Saturday, 14 July 2012

ON DEEP HISTORY AND THE BRAIN

Dick Pountain/12 March 2008/12:21/Political Quarterly

TITLE: "On Deep History and the Brain"
AUTHOR: Daniel Lord Smail
PUBLISHER: University of California Press
PUBLISHED: November 2007, hard cover, pp 286, £12.95

The title of Daniel Lord Smail's very readable little book, dangling from those two keywords "History" and "Brain", may not appear immediately relevant to readers of a political journal, and indeed the first two-thirds of the book in which Smail justifies the study of Deep History will be of interest mostly to historians or historically-minded politicians. However it's that remaining third, in which Smail applies some recent findings from neuroscience to the study of society, that may spark the imagination of political scientists. In a nutshell Smail suggests that the manipulation of brain chemistry is one of the crucial factors that determine the shape of human cultures. If that conjures up images of of test-tubes and hypodermics, think again: brain chemistry underlies all of our behaviour, from sex via economics to warfare, and you modify your own individual brain chemistry every time you smile or frown. Mass agents of brain chemistry modification include alcohol, religious ritual, pornography, sugar, tobacco, opium, theatre, political demagoguery and most importantly, terror. Karl Marx was more literally right than he knew when he labelled religion "the opiate of the masses".

So does that make Smail a chemical reductionist who wants to explain every cultural form or historical conflict in terms of brain chemistry? Very far from it. On the contrary he devotes a large part of chapter 4, "The New Neurohistory", to a detailed and nuanced rebuttal of reductionist versions of evolutionary psychology that are currently so fashionable, whereby a gene is sought to explain every aspect of human behaviour. Smail contends, following the philosopher David Buller, that the environment in which human intelligence has evolved is not that of raw nature at all, but mostly of human society: our minds have adapted to compete with other human minds, and among the tools we've learned to use in that competition are agents that modify brain chemistry.

But this is to skip too quickly to the conclusion. In his first three chapters Smail lays out a case for studying Deep History - more or less what used to be called Prehistory - despite the lack of written evidence. He argues that modern history, by making the invention of writing its starting point, must inevitably overlook some of the most formative factors. (Indeed, after that great 19th century opening-out of historical time by Lyell and Darwin, 20th century history has narrowed history's span again to start from the Renaissance). His solution to the absence of written evidence in Deep History is to bring to bear archeological, archeo-botanical and DNA evidence, interpreted in the light of recent breakthroughs in neuroscience given that basic human brain structure has changed little between the Paleolithic and the present.

Very crudely summarised this is the picture that emerges. In many types of animal society, from ants to wolves to bonobos to humans, the twin psychotropic mechanisms that Smail dubs "autotropy" and "teletropy" - the ability to modify the brain chemistry of oneself, and of other people - are important organising factors. Teletropic actions cause the release of hormones and neurotransmitters in their recipients, with the intention of altering their behaviour in ways beyond their voluntary control. For example dancing and other courting rituals stimulate dopamine and oxytocin release, increasing the chance of mating (or "pulling" as we now call it). Some religious services induce trance-like states, via altered serotonin or norepinephrine levels, that may lead to anything from spontaneous preaching to signing up as a suicide bomber. And all the way from baboon and chimpanzee hierarchies, through medieval robber barons, up to the Iraqi car bomber, terror is a proven way to subdue and subjugate its victims, due to the debilitating effect of corticosteroid stress hormones it releases.

 Smail further distinguishes between symbiotic and exploitative forms of psychotropy. Symbiotic modes involve people banding together in mutual interest to modify their collective mood, with or without the assistance of stimulant substances, as in a religious ceremony, a film or theatrical performance, a sporting event, even gossiping in a cafe. In exploitative modes, a gang boss, or a sergeant-major, or a school teacher, might frighten his subordinates to make them more pliant. Nevertheless the same religious service that could be seen by a believer as symbiotic (soothing the anxieties of the congregation) might to a Marxist look exploitative (inculcating false consciousness to mask the realities of economic and political oppression). As Smail puts it "One person's symbiosis, clearly, is another person's exploitation. The psychotropic approach itself is neutral with respect to these sorts of interpretations."

 Put otherwise, this is not a reductionist program but merely one level in a multilayered explanation that offers insights into the mechanisms that aggregate individual behaviour into mass political forces. In advancing it Smail joins a growing band of what I call the "New Materialists" who seek to include a material explanation of mind in their view of politics and economics, rather than attempting to exclude mind entirely as vulgar Marxists, behaviourists and free market economists so disastrously do. Perhaps Keynes was the founder, but later scholars as varied as Steven Jay Gould, Jared Diamond, Frans de Waal and Antonio Damasio have all contributed threads to this new fabric.

 As for its relevance to contemporary politics, just consider the most pressing political concerns of the New Labour years: we've been drafted into the US's War on Terror, but our own Home Secretaries continue to frighten us into obedience using everything from tanks at Heathrow to a ban on explosive face cream and baby bottles on aeroplanes. Social engineers beaver away to deprive us of autotrophic consolations, from alcohol binges to tobacco, cannabis and Ectasy. While all the time the advertising lads are working every bit as hard to addict us to electronic gadgets, fast cars, face-lifts and roll-on deodorants. Everywhere you turn they're trying to mess with your brain amines...

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