ISBN: 9780262348416 | 304 pp. | September 2018

How History Gets Things Wrong

The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories

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 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.

Table of Contents

    1. 1. Besotted by Stories
    2. 2. How Many Times Can the German Army Play the Same Trick?
    3. 3. Why Ever Did Hitler Declare War on the United States? That's Easy to Explain, Too Easy
    4. 4. Is the Theory of Mind Wired In?
    5. 5. The Natural History of Historians
    6. 6. What Exactly Was the Kaiser Thinking?
    7. 7. Can Neuroscience Tell Us What Talleyrand Meant?
    8. 8. Talleyrand's Betrayal: The Inside Story
    9. 9. Jeopardy! "Question": "It Shows the Theory of Mind to Be Completely Wrong"
    10. 10. The Future of an Illusion
    11. 11. Henry Kissinger Mind Reads His Way through the Congress of Vienna
    12. 12. Guns, Germs, Steel-and All That
    13. 13. The Gulag Archipelago and the Uses of History
    14. The Back Story
    15. References
    16. Index
    17. Color Plates