As a rule, historians have no quarrel with Darwin’s theory of evolution. We accept the enormous amount of physical evidence that humanity emerged in Africa and that we share common ancestors with other great apes. Historians also tend to believe evolution is a matter of the human frame, rather than the brain; it is a matter of little direct relevance for our discipline.
Furthermore, we remain decidedly uneasy at attempts to apply evolution to the study of the present or the recent past. We are quite aware of the sordid history of Social Darwinists and their role in the rise of the eugenics movement, segregation, and the final solution.1 Yet there are a growing number of social scientists, particularly in psychology, but also in sociology, linguistics, or anthropology, who incorporate evolutionary theory and evidence into their research.2 It may be time for historians to revisit the taboo that maintains that evolution is a fact in terms for pre-history and a racist hoax in terms of social history.
There is considerable evidence that understanding the evolution of the brain is of critical importance to understanding both past and present. [End Page 261] For instance, our almost irresistible preference for calorically dense, fatty foods is one of the banes of modern life. In an era of fast food and all-you-can-eat buffets the food preferences of our brain appear irrational and perverse. But our collective preference for Dunkin Donuts makes great sense in terms of most of human history where starvation was a real threat. It is quite likely that the reason our brains register pleasure at rich foods is that during our hunting and gathering past, individuals with a preference for rich foods provided an advantage compared to their abstemious counterparts. Gluttons and their genes survived famines. Consequently, that preference for fatty or sweet foods was likely inherited by their descendants, which is to say, most humans. Likewise, it is not hard to see why our brains would have evolved to experience sex as pleasurable. That most of this occurs at the unconscious level makes it no less real.
This is a survey of recent works in what could be termed evolutionary history. Daniel Lord Smail is a historian, and has written an elegant treatise on the philosophy of history, arguing that historians need to incorporate evolution into their work and break down the barriers between pre-history and history. The journalist Nicholas Wade answers Smail’s call, surveying the explosion of scientific research that blurs the line between evolutionary and social history. This field is at best an infant one, and much of what there is has been written by non-historians. Biologist Peter Turchin offers an example of how evolutionary theory and the scientific method could help explain the rise and fall of empires. Another biologist, David Sloan Wilson, explains the history of complex social institutions such as religion within an evolutionary framework. Because this field is so new, the last section suggests how social historians might incorporate evolutionary approaches in their research.
The historian Daniel Lord Smail argues that our discipline should rethink the divide between history and pre-history. Until the nineteenth century, historians viewed human history beginning only after God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. In that century, historians became more secular, but kept the basic narrative framework of sacred history in place. Historians simply replaced God with cities and writing and Eden with Mesopotamia. Historians operate on the implicit assumption that prior to writing, humanity lacked agency, and had no real history. History “began exactly at that moment when humans ceased to be animals and...