This is an excerpt from the first chapter of How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories by Alex Rosenberg. How History Gets Things Wrong explores why we learn the wrong things from narrative history, and how our love for stories is hard-wired.
Besotted by Stories
It’s almost universally accepted that learning the history of something—the true story of how it came about--is one way to understand it. It’s almost as widely held that learning its history is sometimes the best way to understand something. Indeed, in many cases it’s supposed that the only way to understand some things is by learning their history.
This book explains why all three of these claims are wrong. Cognitive science, evolutionary anthropology, and most of all, neuroscience are in the process of showing us at least three things about history: first, they show that our attachment to history as a vehicle for understanding has a long evolutionary pedigree and a genetic basis. Second they reveal exactly what it is about the human brain that makes mistaken almost all the explanations history has ever offered us. Third, they show how our evolution shaped a useful tool for survival into a defective theory of human nature.
Many readers may find the first of these claims easy to accept. Our recourse to history—true stories--as a means of understanding is proverbially “second nature.” If science can show it’s literally “first nature,” bred in the bone, a part of what makes us tick, somehow genetically hard wired, that will not only be untroubling. It may help us understand features of human life and culture that are ancient, ubiquitous, and fixed beyond change. But the next two claims will strike the reader as literally incredible. How could all the explanations history offers be wrong, and how could evolution by itself have saddled us with any particular theory, let alone a theory of human nature that is completely wrong.
The three claims—that our confidence in history, our taste, our need for it, indeed our love of history is almost completely hard wired, that history is all wrong, and that its wrongness is the result of the later evolution of what was originally hard wired, are pretty much a package deal. The two hard-to-accept claims build on the first one, and they do so in ways that make them hard to reject. If science—cognitive psychology, evolutionary anthropology, and most of all, neuroscience between them explain why we are so attached to history as a way of understanding, they also undermine its claims to provide real understanding of the past, the present and the future.
Just to be clear, historians are perfectly capable of establishing actual, accurate, true chronologies and other facts about what happened in the past. They aren’t wrong about Feudalism coming before the Reformation or whether Italy and Japan were on the Allies side in World War One. Moreover, historians working in archives, for example, retrieve documentary evidence for important events in human history that have disappeared or were never even widely detected. More important. a lot of written history, especially the scholarship produced in academic departments of universities, is more than just accurate chronicle. The approaches to the past that many professors of history employ can provide powerful new and often better explanations of well-known historical events and processes, often by identifying causes previously unknown or ignored (as we will see). Academic history is more than, and usually different from true stories.
But academic history isn’t the history that we consume to explain individual human actions and the lives they constitute, or to understand famous creative, political, public and scientific achievements, fateful choices and their all to often tragic consequences. That’s because nowadays academic history is rarely these narrative stories. The history that professors write these days has been deeply influence by the sciences—social, behavioral, even natural, and it rarely seeks to explain individual achievements or even lives, singly or taken together. Academic history often makes use of stories—records, letters, diaries, chronicles that people write down, as evidence for its explanations. But it is not much given to explaining by telling these (true) stories.
The history that concerns us in this book explains the past and the present by narrative: telling stories—true ones of course; that’s what makes them history, not fiction. Narrative history is not just an almanac or a chronology of what happened in the past. It is explanation of what happened in terms of the motives and the perspectives of the human agents whose choices, decisions, and actions made those events happen.
And that history, the kind most of us readers of non-fiction consume, is almost always wrong. What history gets wrong are its explanations of what happened. And the same goes for biography—the history of one person over a lifetime. Biographers can get all the facts from birth to death right. What they inevitably get wrong is why their subjects did what they accurately report them as having done.
Why does history get everything else wrong? That is the subject of this book. It all starts with the fact that history is narrative, narrative is stories, and stories are chronologies stitched together into plots we understand better than anything else, or at least think we do. The same science that reveals why we view the world through the lens of narrative also shows that the lens is not just distorted. It’s the source of illusions we cannot shake, and can’t even correct for most of the time. As we’ll see, all narratives are wrong, wrong in the same way and owing to the same causes.
Uncovering the mistake that bedevils all narrative, and through it, all narrative history, is important, perhaps crucial to the human future. How beneficial its impact will be is difficult to say, for reasons that will become clear. But it is easy to identify the vast harms that have resulted from the hegemony of narrative history in human affairs. And we will identify them.
It’s crucial to disabuse ourselves of the myth that history confers real understanding that can shape or otherwise help us cope with the future. Almost everyone thinks history is a route to knowledge, sometimes one among many, sometimes the best route, sometimes the only route to it. And once people think they know stuff, they act on the knowledge. If they are wrong, the results may be frustration, disappointment, or worse, all the way from harm to themselves up to catastrophes for humanity.