Fourth Assertion: Attaching the prefix ‘neuro’ to a discipline with a long-standing history creates a new sub-discipline.
“It is plainly contrary to the law of nature…that the privileged few should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the common necessaries of life”
Discourse on the Origins of Inequality -Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The word “neuro-historian” first appeared in the 1970 edition of Webb Haymaker and Francis Schiller’s The Founders of Neurology. Haymaker and Schiller applied this moniker to Jules Soury (1842-1915), who (along with Leonard Guthrie, Max Neuburger, and Fielding Garrison) was one of the first historians of the science and medicine of the nervous system. In this instance, Haymaker and Schiller used the word “neuro-historian” to demarcate an historian who had taken “neurology” as a special interest. It is not clear why they thought Soury the only historian deserving of this title. What is clear, however, is that Haymaker and Schiller were not seeking to carve out a new disciplinary space called “neuro-history.”
Neuro-history, launched by among others Daniel Lord Smail, Iain McGilchrist, and David Lewis Williams in the first decade of the 21st century, and subsequently lauded by philosopher Steve Fuller (PDF), is a species of history-making that adopts an interdisciplinary style of thinking about historical narrative that assumes that certain neurobiological or genetic facts are universal, true, and therefore as meaningful as archeological findings, anthropological observations, or historical sources. In this sense, neuro-history is different from Charles C. Mann’s 1491, which pulls from a range of methodologies in the human sciences to reconstruct life in the Americas before Europeans arrived, because Mann does not assume the transcendence of biology and evolution.
Neuro-history's program is not to undo history per se, rather the program claims that science has established certain facts that can be meaningful when retrospectively read back into the historical record to establish a deep history. Thus, as Roger Cooter has critically reviewed, McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World claims that the origins of modernity were a dialectic of the lateralization of the brain, where the left (logical) “master” hemisphere of the brain competes with its (empathetic) “emissary” on the right. And McGilchrist’s monograph underscores the best critique of these attempts: As neurophilosophy pointed out a while ago:
the notion that someone is "left-brained" or "right-brained" is absolute nonsense. All complex behaviours and cognitive functions require the integrated actions of multiple brain regions in both hemispheres of the brain. All types of information are probably processed in both the left and right hemispheres (perhaps in different ways, so that the processing carried out on one side of the brain complements, rather than substitutes, that being carried out on the other).
The flaw with the neuro-history approach is that the science often changes more rapidly than the professional historians who seek to master the science are aware, and indeed the historiography changes more rapidly than the professional physicians, scientists, and philosophers who write or argue for such histories bother to recognize. It would seem that neuro-history is doomed methodologically. But was it ever a discipline? For that matter, can we judge neuro-economics, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-philosophy, neuro-law, etc to be disciplines? (What follows is somewhat wonkish.)