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Changing History

Four new ways to write the story of the world

(istockphoto/Globe Staff illustration )
By Drake Bennett
February 7, 2010

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The fame of Howard Zinn, who died a week and a half ago, rested on his long record of challenging the status quo. As a young professor, he was a leader of the civil rights and antiwar movements, and throughout his career he was an inveterate demonstrator and speaker at rallies and strikes. His writings brought formerly obscure events like Bacon’s Rebellion, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, and the Philippine-American War into the light, arguing that such popular uprisings - and their brutal suppression - were central to the American story. It’s a vision that resonated with readers: Zinn’s 1980 book, “A People’s History of the United States,” has sold more than 2 million copies.

Zinn was an unabashed political radical, but much of the appeal of his work stemmed from something conceptual: He took a story that generations of American schoolchildren had had drilled into them and he turned it on its head. Rather than the Founding Fathers or politicians and generals, he saw the nation’s fed-up farmers, rebellious slaves, women’s libbers, labor leaders, and other agitators as our national heroes. By taking history outside the halls where treaties are signed and bills debated and instead writing the story from the streets, he cast a new light on

a familiar narrative, exposing elements - about the costs of the country’s expansion, the mixed motives of its founders, and the role of its suppressed dissenters - that the traditional narrative had left in shadow.

Zinn was not the first to upend the traditional historical narrative in this way; his bottom-up vision of history drew heavily on the work of previous generations of revisionist historians. What Zinn did in his “People’s History” was stitch that work together into an overarching narrative and give it a polemical edge.

Yet Zinn’s work remains a testament to the power of vantage point, an example of how coming at a familiar set of historical facts from a different angle can completely change what we know about them. And today, historians of all stripes are applying that lesson in new and fascinating ways. These scholars are not the heirs of Zinn, politically or intellectually, but their work shares his conviction that we can and should see the past anew.

Environmental historians, for example, are looking not just at society but its interaction with the natural world, exploring the ways that man has altered and been altered by it. Proponents of so-called neurohistory are looking at the human brain, arguing that it is not solely the product of evolution, but of culture and technological advances - of history, in other words, rather than just biology. Other historians are rearranging the boundaries their colleagues use to partition the past into useful categories, creating fields like “Pacific history” that focus on the ways that navigable bodies of water have linked and shaped societies as much as national borders have. Still others are using the tools of science to answer longstanding historical questions - melding history, archeology, and sciences ranging from genetics to computer programming to climatology into a sprawling new field called “archeoscience.”

These new approaches are being used to look at different eras and different places, from the Roman Empire to 20th-century California. And the historians developing them are harvesting a collection of surprising insights about the past. They’re finding that climate had a cataclysmic effect on the early modern world, that since the middle of the 20th century the United States has been shaped far more by the East Asian nations on the far side of the Pacific than by our longtime European allies, and that the Dark Ages may not have begun as abruptly as previously thought. In the process, these scholars are expanding the definition of history itself.

“The past is a whole, it’s a three-dimensional object that we’re looking at from different windows, and you see different facets depending on what window you’re looking from,” says Michael McCormick, a Harvard historian and champion of archeoscience.

Pacific History
There are plenty of things that live in the ocean, but people are not among them. It would therefore seem to be of little interest to historians. But ocean-based history is, in fact, a burgeoning field. During the millennia that predated the invention of the railroad - much less the car and the airplane - marine transport was often more reliable than going overland, and so human societies were united more than they were divided by bodies of water.

The first historian to study this dynamic was Fernand Braudel, who in the decades around World War II chronicled the dynamics of the interconnected peoples around the Mediterranean Sea. Since the 1990s, the field of Atlantic history - which is concerned with the web of trade and cultural influence that connect the Americas, Europe, and Africa through the ocean between them - has been growing in prominence, championed largely by the Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn. A few scholars have even begun to lay the foundations for Indian Ocean studies.

The newest branch, though - and in some ways the most ambitious - is Pacific history. Led by Bruce Cumings, a historian at the University of Chicago specializing in Korea, these scholars argue that despite the enormity of the Pacific Ocean and the wide diversity of nations around it - from the United States to Japan to Indonesia to Russia to China - there is much to be learned by treating the world’s largest ocean as the gravitational center of a coherent whole.

Cumings’s book “Dominion from Sea to Sea,” published in November, is a history of the United States that takes the Pacific perspective, focusing not only on the nation’s drive westward toward the Pacific, but on how the American relationship with Japan, China, and Korea shaped our history: China provided much of the labor for the railroads that tied the country together, the Korean War helped spawn the military-industrial complex, and engineers and programmers from East Asian nations fueled our tech booms.

Cumings argues that the international relationships that run through the Pacific have long been underplayed by historians, even as those ties grew in importance throughout the 20th century. Indeed, taking the Pacific view, he argues, allows us to see all the ways that China and the United States are more alike than we may assume. For all the seeming foreignness of China to Americans, Cumings argues, the two nations see themselves in similar ways: Both have had world-influencing revolutions; both have strong principles of civilian rather than military rule and, despite China’s communist leadership, long histories of petty capitalism. Both are ethnically diverse nations suspicious of class differences.

In a sense, there’s something ironic about launching the field of Pacific history with a book about the United States, since we’re a relative latecomer to the ocean. “If you look at the Pacific, for millennia everything’s happening in East Asia,” Cumings says. “Then all of a sudden, there’s enormous development on the right side, the North American side.

“It now makes it possible to talk about the Pacific as a whole. It’s a vast sea of human exchange, on what will be the grandest scale in world history,” he argues.

