To what extent can we use what we know to explain the past?

Since knowledge is increasing all the time the way we understand the world is also changing, and so is our culture. Part of the answer to the old exam question “why does each generation re-write its history?” must be that each generation applies its own ideas to the interpretation of the past. Just how valid it is to do this the subject of debate about historical methods.

The human activity system of the past (or one of its sub-systems), is a snapshot of what it was like at that point in time, it no longer exists. We are observing evidence (archives, reportage, diaries and the like) which tell us about the emergent behaviour as it played out, through the nature, body, mind, culture and knowledge of the people then. Of course the historical human activity system was also dynamic and changed over time. The history of longer periods, revolutions and upheavals needs to address change as well.

The conclusion I have come to is that using current knowledge to highlight and explain things that would not be apparent to the actors is legitimate and necessary for full understanding, but it is difficult, we must be careful only to apply knowledge and not hindsight. We can deploy knowledge (as well founded belief) but not our own personal beliefs or cultural frames of reference. 

Here are some illustrative examples of how difficult it can be to use knowledge and avoid hindsight. 

Evolution - the possible baggage of competition

The field of evolutionary archaeology tries to explain human behaviour by looking at culture and then applying evolutionary theory to it. What this means is that a theory from biological science is used to create an analytical framework to study the past, this raises all sorts of questions to my mind, not least of which is it valid to do that at all?

Here is how I think it works, it looks for the emergence and persistence of cultural traits which are subject to variation, selection and inheritance; these are referred to as memes (akin to genes, it even rhymes).  Some long standing archaeological practices are employed with this approach but in new ways. Catalogues of the stylistic variation in beakers, axes or whatever. At first sight this looks like the application of knowledge to the past. It remains an open question to me if the mechanisms of evolution can be applied to culture.

A cultural trait, i.e. a meme is not a gene and looking for variation, selection and inheritance in them looks like the use of a metaphor taken from a wholly different context. The papers are often full of  impenetrable jargon. Evolutionary Archaeology can undoubtedly come up with plausible sounding explanations, what it cannot do however is to provide anything approaching proof. If it is a metaphor of real evolution then it does risk bringing in cultural baggage given the overemphasis we have seen on competition. (Part 1 Review - The Human System, Our Natural Selves - Cooperation in Nature and Culture). 

Science - and some unequivocal evidence

When we get a real application of science to our deep history we have to drop the baggage of our own beliefs. The recovery and tracing of actual DNA allows the piecing together of early human migrations. We can also use this and other evidence to establish that there was a long period of co-existence. We may have out competed the Neanderthals for resources, or brought diseases which they had no resistance to, or had a more inventive culture, but we don’t have evidence of the widespread intent to kill although there are some finds that may point to cannibalism.

The DNA evidence is unequivocal, we all have some Neanderthal DNA – how they died out we’ll never really know but one thing we can be certain of is that we must have interbred.

The availability bias - limited sources

In his book Against the Grain, Chris C. Scott (Scott) points out that States (characterised by cities and organised agriculture) are what archaeologists have primarily studied. They have studied the societies that leave the most physical evidence. Hunter-gatherers by contrast leave little trace – but their number represented the majority of the human race until as late as 1600. It seems persuasive to me as Scott argues that this simple observation demolishes the story of “the progress of civilization and public order, and of increasing wealth and leisure”.

Psychological explanations - lack of proof

Research I am sure I encountered in the 70’s (at Lancaster University) about the Salem Witchcraft trials later appeared in a book that won the Bancroft prize;

“Many authors in the 20th century have sought scientific and psychological reasons for the episode. John Putnam Demos’ Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England saw the trials as psychological reaction to generational tensions between teenagers and adults. Most of the accusers were teenage girls and most of the accused were older women. Demos perceived the Hysteria as a teenage attack on adult authority.” (Purdy) 

This is an attempt to take modern knowledge of psychology, and apply to to the past. Psychology as it was when it was written in 1989 and taking into account revisions in the 2004 edition. The psychology as used in the example above locates behaviour in family relationships – clearly these are important but there is no attempt to justify making them the dominant explanatory factor but also according to the publishers blurb located witchcraft in early American culture. (Demos). I would need to read to see how it treats the culture, beliefs and norms of colonial New England. It looks as if it is trying to deal with a larger part of the Human Activity System than is usual and is almost certainly not a simplistic or single factor explanation. Even so it cannot deliver proof. 

We won - we write the story

The school of history known as the Whig interpretation saw history as a march of progress. The particularly British manifestation of this was in the notion of the superiority of British Democracy, which had evolved at Westminster, the Mother of Parliaments (Bright). It came about as a result of the gradual replacement of power stemming from the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 leading to the hegemony of the Whigs in 18th Century and on through the Reform Acts, the Industrial Revolution and Empire – progress all the way with large dollops of exceptionalism thrown in for good measure. This was a reading back from the position of being a rising and then the dominant world power. Some might say we still have not recovered.

Revisionism and the postmodern conundrum

Applying retrospective knowledge, even when scrupulous over chronology, can lead to plausible explanations that also cannot be definitive. In the reaction to the Whig interpretation of history various ideas came up which might be collected under the banner of post-modern history. These in various ways undermined narrative history since it was not possible to establish causation. It was argued that, to tell a story giving prominence to unremarked events which only became significant later, could only be done with the benefit of hindsight. For example a meeting in a poor room in London in the 19th Century went unnoticed at the time. This meeting of revolutionaries included those later central in the Russian Revolution. Tracing the thread is of course perfectly valid, where is becomes a problem is making it seem inevitable, the march to success; that is purely hindsight (Evans on EHCarr).

Multi-layered narratives have been used to try and overcome this. 

Avoidance - Coping out altogether and letting the sources speak

Another approach is to forgo any explanation except that provided by the testimony of the actors themselves. There are some splendid volumes of history based on reportage – it is even possible to put the reports together chronologically and make a compelling narrative (for me, a Napoleonic Wars buff the works of Bret James, Paul Britten Austin are examples I love). However by taking the beliefs and mindset of the protagonists to explain the facts does not necessarily get us very far; we all rationalise what we do using our own beliefs and cultural references, just as people in the past did.

Here is a personal example. At the Hay Festival (in May 2003), talking about his book on the Civil War, Tristram Hunt stressed how important it was to let the people of the past speak for themselves (Hunt). My question was this; was it not true that the merchants clustered in London represented a group who wanted to advance their interests through parliament – they may express it using their frame of reference - as opposition to the king and fear of Catholicism but was it not also true (and a valid part of the historical explanation) that rising merchant groups tended to have parliamentarian sympathies (London, Hull and Bristol were for parliament). His answer (so far as I remember it) was that it was wrong to see things through an explanatory framework, all that mattered was how they saw it and explained it.

Given human ability to rationalise anything I find this view from a historian rather surprising.

Why literature still works – maybe?

An examination of human behaviour that does not take all aspects of the human activity system into account, which the behaviour emerges from, is bound to miss something. Because of that alone it will be a partial explanation and an unreliable teacher. Perhaps this is one reason that literature remains so compelling (the other is that we just love stories). Literature grapples with the complexity. We can go into the minds of the characters, learn how their back stories effect them, see them operating within a cultural setting, either enforcing or fighting norms of behaviour. When characters are trapped by their natures in situations that they have lost control over we recognise the tragedy.