Dan Smail (Harvard University)
All historical arguments are marked by characteristic architectural forms, ways of storytelling or “narrative arcs” that describe how an argument unfolds over time. A particular kind of narrative arc has become very prevalent in recent writing in history and archaeology: the story of birth or origins. Origin stories are powerful devices for constructing historical arguments. Yet they are problematic for two reasons. First, thanks to an implicit understanding that human agency is the trigger of change, they create obstacles for using a complex-systems approach to the human past. Second, because origin stories posit the existence of a catalyzing moment that replaces a steady state “traditional” society with an unstable and ever-changing modern society, they render deep human time invisible or uninteresting. Although origin stories present themselves as secular accounts of human history, they unintentionally replicate creationist accounts.
In this paper, I will describe how the metaphor of origins has worked its way into recent historical writing. Following that, I will offer alternative devices for building historical arguments, developed in conjunction with colleagues in history, archaeology, anthropology, primatology, and linguistics. We use base metaphors and narrative arcs derived from anthropology, evolutionary biology, and complex systems. These metaphors include kinshipping, the spiral of coevolutionary processes, and the pattern of the fractal. Recent history-writing, I believe, has already anticipated some of these base metaphors; the prospects for bringing them into history, in other words, are good. By drawing attention to the architecture of historical arguments, and by offering a new set of base metaphors, our goal is to generate a conversation among all students of the past that will transform how history is taught and understood.
SFI Host: Jerry Sabloff