DofE Conclusion

In what is probably the worst idea I’ve ever had, I’m reading and blogging The Dawn of Everything by David Wengrow and David Graeber.

So we reach the final chapter of Dawn of Everything which is called simply “Conclusion”. It’s not much of a conclusion. David Graeber’s books tend not to build to much, and co-author David Wengrow’s presence doesn’t bail him out in DofE. The chapter feels like a grab-bag of all the stuff the Davids meant to include earlier. Particularly they introduce a lot of new writers: Elaine Scarry, Raymond Kelly, Orlando Patterson, Carole Crumley, Franz Steiner. There’s wedged in discussions of Roman Law, views of time, and the fundamentally conservative nature of social science. All of this could have been anywhere else and has no reason to be in the final chapter. The chapter continues in the same vein as the rest of the book until it stops. If the reader was hoping for a new ‘dawn of everything’ view of the world, none is offered. In fact, the title is a deliberate and annoying red herring, but I’ll get to that.

But if the Davids don’t have a conclusion, can I do them one better. What is my final verdict on Dawn of Everything?

First things first, three positives!

  1. The most original aspect is that despite it being very much a book of the left with goals of the left, it eschews the pursuit of ‘equality.’ The Davids assert that we don’t need to somehow solve the problem of ‘inequality’ before we can hope for freedom. We humans need to be free and right now in Western countries in many respects we aren’t. Discussions of ‘inequality’ tend to misdirect and muddle, and the cherry-picking of social science adds to the mess. The hunter-gatherer bands I studied in college were indeed both egalitarian and free, but there can be and have been innumerable human populations (including hunter-gatherers) who were free without being egalitarian. So we can hope for freedom first. And that’s probably how unfree systems of, yes, inequality, were usually overthrown in the past.
  2. The second great takeaway from DofE is that neither technology nor environment are the all-encompassing and limiting forces so many writers imagine. The stone-tool Inca of the Andes were an awful lot like the bronze-tool Egyptians of the Nile. In general while technology–and more importantly horses–really did affect warfare, you can’t make assumptions that it did much else, and humans have existed in parts of the world in many periods of time without much war (though never without other kinds of violence). In general the authors’ best fulfill their promise of a refreshing view of the human story by not getting hung up on checklist stages or phenomena when looking at cultures or societies. We don’t have to catalog the metallurgy before talking about other things.
  3. That leads into the third and greatest strength of the book. Their sharing of all the fascinating new research and ideas about people in the distant past and the far-flung places: Wendat, Iroquois, Hopewell, Natchez, Cahokia, Gobekli Tepe, Catalhoyuk, Nambikwara, Calusa of Florida, the contrasting indigenous people of the North American Pacific Coast, the towns of prehistoric Ukraine and pre-historic Mesopotamia, the Harappans, Teotihuacan, Tlaxcala, Tell Savi Abyad, Minoan Crete, the pre-Inca Andes, and many more. I was a double-major in Classics and Anthropology as an undergraduate and have read about research and discoveries ever since, but some of these I literally knew nothing about and others I was excited to read new and different interpretations.

Now three negatives!

  1. The Davids like to bandy about the word ‘play’ as in play farming, play kingship, and so on. They mean a flexibility in a group that allows it to shift from one system to another–farming villages in one season, smaller hunting bands in another for example–but it’s pretty flaky. The Davids want this to be a profound and liberating idea but it’s too flimsy and vague. They offer no evidence that flexible systems are more ‘playful’ than rigid systems in the minds of the people living them. Play is the universal behavior of young mammals acting out adult roles. To use that as a metaphor for customs and culture needs a lot more thought to be convincing. We can say Donald Trump was playing at being president but what does that really tell us?
  2. The Davids lack any ideas of education as a process. They bristle at how their fellow academics think and teach but do not see or acknowledge the irony that DofE is not a teachable book at all. Like so much post-war intellectual effort it depends on the material its opposing. Pedagogically it’s awful, making the reader learn all sorts of ideas that are then condemned as wrong before new ideas–the right ideas according to the Davids–are introduced.
  3. The Davids sure hate the Enlightenment. You’d think the contemporary left would have some interest in one of the few successes any version of the left has had, but I suppose we always hate the heretic more than the infidel. Although the Davids want us in ‘the West’ to stop thinking we’re so unique, they refuse to follow through on the relativism themselves. If the Wendat or Hopewell are to be admired for overthrowing tyrants, why can’t Europeans be given the same appreciation? But no, Europeans are to be condemned for their failures and evils in a way Cahokia or the Egyptians would never be.

In the vein of the 2nd negative above, the ‘Dawn of Everything’ title is a reference to the tendency of prior social scientists and historians to assume that inequality and the state began with agriculture or some other ‘revolution’. Once humans take up a certain technology or means of sustenance or arrive at a certain population we are trapped, according to the innumerable thinkers our two Davids have spent this book trying to bring down. It would be churlish to point out that they bait-and-switch this argument a bit since while it’s true many people have overthrown or resisted their chains regardless of technology or means of sustenance, most of those had space to escape to. Our problem today is that there’s nowhere to go. So the ‘Dawn of Everything’ is like ‘Utopia of Rules’ not a positive title but a satire of the fools they want us freed from.

The Davids offer one tentative possibility for a more hopeful little summary: “Is there a positive correlation between ‘gender equality’ (which might better be termed ‘women’s freedom’) and the degree of innovation in a given society?” They seem to hint yes and I’m game to the idea. But that’s not really what they care about. So we’ve read a thick book with lots of details but culminating in the promise that what we were promised in the title doesn’t exist. Hey, thanks Davids!

But as for me, I can’t leave it at that, because I believe the Enlightenment is proof that the left can sometimes succeed in European countries and colonies just as lovers of freedom have succeeded in countless places and times since our species–perhaps since our genus–first emerged on this planet. There is a dawn with every rotation of the earth and since every part of the earth is reached every year by the sun, any dawn can truly be a dawn of everything. Moreover, the book is a testament to new understandings made possible by ethnography and archaeology. It’s astonishing to me that while the world has been in the thrall of frauds like Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Yuval Noah Harari there is an amazing growth in learning about how humans have and might live that can serve our hopes, dreams, and possibilities.

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