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Gregory Hanlon, university research professor

A day in the life

Gregory Hanlon, university research professor

Gregory_Hanlon_Archive portrait 2-crop_(2)

When students learn that their instincts are, by and large, identical to those of people living in 17th-century Europe, it gives them perspective—which is what history is.

Looking at evolution to understand European history


Gregory Hanlon has been teaching in Dalhousie’s History Department since 1989. But his approach to teaching and research goes back to European—specifically, French—traditions, which may explain his recent cross-appointment to the European Studies program.

Dr. Hanlon’s research methodology takes “a continental European approach,” he explains, “with the idea that history is based on documents that allow you to get very close to people in the past.”

To that end, he relies on archival rather than “literary” versions of history, which he says is frowned upon in France. “In a literary approach, authors use their imaginations, even when they’re trying not to,” Dr. Hanlon explains. “They don’t tend to measure things in a controlled manner, which is the crux of what I do.”

Aside from his own French education, he’s lived a third of his adult life in France and Italy, investigating the lives of the villagers whose 17-th century ancestors he was researching.

For one project, Dr. Hanlon stayed in Layrac, a small town in southwestern France. More recently, he was in Montefollonico in southern Tuscany, where he surveyed “the way people governed themselves and got along with neighbours, and their reproductive behaviour.”

In fact, behaviour is crucial to Dr. Hanlon’s perspective on history, which makes him unusual among historians, for now. He is a “behavioural historian,” and in his research, he considers “everything from evolutionary psychology and primatology to social psychology and classical sociology,” he explains. “I work from the assumption that humans are animals packed with instincts, and that cultural history alone is inadequate for understanding past behaviour.”

“People’s sense of what is right and wrong goes back to the higher primates,” Dr. Hanlon elaborates. “They’re eerily similar to humans in their views of what’s right and wrong, or fair and unfair. Our laws are just the codification of our instincts.”

Dr. Hanlon teaches a first-year survey course about Early Modern Europe. “First-year students are fun,” he says. “Grading is the only real work.”

But how does he make 17th-century Europe relevant to students? “You could ask, why study any period of history at all? Because they all count toward the existence of the present, and understanding contexts and how they change," he explains. "And the 17th century is remote enough that it appears exotic to our eyes today.”

Photo: Brad Meredith