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

8-minute read

To understand something, you need to know its history. Right?
– That sounds reasonable.
Wrong“, says author and professor of philosophy Alex Rosenberg.
Feeling especially well informed after reading a book of popular history on the best-seller list?
– Well, since you are asking…
Don’t. Narrative history is always, always wrong.
– Oh…

That is the rather provocative premise that Rosenberg pushes with How History Gets Things Wrong. Given that I review both pop-science books and books charting the history of certain academic disciplines, will this be the book that brings on a bout of existentialist doubt, and cause me to abandon reviewing books? Is this book the proverbial blog killer??

How History Gets Things Wrong

How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories, written by Alex Rosenberg, published by MIT Press in October 2018 (hardback, 296 pages)

Before upsetting every historian, Rosenberg is quick to clarify that, yes, they “are perfectly capable of establishing actual, accurate, true chronologies”. Historians working in archives can and do uncover documentary evidence for past events that we had forgotten about. And “what most faculty members produce in the history departments of the world’s universities is not the target of this book.” No, it is popular history and biography Rosenberg takes aim at. The kind of history that is widely read. It is not that these writers get their facts wrong. Well, they usually do not. It is that their explanations for why things happened and why people made certain choices are always wrong.

Rosenberg asks some reasonable questions here. How can there be some 40,000 books written on former US president Abraham Lincoln? Why did the centenary of World War I produce yet another crop of books all offering the “definitive” narrative of what caused the war? Or take the many books about the fall of Rome*. Is all this rewriting of history actually getting us closer to a complete picture? No, asserts Rosenberg. Whereas scientific theories often started out (very) wrong and then converged on better explanations with greater predictive powers, the same is not true for historical narratives.

The meat of the book sees Rosenberg draw on findings from three disciplines to support his thesis: evolutionary anthropology, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology. And this is where I found the book to be both enlightening and challenging. Let me start with the parts that I did understand.

“Whereas scientific theories often started out (very) wrong and then converged on better explanations with greater predictive powers, the same is not true for historical narratives.”

The idea that humans are natural-born storytellers is not new. We are, as Rosenberg says, besotted by them – a good story will actually give us a hit of oxytocin, the same hormone released during orgasm.

The evolutionary story – see what I did there? – goes something like this: our odds of surviving and reproducing increased by cooperation (e.g. hunting or babysitting) and tool making. Both of these required not only communication but especially what psychologists call a theory of mind. This is the ability to realise that you have thoughts, emotions, desires, and beliefs – in short, mental states**. And that others have them as well. We use these to explain and predict the behaviour of other people. As a solution to tackle the problems faced by hominins on the savannah, face-to-face and over short time periods, this worked reasonably well. As evolutionary biologists are always keen to point out, evolution as a process makes do with whatever is at hand and cannot plan ahead. It selects for whatever solution works, rather than finding the theoretically best possible solution.

The problem is, it also turned us into “hyperactive agency detectors”: we see patterns and suspect motives everywhere. This can be as innocent as pareidolia, and it explains why we are so incredibly susceptible to conspiracy theories. Even our belief in one or more all-seeing, all-knowing deities falls under this rubric. As our societies grew in size, some people realised it provided a useful tool to encourage collaboration and scare potential cheaters and free-riders into submission. These were all fairly innocuous drawbacks. Until, that is, we started to write histories and tried to use them as a lodestar for future decisions. This is where they can feed the atrocities committed in the name of political parties, religions, and racist or nationalistic ideologies.

“a good story will actually give us a shot of oxytocin, the same hormone released during orgasm.”

This brings me to the parts of the book I struggled with. According to Rosenberg, the theory of mind completely fails as a predictive tool and is a scientific dead end. But, to be honest, I am not much the wiser as to why after reading this book. Partially this is the book’s lack of a clear structure. It would have been helpful if Rosenberg’s introduction had contained a road map for the chapters ahead, to be revisited throughout the book. He now makes a few flourishes in that direction, but never returns to summarise his arguments clearly.

If I understand Rosenberg correctly, he argues that there is no link between our desires and beliefs on the one hand and our actions on the other. Neurobiology shows our mental states to be by-products of unconscious neural events. It may very well be my lack of training in the fields of psychology and philosophy, but this assertion is couched in several woolly sections that read like philosophical navel-gazing. There is a lot of talk of introspection, the nature of our thoughts, and questions such as “are our thoughts anything like what consciousness seems to tell us about them?”. It begs the question, can a mind ever truly grasp itself?

Rosenberg turns to results from neuroscience that show how, at the level of individual neurons, brains make choices and create memories. And, in Rosenberg’s words: “nothing in […] our brains works anything like the way the theory of mind says beliefs and desires work – as representations with content expressed in statements about things.” There is just a whole lot of electrochemical processes when neurons fire, giving the convincing illusion of purpose. In that sense, Rosenberg sees his argument as part of the larger project of banishing purpose from science, the way “Newton banished purpose from physics, and Darwin banished it from biology.”

“According to Rosenberg, the theory of mind completely fails as a predictive tool […] there is no link between our desires and beliefs on the one hand and our actions on the other.”

You might very well ask: “what does any of this have to do with narrative history?” This is where Rosenberg asks another big conceptual leap from the reader. Perhaps the closest he gets to outlining the logic of that leap is on page 113: “For narrative history to even stand a chance of truly explaining people’s actions, we have to be confident that there really are beliefs and desires in people’s minds and that they really do cause them to act”. And the point of his argument is that that is not the case.

How History Gets Things Wrong puts forth a fascinating and provocative idea, though Rosenberg is quick to admit that it will likely be fiercely opposed in many places, partially because we are so addicted to storytelling. I do think Rosenberg is on to something, and I found his evolutionary arguments convincing, but the book was rather challenging in places. The more I tried to wrap my head around some of the other concepts, the more they slipped from my grasp. Despite delivering a thought-provoking critique of works read by general readers of non-fiction, these same readers would benefit from background knowledge of psychology and philosophy going into this book.


*Speaking of Rome – and Rosenberg also hints at this – it is often when history starts including hard data from other disciplines that we get a clearer picture. I expect he will welcome books such as The Fate of Rome and especially The Science of Roman History, which specifically answers the question of what other disciplines can offer historians.

**Do other animals have mental states? The extent to which they do is debated but the Safinas and De Waals of this world will have you believe it is more common than we thought.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

You can support this blog using below affiliate links, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases:

How History Gets Things Wrong paperback, hardback, ebook, audiobook or MP3 CD

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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