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Unstuck in Deep Time (The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow)

There are several ways to read David Graeber and David Wengrow’s big new book, The Dawn of Everything. (1) You might find in it an anthology of engrossing archaeological discoveries and classic ethnography. Or (2) you might find mainly a big-picture theory of world history — an ambitious synthesis and explanatory framework, which is both a sustained critique and also a competitor for Big Histories like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel or Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Or (3) you might see it more in terms of an analytical toolkit and philosophical dialogue, an extended effort to introduce anthropological concepts and philosophical reflections on the diversity of human societies with copious empirical illustrations drawn from prehistory and the early history of civilization.

This decade-long collaboration includes all of those. Graeber, an anthropologist, is known for a brilliantly prolific series of wide-ranging publications, including Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Wengrow, an archaeologist, specializes in the Near East, North Africa and the role of long-distance exchange and cultural borrowing for early cities. They tell a boldly original story, combining intellectual history, cultural anthropology and a global survey of recent archaeology. But first they must dispose of a popular fable — a Simple Story about human evolution and the origins of civilization. I lay this out in my review of the book, in the June 2022 print issue of Reason; if you’re a subscriber you may already have seen it. If you’re not, it’s now online:

Shared Article from Reason.com

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

Early cities' concentrated populations and burgeoning scale didn't spontaneously summon pharaonic god-kings or bureaucrats

Charles Johnson @ reason.com

There’s a simple story about life before civilization, retold by evolutionary scholars and New York Times bestsellers like Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow summarize it skeptically in their big new book, The Dawn of Everything.

Long ago, the story goes, we were hunter-gatherers, “living… in tiny bands. These bands were egalitarian; they could be for the very reason that they were so small.” We did this for hundreds of thousands of years, until an Agricultural Revolution fed an Urban Revolution, which heralded civilization and states. That meant “the appearance of written literature, science and philosophy,” but also “patriarchy, standing armies, mass executions, and annoying bureaucrats demanding that we spend much of our lives filling in forms.”

Or perhaps, interjects Steven Pinker, those bands weren’t childlike innocents, but brutal and chaotically violent: We shouldn’t regret armies or bureaucrats, but greet them as liberators. Either telling maintains the long arc: We were all one way for so long, until changes came and we were irreversibly another.

. . . Civilization, [the Simple Story] argued, posed a tragic dilemma: wild, childish freedom or mature, comfortable confinement.

What if that dilemma is an illusion? Dawn’s archaeological chapters slice up the Simple Story’s film-strip progression of evolutionary stages and (pre)historical inevitability. There was no Age of Innocence: Prehistoric people were already smart; their world was already old, with long histories now lost to us. . . .

. . . Early cities’ concentrated populations and burgeoning scale didn’t spontaneously summon pharaonic god-kings or mandarin bureaucrats. Wengrow and Graeber favor recent reinterpretations of the Indus Valley metropolis Mohenjo-daro as organized with no evident palaces, rulers, or institutional government. Bustling cities from Uruk to Teotihuacan seemingly alternated epochs when rulers took hold with centuries when the populace repudiated them.

Again and again, stereotyped stages and origins of social inequality obscure more than they reveal about prehistoric complexity. Dawn shifts focus from equality to fluidity: If human beings, through most of our history, have moved back and forth fluidly between different social arrangements… maybe the real question should be how did we get stuck? … How did we come to treat eminence and subservience not as temporary expedients… but as inescapable elements of the human condition?

— Unstuck in Deep Time (Book Review: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity)
Reason, June 2022.

Read the whole thing at Reason dot com.

Many, many thanks to Jesse Walker for thinking of me to review the book, and for his patience in a slow and sometimes bleary-eyed, underslept process of delivering it — as well as the thoughtful collaboration of Jesse and the other editors of Reason, in the long process of whittling down an awful lot of thoughts on an awfully big book into something that could fit onto two pages of a print magazine.

