HOW HISTORY GETS THINGS WRONG – Alex Rosenberg (2018)

How History Gets Things WrongDarwinian Reductionism, Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology – a book Alex Rosenberg published in 2006 – was one of the best books I read in 2019. It tries to marry physics & chemistry with biology, and successfully so. It’s a very dense text, and extremely interesting.

So when I learned Rosenberg had written a book about our addiction to stories, I couldn’t resist and bought it. These 291 pages are a very different read than Darwinian Reductionism: a whole lot more accessible, written for a somewhat larger audience – although this is still no pop science book. While not without problems, it is very much worth your time if you have a serious, academic interest in human behavior, theory of mind, and narrative – Rosenberg’s scope is both broad and deep.

How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories biggest shortcoming is its title. It’s great from a marketing point of view, but it is a bit misleading. Yes, history features, as do stories, but in the end, they are a sideshow. Rosenberg uses the fallacies of narrative history to frame his central argument, which is a refutation of the most commonly held (folk) ‘theory of mind‘. He does so mainly with recent findings from neuroscience. Let me quote Wikipedia to give you an idea of Rosenberg’s basic line of reasoning:

This work develops the eliminative materialism of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, applying it to the role ‘the theory of mind’ plays in history and other forms of story telling. Rosenberg argues that the work of Nobel Prize winners, Eric Kandel, John O’Keefe and May-Britt Moser along with Edvard Moser reveals that the “theory of mind” employed in every day life and narrative history has no basis in the organization of the brain. Evidence from evolutionary anthropology, child psychology, medical diagnosis and neural imaging reveals it is an innate or almost innate tool that arose in Hominini evolution to foster collaboration among small numbers of individuals in immediate contact over the near future, but whose predictive weakness beyond this domain reveals its explanatory emptiness.

It has been over a decade since I read something truly substantial on the neurological working of our brain, and I was surprised by the detail in the discoveries of Kandel, O’Keefe and the Mosers. Their findings about the nature of brains – ‘place cells’, ‘grid cells’ and especially the functioning of ‘sharp wave ripples‘ in how decisions happen – strengthen a materialistic, reductionist viewpoint of behavior. The chapter in which Rosenberg describes the research is truly fantastic, eye-opening and worth the prize of the book alone – but I’m sure there are other good texts about that if you only want to read about that subject. In 2000 and 2014 the research was awarded a Nobel Prize, so this is not some obscure theory – as such, it might be old news to some, but it was not to me.

It’s refreshing to read a whole lot more than the typical stuff on the experiments of Benjamin Libet and John-Dylan Haynes on the fact that our brains make decisions before our consciousness registers it – a staple in popular texts on free will and similar subjects. Mind you, this is not a book on the non-existence of free will. Rosenberg says that free will doesn’t require consciousness, indicating he sees the term a bit differently than most. Although the book doesn’t deal with it explicitly, there is a lot between the lines.

It’s also of note that the book deals extensively with representation, as a big part of Rosenberg’s argument hinges on the fact that there are no representations of desires or beliefs to be found in our brains. These play a crucial role in how we generally perceive how humans act: we do stuff because we desire something and we act on those desires based on certain beliefs about how to attain them. We think somehow representations of these beliefs and desires are found in our brains, and that our brains somehow process these desires and beliefs, and make decisions based on that. Not so, it turns out.

One more remark before the jump, a crucial one. Neural circuits in the brain do not have content or represent something indeed, but it is obvious that their material output (our speech, our writing, to a certain extent maybe our conscious thoughts as well, …) does. The brain lacks content, sure, but it forms content. I would think that you cannot treat the brain as a closed system, and that we need to take its extensions so to say into account as well.

I’m not sure what this means for Rosenberg’s overall theory. Maybe it is not much more than a matter of sharper definitions. Rosenberg talks about cell circuitry that does not ‘represent’ or ‘interpret’ etc. – but again, what about their output? Is that part of the brain as well? Or part of its representation/interpretation/aboutness?

Or maybe his main beef shouldn’t be with narrative history and the folk theory of mind that puts computation of representations in the brain, but narrative history and the folk theory of mind that presupposes rational, non-causally determined agency of human actors. The neuroscience and other points raises could easily support that. Or maybe it doesn’t have an effect on his logic at all.

