Friday, January 21, 2022

Review: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

From The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Open quote Once upon a time, the story goes, we were hunter-gatherers, living in a prolonged state of childlike innocence, in tiny bands. These bands were egalitarian; they could be for the very reason that they were so small. It was only after the ‘Agricultural Revolution’, and then still more the rise of cities, that this happy condition came to an end, ushering in ‘civilization’ and ‘the state’ — which also meant the appearance of written literature, science and philosophy, but at the same time, almost everything bad in human life: patriarchy, standing armies, mass executions and annoying bureaucrats demanding that we spend much of our lives filling in forms." Dawn of Everything

The subtitle of this huge work is "A New History of Humanity" and as the name implies, Graeber and Wengrow range over the whole planet and tens of thousands of years. In the process they challenge the almost universal assumptions of humanity's social evolution. No one will be able to write another "big history" book without addressing the questions raised here.

Grade: B-

The standard narrative for human social evolution goes something like this. About ten thousand years ago, agriculture was invented in the Fertile Crescent. That allowed for the accumulation of excess food supplies. That resulted in population growth. That brought about the development of cities. That brought with it specialization of occupations in architecture, engineering, art, and philosophy. The standard narrative lays this all out as if it's an inevitable timeline. Kick things off by planting wheat in Mesopotamia and ten thousand years later you'll get New York City.

Graeber and Wengrow reject all that. There was nothing inevitable. There wasn't even a single path social development took. There were cases of civilizations consciously retreating from that presumed timeline. There was "schismogenesis," or people's tendency to define themselves against one another, leading adjacent civilizations to make very different choices in culture.

Graeber and Wengrow question even the beginnings of all this. There's no reason to believe that human societies before the advent of farming were all composed of small hunting and foraging bands. They present recent archaeological evidence that shows that "the world of hunter-gatherers as it existed before the coming of agriculture was one of bold social experiments, resembling a carnival parade of political forms, far more than it does the drab abstractions of evolutionary theory."

Graeber and Wengrow lay down three forms of social domination — control of violence (through sovereignty), control of knowledge, and charismatic power (through politics) — that civilizations used to arise and grow. But ranging from ancient Egyptians to Mesopotamians to meso-Americans and more, Graeber and Wengrow show that different societies at different times exhibited one or two of these forms of domination, but not all three. And which forms were emphasized changed over time. Graeber and Wengrow argue that these ancient societies were making conscious choices about how to organize themselves.

They spend quite a bit of time on Cahokia, the largest pre-Columbian society in North America. A thousand years ago, Cahokia thrived for hundreds of years, perhaps exceeding the size of London at the time. Then, relatively suddenly, it was abandoned, without explanation by warfare or climate change or any obvious forcing function. Using archaeological evidence, Graeber and Wengrow suggest the inhabitants of Cahokia made a conscious decision to reorganize their society in a smaller, more distributed manner.

Graeber and Wengrow point to a similar change of mind in Toltec Mexico two millennia ago. Its capital of Teohuacan was built around 400 BCE and is marked by huge step pyramids and palaces. Yet, mysteriously, after several hundred years of use, the palaces were abandoned amid development of what looks like high-quality apartments for nearly all of the city's population. If so, this could be a case of a society consciously choosing to reject aristocracy and to adopt egalitarianism instead. This is the exact opposite direction that the standard narrative of social evolution says societies take.

This is a long book. Graebner and Wengrow spend time on many other societies showing how they also don't fit the standard narrative. Perhaps most unexpected, they highlight how indigenous Americans, in conversation with Jesuit priests in early America, explained why they rejected European ideas of how society should be organized. Tantalizingly, they offer several paths by which this so-called "indigenous critique" could have found its way to nascent Enlightenment philosophers in Europe and influenced our way of thinking today, social philosophy that we think of as original to Western civilization. Maybe it's closer to what indigenous people of North America thought than what Europeans at the time thought.

It's ideas like that that make this book provocative. It upsets standard ways of thinking. It offers questions we should be asking instead. Over and over, Graeber and Wengrow identify the unquestioned assumptions behind the usual explanations we're taught about history. Maybe it's time we all should quit taking such assumptions for granted. No one can ever write "big history" anymore without considering the questions raised here.

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