There are a few things that were pretty important to me on reading the book that I didn’t get the chance to say, or that I could only barely hint at, within the limited space of the printed review. I briefly mention in the review How much trust you place in evocative reconstructions of silent ruins depends on your confidence in the conjectural process of archaeological interpretation. Graeber and Wengrow are forthcoming about that, frequently noting the limitations of the evidence (“Much of this remains speculative…”). But cautionary hedges sometimes vanish when earlier conjectures return to bolster later conclusions. Many interpretations are best read with a cautious eye to possibilities, probabilities, and certainties. Here’s a couple of examples of that. In a chapter on early domestication and the Gardens of Adonis, a thoughtful, carefully hedged passage explores admittedly incomplete lines of evidence for the tentative hypothesis that it might, very often, have been women who were responsible for the accumulation of early agricultural knowledge and experiments with domestication in the Neolithic Fertile Crescent. Late in the book, this returns in the claim that we will never know just who first discovered that you can make bread rise by adding yeasts, but we can be almost certain she was a woman, and would not be considered white if she tried to immigrate to a European country today.[1] In a chapter on early cities, we review some ground-breaking research on a group of 6,000 year old Mega-Site settlements practicing early agriculture on the Ukrainian forest steppes. We are not sure just how many people lived there at a time or whether they lived there year round, but they may have; careful archaeological examination turns up no evidence of central planning or top-down administration, but it is carefully noted that In the absence of written records (or a time machine), three are serious limits to what we can say about the details of kinship or decision-making within these sites. But then as we turn to city organization in old Mesopotamia, we are positively told the Mega-Sites offer us proof that highly egalitarian organization has been possible on an urban scale. This is adduced largely on the strength of the fact that their houses seem to have been arranged in concentric circles — and that arrangement means something very interesting in the moral economy of modern Basque villages, which also happen to be similarly round.[2] There is nothing wrong with speculating here about interesting and suggestive archaeological sites; but I wish that the book’s healthy awareness and careful observations about the limitations of available evidence persisted better throughout the entire exposition.

If Dawn has a real besetting sin, it is not overconfidence but wrath, in particular the impatience with which it attacks other methodologies for studying prehistory, including those of Big History rivals. I mention in my review that I think the book is at its weakest when its authors are most polemical. The early criticism of Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, for example, uncharitably discounts his engagement with paleoanthropological evidence. Pinker’s evidence, which is heavily dependent on Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization (1996), may be out-of-date, oversimplified or bad; but settling the matter it is not simply a matter of Well, you may have one murdered Ice Man, but I’ll show you another who was well cared for, and it is not simply a matter (as is brusquely suggested in the text) of amateur Pinker blundering around without any knowledge of the field or babbling on matters better left to the grown-ups. Nor is Pinker’s use of modern global statistics on human well-being adequately answered by waving it off with the facile suggestion that you can make statistics do whatever you want with the right starting assumptions, and that the better approach is to check a historiographical lit review on Indian captivity narratives. Late in the book they glibly handwave neo-Hobbesian pictures of human history as extremely popular among billionaires but [holding] little appeal to anyone else.[3] I doubt the authors really don’t know anyone else who might genuinely sympathize, out of complacency about modern life, or a deeply jaundiced view of older living conditions. Viewpoints like that are widespread, even if there are deeper subtleties on offer.

I’m elaborating here on some areas where I am critical of the book’s weaknesses, but the review is a pretty strongly positive one. I found The Dawn of Everything an immensely provocative and rewarding book to read. As an archaeological and anthropological anthology, it is fascinating and rewards a curious reader; as a philosophical exploration and synthesis it is thoughtful, questioning exploration and really interestingly and tightly structured in a series of ring compositions that address topics like seasonality, rivalry and schismogenesis, urbanism, technology, and path dependence. If you’re curious about the politics, there’s a lot to interest individualist libertarians in a story of social and economic development that takes human agency seriously as a historical force, does not take the Leviathan state as a necessary or desirable outcome of social complexity or advanced technology, and offers a boldly optimistic brief for Enlightenment ideals of personal freedom within an urbanized global society. If anything, the book’s sharpest blows are against the preoccupations of Primitivists (civilization and technology aren’t harbingers of inevitable domination and ecocide; Dunbar’s Number notwithstanding, the ways people find to manage social scale don’t always orient vertically), of Marxists (human social forms aren’t mechanically determined by modes of production or easily classifiable according to a world-historic revolutionary drama), and of Progressives (the Left should embrace a politics of liberty over and above obsessions with inequality).

