males will bring them into the harem.


126 – Gould and Lowentin challenged sociobiology by saying there were no standards for the panglosian just-so stories.  Many things have no apparent adaptation: music, playing chess, theoretical physics. They were not selected for.  


127 - The complex brain can be used for many purposes.  Non-recreative sex serves social functions in Bonobos and humans.  Thus, rather than adaptive the brain and sex are now “exaptive.”


Birds get drunk and we use our brains for fun.  Our ability to have culture is built on this. 


A different kind of nonadaptation is the ‘spandrel,’ a trait that came along for the ride.  The male nipple.  It is there before the male fetus is washed with testosterone.


128 – The Clitoris seems to be a spandrel.


129 – But which are adaptative and which are exaptations and which are spandrels?  There is no gene for playing chess.  There may be a set that allows someone to be good at chess.


133 – How do so few genes code for so much phenotype and behavior?  How do cells, all with the same DNA know what to be? Location.


Many variations can arise from a few simple rules.  But this means that bodies and brains are not built by genes alone.


135 – The stress to which subordinate female baboons are subjected to by dominant females encourages them to give birth to males.


Experience shapes our trillions of neurons.


137 – Evolutionary psychologists postulate thousands of modules that come from natural selection.


139 – Evolutionary psychologists comparing us to other primates is great, but at an extreme it is a-historical.  Have our emotions n such remained the same for 140,000?


144 – If there are subordination modules in the brain, they would capitulate to different signs of dominance in different cultures. This argues for cultural inheritance.


146 – Smail is fighting against the silly assumption / straw man that evolutionary psychologists posit a homogenous genome and a single human nature.  odd.



148 – Christopher Boehm has posited a vast array of behavioral complexes associated with keeping egalitarianism and reversing the primate tendency to form hierarchies.   Domesticated animals have changed during civilization.


149 – Good jab – ‘Evolutionary psychologists have no interest in dates.’


150 – Ledoux and Damasio say when body states intersect with consciousness we get feelings.  (not the other way around?).


152 – Wetermarck and the incest taboo: if some things are universal, they’re likely genetic.


153 – Our want to have things is somewhat like the Bower bird wanting things with flashy colors.  Makes us feel our nest is well feathered.  





158 – Our cultures have given names to the levels / combinations of neurotransmitters, such as joy / sadness, anticipation, etc.


159 – We can measure the Southern honor culture by cheek swabs.   Historians swim in psychological assumptions about what nationalism does and has done for 100s of years.


160 – Translate people were nervous during an era to neurotransmitters were high.   


All animals manipulate their neurotransmitters via play or grooming.  We added song, dance, and ritual as well as drugs to the levers.  


161 - The consumer economy is on big neurotransmitter manipulator.  Porn, film, shopping malls, video games, shopping.


These are ‘psychotropic mechanisms.”  These are more important than and, in a sense, displace status. 


162 – This is not necessarily adaptive.  Drugs and watching movies are pure psychotropic mechanism.   


163 - Is progress only progress towards better neurotropic reaction delivery?


164 – Things come in different forms: things we do that shape the neurochemistry of others; things we do to ourselves; and things we ingest.


When Europeans visited Pacific Northwest hunter-gatherers, they remarked that in villages of hundreds, everyone knew everyone else’s rank with precision.  Corporations and girls in high school have the same ranking tendency.


165 – Dominance hierarchies would make a great place to incorporate neuro-insights into history.  Politics and hierarchies are very much with us. 


All of the social emotions associated with dominance hierarchies, such as anger, fear, contempt, disgust, pity, and embarrassment are advertised by facial expressions that carry political undertones.


When we speak to superiors, our voices rise.  This is not conscious.  The Brain often likes to do its communicating all by itself, and it only grudgingly allows the mind a say in the process.


166 – He again retreats to culture.  It is not natural that gender means hierarchy we teach all that is high and low. 


We cannot simply project our status signals into the past.


Boehm’s reverse dominance hierarchy is noted; paleolithics making coalitions to bring dominant folks down a notch.


The agricultural revolution turned our dampened hierarchy propensities back on.   


167 – High ranking baboon women frequently terrorize their subordinate females.   As with chimpanzees it is often random and unpredictable.  This gives the lower ones stress and lowers their fertility.   This makes the lowers more likely to give birth to males, which are lower in rank in matriarchal baboon societies.


168 – Castellans terrorized peasants in the same way in the 11th and 12th century.   Vikings and Normans also did random violence.


169 – Random spousal abuse can create psychological dependence on the abused spouse.  Hmnn. 


170  - Teletropy is impacting other’s brains at a distance. A fluke takes over ants brains and makes them spend time on the tips of grass blades, where they can be eaten and go into cow’s guts. 


171 – Good party hosts pass out wine at dinner.  And, we give out prozac to kids.


