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human behavioral ecology

Although studies such as these make no pretense at generality, their impact can be very large. They can unsettle the categories that are taken for granted in all kinds of decisions, from mundane reflections about how to respond to other people to large matters of social policy. “Collateral damage,” for example, comes to seem an inappropriate way to talk about the victims of the Dresden fire-bombing. Humanistic studies can also challenge the categories used to frame lines of scientific inquiry. History and anthropology are sites at which new concepts are forged. Their deliverances can do what Thomas Kuhn memorably claimed for the study of the history of the sciences: they can change the images by which we are held. The Bush administration tacitly concurred with Kuhn’s view when, at a time of shrinking budgets for the arts and humanities, it launched an initiative to support historical studies of iconic American figures and achievements. One effect of history (the verdicts of which Bush aimed to counter) may be a rethinking of social institutions. (I should add that neither in the natural sciences nor in human inquiry should one conclude that the applications tell the whole story of significance: comprehending something for its own sake also counts.)

Once the intertwining of human inquiry with social change has been recognized, it is easy to see why history and ethnography demand constant rewriting. Returning to the same materials is valuable when historians or anthropologists gain new evidence—like their colleagues in the natural sciences, they are sometimes lucky in acquiring new data, and thus led to revise. Yet there are other reasons for revisiting themes and episodes that have already been thoroughly treated. The history of the Roman Empire needs to be rewritten because the changes in our own society make new aspects of the past pertinent. Older histories may have played a useful role in generating styles of social thought that we take for granted, but in the light of our newer conceptions contemporary historians may view different questions as significant. This may leave the impression of an enterprise in which nothing ever accumulates, but the impression is incorrect. If Gibbon has been in many respects superseded, we should be nonetheless grateful for the impact that his monumental history made on his many readers. Historians return to Gibbon because his words are not ours—it would be odd to speak as he does of the “licentiousness,” “prostitutions,” and “chastity” of the empress Theodora. If our questions are different, it is because we live in a very different culture, one that his history helped to bring about.