Author(s): Alex Rosenberg
Social Sciences | No Category
Why we learn the wrong things from narrative history, and how our love for stories is hard-wired.
To understand something, you need to know its history. Right? Wrong, says Alex Rosenberg in How History Gets Things Wrong. Feeling especially well-informed after reading a book of popular history on the best-seller list? Don't. Narrative history is always, always wrong. It's not just incomplete or inaccurate but deeply wrong, as wrong as Ptolemaic astronomy. We no longer believe that the earth is the center of the universe. Why do we still believe in historical narrative? Our attachment to history as a vehicle for understanding has a long Darwinian pedigree and a genetic basis. Our love of stories is hard-wired. Neuroscience reveals that human evolution shaped a tool useful for survival into a defective theory of human nature.
Stories historians tell, Rosenberg continues, are not only wrong but harmful. Israel and Palestine, for example, have dueling narratives of dispossession that prevent one side from compromising with the other. Henry Kissinger applied lessons drawn from the Congress of Vienna to American foreign policy with disastrous results. Human evolution improved primate mind reading--the ability to anticipate the behavior of others, whether predators, prey, or cooperators--to get us to the top of the African food chain. Now, however, this hard-wired capacity makes us think we can understand history--what the Kaiser was thinking in 1914, why Hitler declared war on the United States--by uncovering the narratives of what happened and why. In fact, Rosenberg argues, we will only understand history if we don't make it into a story.
“Before upsetting every historian, Rosenberg is quick to clarify that, yes, they “are perfectly capable of establishing actual, accurate, true chronologies”. Historians working in archives can and do uncover documentary evidence for past events that we had forgotten about. And “what most faculty members produce in the history departments of the world’s universities is not the target of this book.” No, it is popular history and biography Rosenberg takes aim at. The kind of history that is widely read. It is not that these writers get their facts wrong. Well, they usually do not. It is that their explanations for why things happened and why people made certain choices are always wrong.
How History Gets Things Wrong puts forth a fascinating and provocative idea, though Rosenberg is quick to admit that it will likely be fiercely opposed in many places, partially because we are so addicted to storytelling. I do think Rosenberg is on to something, and I found his evolutionary arguments convincing, but the book was rather challenging in places. The more I tried to wrap my head around some of the other concepts, the more they slipped from my grasp. Despite delivering a thought-provoking critique of works read by general readers of non-fiction, these same readers would benefit from background knowledge of psychology and philosophy going into this book.” –
The Inquistive Biologist (JC BookGrocer)