The prospect of reviewing The Dawn of Everything necessarily bears a poignant note of saudade — to hold this big book, bursting with exhilarating possibilities and experimental beginnings, while called upon to write it up as David Graeber’s last book. The text was finished less than a month before Graeber’s untimely death in the Fall of 2020; Wengrow’s moving dedication reminisces on how the collaboration grew luxuriantly from a sprawling correspondence that converg[ed] by increments into working drafts of this new history of humankind. It grew in the telling; they realized how much was left to say, and planned to write sequels; no less than three. The book we have is a worthy capstone to Graeber’s work, but so palpably calls for further exploration that I can only hope Wengrow will continue the conversation despite the immeasurable loss of his co-conspirator.

I mentioned three ways you can read this book; you could, I suppose, also set out to read the book (4) as a sort of Anarchist History of Humanity, a sprawling case for the authors’ vocally anti-authoritarian political vision and radical activism. Many reviews, perhaps inevitably, have dwelt on David Graeber’s passionately outspoken anarchism, reading The Dawn of Everything as his last sweeping, world-historical brief for the movement slogan, Another World Is Possible. More than one review essay that started down this road soon ceased to be an essay about the contents of the book at all, and simply pursued the reviewer’s further thoughts about Occupy Wall Street, protest politics, or the practical prospects for Anarchism in the modern world. Now there’s nothing at all wrong with a good book about Anarchism, and Dawn certainly does wear its political buttons on its backpack. I have my own thoughts on those, as I’ve mentioned, but the book is an ambitious work of scholarly synthesis, which should be engaged on at least some level other than purely present-oriented political debate.

And one of the important things to notice about The Dawn of Everything, as a politically engaged book, is how much it does not just cherry-pick prehistory for illustrative examples of the authors’ political preoccupations. Interested as they are in cities without governments, Graeber and Wengrow spend even more time identifying hierarchies, domination and slavery where conventional Simple Stories wouldn’t expect them. This is an enormously ambitious book, evoking the grand ambitions and style of Enlightenment treatises of moral science – from the outrageous scope of the title (Of Everything!), to whimsically elongated section headings.[4] It’s correspondingly an enormous book, with essayistic chapters that bulge in the middle from prolonged tours of excavations and interpretations, digressing into Stoned Ape theories of human evolution, Rousseau’s dabbling in comic opera, and the (alleged) suppression of the Secret Order of the Illuminati.[5] The overarching, avowed project of the book is to open oneself to extreme possibilities and surprising complications, not to use past societies as convenient canvases for anti-authoritarian fables. The book’s most overtly political chapter is its Conclusion; the appeal there is to awake from dogmatic slumbers, to open up to extreme possibilities in the ways humans can devise to live in this old world. They write there that This book began with an appeal to ask better questions about the past and future of humankind.[6] This is an aspiration the book admirably fulfills.

  1. [1]Ch. 5, 237; Ch. 12, 499; emphasis mine.
  2. [2]Ch. 8, 294; 297.
  3. [3]Ch. 12, p. 493.
  4. [4]In Which We Apply Mauss’s Insight to the Pacific Coast and Consider Why Walter Goldschmidt’s Description of Aboriginal Californians as Protestant Foragers, While in Many Ways Absurd, Still Has Something to Tell Us.
  5. [5]Ch. 2, p. 68; see also fnord.
  6. [6]Ch. 12, p. 493.

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