What you need to know
‘The Dawn of Everything’ not only shows that there are alternatives to neoliberal patriarchal settler capitalism. It tells a compelling story of how we “got stuck” where we are now.
David Graeber and David Wengrow. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. xii+692 pp. US$35.
Completed just weeks before , celebrated anarchist anthropologist David Graeber’s latest book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, cowritten with renowned archeologist David Wengrow, is simply put a masterpiece. Upon its publication last year, the bookish corners of the internet were effulgent with praise, from the rarefied of The New Yorker to reader reviews. Notably, the praise stops at that bastion of capitalism, the Wall Street Journal, whose might lead one to think that this is just the prehistory version of Howard Zinn’s left-leaning A People’s History of the United States (1980).
And though it is left-leaning, in the very basic sense that it seeks to overturn conventional wisdom and is therefore unlike most recent “big history” books by people such as Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2012) and Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens, 2014), it aims to do much more than just show the flip side of the coin. In fact, reading it gives one the impression that it may be trying to do too much.
Yet somehow it does everything it says it will. The book’s stated goal is to show how, pace Margaret Thatcher, there are alternatives to neoliberal patriarchal settler capitalism, by disseminating recent archeological and anthropological findings that disprove the standard story of human evolution, which runs linearly from hunter-gatherer bands through tribes and chiefdoms to hierarchical urban civilizations. It also has the secondary goal of asking: Since there are alternatives, and social evolution wasn’t so linear and teleological, then how did we “get stuck” where we are now? But there’s also a third, hidden goal: to present a new framework for understanding societal logics of domination and the freedoms therefrom.
That’s a lot of ground to cover, even for this doorstopper. It’s not faint praise to say that the book succeeds on all counts. On the mythbusting front in particular, the Davids show how notable technological and social inventions, from the wheel and the jar to farming and kings, were first used for fun, ritual, or as a hobby, and only later became adopted as tools and conventions. Turns out necessity is not the mother of invention.
Throughout the entire 600-plus pages of arguments (including the 84 pages of endnotes, many of which are discursive), only one point struck me as questionable; but even then, another, more convincing point is quickly brought up to support the same argument. (For the record, it’s when they say, “Over time, any group of intimate friends, let alone a family, will eventually develop a complicated history that makes coming to agreement on almost anything difficult.” I was incredulous, but a Twitter poll was evenly divided.)
Along the way, the prose is sprinkled with Graeber’s famous wit — the classic mark of genius — and with little factoid gems that casually reorient our understanding of entire fields. For instance, the book notes that many of Shakespeare’s linguistic inventions were commonly used in his day; it’s just that nobody else thought to write them down into works of literature.
Graeber is the more famous of the two Davids, but Wengrow is no second fiddle. He says in the preface that the book is basically a record of their decade-long conversation, and archeological evidence is at least as important as anthropological evidence in supporting the book’s contentions. At many points, the book laments the lack of written records to guide archeological deduction into a given prehistoric culture (though what counts as “prehistory” is upended when the book notes that Native American cultures often supplemented their oral histories with conventionalized pictograms, that is, writing — another seismic factoid).
And when there is written evidence, half the fun lies in how the book excoriates early scholars for being racist, sexist, and condescending. The Davids remind us that we were and are all considered homo sapiens for a reason. They take scholars of Minoan culture to task for refusing in the face of overwhelming evidence to believe that the Minoans were matriarchal; and stuffed away in an endnote is this zinger in response to accusations of poetic license:
The possibility that [17th-century Native American diplomat] Kandiaronk, whom the Jesuits considered to rank among the smartest people that ever lived, might himself have learned about some of [Greek satirist] Lucian’s best lines in his conversations with the French, been impressed, and deployed variations of them in later debate is one that seems utterly inconceivable to such [earlier Western] scholars.
This last point is made as part of the book’s flashy opening argument — a “hook,” if you will — that the Enlightenment was mostly a rewriting of contemporary Native American political thought. The second chapter details the cross-cultural linkages; the penultimate chapter traces how Native Americans themselves got to that point. The first and last chapters are respectively the introduction and conclusion.
Don’t be fooled by this seeming symmetry: The book is, structurally speaking, all over the place. The Davids seem to recognize this, and they try in vain to organize the sprawl by inserting descriptive section headers at every turn of their argument, such as, “In which we observe how grand monuments, princely burials and other unexpected features of ice age societies have upended our assumptions of what hunter-gatherers are like, and consider what it might mean to say there was ‘social stratification’ some 30,000 years ago.” But as the Chinese idiom goes, it’s like closing the gate after the sheep have escaped.
To be fair, a project like this is hard to structure. It’s based on rigorous scholarship (even when the interpretation of the scholarship is less mainstream, though never unconvincing), so the evidence needs to be clearly laid out, analyzed, and documented. On the other hand, the Davids want to disseminate their sweeping synthesis to as wide an audience as possible, so they chose a trade publisher and not an academic press.
This resulted in some awkward compromises. The notes are located at the end, as per trade publishing convention, even though many of them are asides or supplementary explanations that deepen or round out the main line of argumentation. The book tries very hard to craft a compelling, unified, and (judging from the table of contents) chronological story from the essentially centrifugal project of mythbusting. And thorough signposting — one of the best conventions of academic writing, in which the introduction outlines in detail what will happen in the book — is eschewed in favor of attempting to build reader interest; whereas the conclusion can feel like signposting rewritten as recapitulation.
The end result is a disjunction between the book’s overarching goals and the specific argument being made in any given section. The conclusion tries to tie everything together, as the saying goes, but 500 pages’ worth of archeological and anthropological information isn’t retained so easily. Often I found myself slogging through a section, hoping to God I’d remember the key points when they became important. Alas.
Perhaps it’s the academic in me, but I’d much rather have been presented with a blueprint at the start, and been met with a check-in at the top and bottom of every chapter. Instead, each chapter begins more or less anew, and ends with a backward-facing summary. Those goals I mentioned in paragraph three? I gleaned them from odd points in the book (most are brought up in the introduction, but the clearest statement on mythbusting appears at page 447; getting stuck at 510; logics of domination at 365; and freedoms at 131).
There’s also a whiff of ideological strategizing in this odd structure. Graeber’s anarchism probably kept him from obtaining tenure throughout his American career, and perhaps the Davids wanted to temper the book’s stance to appeal to more mainstream readers. After all, their three freedoms from societal domination are the freedom to leave one’s community and be welcomed elsewhere, to disobey commands, and to reimagine and restructure society. (While we’re at it, the three sources of domination are sovereign, bureaucratic, and charismatic power. And we “got stuck” when domestic care and outgroup violence intermixed into domestic and social violence as care — the early Roman paterfamilias having the right to kill his underage children as punishment, and James I saying he punishes social deviants because he loves them.)
A quick side note on language. Wengrow teaches at University College London, Graeber ended up at the London School of Economics, and even the American edition uses British English, including the rhetorical use of punctuation first described in Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler’s The King’s English (1906): The period (full stop), colon, semicolon, and comma all signal pauses of varying lengths, from longest to shortest. M-dashes are often deployed asymmetrically as well. Just in case you, like me, are easily thrown by this kind of thing.
The signature contribution of the book, what it should rightly be remembered for, is its demonstration of just how divorced from the evidence most “big history” books really are, including bestsellers like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997). (It’s notable that these books and their authors are the only specified objects of critique and ridicule; Diamond is described — accurately — as holding “a PhD on the physiology of the gall bladder.”) Graeber, that puckish titan, will be deeply missed.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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