Updated: Dec 10, 2021
Morpheus: Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Morpheus: Why not?
Neo: Because I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life.
Morpheus: I know *exactly* what you mean...
In my first pass at some reflections on The Dawn of Everything (DoE), I'd wanted to draw out some metanarratological background context that I think is important for appreciating both the authors’ perceived project (Progress Myth takedown) and the kind of reception the book itself is now receiving among our “liminal web” community (strong affirmation or pushback, depending on one’s commitments). Here I’d like to both extend that critique a bit further, while also engaging more with the genuine contributions the book has to offer.
IDEOLOGICAL MYTHS AND THEIR HIDDEN AXIOMS
As I noted before, a large reason for the buzz this book has generated in integral and metamodern circles has to do with the perception that it is about stage theories—specifically, that it would offer a critical account of the evidence which discredits and disproves anything like general patterns of cultural development (e.g., hunter-gather to agrarian to agricultural to urban, etc.). In some ways this is true; the book does succeed in problematizing certain assumptions about the relationship of complexity, power, and modes of production (more on that below).
However, this book is only indirectly a critique of stage theories of cultural evolution. First and foremost, it is about inequality.
The authors are actually rather clear about this. Indeed, much of David Graeber’s work was dedicated to that issue. As an anarchist, he was a prominent leader (sic?) in the Occupy Wallstreet movement, and, as Wengrow notes in the Foreword and Dedication, he “was far more than an anthropologist. He was an activist…who tried to live his ideas about social justice and liberation, giving hope to the oppressed and inspiring countless others to follow suit” (pp. ix-x).
DoE is best understood as the authors’ response to the question, “What are the origins of inequality?” Though they themselves are quick to recognize that the question itself is problematic, it’s nevertheless the starting point for their work, the real catalyst for their 600 page reimagination of the origins of human civilization. For, as both Hobbes and Rousseau concluded (either for good or ill, respectively), to seek the origins of “inequality” is to seek the origins of “civilization” itself—even if both prove to be phantasms.
The Big History provided by DoE is, then, from the start, framed by a focus on a particular social issue, and one of great urgency for the present moment. This is where ideology becomes an important consideration for their historical reconstruction. For ideology comes with certain axiomatic prejudices, and historical reconstructions (particularly of ancient prehistory) require a lot of gap-filling. Coming to historical reconstruction through the entry point of ideology is thus an invitation to fill the gaps with presumptions that fit one’s pregiven narrative. When these bear heavily on current events, its not only appropriate but necessary to consider how our understanding of the present and our hopes for the future might be bearing upon our interpretations of the past.
As the authors note, any account of origins will effectively operate mythically. We shape our myths about the past in the present moment as guides and compasses for our futures. At the nexus of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, myth and politics collide.
Anyone familiar with the controversies that swirl around biblical archeological will know what I mean. Consider, for instance, the seemingly straight-forward question, “What were the years of King David’s reign?” While there’s a general academic consensus that it was c. 1000 to 962 BCE, other voices, such as archeologist Israel Finkelstein, would say that the Davidic Monarchy was almost entirely a legendary invention of the 600s BCE. Indeed, the very nature of most of ancient Israel’s history is hotly contested, from Exodus to Conquest to Kingdoms. While there are certain areas of consensus, different scholars can assess the same archeological material and come to radically different narratives about it. As these narratives can and do serve certain political narratives of current interested political factions in the modern state of Israel (mainly about ancient “claims to the land”), it can be impossible to know how much scholars are being driven by evidence or ideology. What you believe about Israeli occupation of the West Bank has a funny way of determining how real the Davidic monarchy was.
Of course, this sort of thing is hardly unavoidable completely. We all bring background frameworks of sensemaking to our endeavors. Certainly, though, ancient prehistory is a particularly vexed terrain for this sort of thing, being, as it is, such a relatively blank canvas. When all you have is some bricks, a bronze amulet, and a few skulls to account for a 2,000 stretch of time, you use what you have—but how you use it will be determined a great deal by what other narratives you believe in. It’s hard enough for regular academics to keep their ideologies from driving their analysis. But when you’re an avowed anarchist activist who explicitly frames your historical reconstruction through the lens of an ideological issue such as inequality, well… You get a book like DoE.
The ideology behind DoE is clear enough. However, specific axioms of that ideology do require some teasing out, for they’re crucial for the way the entire reconstruction unfolds. As I said, this is a book only indirectly about stage theories of cultural evolution. Mainly, it’s about inequality, which is to say asymmetric distributions of power and control. Or, as the authors state explicitly, “This book is mainly about freedom” (p. 206). And, indeed, the authors take great pains to articulate the history of civilization entirely through the lens of volition. To do that means eschewing any notion of organizing logics or structural attractor points. “There are,” they write, “certainly, tendencies in history. Some are powerful; currents so strong that they are very difficult to swim against (though there always seem to be some who manage to do it anyway). But the only ‘laws’ are those we make up ourselves” (p. 5). It makes sense, I guess, that an anarchist anthropologist would be allergic to any sense of ‘laws.’ Nothing can be so powerful as to be ineluctable or inevitable. Barring gravity (presumably?), nothing can keep us down! Anything is possible! That is the axiom.
