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How biohistory affects human nature

Jim Penman tells Ivan Tyrrell how biology drives our social history, explaining temperament change within cultures and the rise and fall of civilisations.

TYRRELL: Ever since I was a teenager I’ve puzzled over why civilisations rise and then fall, which is why I was fascinated by your book, Biohistory: decline and fall of the West. I read the so-called abridged version first (still long and packed with detail) and was so drawn into your argument that I went on to read the unabridged version, Biohistory, which contains even more.

I’d like to set the scene for our conversation with a story from when I was in Jordon once and went to the great Roman amphitheatre in Amman. It was built in the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the acoustics were amazing. From my vantage point on the steps near the top, I could hear an English archaeologist far below explaining to a group of tourists why studying the stones showed how the arena had evolved. Originally the amphitheatre was a small, intimate place, where poetry and plays were performed and the audience on the lower steps were close to the actors. Gradually, as Roman civilisation decayed, the entertainments became more violent and many more levels of seating were added to cater for bigger crowds. The ‘stage’ was enlarged by removing layers at the bottom until there was a large drop in front of the first row of seating – so that the blood of wild animals and human victims could not splash the audience. The archaeologist was explaining that this was evidence in stone of the Roman ‘blood and circuses’ policy of appeasing an ignorant populace with ever more crude and violent diversions.

I have long felt that, despite our prosperity, our civilisation is also in a declining stage and your work seems to me to provide a powerful biological explanation for what’s happening.

PENMAN: Yes, I believe it does. I made a study of the rise and fall of Rome, as I describe in my books, and there are clear parallels.

TYRRELL: I particularly wanted to talk with you because your work seems to add another dimension to our work, which is to do with the innate givens of human nature.

PENMAN: That’s interesting. In what way?

TYRRELL: We have developed an effective biopsychosocial model of psychotherapy, built on the observation that we have innate physical and emotional needs that have to be met in the environment if we are to flourish. The drive to get our innate needs met is what motivates us. When we get our innate needs met in a balanced way we cannot be mentally unwell. But our culture is making it harder for us to do this, and so mental health problems are increasing, particularly among the young.

What you have added, I think, is another dimension: the biological element of why temperaments in cultures change over time, which, in turn, impacts on mental health and the ability of many individuals to get innate emotional needs met most fruitfully. Could you sum up for us what biohistory is.

PENMAN: Sure, Ivan. Biohistory is the study of the biological roots of human social behaviour, explaining the outbreak of wars, economic growth and decline, and different styles of government. It proposes that such events reflect changes in the prevailing temperament of the population, which, in turn, is rooted in epigenetics – which explains how the expression of genes is affected by environmental influences and how this expression can be passed on down the generations, influencing hormones and brain activity and how we think, feel and behave.

I use the letter C (standing for civilisation) to refer to the array of behavioural and physiological traits that are triggered by chronic food shortage and which help people and animals adapt to such environments. For example, it makes them harder working and rather more impersonal. Human societies have learned to increase C artificially, thus adapting people to the needs of agriculture and civilisation.

TYRRELL: Your approach is very different from the unstated assumption in most historical and economic writing that, at the basic emotional level, people are the same; and thus, if political and economic shifts take place, these must be because of environmental factors, such as changes in political institutions and relationships with neighbouring powers, and so forth. But, as we know, a great deal of recent work in the biological sciences suggests that people differ markedly in their basic emotional make-up as a result of early life experience.

PENMAN: Absolutely. For example, animal and human studies show that experiencing maternal neglect or severe stress in childhood has profound effects on attitudes and behaviour. These effects are epigenetic in origin, which means they have a permanent impact on the activity of certain genes. We also know that parental behaviour in each culture changes greatly over time. Roman parents in the early republic were strict, compared with their far more moderate and lax descendants in the late republic and early empire. And parents today are far more lenient, compared with our great, great grandparents, whose children were meant to be seen and not heard. Deep-rooted emotional differences have a profound impact on attitudes to politics. A change in temperament over time is not only plausible, but to be expected.

TYRRELL: As I understand it, you are saying that civilisation, C, arises because of a physiological system in mammals that adjusts behaviour to conditions where food is limited. So, to survive, our ancestors evolved to delay breeding, live in cooperative groups, be monogamous, take good care of children and actively search for food, even when not actually hungry.

