Reading the Dawn of Everything

I’ve spent the last week getting back into David Graeber and David Wengrow’s book, The Dawn of Everything. It’s challenging to summarize such a complex project, but basically they are presenting a re-reading of archaeological and anthropological evidence to re-write an overly simplified (and politically stultifying, they think) version of human pre-history.

The sort of stage theory reading of human social evolution that is still popularized in works such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel or Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (among others attempting to write “big history” — think Pinker, Fukuyama, etc.) originated, say Graeber and Wendrow, in the European Enlightenment as a result, in fact, of European intellectuals’ interaction with reports coming back from the Americas, which presented to them a whole new world.

Hobbes and Rousseau set up the two paradigmatic Enlightenment political theorists who discuss what happens when human societies and political systems inevitably evolve from an early “state of nature”: whether it’s “nasty, brutish, and short” (says Hobbes); OR free and innocent, the life of the so-called “noble savage” (says Rousseau, at least by reputation). Rousseau, it turns out, was originally writing a contest essay that asked about the origins of social inequality — in an age when no European probably would have thought even to ask that question, until confronted by the vast differences of human society that were being newly discovered on the other side of the Atlantic.

The point of Graeber and Wengrow re-writing a vastly overly-simplified stage theory of human evolution: i.e. that we evolved from egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers, to the discovery of agriculture, to building cities and “civilizations” (the word civilization is from the same root as city, the Latin civitas), to originating “the state” — is primarily to provoke greater political imagination on the part of contemporary humans, many of whom feel “stuck” in the modern day political institutions of the nation-state, under which every human has to live today.

I’m not qualified to judge any of G & W’s use of the archaeological or anthropological evidence they muster, or the specific historical case they make for the influence of native American critiques (the “indigenous critique”) on European social thought — which resulted in the “Enlightened” political philosophical inquiries of thinkers like Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Montesquieu, and right up to our own day. I’m not an intellectual historian. But I want to take what philosophical lessons I can from their creative refashioning of the narrative, as well as offer my own modest response as things strike me. I’d also like to engage with some of the meatier reviews of the book to see what other thinkers are finding.

From this [follow-up piece at the Guardian](, well worth reading in its entirety, a first major question I have is already summarized nicely, along with the response from Wengrow himself.

The lessons to be learned, [Wengrow] believes, are not about the effects of the agricultural revolution or urban revolution, or the origins of inequality or the state. What matters is the diminishing political imagination, the freedom to rethink the social order.

Put like that, it sounds uncontentious. But can a world of 7 billion people, striving for an improved material life, reasonably expect to enjoy the freedoms enjoyed by the relatively tiny number of our ancestors dotted around the planet tens of thousands of years ago? When all is said and done, is that feasible?

“I guess my response to that question,” says Wengrow, “would be to point out that what we’ve got now is not feasible. If we carry on like this, we will probably not be here.”

~ from “I’m certainly open to criticism,” as reported by Andrew Anthony

What matters is diminishing political imagination, and freedom to think about our ever-evolving social order. The Dawn of Everything is a stimulating force to re-inject life into our political imaginations, and on that level it succeeds remarkably well.

And yet, can a world of 7 billion people (now 8 billion), gradually achieving middle class standards of living, reasonably expect to be able to live like a tiny number of our ancestors did? Especially like they did in North America, where they inhabited a wide-open continent full of resources and were freely able to move where they liked, reject the authority of any political power they didn’t like, and experiment with a wide range of social arrangements? (These are G & W’s three basic kinds of freedom.)

Wengrow aptly responds that, well, not re-thinking how 8 billion of us can live as we currently do is also not feasible. So we have all the more reason to creatively cultivate our political imaginations — to move forward, not backward.