Reading David Graeber and David Wengrow’s THE DAWN OF EVERYTHING: A NEW HISTORY OF HUMANITY

The_Dawn_Of_EverythingI was immersed in Graeber and Wengrow’s brick of a book for the final week of my Christmas holiday. With a province once again locked down and curfewed and a low-grade pandemic-engendered melancholy, it nevertheless buoyed my spirits. Dawn of Everything is optimistic, ambitious, and convincing. It’s written with a populist bent I found headily accessible and likeable. I liked that the authors weren’t shy, or coy about their political leanings: left-wing, anarchist, and equal parts communal and humanist. (And I liked that they started out by pointing critiques at Steven Pinker and Yuval Harari; though I have respect for the latter, I have eye-rolling contempt for the former. If Pinker is quixotically positive about what he doesn’t recognize as our present predicaments, then Harari is beautifully, more temperamentally-in-tune-with-yours-truly pessimistic.) The “Davids”, as I’ve heard them called on various podcasts, are here to answer the question “why we’re stuck?” with the answer, “we’re not,” maybe qualified to “we don’t have to be,” and, though it takes them 700 pages to say so, the ride is fun, which doesn’t make it any less serious or scholarly.  

Graeber and Wengrow begin their critique of the West’s interpretation of early history by showing the limitations of Rousseau’s and Hobbes’s thought, in other words, the familiar introductory-history-class pattern of hunter-forager, settler-farmer … to cities and, eventually, states, bolstering the West’s self-image as “complex”. The way I understood their Rousseau-Hobbes critique was (they do give Rousseau greater credence) as parallel to their comments about Pinker (starry-eyed optimist) and Harari (grim cynic). Rousseau sees our original state as “free” and society as constricting; Hobbes, our nature as inherently incapable of living at peace with each other, therefore, society provides safety and social stability. People inherently good; society, bad=Rousseau. People inherently bad; society, stabilizing=Hobbes. (I could be wrong, or simplifying, but hey, it’s my blog and my liberal arts degree is ancient.)

Graeber and Wengrow’s goal is to launch “a new science of history, one that restores our ancestors to their full humanity.” They see Rousseau as someone who creates a myth of primal innocence, even while Hobbes (though they discuss him way less) as upholding the primal myth of, okay, I’ll say it, original sin. Au contraire, say Graeber and Wengrow, our ancesters were more complex, interesting, and varied in their approaches and ideas about how to live in society, as well as what kind of society to build, than Rousseau and Hobbes leave room for. Instead of looking to Western political philosophy, say Graeber and Wengrow, we should “consider perspectives that derive from those indigenous thinkers who inspired them,” that is, Rousseau et. al.

Graeber and Wengrow’s examination of indigenous thinkers’ critique of the West they encountered in the 16th to 18th century can serve as a means of understanding what went wrong and why we’re mired in an ethos of huis clos. (Given who indigenous people encountered, missionaries of capital and power, of church or state, how could they not be critical?) That indigenous critique, say Graeber and Wengrow, points to our conflation of individual freedom with private property, freedom as possession, I guess, rather, than freedom exercised in an ethos of care. I especially loved the Mi’kmaq critique of the French arrivals, according to one observer, Father Pierre Biard: “The French had more material possessions, the Mi’kmaq conceded; but they had other, greater assets: ease, comfort, and time.” And how many of us yearn for those very “things” and equally, how many can’t even begin to conceive of lives which contain them? The indigenous critique, say Graeber and Wengrow, centres on European socieities’ “failure” to “promote mutual aid” and protect personal liberties,” or “mutual aid” is “the necessary condition for individual autonomy.” I loved Graeber and Wengrow’s interpretation of the US’s notion of freedom, as “formal freedoms,” (in other words, they’re written, embedded, entrenched, but not enacted/lived) which I understood to mean declaring you’re free doesn’t make you free. (Graeber and Wengrow define three fundamental means by which human beings are free as the ability to move away, disobey, and imagine and enact “new social worlds,” which appear, without their extensive discussion, adolescent, but read the book: they’re pretty convincing.)

From indigenous critique, Graeber and Wengrow follow by questioning the view of Paleolithic peoples as simple and of a earlier, that is, less sophisticated, mode of development. Au contraire, say Graeber and Wengrow, “Rather than being trapped in some sort of Rousseauian innocence, unable to imagine more complex forms of organization, people were generally more capable than we are of imagining alternative social orders, and therefore had created ‘societies against the state.’ They had self-consciously organized in such a way that the forms of arbitrary power and domination we associate with ‘advanced political systems’ could never possibly emerge.” All one has to do, I suppose, is gaze at those delicately rendered animals in the Chauvet caves (as early as 32 000 BCE) to recognize the artistic sophistication of the Paleolithic, but I was delighted to learn about a political and social sophistication as well.