PENMAN: Yes, and to be intolerant of any outsiders who could threaten the food supply. These C tendencies are increased by chronic mild food shortage or ritualistic controls over impulsive behaviours, especially sexual activity.

TYRRELL: So these behavioural C characteristics that arise in such circumstances include the ability to work hard, be self-disciplined, and have a willingness to sacrifice present consumption for future benefit – delayed gratification. All necessary for civilisation to develop.

PENMAN: Yes. For this to work, people do not even need to be hungry. Human societies, by a process of trial and error, developed cultural practices like periodic fasting that mimic the physiological effects of hunger. Thus we can act and think like hungry primates, even though we are not actually short of food.

TYRRELL: You call factors such as food shortage and placing limits on sexual behaviour C promoters, and these have more lasting effects when adopted in childhood and adolescence, rather than in later life. As you explain fully in the book, ‘infant C’ arises from the strict behaviour control of toddlers and young children, which leads to independent thinking, hereditary loyalties, preference for rulers who are similar to us in language and culture, the valuing of honesty, and also loyalty to abstract institutions like the rule of law. You describe ‘adult C’ as arising from sexual restraint and other influences after puberty that promote hard work, such as fasting and self-discipline and, especially, love of children and religious commitment.

PENMAN: Cross-cultural studies show that high C family patterns, where people are likely to restrict their sexual behaviour, form nuclear, monogamous families, delay breeding and control their children, are associated with larger states, more advanced economies, and greater technological and scientific innovation. Cultures that exert early control over children, raising ‘infant C’, are less corrupt and more democratic, and also tend to be good with machines and industrial development. This was the temperament characteristic of northern Europe during the Industrial Revolution, when control of infants was the tightest it has ever been.

TYRRELL: You also talk about a system that you call V, standing for vigour.

PENMAN: Vigour is another physiological system in mammals, and can best be described as a stress reaction system that is finely tuned and effective. The best animal example of high C is gibbons, because they are adapted to an environment where food is always scarce. For V the best example is baboons, where it adjusts behaviour to conditions where food is generally available but severe stress can ensue from sudden famine or predator attack. V behaviours include aggression, strong group cohesion, confidence and morale, intolerance of crowding and confidence to migrate, to escape dangers. Such cultures are strongly authoritarian. In humans, vigour is promoted by authority and especially punishment in late childhood, inclining children to accept traditional thinking, including sexual restraint, and authority from then on. I am not saying it is desirable, but patriarchal societies in which men dominate women are more aggressive, both internally and in competition with neighbours. Patriarchy and punishing older children promote V.

Many people think that all stress is the same, but it is not. Chronic stress tends to weaken the stress reaction system and thus undermines V, but intermittent stress strengthens the stress reaction system and thus increases V. An important aspect of V is that it also increases C, especially when populations are relatively dense, while high C (especially ‘infant C’) tends to undermine V.

It is these links which help explain the rise and fall of civilisations. It starts with low C, as in Europe during the Dark Ages, which allows V to rise. High V in turn causes C to rise, causing the society to become more unified and advanced. Eventually V reaches a peak, which in Europe and Japan came in the 16th century, when punishments were unusually harsh. Then rising C causes V to start falling, but C continues to rise – in Europe, until the 19th century. Eventually, falling V and increased wealth cause C to start dropping, which eventually destroys the civilisations. This is what happened to Rome, and is happening to us. Part of this process is the decline of traditional religions, which tend to be powerful C- and V-promoters.

TYRRELL: Why do you say religions are C- and V promoters?

PENMAN: Because they reinforce behaviours such as chastity, fasting, Sabbath keeping and patriarchy, which support V and C. When falling V and C cause people to turn away from traditional religion, the decline in V and C accelerates.

TYRRELL: The great value of religions in their formative stages was that they took a ‘drill sergeant’ approach to backward primitive populations and knocked them into shape by bullying and frightening them into obedience. Once pacified, they could be conditioned and entertained enough to keep them from regressing to a more primitive state. That was the role and great value of religions: to establish cooperative, more peaceful and longer-lived societies. They change, as you say, people’s temperaments – although, clearly, the inspirers and founders of all religions went beyond that and accessed knowledge directly.

We tend to see success in terms of wealth and prosperity but, in the end, success is about survival and how many children you have.

PENMAN: At the extreme, civilisation causes people to be more impersonal in their outlook, and thus more likely to support government by laws and institutions, such as a republic, rather than be ruled by a charismatic leader.

