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September 22, 2004

Up from ignorance

Over at Winds of Change they are praising neo-GNXPer Jinnderella. Anyway, the conversation took a turn where Jinn & I started recommending some cognitive science to a few commenters. One individual responded that they would get to those works after hitting Bernard Lewis first. Now, I just started reading From Babel to Dragomans, and though I do have reservations about Lewis' imprecise style, I think that he is worth listening to if you have enough background information to parse what he's saying. Nevertheless, I think the commentor's priorities are a bit ass-backwards. Historical narratives tend to focus on macrosociology, if they give any weight to social history at all. I think a rooting in psychology, anthropology and biology are crucial to getting the full picture. Starting from the ground level, you might realize that 150 guards defending Genghis Khan might not have been such a coincidence. The limits to human physiology might be able to more precisely explain how the Mongol soldiers marched straight through the heart of the Central Asian deserts to ambush the armies of the Khwarezm Shah (or economists might give one a perspective on the mobilization of resources on the steppe that allowed every soldier to have half a dozen pack animals). These are trivial examples, but they illustrate the general principle: you need to look at things from bottom to top if you want to move past entertaining stories.

Starting by swamping your brain with historical narratives before understanding the atomic units is like trying to master newtonian mechanics before you learn calculus, you can manage a bit here and there, but you will never have a seamless grasp of the issues at hand. Authors like Lewis, with their florid literary styles inundate you with implicit assumptions and background propositions. Without a thorough understanding of the reality rather than your assumed intuitional hypotheses of the human mind and the evolutionary forces that shaped it, you are lost in a sea of sweet but non-nutritive tales.

Biologists have to study chemistry & physics. Chemists have study physics. Physicists have to study math. And so forth. Obviously human scientists don't necessarily need to learn that much physics or chemistry, but it seems biology and its emergent fields, evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics, would be crucial foundations for understanding the constraints and biases of human history. So what's stopping you? The Narrow Roads of Gene Land or Natural Selection and Social Theory are good reads. They are entry points to an enormous bibliography of literature. Hell, non-scholars need to be able to put in perspective their quotes from What Went Wrong?.

Related: To see how science can supplement history, see this article about a brain injury setting the groundwork for the death of the Red Baron. I listened to a radio interview with the lead researcher and he noted how uninterested a historian commenting on the Red Baron's head injury was about the impact it might have had on his flying and decision making. If she had been thinking of the Red Baron as a biological entity she might have considered this crucial contingent factor.

Clarification: I should have specified organismic biology for the nerds out there.

Posted by razib at 12:31 AM