What Graeber and Wengrow do is fascinating because they question using evolution as a means of interpreting history: “…it’s becoming increasingly clear that the earliest known evidence of human social life resembles a carnival parade of political forms, far more than it does the drab abstractions of evolutionary theory.” Their vision is humanist; as they declare, “..what really makes us human in the first place, which is our capacity — as moral and social beings — to negotiate between…alternatives.” In the end, what I got out of reading Dawn is Graeber and Wengrow’s goal, in writing their book, “to upend the conventional narrative” of using evolutionary theory to understand history, its pernicious effect on the social sciences, and its spread, through popular means, to making it the petrified narrative of who we are and how we came to be. Nope, say the two Davids, human beings have been freer and more creative than we are: they conducted social experiments and made choices about what was important and what wasn’t.

I think one of their most profound conclusions involves the idea of care and domination: since when are power structures entrenched in making those who are cared for exercise dominance over those who do the caring, of men over women, for example? Graeber and Wengrow talk about how horrifying some indigenous cultures found Europeans’ ability to be cruel to members of their own society, to be negligent at best, to cause deliberate suffering at worst. I think the implications of Graeber and Wengrow’s critique of the West’s historical narrative and social science is important, but their call for us to re-imagine the world and re-build along lines of “mutual aid” and individual freedom are moving: “In developing the scientific means to know our own past, we have exposed the mythical substructure of our ‘social science’ — what once appeared unassailable axioms, the stable points around which our self-knowledge is organized, are scattering like mice. What is the purpose of all this new knowledge, if not to reshape our conceptions of who we are and what we might yet become? If not, in other words, to rediscover the meaning of our third basic freedom: the freedom to create new and different forms of social reality?” In other words, we have the means, we have the examples, and they’re not Rousseau, or Hobbes, but their “names” emerge from a neglected “history”: the Wendat leader, Kondiaronk; the women of Knossos…

You may not agree with Graeber and Wengrow’s interpretation of what ails us, or their more nebulous proposal of how to fix it, but you’ll enjoy their free and easy prose, aimed at helping everyone understand what they want to say as opposed to miring their ideas in prose to impress, refute, and “bite their thumbs” at their academic peers.

8 thoughts on “Reading David Graeber and David Wengrow’s THE DAWN OF EVERYTHING: A NEW HISTORY OF HUMANITY

  1. Wow, this was interesting! There’s a (formerly -I think Catholic Church may have kicked him out) monk named Fox who while not a historian has a similar view. I have long thought that ancient manufacturing was a woman’s job; almost certainly they were the first weavers, basket makers and even metal workers – metals almost certainly were first found in cooking fires!! I am digressing massively here but your post definitely sparked some thoughts. I’d love to write or see written an updated “Clan of the Cave Bear “ where women’s accomplishments and roles weren’t presented just like today but wearing pelts! Thanks for the inspiration-hope I didn’t offend!

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    1. Thank you! And absolutely no offense taken! As a matter of fact, Graeber and Wengrow hold the same view about weaving, fabric arts, baskets, etc. They see it as a “playful” (an imprecise word for historians) and see those societies as female-dominated and way more peaceful, productive, and free than warrior-based ones. They may even have mentioned this Fox dude, but after 700 pages, I’m really not sure!!!

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  2. Another one to add to the TBR. If it wasn’t 700 pages long, I might suggest it for my book study group as a counterpoint to the Harari ouvre (the first two of his were fine, but we collectively eyerolled many times at 21 Lessons), but my last suggestion was a brick, so I’ll be good this time, and pick Mark Carney’s Values which is only 528 pages (not including the appendices) LOL.

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    1. Definitely worth reading and it is so very very readable, despite the length. There’s a conversational tone to it that I both enjoyed and appreciated. Hey, Carney was ours till he abandoned the Bank of Canada for the UK. There was even some talk he might come back to run for the Liberal Party, but it came to nought. I listened to his Reith Lectures and they were really very good, so I have no double Values will be too. Happy reading! (P. S. I still have Homo Deus on the TBR…)

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  3. This sounds very thought provoking! And I could use some optimism. I’m particularly interested in the perspectives that have generally been given short shrift in history.


    1. It had me in thrall for days! And they definitely do that: they don’t stereotype, or simplify; in other words, there aren’t any “noble savages” or indigenous people as better than, but complex, compelling thinkers, with a long tradition of experimenting with a variety of social forms and rejecting or enacting them. I also learned so much about archaeological sites I’d never heard about (be warned, you’re going to go googling a lot), like Poverty Point. Hope you read it!


      1. It was the Reith Lectures that led me to his book. He is back in Canada now, and working at Brookfield Asset Management, so we can still claim him as ours LOL.

        I will be interested to hear your thoughts about Homo Deus. I did not like it nearly as much as Sapiens, but it was much better than 21 Lessons, which nearly hit the wall a couple of times.


        1. I’m glad to hear he’s back in Canada b/c we need someone like Carney. He impressed me in those Reith Lectures.

          Famous last TBR words: I hope I can move it up, along with the languishing SPQR. 😉


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