TYRRELL: It seems rather complicated and difficult to grasp at first, but I found the three short films on your website made it clear.

PENMAN: I know it sounds complicated when you first hear about it but, in actual fact, biohistory is a straightforward theory that explains an enormous range of events in history. The key to understanding civilisation decline begins with the idea that the economic, political, military and cultural make-up of a country is largely determined by the underlying emotional and psychological nature of the population within it. My research suggests that this basic temperament changes over time and is linked to our response to stress, and this process can be understood as the primary reason for significant change within a society.

Take, for instance, the mammalian mechanism which we call ‘the lemming cycle’ in wild mammals, because it is easy to see it played out in their case. About every four years, lemmings have a massive population boom that forces them to migrate en masse in a desperate search of food. Most of them die of starvation. Then the cycle repeats. In humans, these cycles normally last around 300 years but lengthen in the dark ages that follow the collapse of a civilisation. They explain a whole lot of things like why the Black Death hit when it did. They explain the Wars of the Roses; the reasons Chinese dynasties collapsed; the Chinese warlord era; why people in the late Middle Ages became more conservative, and a whole stack more. All these events fit into a precise historical pattern that is absolutely universal. For example, periods of chaos like the Wars of the Roses occur almost exactly 90 years before the mid-point of periods of maximum population growth. Major wars such as the First World War break out almost exactly after a peak of population growth, such as occurred in Germany and Russia during the 1890s.

There is a whole stack of different patterns that you can see throughout history. Lemming cycles are just one example of them. There are different patterns to explain bursts of extraordinary creativity in ancient Greece, and in India and China at about the same time.

TYRRELL: I know. It’s astonishing to look back on. My colleague Joe Griffin and I wrote a book called Godhead: the brain’s big bang, an attempt to show the origin, about 40,000 years ago, of creativity, mysticism and mental illness, and how they are all interlinked. We wrote about the Axial Age and how, although there is no evidence of any extensive intercommunication between ancient Greece, the Middle East, India and China, nevertheless, simultaneously, Greek philosophy, wisdom schools, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism and Taoism burst upon the scene. And, during that time, the sacred texts of Hinduism were first codified and Judaism’s teachings written down. There was clearly a heightened quest for the meaning of human existence underway that gave rise to a tradition of travelling seekers, scholars and teachers, roaming from city to city, exchanging ideas.

PENMAN: Yes, all that creativity happened – yet the societies that produced it and that were so creative early on soon degenerated, just as ours seems to be doing.

TYRRELL: One of the many statements in your book that jumped out at me was, “Wealthy civilisations bear the seeds of their own collapse”. Could you elaborate…?

PENMAN: It’s such a common pattern in history, isn’t it? When any civilisation becomes wealthy, corruption and urban decline follow.

TYRRELL: It always happens: ancient Mesopotamia; ancient Egypt; India; China; Greece; Rome; Japan; medieval Europe; the Dutch and Spanish empires. More recently the Ottoman Empire, which was around in my grandfather’s day, and, since then, the collapse of the British Empire and the Soviet Union – and now we’re witnessing the slow-motion car crash of another ‘empire’: the European Union.

PENMAN: Today our environment is telling us that food is no longer scarce and so we’re losing the temperament that inclines us to work. That’s why so many things are going wrong. In the West, the economy is stagnant, for example. Any businessman knows that many youngsters have less of a work ethic than we did even a few decades ago. Most people think that our prosperous economy is going to continue forever, but it won’t.

You can also see the decline reflected in attitudes to politics. This scarcity mentality that’s driven by our physiology and epigenetics is associated with respect for impersonal values like democracy, law and authority, and we are losing that. The result is that there is more and more cynicism about politicians and government. As people become more cynical about the government, they tend to follow any leader who promises to give them whatever they want. It happened, for instance, when the Roman general, Sulla, marched on Rome in 90BC. Even though it was illegal to do so, his soldiers followed him because of what he promised them. Once in power, he became a dictator and began a series of bloody purges. It took a few decades for the Republic to be formally buried but, as soon as people start to say, “I no longer believe in the institutions and principles of representative government; I’m going to follow any person who promises to give me what I want,” then democracy comes to an end. That will happen to western civilisation, possibly even in our lifetime.

TYRRELL: You talk about other things that are associated with decline – a rise in infectious disease, for example.

