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A thrilling intellectual history and group biography that explores the origins of modern neuroscience at the turn of the twentieth century.

How did the human brain evolve? Why did it evolve as it did? What is man’s place in evolution? In the final decades of the nineteenth century, these questions began to occupy scientists. With Darwin’s theory of evolution now accepted, modern neuroscience began.

Headhunters traces the intellectual journey of four men who met at Cambridge in the 1890s and whose lives interlinked for the next three decades – William Rivers, Grafton Elliot Smith, Charles Myers and William McDougall. It follows their voyages of discovery, taking the reader from anthropological field studies in Melanesia and archaeological excavations in Egypt to the psychiatric wards of the First World War. Their work ranged across fields that today carry a variety of labels – neurology, psychology, psychiatry, zoology – but which for these men formed part of the same enquiry: the search for a science of the mind.

A narrative-driven work of intellectual history and a compelling biographical study, Headhunters explores the big ideas about the brain, the nervous system and man’s place in history. In the process the book reveals how science actually works – the passions, the irrational flashes, the moments of insight; the big ideas that work – and the big ideas that turn out to be wrong. Acclaimed historian Ben Shephard takes the reader on an extraordinary intellectual journey – and arrives at some very modern destinations.


Arrestingly original and beautifully written

John Gray, Literary Review

Studious and fascinating… A smart, enjoyable book

Doug Johnstone, Big Issue

Fascinating and instructive… This is an excellent and subtle book – part biography, part intellectual history – that tells us about the difficulties of trying to understand ourselves

Henry Marsh, The Times

A rich and stimulating account of the first truly modern attempt to understand the mysteries of the mind

Orlando Bird, Financial Times

The book gives a powerful sense of human science being forged

Charlotte Sleigh, BBC History Magazine

A stimulating and intellectual biography of a group of scholars

Jonathan Eaton, Times Higher Education

An entertaining elegy for an era that has vanished... An era in which smart, ambitious scientists could cross disciplines with greater ease than they could cross oceans. For most modern scientists it is now the other way round


Lively and engaging... An important account of the first steps towards the creation of a science of the mind

Chris Nancollas, Tablet

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Formats & editions

  • EBook


    June 5, 2014

    Vintage Digital

    336 pages

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  • Paperback


    June 15, 2015


    336 pages

    RRP $40.00

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