Most professional historians focus on studying humans and human societies over the last 500 years. A significant number examine humanity’s history over the past 3000 years. And, a handful analyze the past 10,000 years. However, the earliest humans emerged approximately 2.3 million years ago. This means that well over 2 million years of human history are virtually ignored by professional historians.
This is not entirely unexpected. For centuries, scholars lacked the tools and techniques to study the deep history of the human past. However, over the last several decades, new discoveries, technologies, and methodologies have uncovered a rich history embedded in rocks, bones, and genes. Most of this work has been done by scientists and social scientists, but a small number of historians have begun collaborating with them to trace the evolution of humans, their societies and their cultures.
What these researchers have found has profound consequences — not simply for our understanding of the deep past, but for our understanding of modern societies and cultures. It is evident that professional historians will increasingly need to engage with these discoveries as well as disciplines such as archaeology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology.
This course introduces students to these debates by asking a fundamental question: what makes us human? The answer, we will find, requires that we explore the histories of religion, philosophy and science. It will necessitate that we explore the evolution of humans — and most importantly the evolution of brains, consciousness, and culture. We will draw on research from biology, anthropology, and history to explore our pasts, presents, and futures.
Topics covered in this course include neuroplasticity, epigenetics, technogenesis, gene-culture co-evolution, cyborgs, and the post-human.