In the rest of the review, I’ll talk a wee bit about the book’s most important formal problem, and end with a list of a few of the nuggets of wisdom I found.

The book’s major problem is its repetitiveness. Rosenberg wants his arguments firmly made, so he spells out his reasoning fully, again and again. In a way, he builds a solid layer cake, but starts from the base each time. Add to that that the separate chapters try to be more or less self-contained arguments. The result is too much repetition for my taste – Rosenberg’s editor should have been stricter. On the other hand, the repetition makes it easier to follow, so it’s not a deal breaker.

In its formal defense, it should be noted the book has a great flow, going from chapter to chapter, and Rosenberg’s prose is solid. He also offers some interesting tidbits of information about stuff tangential to the book’s subjects down the line – like the fact that “Gulag” was originally an acronym for the authority that ran the camps before talking about Solzhenitsyn’s famous The Gulag Archipelago.


NUGGETS

There’s much, much more to this book than the list below. It is also clearly not an attempt at a summary. These are just some of the things I want to remember myself.

  • Understanding history is overrated. “Take the current conflict in the Middle East. All we really need to understand this conflict is what participants believe and want now, not what their parents, ancestors and founding patriarchs believed and wanted – or even what actually happened to them – a hundred, a thousand or three thousand years ago.”
  • “(…) there will be strong selection for treating prey and predators as ends and means systems. The ability to do this is so critical to survival that Baldwin-effect processes will make it as close to innate as biologically possible. In humans, the ability to track ends and means patterns expresses itself in the indiscriminate attribution of purposes to almost all natural processes or their causes, a proclivity shaped and sharpened into a theory of mind by the age of three or four.”
  • The theory of mind does work, but only for people in our vicinity, in the immediate future.
  • Evolution shaped humans to be “hyperactive agency detectors”.
  • Agency detection + emergence of language = stories
  • “Newton excluded purpose from the domain of physics, but it remained fully in force in the biological domain until 1859, when On the Origin of Species first appeared.” So the theory of mind was banished from physics by Newton, from biology by Darwin, and now from human psychology by neuroscience.
  • “The argument from design for God’s existence is an inductive inference from the appearance of purpose in the biological realm to the best explanation for its emergence: the theory of mind applied to God. It was the benevolent desires and the infallible beliefs of the deity that worked together to realize all the harmony of means to ends we detect in the biological domain (Paley, 1802).”
  • Eric Kandel essentially discovered the Pavlov mechanism on a cell/molecule level. It got him the Nobel Prize in 2000. This vindicates an important part of what the behaviorists thought, and it should give food for thought to people who can only look at behaviorism with contempt.
  • Consciousness is not necessary to store information or even learn new skills. “Presumably language, not consciousness, is what makes the critical difference between us and rats, in our vastly greater powers to encode, store and retrieve declarative memories.”
  • Mind reading (something that lots of animals do) doesn’t need language. Having at theory of mind does, as conscious thoughts about beliefs and desires are representations. In a way, the emergence of language transformed our ancestors mind reading into a theory of mind, cementing our love for stories at the same time.
  • Jared Diamond took on the moniker of ‘geographical determinism’ as a badge of honor. (Rosenberg is a fan of Diamond’s non narrative approach of history.)
  • “Environmental filtration” would have been a better term than ‘natural selection’, as it implies less agency by Nature.

If you’re interested in the book, maybe read this fairly short interview with Rosenberg first, it will hopefully help you in deciding whether or not to read it – it provides a very broad summary.

That’s a wrap!


Here’s a link to my other non-fiction book reviews, and a list of my favorite non-fiction books. And here is an author index, including all my fiction reviews.

10 responses to “HOW HISTORY GETS THINGS WRONG – Alex Rosenberg (2018)

  1. This is definitely a book I need to read 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • So do I 🙂 It “attacks” things dearest to me, stories and histories, but they will remain dear regardless of how much truth is in them. Actually, as a reader I always felt there’s not that much difference between history and fantasy tales, sociologies of industrial revolution and of Middle Earth were similarly interesting to me…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. whatttttttttttttt ?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m like over a month late, but I’ve finally opened this to read it in a new tab.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: CHILDREN OF DUNE – Frank Herbert (1976) | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

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