This book is said to be ground-breaking work on the level of Pinker or someone (not quite up to Rousseau or Hobbes). Yes – maybe but … with a lot of buts, actually. I’m not an expert on current thinking in these fields so I don’t know if it’s the publishing company which is pushing the idea of “ground breaking” or it really is. I suspect it contains some really new ideas, however it needs a good editor.
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity
By David Graeber and David Wengrow
2022 / 702 pages
Read by Mark Williams 24h 2m
Rating: 8 (average of 10 and 6) / pre-history
(Both read and listened)
Graeber and Wengrow are supposed to have developed some kind of new paradigm for thinking about mankind’s origins and the development into communities. I suppose maybe it is that, I was certainly not taught what is here. But I do think this is really valuable and a step or two in the right direction.
In the olden days of college (late 1960s early ’70s) I was taught about the extraordinary leap that agriculture made possible for the story of humankind. We suddenly went from nomadic hunters and foragers to agrarian husbandry so we were able to add priests and politics and arts in the cities where we now lived. Improvements in the quality of life were made or available for everyone. That was thought to be a huge leap for mankind and maybe it was the basis of all our progress or the root of all our problems. That’s what I learned from William H. McNeill’s World History text but it’s not how Graeber and Wengrow see it.
What I got out of this brilliant but horribly muddled study is that the way it’s been taught might not have been the way it really was. Also, is certainly not the way it had to be. There were a LOT of options all along the way and many times these options were taken by the people who lived in those times. I was taught that the Agricultural Revolution (capitals) was pretty much an all or nothing advance in “progress.” The authors of The Dawn of Everything have communities sometimes going back and forth accepting agriculture or not and in all sorts of partial ways.
It seems that starting with Rousseau, European thinkers saw the ideas of certain men as being the only “right” way and those explained the way of all progress. Thus began the Enlightenment which has largely led us to today, in the West anyway, and we haven’t changed much. (The past tends to look inevitable when observed from the vantage point of the present.)
Nevertheless, the authors of The Dawn of Everything looked for other ways the world and its people could have “evolved.” And in looking over the history including that of Africa, Asia, and the Americas Graeber and Wrengrew found many alternatives not discussed by anthropologists, archeologists and historians – or not much anyway. The major point here is, as the final line of the books says, “We know, now, that we are in the presence of myths.”
I guess what the authors are saying is that they might not know the answers exactly, but the old ideas built around a great Agricultural Revolution changing everything are not correct. The ideas skip too much and treat the past as though it were obvious and the only way it could have happened. That in itself, they view as a myth – and I agree.
But that doesn’t mean I agree with whatever else it is they’re trying to say. And the way I was taught still makes the most sense to me if we’re looking for generalizations.