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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.
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.
"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