The Dawn of Everything

David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Mankind is a tour de force and intellectual feast. I finally finished it over the holidays. There are many write-ups on the book out there, but I add my short one below for the record.

The two authors do nothing less than rewrite the history of mankind, with Graeber covering the anthropological side and Wengrow all things archeological. I came to the book via my familiarity with Graeber, having read his Utopia of Rules and Bullshit Jobs. I still have his tome on debt with a bookmark stuck in the introduction, but I hope to finish it in 2023, too.

The Dawn of Everything is throwing into question centuries of received wisdom on human development, and with it the determinism that our current system, while imperfect, is the best we can achieve. It is an ode to humankind and the infinite ways we can live together. It prompts us to dismiss grand social theories about our allegedly linear, staged development.

Central to this common intellectual edifice dominating the social sciences is the European enlightenment, including Rosseau’s idealized view of hunter-gatherers as living in an egalitarian world. Then, so the theory goes, came agriculture, and with the surplus generated, administration and hierarchies popped up in now fast-growing societies, which became increasingly urban.

While the loss of the earlier childlike innocence is lamentable, there is really nothing we can do if we accept human development as occurring in stages. We can tinker with problems (“inequalities” being the most prominent example), but there is really no alternative the status quo.

Hobbes presents an even gloomier picture: Our default state is not childlike innocence at all, but unconstrained selfishness. The transition from “pre-history” to “history” was therefore a process of taming our base instincts by means of authority, rules and other inventions deemed inevitable for human development.

The authors find evidence from throughout history and around the world that these two views are wrong, have dire political consequences, and make the past “needlessly dull”. In fact, archeological findings and their modern interpretation leave us only to conclude that our present system is by no means a natural outcome of social evolution and that there is no “big picture” of history, at least along theoretical lines we thought were sacrosanct.

Our ancestors were not living in generic hunter-gatherer societies but in fact experimented with a litany of social systems. For this the authors take us on a tour de force of an indigenous critique of European views of social evolution, before they proceed chronologically first from the Ice Age (where our ancestors were not just “our cognitive equals, but our intellectual peers”) toward other “prehistoric” societies which saw actually saw the emergence of culture and institutions normally associated with later stages.

The authors introduce “schismogenesis”, an intuitive concept to describe social evolution: It describes the development of a society in conscious opposition to another entity (a popular example being Athens and Sparta, but many better examples are now known from ancient history).

There is thus nothing inevitable about the emergence of certain modes of organization, they almost always involve active choices by people, often borne out of deliberation, discussion and conscious reflection.

By most accounts, the watershed moment for humans is held to be the advent of agriculture. Graeber and Wengrow show that this was in fact no “revolution”, but often a playful and at times extremely drawn out process of complementing pre-existing modes of subsistence. Many cultures indeed actively rejected the domestication of crops, or cattle, or both.

When they began to be cultivated and domesticated, they was also no spontaneous emergence of property rights and administrative structures. These existed long before and in settings much at odds with the stage-like development model of humans permeating the social sciences.

Neither were cities an inevitable consequence of agriculture, and a prerequisite for the emergence of states. On the formation of the latter, the authors suggest that sovereignty, bureaucracy and competitive politics are not bound to emerge in any given order, providing examples from Middle and South America and Mesopotamia. They also offer a re-reading of ancient Egyptian history.

Toward the end of the book, the authors go into more detail establishing Middle, South and North American history as a real alternative path taken by mankind. This is important because during most of human development here, it took place free from outside, Eurasian, influences, and arrived at a huge variety of modes of social organization, some resembling and even foreboding outcomes in other parts of the world, others charting completely new territory. Some of this “vernacular” was fed back in idea form to the European enlightenment.

The conclusion offers a profound call to not accept our developmental stasis and be optimistic that better forms of cohabitating on this planet are possible, thus reject that most alternative futures end up as dystopian phantasies.

We need to think deeply about language, and the implicit values words like “freedom”, “civilization” and “family” entail. The authors’ definition of “freedom” for example, i.e. an individual’s freedom to move, to disobey, and to come up with new forms of social organization, has huge political implications.

It is at odds with our current political setup, perhaps most strikingly with our Roman-inspired property rights regime that is perhaps the most important feature of liberal capitalism.

There are countless elements in this book that are so profound and throw up so many questions that this book is nothing short of being iconoclastic. A litany of reviews by people that have greatly inspired me during the last few years are perhaps the best testament to that (Amitav Ghosh and Pankaj Mishra being among them).

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