PENMAN: Rates of TB and rickets are going up. The civilised temperament actually gives us a certain degree of immunity to disease and we are losing that too. There is moral decay and corruption everywhere you look these days. Decline in the birth rate is another example. The C temperament fostered by scarcity is associated with liking children but, as people lose this temperament, there is less and less interest in having children. We can’t even replace ourselves. It is the refugees and immigrants from highly stressed countries that are breeding prolifically, not the native Europeans, Americans and Australians. It’s natural for them to do that. You don’t do that when you’re comfortable. We tend to see success in terms of wealth and prosperity, etc, but, in the end, success is about survival and about how many children you have.

TYRRELL: So struggle is good for our health and sanity. The welfare state, although necessary for looking after genuinely vulnerable people, could be seen as undermining that.

PENMAN: People think you can change society just by changing the laws. But laws reflect the people. The welfare state is effect as much as cause. You really have to get to the core of a problem, which comes down to individual people. Governments have far less power than most of us think. The emperor Augustus was an extraordinarily powerful man, far more powerful in his age than anyone is nowadays. He could see the problems going on with Rome, the falling birth rate and the degenerate luxury of the upper class. He tried to stop it, but he couldn’t do a thing about it, despite all his power. People think that governments are the solution to problems, but they’re not. They’re no more than corks bobbing on the waves, whereas what matters is what lies underneath: the attitudes of ordinary people.

TYRRELL: That may be true in some instances but, if you consider the Iraq war as an example, there was a strong public voice in the UK against invasion, yet the politicians took us there anyway, despite all the advice that they shouldn’t do so.

PENMAN: That all made me so angry. From a biohistory perspective, governments reflect people. Most people think that a country’s population reflects its government and that, if you overthrow a cruel dictator and give a population freedom, you will suddenly have democracy again. Biohistory says no, the government reflects the people, so, if a brutal dictator is in power, it is because people accept that kind of harsh and intimidating leadership. If you get rid of a tyrant, you are either going to get another arising in his place or anarchy. That is why the Iraq war was such a stupid, stupid thing! It was clear it would turn out as it has. Look what is happening in Syria right now. The underlying temperament of Middle Eastern people does not support freedom and democracy. It’s not about intelligence; it’s about biologically determined temperament.

TYRRELL: In Biohistory you talk a lot about different styles of upbringing, in particular the extent to which parents punish or discipline their children at different ages and how this explains what’s happening in the Middle East, where classic child raising involves the extreme indulgence of small children and the imposition of severe discipline only after the age of five or six. I have Middle Eastern friends – Jews, Arabs, Lebanese – who recognise this as common. They also talk about how easily strong emotions are triggered in Middle Eastern countries and how, when this happens, people become intransigent. High emotional arousal, of course, makes anyone stupid and then they won’t back down. The upbringing of infants in the Middle East, you say, causes them to accept tyrants. Can you elaborate on that?

PENMAN: Yes, it means that a strong degree of fear is needed for effective ruling of stressed societies. Without a powerful, brutal leader in such societies, people will tend to rebel and start a civil war. By contrast, when children are well controlled and well directed from the youngest possible age, they tend to become skilled economically and develop good business skills.

As I mentioned earlier, it is no coincidence that the industrial revolution came out of a period in 19th century northern Europe in which the treatment of infants was the most tightly controlled of any society in world history. There is no precedent for it. I believe it is exactly that control of young children, and especially infants, that created the Industrial Revolution, and the wealth that came with it. It is also why the Japanese did so well for a time. Their system of bringing up young children also involved control at a very early age. They had the same engineering, economic abilities that Europeans used to have but are losing. The Arabs never had it.

TYRRELL: From my reading of history, though, a lot of the inspiration for the development of Europe actually came from Muslim countries – Islamic science and medicine and philosophy and so on. The deficiency in Muslim science and technology today is particularly intriguing, given that Muslims were world leaders in science and technology a millennium ago. They made significant progress in such areas as medicine, psychotherapy, agronomy, botany, mathematics, chemistry, and optics, and vied with the Chinese for intellectual and scientific leadership, while Christian Europe lagged far behind. But now they have lost their way. So, to accord with your thinking, there must have been a time in their heyday when they started to indulge their children more and lose the habit of infant discipline, just as we are doing today. We are losing our selfconfidence.

PENMAN: Muslim lands were intellectual leaders at one time, but their technological skills and creativity were never at the levels of, say, ancient Greece or the modern West. Most people still lived in abject poverty – subsistence peasants, though with new Muslim masters.

