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Prospective American Historical Review Forum on Biology and History

August 10-11, 2012 at UCLA


Randolph Roth, Ohio State University
Kyle Harper, University of Oklahoma            
Walter Scheidel, Stanford University
Edmund Russell, University of Virginia
John Brooke, Ohio State University
Julia Adeney Thomas, Univ. of Notre Dame
Lynn Hunt, Univ. of California at Los Angeles


Phil Ethington, Univ. of Southern California
Dan Smail, Harvard University

Conference Abstract

          Historians in a number of fields, particularly in environmental history and the history of disease, have been receptive in recent years to the work of biologists, which has helped them understand the impact of humans on a variety of species and ecosystems, and vice versa, as well as the impact of microbes on human societies. Historians have been reluctant, however, to consider how biology might help them understand patterns of social behavior, or to imagine how historians might contribute to a deeper understanding of evolution or reshape the ways that scientists think about human behavior. The reasons for that reluctance are several. Many biological theories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries proved bankrupt or even dangerous because of the prejudices they fostered or justified. Other biological theories, including some early forms of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, were misconstrued by supporters and critics as deterministic. Their misunderstandings popularized the belief that biologists believe that genes and natural selection program humans to behave by instinct in ways that cannot be changed by historical circumstance. But biological thought has developed in recent decades in ways that make it possible to create a biologically-informed history and a historically-informed biology that avoid the pitfalls of earlier scientific theories of human behavior. “For the first time,” as Nicole Rafter argues, “there is a genuine possibility for collaborations” among historians, social scientists, and cognitive, genetic, endocrinological, evolutionary, and neurological scientists who study human behavior (Rafter 2008: 243, 246). Biologists do not dismiss the possibility that historical circumstances might affect behavior, because the ways in which genes, hormones, and neural networks are expressed depend on social factors. Childhood traumas, stress, diet, drugs, status, and other social conditions can reshape our bodies and predispose us to certain kinds of behavior. That is why a number of historians are excited by recent research on acquired biological deficits, cognitive deficits, and epigenetics. Genes play a role in human behavior, but they do not determine it.
          At the same time, biologists recognize that the scientific study of human behavior cannot progress unless behaviors and their contexts are well understood. As endocrinologist Randy Nelson observes, scientists cannot discover the biological facilitators (or consequences) of human behaviors unless the behaviors and the circumstances that trigger them are well understood (Nelson 2005: 12-21). That is why histories that search for deep patterns in human behavior are necessary for scientific progress, and why historians can have a profound impact on biological research on a wide range of subjects, from pair bonding, kinship, and gender roles to the propensity for violence or the impact of the co-evolution of humans and other species on the course of human and non-human history. The goal of our forum will be to introduce historians to contemporary biological ideas about evolution and social behavior, and to suggest how those ideas might enrich history and enable historians to contribute to the progress of biological thought.

Highlighted Neurohistorical Research

"Endocrinology, Social Behavior, and History: The Case of Monogamy"
Kyle Harper, University of Oklahoma

"Facultative Adaptation and the Deep History of Homicide"
Randolph Roth, Ohio State University

"The Biology of the Self"
Lynn Hunt, University of California at Los Angeles


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