There are two types of teletropy: symbiotic and exploitative.   We do symbiotic to our mates when we stimulate oxytocin in them to make them sexually receptive.   We shock and goad our students to keep them from boredom.


Church liturgies could be exploitative or symbiotic, depending on your interpretation.


173 – Theaters, games, plays, spectacles, marvelous beasts, medals, and such are the allurements of serfdom and the tools of tyranny.


174 – One of Goodall’s Gombe National Park chimp mother and her daughter, killed and ate the baby of another.  She then comforted the grieving mother.  Neuroscience-wise, this makes sense.


175 – Besides obvious neurotransmitter manipulation, like drugs and chocolate, let’s look at gossip.   Rather than speech, Dunbar ties it to grooming.   


176 - This bonding makes it teletropic, not autotropic.


How to historicize this?  Well, let’s start with women gossip more than men.


177 – Stressed women produce oxytocin.  This is a “tend and befriend” strategy.   Some societies have policed and regulated gossip.


178 – Christianity calls a range of autotropic practices ‘sins’  Sex for fun, masturbation, gossip and alcohol.  They compete with the Christian teletropic practices (liturgy, etc).


Gossip is likely poison in high school because their brains don’t regulate neurotransmitters well yet.


179 – Into more recent history: European expansion is largely the story of Coffee, sugar, chocolate and tobacco.  These are all mildly addictive.  Literature and gossip about it is autotropic too.


181 – Getting more land in Brazil and the Caribbean meant more alcohol could be grown without limiting food raising land in Europe.  Thus the leisure class had coffee and the lower class, alcohol.


182 – Books were a craze and said to be dangerous to women as their brains were not protected by classical education.   And following politics in newspapers was said to have the same impact in men.  Thei 18th century also had a profusion of erotic literature.


183 – The word addiction first pops up in the late 17th century.


185 – These new addictions rise as the church declines.


Also, people have status anxiety in the 21st century.  Buying things eases such stress.


Earlier we have coffee in the Muslim world, tea and opium in Asia, chocolate and tobacco in the New World.   They gave us chocolate, we alcohol.


186 – In his new narrative, the new psychotropic mechanisms acted as a solvent of the old regime, wherein the church controlled neurotransmitters. 


187 – From the perspective of neurohistory, the progress of civilization is an illusion of psychotropy.    This new drug availability is why ‘modernism’ has its own feel.


188 – This is scary because humans are one physiologically and so we’re all susceptible to these addictions. This is what is really ‘The End of History.’ 


Tolerance is why one generation’s excitement is another generation’s boredom. 




1.7 million years ago Homo ergaster emerged.  The same size, but men and women were not so different.  


191 - Big toes and small pelvises tell us that they walked on the ground and had long youths.   Being on the ground may have required greater numbers for protection from predation.


The shortened gut, the smaller teeth indicate a rich likely pre-processed diet.  The long infancy requires maternal nurturing.  Their size indicates pair bonding.


192 – For the next 1.6 million we get a slow elaboration of the tool kit. The brain grows and the face flattens.


More than a million years ago some went to central Asia.  Outside of Africa they are known as homo erectus.  They survived there until 100,000 years ago.  (if they hobbits are them, then longer).  


600,000  years ago the Neanderthals went out.


We evolved 140,000 years ago and left Africa in three major diasporas..  We may not last as long as erectus did.  


193 – We are great colonizers though.


194 – The explosion of Mt. Toba around 70,000 years ago took us down to a few thousand people. 


195 – He postulates a creative explosion just prior to the final African diasporas based on both Africans and non-Africans for sharing a capacity for symbolic thought.


196 – Since African women can carry their children for about 4,000 miles, he guesses that is the distance a generation could have gone 100,000 years ago.


197 – If nothing else, having emotions and culture can be pushed back to pre-history. 


He believes we were pushed, screaming and kicking, into agriculture by having killed off all the big game animals.


198 – Cute question by Joan Kelly, “Did women ever have a renaissance.


Clay pots that cooked gruel allowed agricultural women to wean at an earlier age.  Sedentary lives decreased female exercise.  And, while they used to do more work in gathering and hunting societies, women could now do more reproduction.


We also went to hierarchies and more polygamy.  Women came to represent status for men. 


199 – The convergent evolution of the same civilization features is interesting.  Agriculture, writing, pottery, royal cults, priestly castes, embalming, astronomy, earrings, coinage and holy virginity were invented separately around the same time on different continents.


We celebrate diversity, but the similarities are eerie.  He puts it up to the emergence of psychotropic mechanisms, such as big religion and monumental architecture. 


200 - Along with this came the physiological patterns of dominance control, feeling of sympathy and altruism, states of insecurity and confidence. 


201 – He calls for a study of diseases.