We’ve got a choice of vastly different futures – to go back to superstition, ignorance and poverty or towards a world that can achieve so much more than anything achieved to date.

TYRRELL: Well, there have always been subsistence peasants and poor urban workers and slaves. Given the huge growth in the world’s population, there must be more now than ever before. But the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam, I think, evolved many of the arts and sciences beyond that of ancient Greece because they valued Greek knowledge, and that of other cultures they absorbed, and were building on those previous achievements. It seems to me Islamic civilisation rose and fell just like earlier ones.

But let’s return to the decline of the West. Another sign of distress in our modern age is, I think, that, despite billions being spent by governments and drug companies trying to deal with mental health issues, they’re still getting worse. There are astonishingly high levels of anxiety and depression in Western countries. A third of all young women in the UK are said to be deeply anxious to a clinically serious degree – well, that’s a hell of a lot of people. Substance abuse is a huge problem now. Supplying alcohol and drugs are multi-billion pound industries.

PENMAN: Biohistory suggests there may be a new way of alleviating addictions. We are working on it. It is about creating, artificially, the sense of food shortage that people have lost. Some preliminary work we have done shows that rats whose food intake is restricted by about 25 percent become less interested in alcohol (when made available by experimenters), better mothers, more active and hardworking. If we could extract pheromones from people on a food-restricted diet (just as has been done with rats), it should be possible to use them in treatment for these kinds of ailments.

TYRRELL: Why pheromones?

PENMAN: Because they are chemical substances substances that affect the behaviour or physiology of others in the same species.

TYRRELL: You refer to the famous Rat Park experiment, which showed that rats confined in a small cage quickly became addicted to alcohol but, if they were put in an environment ideal for them, where they could get all their rat needs met – Rat Park heaven – they stopped being alcoholic. The same is true with addicts, if you can get their innate needs met in the world. So is it really a solution to go around feeding pheromones to everybody?

PENMAN: I get a lot of resistance to the idea. I’m told we have to change people’s minds, but it is the emotional brain – the amygdala, the hypothalamus – that controls our behaviour. It’s not really a rational business at all. I think that, if we can show we’ve got a really powerful new way to treat addictive behaviour, anxiety, depression and so on – and our initial results already indicate we can do that – I think people will say, “I don’t like what you say but the fact of the matter is that this stuff is helpful”. The interesting thing about biohistory is that it is easily testable.

TYRRELL: That is one of the first things that attracted me about your hypothesis. It is scientifically testable. Plus the fact that one can look back over one’s own lifetime to see if what has happened and is happening fits in with it. For example, the vigour that expressed itself in those of us born of mothers made anxious by bombing during the Second World War, as I was, appeared as a burst of creativity and, later, violence in the 1960s, 20-odd years afterwards. It was an incredibly creative period for just a few short years; in music, the arts and in business, there was vigour. Businesses were starting up by the thousands, in the UK at least. We felt anything was possible. Then, in 1968, it all started to go wrong on the streets of Europe and America, with violent protests and deaths.

The scientific experiments you mentioned, I know you have funded them. Perhaps you could tell us how that was possible for you to do.

PENMAN: The fortunate thing about my situation is that I’ve been quite successful in business, so I can afford to fund academic work, through my company, Jim’s. The umbrella company is called Jim’s Group and we have many different franchise operations – Jim’s Mowing, Jim’s Window Tinting, Jim’s Computer Services, Jim’s Dog Wash, all sorts – and over 3,600 franchisees. They say we are the second best known logo in Australia, after McDonalds. You only have to drive down a street in Australia and you’ll see Jim’s vans and cars all over the place. We are everywhere.

It’s a wonderful thing to have the money to pour into research. I did my PhD on the rise and fall of civilisations back in the late 70s, early 80s, and I knew I needed to do this science to support what I was seeing, but there was no way I could get the money, so I just started mowing lawns and eventually built up a business that could fund the whole project. As our income rises we put more into it. I used to put in a quarter of a million dollars a year, and now it is more like a million. Down the track a bit, I hope it will become two or three million dollars a year. What made it possible was being an unorthodox thinker, which is a bad thing to be in academia but, in business, was very helpful.

TYRRELL: Something you have done, which not many authors do, is to list in your book hundreds of potential research programmes for universities to get their teeth into.