Archeoscience
The work of the historian is to read, whether it’s letters or ledgers or ships’ logs or rice-paper scrolls. History begins when our ancestors started writing. But much that has happened since wasn’t written down. To fill in those blank spots, and to enrich the written records that we do have, scholars have started to team up with experts in other, more technical fields.

For example, Harvard’s McCormick, a medieval historian, has worked with a biologist and archeologist to analyze soil from the ruins of a Roman town in France. A layer of dark dirt just above the ruins was long thought to be evidence that cities like it were burned to the ground by barbarians and abandoned. But McCormick and his colleagues found that the soil actually seems to be the remnants of wood and thatch - evidence that the city was immediately rebuilt, just without the stone that the original had been made of. Discoveries like these are forcing historians to rethink their understanding of the beginning of the Dark Ages as an utter rupture with the Roman imperial past - rather than a complete collapse into disorder something more gradual seems to have occurred, where old social structures endured for awhile.

Historians are also drawing on work by geneticists to better understand phenomena as disparate as the conquest of England by medieval Anglo-Saxons and the African slave trade. McCormick is using pattern-recognition software to settle long-running disputes over the authorship of important medieval texts, and using a chemical analysis of trace elements on coins to map out trade routes through the Holy Roman Empire.

“The texts tell us stuff that we can’t see in the dirt, and the dirt tells us stuff that we can’t see in the text. Sometimes they tell us different things,” McCormick says. “And fitting them together is a real challenge and also enormously exciting.”

Environmental History
With the growth of environmentalism as a political movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the natural world also began to find its way into scholarship. The realization of all the ways that modern man was shaping nature, intentionally and unintentionally, drove historians to look at the ways earlier societies had changed their environments as well.

Among the pioneers of the field was William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin. His best-known work focused on the ways that different attitudes about land ownership between Native Americans and European settlers altered the New England landscape, and on how 19th-century Chicago, as it grew up into one of the nation’s great cities and trading hubs, reshaped the vast fertile plains around it - reshaping, as well, American attitudes about food and farming.

A newer strain of environmental history, however, is looking at the ways that the environment itself can guide the course of history, in sometimes unexpected ways. In this reading, the environment becomes not only the object of human cultivation or despoliation, but an actor itself. A prime example is the work of Geoffrey Parker at Ohio State University. Parker’s forthcoming book focuses on the period between 1635 and 1665, three of the most tumultuous decades that the world has known: Europe, China, and the Mughal and Ottoman empires were engulfed in war; Ming China collapsed under a Manchu invasion; the Polish commonwealth, then the largest state in Europe, fell apart; and massive rebellions broke out throughout Russia, France, and the Spanish and British empires. Historians call the decades of the mid-17th century the General Crisis - and they have long wondered what might explain this global outbreak of violence and unrest.

Parker’s provocative thesis is that the link, essentially, was the weather. Winters from China to North America to Europe were some of the coldest in history, and growing seasons in normally clement parts of the world were disrupted in some places by drought and in others by torrential rains. The Nile River fell to some of the lowest levels ever recorded, and growing glaciers engulfed entire towns in the Alps.

All of this sudden climatic change was deeply destabilizing. Societies faced with collapses in their food stocks invaded neighbors with more fertile lands - this is essentially what drove the Manchu invasion of Ming China, Parker argues. Desperate farmers and out-of-work farm laborers revolted throughout Europe. Parker argues that even the English Civil War was exacerbated by the freakish cold, as Charles I’s subjects, especially in Ireland, were primed for rebellion by poor harvests and the threat of starvation.

In an earlier work, Parker quoted Voltaire to make his larger point: “Three things exercise a constant influence over the minds of men: climate, government and religion.” Historians neglect the first of these, Parker argues, at their peril.

Neurohistory
It’s one thing to study the history of thought: to trace the spread of Confucianism through East Asia or parse the intellectual evolution through which American colonists went from loyal subjects to revolutionaries. It’s another thing to study the history of the brain. To most historians, the brain has about as much to do with history as our kidneys. The brain, they assume, is part of the biological hardware that evolution left us with. And while the brain may still be evolving, it’s changing at a rate far outside the scope of what historians deal with. There’s a lot that separates a Visigoth from an Incan priest from us, but the assumption is that we’re working with identical mental equipment.

But in the 2008 book “On Deep History and the Brain,” Harvard historian Daniel Lord Smail set out to launch the field of neurohistory. His point is that living in a particular place at a particular time shapes the brain in profound ways - a medieval friar and a Mongol warrior would have very different impulses when faced with a threat or an insult.

“Our brains are not like living fossils in the modern world,” he says. “The brain is yet another kind of human institution that evolves according to the cultural inputs that are made in it.”

Smail’s own work has focused on the ways that people throughout history have set out to alter their brains - and the ways they have worried about others doing it for them. He looks at drugs like alcohol and caffeine, but also mood-altering innovations like religion, opera, shopping, and pornography. He points out that in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, all sorts of behaviors - from theater-going to novel-reading to political revolution - were described as addictions and disorders of the brain.

Smail’s interest in the brain grows out of another of the innovations he’d like to see catch on: his conception of “deep history” - applying the insights of traditional history to the long stretch of time after homo sapiens evolved but before the rise of civilization. As we learn more and more about that time period, he argues, historians can begin to make comparisons across eons, tracing the connections between, for example, prehistoric rituals to commemorate the dead, the medieval relic trade, and the way modern currencies make ubiquitous the images of a nation’s deceased cultural and political heroes.

“A deep history is not just the old stuff,” he says, “it’s the whole conversation from as far back as we care to go to the present.”

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail drbennett@globe.com.