This is the 34th in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s "Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.". I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.
Daniel Smail, professor of history at Harvard University, speaks next. In his presentation, he tells us that history (or, more precisely, the history of history) suffers from a doctrine of ‘intelligent design’ much like biology does, and that this has had a contaminating effect on our study of history.
Specifically, if we go back in time, the discipline of teaching history used to begin with the book of genesis. At a time when people believed that the Bible was literally true and without error, it is only natural that one would begin a study of human history with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (around 4000 BC), and then go from there. Eventually, after a lot of time had passed, you end up with Egyptians along the Nile River building pyramids and the other cultures of the world. However, behind them, there was Noah and the flood.
In the 1800s, this way of understanding history started to run into a serious problem. Archaeologists were digging up a lot of evidence that did not actually square with the biblical story of the origins of the human race. Archaeology was telling a different story.
To the “creationist” historian, who wanted to preserve biblical text, this created a problem – a crisis, as it were. According to Smail, the way historians dealt with this problem was to simply declare the discoveries of archaeology irrelevant to history. In order for something to count as history, they said, there must be writing – documents, giving first-hand accounts of the events in question. This invention of writing is how we distinguish history (everything that comes after) from pre-history (or prehistoric) events that come before the invention of writing.
This allowed historians to present history as, everything that happened in the world after the great flood. The flood was over. The arc came to rest. The people and the animals left the arc and spread around the world. Over time, we get the four cradles of civilization – China, India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.
This division between history and pre-history is completely artificial. We can see this in Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of the city of Troy using references from the Greek bible, the writings of Homer. Schliemann demonstrated the ability to use archaeology to confirm (or falsify) the claims within an ancient text. History does not start with the invention of writing. Rather, the invention of writing itself occurs as a historical event that has a context, and it gets that context from the years before writing was invented.
This corruption of history – this selective use of the facts in order to get history to line up with certain religious views of humanity, meant that, through the years, history has not been done very well. History has not been done very scientifically. Yet, Smail pointed how how important history was to many of the presentations that people actually gave. We can see it in the economic histories of Michael Shermer and Gregory Clark. Patricia Churchland made a statement that fit within the subject of history when she spoke about inter-group rivalries. Sam Harris, in his presentation, made historic claims (claims about the history) of the effects of faith.
Even when the speakers at Beyond Belief 2 used history, their references were causal and careless. They made assertions, really, to an audience that they hoped would accept it. Poor history, of course, needs to be contrasted with the presentations that gave a rigorous defense of some aspect of history, such as David Clark’s research into wills to suggest that the Enlightenment ‘evolved’ because middle-class Englishmen proved to be more evolutionarily fit than poor Englishmen.
Smail does not give us any suggestions for doing history right. He merely suggests that history – how it is done, what is being studied – has been contaminated by a strong religious motivation not to discuss what came before history – of ignoring the prehistoric factors that may be relevant as to how history started off the way it did.