PENMAN: All I’m doing is saying, check me out and here is some funding to enable you to do it. We are doing a whole series of experiments to work out the epigenetic changes associated with scarcity. Once we have figured out what they are, then we can use gene-editing techniques like CRISPR to make both genetic and precise epigenetic changes, to turn things around. So someone might have terrible anxiety and depression and you give them a treatment that actually reverses the bad aspects of their upbringing and suddenly they have confidence and high morale, become better husbands and wives, better neighbours, better citizens.

TYRRELL: We are having a lot of success transforming lives by using certain psychotherapeutic techniques, including getting people to use their imaginations in hypnotic trance to see their lives differently. We explain to patients that worrying about innate needs being met is what causes depression, and they wake up tired because the worrying is causing them to dream excessively. We explain to addicts that addiction is caused by a hijack of the brain’s learning process. We have great success with addiction, anxiety disorders, depression and PTSD and so
on, by using hands-on techniques coupled with psychoeducation.

PENMAN: And you should keep on doing that! If we understood the physiological side and we put those two together, you’d find they would reinforce each other. Our biohistory website would interest anyone curious about these ideas. We are offering a lot of material for free, including audio versions and videos. I’m not interested in making money out of this, just in encouraging people to do the research and test the ideas out. This is science! I think we’ll find it is correct and then we can start to make changes. There is a hope that we can do better.

TYRRELL: Oh, I think we can. I like your idea that we have to consider the changing temperaments that have affected an individual’s parents’ parents and grandparents and the kinds of cultural influences that have changed the person in front of us now. I think that is really an important thing for therapists and teachers and doctors and lawyers to know – everyone needs to bear these things in mind.

PENMAN: I’ve had my IT people create a programme using the principles of biohistory to model the rise and fall of different cultures. It’s a map of the world where you can describe the population changes with equations, a realistic model of human history, and I hope to get people around the world involved in developing it.

Soon I will have my own institute to teach psychology. We will be licensed to take psychology students in a few months’ time. And we are going to start a major research programme involving PhD and Masters students, and expand the research programme quite dramatically. In a certain sense, what I am talking about seems radical to people but, if you actually talk to evolutionary psychologists, for example, it is pretty mainstream – the idea that people adapt to the environment and that their character and their behaviour change as a way of adapting to it. Professor Paolini, who has been running the rat experiments for me, looked at my book and said, yes, that makes sense. He was amazingly calm about the whole thing, even though it is so revolutionary to most people. To those who are working at the hard edge of science it is really not that strange to their thinking.

TYRRELL: All scientific advances are made by simplifying complex amounts of information into a better explanation of all of them combined.

PENMAN: That is what science is all about – developing elegant, simple ideas to explain complex data through testable experiments.

TYRRELL: We call such insights ‘organising ideas’, because they organise a vast amount of information and bring it together in a way that you can approach more objectively. Yours is an organising idea and my intuition and thinking about it tell me that it is a really valuable one. In Godhead, we suggest that knowledge is drawn into human beings from a greater dimension, somehow. From your work it seems that, given a certain degree of stability and civilisation, some people can access more possibilities for the human mind and spirit, as it were, to find out more about how the universe works and to connect up to it, rather than just try to impose our will on it in the selfish service of our greed.

PENMAN: It is exciting. I can’t wait to do more experiments and get more results out. Because you can’t get anywhere through political change, as I have explained. To me, we couldn’t be living in a more extraordinary time – a pivotal moment in human history. We’ve got a choice of vastly different futures – to go back to superstition, ignorance and poverty or to go towards a world that can achieve so much more than anything achieved to date. We can make that decision. Truly, we are standing at the fulcrum of history.


Jim Penman, author of the Biohistory titles, obtained a PhD in history from La Trobe University, Australia. His doctorate integrated broad historical changes with crosscultural anthropology and aspects of animal behaviour. More recent work focuses on biochemistry and the emerging field of epigenetics.He created the biohistory research programme in 2007, now The Biohistory Foundation. Additional support has been provided by the Australian Research Council, La Trobe University, RMIT University and the Howard Florey institute.

To date, Dr Penman has co-authored 10 peer-reviewed papers in leading journals including Behavioral Brain Research and Physiology and Behavior. Findings so far include a method of dramatically improving the maternal behaviour of rats, with far-reaching effects on offspring. His website contains useful information and videos, a programme to model world history, and downloadable copies of his books.


This article first appeared in:  Human Givens Journal Volume 23, No.2 – 2016

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