The philosopher finds much to enjoy in this history of humankind. There’s just one thing…
The new book by David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, is disruptive. Their targets are the big histories of the emergence of Homo sapiens – from life on the Savannah 200,000 years ago to now – which have become very popular. These bestsellers create powerful narratives about our past with major implications for the meaning – or should that be, the meaninglessness – of the present. Graeber and Wengrow are right to challenge them.
However, the provocation is flawed, in my view, though in an arresting and illuminating way. The book’s failures might prove to be as important as what it gets right. So let’s start with what it gets right.
The current, popular accounts of the evolution of Homo sapiens on planet Earth are shaped by two myths. The first can be attributed to the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau; the second to the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
Rousseau is famous for remarking that “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.” The thought comes from an essay in which he proposes that the development of civilisation has led to a decrease in human happiness. Our species was born into a virtual Eden from which it has banished itself.
The most successful propagator of this tale of decline and fall in recent years has been Yuval Noah Harari. His mega-seller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind pivots on the agricultural revolution, which he calls “history’s biggest fraud”. The story goes that before our ancestors started growing crops, they were free as hunter-gatherers, but since the advent of farming, vast numbers of humans have organised their lives around the backbreaking task of growing plants like wheat and maize. We think they are feeding us, when really we are in the service of them.
Thomas Hobbes is famous for making another remark, namely that human existence is a “war of all against all”. This thought has seeded a myth of human evolution in direct opposition to that of Rousseau and Harari. The most successful contemporary propagator of the rival tale is Stephen Pinker, who has written about the success of civilisation in terms of reducing violence and other threats to life.
The upshot is that the dominant accounts of human evolution tell either of regress or progress, and it is this duopoly that Graeber and Wengrow seek to break.
At one level, their motivation is evidential. In recent decades, the archaeological record has demonstrated that prehistoric humanity lived in all manner of social and cultural forms. Our big history is a saga of diversity, not uniformity. There have been tribes with kings and tribes without kings, cities with bureaucracies and cities without bureaucracies, societies organised around centralised states and societies organised without centralised states. As to the agricultural revolution, it is a mirage – a result of looking backward in time from a present obsessed with food production. In truth, the Neolithic was peopled by many who remained hunter-gatherers or lived in mixed economies, and they did so for millennia.
But at another level, Graeber and Wengrow’s critique is ideological. They note that the trajectories described by Rousseau and Hobbes became popular as European empires grew. They were each used in order to justify stories of progress, with European civilisation in the vanguard of that advance. Hence, today, democracy and technology are championed as the means either to restore the lost Eden and/or keep nascent violence at bay.
Graeber and Wengrow believe this justification acts as an imaginative straitjacket on the modern mind. In an age of rampant consumerism, demoralising work and systematic oppression, new possibilities must be considered. As advocates of anarchism, they back reduced government and local organisation that is close to and run by citizens. Harari, Pinker and the like are, therefore, spreaders of damaging propaganda as well as palpable falsehoods.
Personally, I’m inclined to agree with the last bit, although as I was reading The Dawn of Everything – and hugely enjoying its assorted descriptions of human ways of life from every continent on the globe – an objection to Graeber and Wengrow’s story reared up in my mind. It can be put succinctly.
Most humans, over the vast majority of human history, have been conscious of living in a cosmos alongside other beings, human and non-human. It seems to me overwhelmingly obvious that a key aim of social organisations and cultural practices, in all their multiplicity, has been to manage relationships with these other creatures, be they mortal, supernatural or divine.
Graeber and Wengrow know this. They mention many rituals and rites, sacred objects and holy festivals. Any account of humanity can hardly avoid them. But the authors present them as interesting details that are subservient to their main thrust, which is championing strikingly secular forms of association.
As the book unfolds, it becomes clear that their myth is one of human beings who are, at heart, rational individuals. Given open citizen assemblies and fair working guilds, people are inclined to organise themselves in happy and harmonious ways, notwithstanding periodic stresses and occasional takeovers that will provoke conflict and, sometimes, a desire for tyranny.
They propose that all human beings have longed for three types of freedom – the freedom to travel, the freedom to disobey, and the freedom to self-organise. This, too, sounds admirable but modern. For example, in the ancient world, freedom meant something very different. It was not about exercising the will, but rather, aligning with what is powerful and beneficial in the cosmos – however that is perceived.
Graeber and Wengrow demythologise the past, which is also to say that they colonise the past with their own political ideology, arguably repeating the act that they criticise in those who follow Rousseau and Hobbes, only in their case, the past must be told to serve the dictates of the scientific materialism of the present.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not about to call for The Dawn of Everything to be cancelled. The book is an excellent read. But read it alert to what it sidelines and overlooks.
I make this suggestion not just because I think the spiritual domains of reality, and our relationship to them, hugely matter. I do so because I don’t think the present can be properly understood without factoring that in.
One way of describing modern civilisation, with all its obvious gains, is that its rationalisation of reality leads us to marginalise the rich ecologies around us, when we are not actively exploiting them. In my view, demythologising the past will increase that ignorance and its associated violence.
In other words, the future needs precisely the opposite impulse to the one offered by Graeber and Wengrow: a remythologisation of our ways of life and its connections with non-human others. Moreover, that route might make us feel more free. We may rediscover that the cosmos is not meaningless. We could find that our life, and all life, springs from an abundant vitality and spiritual commons.
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