The Dawn Of Everything

Stephen Palmer

author of books
Dec 22, 2009
The Dawn Of Everything: A New History Of Humanity by David Graeber & David Wengrow

A review, as promised a few months ago!

I was given this book by a friend, and it has turned out to be something of a lucky gift. In a nutshell, this rich, groundbreaking, and extensively researched book by an anthropologist and an archaeologist seeks to overturn the accepted European narrative of historical "progress," and in its place put a story much more in keeping with various kinds of ignored, or even deliberately concealed evidence. In particular, the authors wish to show that various presumed grand historical narratives, beginning with hunter-gatherers and ending with the Industrial Revolution, are in fact stories designed to prop up and give credence to an elitist, racist and wholly self-serving autocracy, whose assumption of power has for centuries been assumed to have been inevitable.
The book is split into a number of subsections: a general overview of the problem, a look at the Native American critique of European morals and character, the origin of inequality, slave holding and property, a dissection of the real nature of the "Agricultural Revolution," the spread of farming, the nature of cities and the "Urban Revolution," especially with regard to the appearance of autocracies, evidence on alternative social arrangements in North America, and a conclusion.
I think this is a quite brilliant book. It deftly skewers a whole bundle of assumptions held by too many anthropologists, archaeologists and historians regarding the inevitability of hierarchical social structures, particularly at what most people think of as critical junctures: the acquisition of cereal grain farming, for instance, or the development of cities. Instead of delving into the supposed superiority and inevitability of autocratic, hierarchical rule, the book asks: why did that extreme mode become so universal? Given that there is plenty of evidence for alternative social arrangements, why autocracy? Why the nation state? It's not even that those most loquacious men of the European Enlightenment claimed freedom and democracy to be good ideas. Many such ideas were deemed terrible and placed into the mouths of non-European "savages." Some were ripped off, eg by Montesquieu, then to become worthy again. In fact, those supposed "savages" had for centuries if not millennia been using reason and humane values to consciously devise and put in place all sorts of egalitarian, flexible and just social arrangements. The French and the Americans were not the first.
The authors successfully show that most of what is taken to be self-evident in modern times is actually one, very limited social system, backed up by sanctioned intellectuals and domineering monotheistic religious creeds. The human norm in fact is social creativity, flexibility and interdependence. This applies far back into Palaeolithic times, when modes of living and subsequent social organisation varied according to the time of year. Three freedoms (which we in the West now find increasingly difficult to imagine) are currently fading: the freedom to move elsewhere, the freedom to disobey, and the freedom to imagine new social arrangements. The authors note flaws in the arguments of Pinker, Diamond and Harari, whilst supporting some of those authors' reasoning. They are particularly good at showing how the standard European trope of inevitable historical "progress" is in fact based on an unholy alliance of mis-applied Darwinism and an obsession with material culture above more abstract cultural forms. All this really is groundbreaking - a breath of fresh air.
I do think there is an element missing, but it is one the book could not, and should not have applied itself to. In all the talk of flexible social arrangements, egalitarianism and just societies, there is no place for one psychological factor, that of simple human selfishness. This human universal is responsible for a lot of autocracy, war and prejudice, but the authors don't have the room in their mammoth work to fit it in.
In particular, the authors show that most people are asking the wrong questions. The real question is: how have we become stuck with one, limited, male-centred, hierarchical social norm, in which care and violence have somehow been merged? It is precisely that erosion of the ancient human value of caring for outsiders within small-scale social groups which seems to have set off the slide into patriarchy, authoritarianism and war.
This book is highly recommended to all readers interested in prehistory and history. It is a trailblazing work which has rightly gathered many plaudits.


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