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 by David Graeber and David Wengrow. It’s called simply “Conclusion”but it isn’t really. A conclusion that is. David Graeber’s books tend not to have much of a culmination, 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’re wedged-in discussions of Roman Law, cultural perceptions of time, and the fundamentally conservative nature of social science. All of this could have been anywhere else. The final chapter continues in the same vein as the rest of the book until it just 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!
- The most original aspect is that it offers a very different view of ‘equality’ than most books coming from the left. 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 in ways that actually reinforce our lack of freedom. 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. It matters more, and the Davids point out, in cases where ‘inequality’ has been reduced it’s almost always been a side-effect of reducing control and authority.
- The second great takeaway from DofE is that neither technology nor environment are the essential categorical forces so many writers imagine. The stone-tool Inca of the Andes were an awful lot like the bronze-tool Egyptians of the Nile. The stone-tool city states of pre-Columbian central America were an awful lot like the iron-tool city states of Eurasia. While technology–and more importantly horses–really did affect warfare, it isn’t such a central organizing or limiting aspect of human life. Also 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 eschewing checklist stages or technological categories when looking at cultures or societies.
- 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, so I feel like I have a much broader sense of human possibilities than most of my friends, but some of these cultures I literally knew nothing about and others I was excited to read new and different interpretations.
Now three negatives.
- The Davids get caught up in idiosyncratic word use, such as the word ‘play’ as in play farming, play kingship, and so on. They mean something by these terms. For example to the Davids ‘play’ this or that 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 seem to want to offer liberating ideas but they’re too flimsy and vague. (For examples 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?)
- 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. It’s really an awful rhetorical style: 1. Here is what ‘we believe’ (describing something the reader doesn’t actually believe); 2. Here is why it’s wrong (then why did you spend so much time telling me about it?); and 3. Here is the more nuanced, less rigid, more sensitive way we ought to look at things (So why not start with that?) 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.
- The Davids sure hate the Enlightenment. You’d think the contemporary left would have some interest in one of the few historical 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 seems to refer to social scientists and historians assuming that agriculture or some other ‘revolution’ led inexorably to the state and/or inequality. Once humans take up a certain technology or means of sustenance or arrive at a certain population density 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 title, ‘Dawn of Everything’, is a satire of the foolishness they are trying to free us from. The Davids say there is no ‘Dawn of Everything.’
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 examined in the book. 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 an example 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. And here we should consider the ‘dawn’ in dawn of everything as dawns really are for there is a dawn with every rotation of the earth which eventually reaches everything. Far from ‘Dawn of Everything’ being a silly idea of something that never happens, it’s actually something that happens daily. In this case 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. So Dawn of Everything is not a good book, but it’s very good information with some good ideas along the way.