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

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

by Alex Rosenberg

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Overview

Why we learn the wrong things from narrative history, and how our love for stories is hard-wired.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780262537995
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 08/13/2019
Series: The MIT Press
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 393,802
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

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.

Table of Contents

1 Besotted by Stories 1

2 How Many Times Can the German Army Play the Same Trick? 15

3 Why Ever Did Hitler Declare War on the United States? That's Easy to Explain, Too Easy 31

4 Is the Theory of Mind Wired In? 49

5 The Natural History of Historians 65

6 What Exactly Was the Kaiser Thinking? 95

7 Can Neuroscience Tell Us What Talleyrand Meant? 111

8 Talleyrand's Betrayal: The Inside Story 141

9 Jeopardy! "Question": "It Shows the Theory of Mind to Be Completely Wrong" 163

10 The Future of an Illusion 185

11 Henry Kissinger Mind Reads His Way through the Congress of Vienna 209

12 Guns, Germs, Steel-and All That 219

13 The Gulag Archipelago and the Uses of History 241

The Back(non)story 251

References 261

Index 273

What People are Saying About This

Endorsement

"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

From the Publisher

"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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