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Posted By Patrick

I recently read Daniel Lord Smail's On Deep History and the Brain (University of California P, 2007), in which he argues that historians have conveniently neglected deep history - that is, history that stretches back beyond the Edenic starting point of sacred history or the Mesopotamian "cradle of civilization" common to more secular histories of civilization. Smail, a Harvard historian who specializes in 18th century France, makes the sharp observation that both Eden & Mesopotamia are placed at about 4000 BC - with the secular story simply getting layered on top of the sacred one (much as the Christian story is pasted on top of various non-Christian narratives). Smail argues (a) that we should be paying attention to history of a much longer view than this, and (b) that contemporary neuro-research has given us new tools to create an analytical context that will allow us to extend historical research into the deep past - deep history, as he says. 


Smail then suggests that humans developed a psychotropic economy early on in this deep history - that is, we did things to change the way we felt mentally and emotionally. This psychotropia could be teletropic, which involves some people doing things to other people - through everything from religious and social rituals to simple intimidation - that would alter how people "felt," essentially manipulating their neurochemical balance to achieve a certain response. For instance, if you could dominate someone by creating a sense of awe, fear, or insecurity, you could impose a particular kind of social order. Hence the importance of a psychotropic economy for early social organization.


However, he suggests, the teletropic economy has shifted to something increasingly autotropic, in which people consume, develop social interactions, behave, et cetera, in ways that will enable them to alter their own neurochemistry for particular emotional ends (say, for instance, the pursuit of happiness, that great enlightenment notion). In fact, he suggests, we can see much of what happens in the 18th century as being connected to this autotropic economy - especially noting the consumption of everything from coffee to tobacco to opium, all mind-altering substances that entered Europe through new trade routes. Even alcohol gets better in the 18th century, thanks to better distilliing methods. This new autotropic economy, Smail says, accompanies a shift in focus on the individual - the individual's needs, experiences, desires, and so forth.


Overall, this is an interesting and accessible book, albeit with broad hypotheses that are not easy to support by evidence. They are pretty intriguing, though. And one thing that intrigues me most is this: if we use Smail's neurologically-informed framework to understand and interpret history process, how could we see the relationship of these pscyhotropic economies to notions of inteliigence? Would societies that are dominantly teletropic or autotropic, in Smail's terms, favour difference notions of intelligence, perhaps those that are "social" or "individual," respectively?


This is the fuzziest of hypotheses, but perhaps one worth thinking about.

2 Comment(s):
Patrick McDonagh said...
It is interesting that historians have left the really really old stuff ot the anthrologists and art historians. Part of that seems to be an inclination for historians to want texty evidence, which just doesn't go back that far. Smail's evidence is largely conjectural, and his history is heavily hypothetical, but it's a hypothesis with legs, I think.
February 24, 2010 07:20:00
Robert said...
I’m not at all up on the current state of work by historians dealing with “pre-Mesopotamian” societies (a concept that carries its own “social evolution” problematic), but I have been struck in past writings – particularly (it seems) from American authors – by chronologies starting with a quasi-mythical caveman era when we were all banging stones together and skinning mastodons. Real history – that social gossip about when whom did what to whoever (and possibly why) - starts with the advent of “civilization”, easily identifiable by the cool chariots and plumed helmets. Biologists, anthropologists, psychologists and art historians, it seems, have been left the greater claim on the “deep” stuff. As to the question if a teletropic economy would favour a different notion of intelligence than would psychotropic, I vote “undoubtedly”. For one thing, there would likely be a very different weight put on the value of intelligence. It would literally mean something different in terms of entitlement and all those other things that make life a breeze for some and a slog for others. Then there is the question of context –look at how the notion of intelligence has shifted in the past 100 years (arrivederci Terman, aloha Gardner) just within our autropic economy. For a final twist on both History and Intelligence fronts, check out this recent TED talk by primatologist Susan Savage-Rumbaugh and consider all that digging in the dirt for something that might well be swinging around the trees in the Congo:
February 24, 2010 08:43:40
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