The ‘Biological Turn’ in History Writing


  • Joshua Patel University of Warwick
  • Josh Patel Department of History, University of Warwick



History, Biology, Biological Turn, Linguistic Turn, History of Science, Interdisciplinary


In recent history writing, there has been an acceleration of interdisciplinary projects drawing from the life sciences, a movement which has been identified as a ‘biological turn’, taking perspectives from diverse fields such as biology, evolutionary psychology, and neurobiology to provide insights into traditional written sources. While this provides numerous new understandings, current use of the life sciences is often uncritical. I argue that the biological turn in history writing uses the sciences not to create challenging insights, but to make naturalised claims of human behaviour, and carries with it the current epistemological and socio-political preferences for economically and politically ‘useful’ scientific knowledge. Yet the claims of the biological turn are proposed as divorced from any political context. This is at best naïve, and delegitimises alternative sources of knowledge production. Such an approach has serious implications for writing history, undermines the programme of the history of science, and should be challenged in order to assist in the creation of more helpful and introspective knowledge when engaging with interdisciplinary material. In this review article I argue that the biological turn is an unsatisfactory response to the linguistic turn, and discuss the political and institutional implications of the current uncritical usage of the life sciences in history writing.  


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biography

Joshua Patel, University of Warwick

Postgraduate student studying MA History: Global and Comparative at University of Warwick


Amato, Joe (2014), ‘Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present’, Journal of Social History, 47 (4), 1101-03

Casper, Stephen T. (2014), ‘History and Neuroscience: An Integrative Legacy’, Isis, 105 (1), 123-32

Cooter, Roger (2014), ‘Neural Veils and the Will to Historical Critique: Why Historians of Science Need to Take the Neuro-Turn Seriously’, Isis, 105 (1), 145-54

Dunbar, Robin (2014), A Pelican Introduction: Human Evolution, London: Pelican Books

Feynman, Richard P. (1989), ‘What do you care what other people think?’: further adventures of a curious character, London: Unwin Hyman

Foucault, Michel (1970), The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, London: Tavistock Publications

Fukuyama, Francis (2002), Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, New York: Picador

Gould, Stephen Jay (1996), The Mismeasure of Man, London: Penguin Books

Hamilton, Richard (2008), ‘The Darwinian cage: Evolutionary psychology as moral science’, Theory, Culture & Society 25 (2), 105-26

Harris, Sam (2010), The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, London: Free Press

Hunt, Lynn (2014), 'The Self and Its History', American Historical Review 119 (5), 1576-86

Ignatieff, Michael (1999), 'Asecent of Man', Prospect, 45 (10),, accessed 22 April 2017

Ioannidis, John P. A. (2005), ‘Why Most Published Research Findings are False’, PLoS Medicine 8 (2),, accessed 22 April 2017

Knapton, Sarah (2015), ‘Britain 'is experiencing same decline as Rome in 100BC', The Telegraph, 26 April 2015,, accessed 17 April 2016

Law, John (2007), 'Making a Mess with Method', in Outhwaite, William and Turner, Stephen P. (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Social Science Methodology, London: SAGE, pp. 595-606

Lilienfeld, Scott O. , Katheryn C. Sauvigné, Steven Jay Lynn, Robin L. Cautin, Robert D. Latzman and Irwin D. Waldman (2015), 'Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases', Frontiers in Psychology, 6 (1),, accessed 15 April 2016

Malik, Kenan (2000), Natural Science, accessed 14 April 2016

Malik, Kenan (2006), ‘What science can and cannot tell us about human nature’, in Robin Headlam Wells, Johnjoe McFadden (eds.), Human Nature: Fact and Fiction, London: Bloomsbury, pp. 164-83

Massumi, Brian (2002), Parables for the virtual: movement, affect, sensation, Durham, NC: Duke University Press

Meloni, Maurizio (2016), Political Biology and the Politics of Epistemology: Science and Social Values in Human Heredity from Eugenics to Epigenetics, London: Palgrave Macmillan UK

Penman, Jim (2015a), Biohistory Explained., accessed 22 April 2017

Penman, Jim (2015), Biohistory, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Penman, Jim (2015c), The Research., accessed 17 April 2016

Pinker, Steven (1997), How the Mind Works, New York: W. W. Norton

Renfrew, Colin (2012), ‘Bridging the Millenia, review of Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present’, American Scientist, 100 (1),, accessed 15 April 2016

Ridley, Matt (1997), The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, New York: Penguin.

Rorty, Richard (1979), Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton: Blackwell

Rose, Hillary, and Stephen Rose (2016), Can Neuroscience change our minds?, Cambridge: Polity

Satel, Sally, and Scott Lilienfeld (2013), Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, New York: Basic Books

Sheehan, Paul (2004), 'Postmodernism and philosophy' in Steven Conner (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Shyrock, Andrew, and Daniel Lord Smail (2011), Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present, Berkeley: University of California Press

Smail, Daniel Lord (2008), On Deep History and the Brain, Berkeley: University of California Press

Stafford, Barbara (2007), Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images, Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press.

Tallis, Raymond (2011), Aping Mankind, Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, Durham: Acumen

Thornhill, Randy and Craig Palmer (2000), Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, Massachusetts: MIT Press

Toews, John (1987), ‘Intellectual History after the Linguistic Turn: The Autonomy of Meaning and the Irreducibility of Experience’, American Historical Review, 92 (4), 879-907

Whitehouse, Peter J. (2012), ‘A Clinical Neuroscientist Looks Neuroskeptically at Neuroethics in the Neuroworld’ in Melissa M. Littlefield, and Jennell M Johnson (eds.), The Neurosceintific Turn: Transcisiplinarity in the Age of the Brain, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, pp. 199-215

Wilson, E. O. (1975), Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

Wright, Robert (1996), The moral animal : evolutionary psychology and everyday life, London, Abacus

Spiral building






Review Articles