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Good Reads  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Neurobiology

How History Gets Things Wrong The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories

By: Alex Rosenberg(Author)
296 pages, 10 colour & 37 b/w illustrations
Publisher: MIT Press
A provocative but challenging book, How History Get Things Wrong argues that our addiction to storytelling is misleading us when it comes to understanding history.
How History Gets Things Wrong
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  • How History Gets Things Wrong ISBN: 9780262537995 Paperback Aug 2019 Out of stock with supplier: order now to get this when available
  • How History Gets Things Wrong ISBN: 9780262038577 Hardback Sep 2018 Out of Print #247205
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About this book

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.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Interestingly provocative, but challenging read
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 27 Nov 2019 Written for Paperback

    “To understand something, you need to know its history. Right?”
    – That sounds reasonable.
    “Wrong“, says author and professor of philosophy Alex Rosenberg.
    “Feeling especially well informed after reading a book of popular history on the best-seller list?”
    – Well, since you are asking...
    “Don’t. Narrative history is always, always wrong.”
    – Oh...

    That is the rather provocative premise that Rosenberg pushes with How History Gets Things Wrong. 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. It is that their explanations for why things happened and why people made certain choices are always wrong.

    Rosenberg asks some reasonable questions here. How can there be some 40,000 books written on former US president Abraham Lincoln? Why did the centenary of World War I produce yet another crop of books all offering the “definitive” narrative of what caused the war? Or take the many books about the fall of Rome. Is all this rewriting of history actually getting us closer to a complete picture? No, asserts Rosenberg. Whereas scientific theories often started out (very) wrong and then converged on better explanations with greater predictive powers, the same is not true for historical narratives.

    The meat of the book sees Rosenberg draw on findings from three disciplines to support his thesis: evolutionary anthropology, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology. And this is where I found the book to be both enlightening and challenging. Let me start with the parts that I did understand.

    The idea that humans are natural-born storytellers is not new (see e.g. The Storytelling Animal). We are, as Rosenberg says, besotted by them – a good story will actually give us a hit of oxytocin, the same hormone released during orgasm.

    The evolutionary story goes something like this: our odds of surviving and reproducing increased by cooperation (e.g. hunting or babysitting) and tool making. Both of these required not only communication but especially what psychologists call a theory of mind. This is the ability to realise that you have thoughts, emotions, desires, and beliefs – in short, mental states. And that others have them as well. We use these to explain and predict the behaviour of other people. As a solution to tackle the problems faced by hominins on the savannah, face-to-face and over short time periods, this worked reasonably well.

    The problem is, it also turned us into “hyperactive agency detectors”: we see patterns and suspect motives everywhere. This can be as innocent as pareidolia, and it explains why we are so incredibly susceptible to conspiracy theories. Even our belief in one or more all-seeing, all-knowing deities falls under this rubric. As our societies grew in size, some people realised it provided a useful tool to encourage collaboration and scare potential cheaters and free-riders into submission (see God is Watching You). These were all fairly innocuous drawbacks. Until, that is, we started to write histories and tried to use them as a lodestar for future decisions. This is where they can feed the atrocities committed in the name of political parties, religions, and racist or nationalistic ideologies.

    This brings me to the parts of the book I struggled with. According to Rosenberg, the theory of mind completely fails as a predictive tool and is a scientific dead end. But, to be honest, I am not much the wiser as to why after reading this book. Partially this is the book’s lack of a clear structure. It would have been helpful if Rosenberg’s introduction had contained a road map for the chapters ahead, to be revisited throughout the book. He now makes a few flourishes in that direction, but never returns to summarise his arguments clearly.

    If I understand Rosenberg correctly, he argues that there is no link between our desires and beliefs on the one hand and our actions on the other. Neurobiology shows our mental states to be by-products of unconscious neural events. It may very well be my lack of training in the fields of psychology and philosophy, but this assertion is couched in several woolly sections that read like philosophical navel-gazing. There is a lot of talk of introspection, the nature of our thoughts, and questions such as “are our thoughts anything like what consciousness seems to tell us about them?”. It begs the question, can a mind ever truly grasp itself?

    Rosenberg turns to results from neuroscience that show how, at the level of individual neurons, brains make choices and create memories. And, in Rosenberg’s words: “nothing in [...] our brains works anything like the way the theory of mind says beliefs and desires work – as representations with content expressed in statements about things.” There is just a whole lot of electrochemical processes when neurons fire, giving the convincing illusion of purpose. In that sense, Rosenberg sees his argument as part of the larger project of banishing purpose from science, the way “Newton banished purpose from physics, and Darwin banished it from biology.”

    You might very well ask: “what does any of this have to do with narrative history?” This is where Rosenberg asks another big conceptual leap from the reader. Perhaps the closest he gets to outlining the logic of that leap is on page 113: “For narrative history to even stand a chance of truly explaining people’s actions, we have to be confident that there really are beliefs and desires in people’s minds and that they really do cause them to act”. And the point of his argument is that that is not the case.

    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.
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Alex Rosenberg is R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He is the author of The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions and other books.

By: Alex Rosenberg(Author)
296 pages, 10 colour & 37 b/w illustrations
Publisher: MIT Press
A provocative but challenging book, How History Get Things Wrong argues that our addiction to storytelling is misleading us when it comes to understanding history.
Media reviews

"His patient frustration at humanity's persistent wrong-headedness nicely seasons well-judged chapters that carefully guide the non-scientist through a history – there is no other word for it – of 20th-century neurological discoveries that prove his point."
Times Higher Education

"Rosenberg has written a fascinating and challenging book, one that every historian should read and take into account."

"The precise way in which causes lead to effects is a notoriously difficult philosophical problem. Why, then, are we all convinced that we can learn the causes of past events by studying history? Alex Rosenberg suggests that we might just be fooling ourselves. In this provocative book, Rosenberg argues that minds and purposes aren't nearly as important as the stories of history would lead us to believe."
– Sean Carroll, author of The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself

"In How History Gets Things Wrong, Rosenberg presents a lively and quite devastating indictment of narrative history, demonstrating both its seductive power and damaging effects. Even those who are unconvinced by his argument for the radical falsity of our theory of mind will find plenty in the book that stands independently of that, and that adequately supports his main conclusions."
– Peter Carruthers, Professor of Philosophy, University of Maryland

"Has narrative history long been held hostage to 'theory of mind,' and, thus, getting things all wrong? It has, and it is likely to continue doing so, as long as it reflexively accomodates itself to minds eager to be 'besotted by stories,' argues Alex Rosenberg in his thought-provoking new book that brings together social sciences, neuroscience, and cognitive evolutionary psychology and anthropology. It is a page-turner (Rosenberg knows how to tell a good story!) that starts an expertly and timely conversation about the role of cognitive adaptations in shaping academic and popular discourses."
– Lisa Zunshine, Bush-Holbrook Professor of English, University of Kentucky; author of Getting Inside Your Head: What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us about Popular Culture

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