It’s clear, then, why such a view would see anything like a sequence of necessarily-linked stage developments as anathema. The very idea of one thing following another of necessity is a loss of freedom. In this view, not only dominator hierarchies but even natural ones are seen as oppressive!
In short, for the authors, inequality stems from hierarchy, hierarchy from complexity, and complexity from development. If civilization is really about development and complexity, then Hobbes was right: we’re doomed to our chains. In short, if we’re to be free, and not doomed to inequality, then stage theories must be false.
Such are their premises. But are they valid? I don’t think so. Nevertheless, though the general ideology is clear, we needed to tease the axioms out of their various claims before we could really get to the heart of the argument. Once we see that these are the terms of the debate, the way they frame their effort becomes a great deal clearer. “This book,” they say, “is an attempt to begin to tell another, more hopeful and more interesting story” than the standard one of stages. Why is rebutting stage development “more hopeful”? In their mind, because it avoids the necessity of our “running toward our chains.” Hierarchical complexity is a jail of logical determinism. Freedom is everything.
When I was still a young evangelical, I remember seeing an interview with one of the priminent New Atheists (which one, I now forget) who said that it was precisely the idea of eternal life that so terrified him, it kept him up at night as a child; the very thought of immortality was horrific. When he finally lost his faith, he was immensely relieved. The burden of Heaven had been lifted. That struck me. As they say, one man's trash is another man's treasure. For some, developmental stage theories are a beautiful, life-enhancing invitation to growth and a sense of meaning and direction to the cosmos. For others, they're nothing but a prison cell. For the authors, Direction is a dictate. The Good News is that there is no Way. As they summarize their effort in the book’s opening pages:
“The pieces now exist to create an entirely different world history—but so far, they remain hidden to all but a few privileged experts… Our aim in this book is to start putting some of the pieces of the puzzle together… One thing that will quickly become clear is that the prevalent ‘big picture’ of history—shared by modern-day followers of Hobbes and Rousseau alike—has almost nothing to do with the facts. But to begin making sense of the new information that’s now before our eyes, it is not enough to compile and sift vast quantities of data. A conceptual shift is also required. To make that shift means retracing some of the initial steps that led to our modern notion of social evolution: the idea that human societies could be arranged according to stages of development, each with their own characteristic technologies and forms of organization (hunter-gatherers, farmers, urban-industrial society, and so on).”
To remain hopeful about the prospects of human freedom going forward, the Davids will thus need to undermine the idea of social evolution proceeding through recognizable stages. And, generally speaking, there are three main ways they claim to achieve this: 1) by appealing to “new evidence” that unequivocally disproves any notions of general patterns of development, 2) by asserting that, where complexification did happen, it didn’t happen because of any dialectical necessity of general patterns but because people chose it freely, and 3) arguing that any stage theories of development have just been inventions of Europeans in need of an answer to indigenous critiques of European oppression.
Let’s take these arguments in reverse order.
3. DEVELOPMENT WAS INVENTED BY EUROPEANS
The authors claim that “our standard historical meta-narrative about the ambivalent progress of human civilization, where freedoms are lost as societies grow bigger and more complex – was invented largely for the purpose of neutralizing the threat of indigenous critique” (p. 32). Again, note the conflation here: complexification means losing freedom. In presuming this, the authors seem to be agreeing with both Hobbes and Rousseau, who both saw civilization’s advance as a loss of individual autonomy, even if they interpreted that loss in radically different ways. As I noted in my last reflection, the authors never do indeed rise above the Hobbes/Rousseau dichotomy. This is important, because it means they, too, equate civilization’s development through complexification with a loss of freedom. Because development is fused with inequality in their understanding, and inequality is their entry point for their Big History, then development has to be the problem.
We, of course, might (and should) challenge this, noting that, differently conceived, complexification can actually be a crucial means of gaining greater autonomy (cf. Wilber). But from this faulty axiom (developmental complexification = inequality), their faulty calculus proceeds, and colors all their conclusions. Development must be bunk—indeed, a fairytale invented by the wounded pride of colonizers: “such notions have their roots in a conservative backlash against critiques of European civilization, which began to gain ground in the early decades of the 18th century.” To even raise the point that models of complexification have far deeper roots (in chaos theory, cybernetics, complexity science, etc.) would no doubt put you in Pinker territory, prime for public denouncement. You must be a racist, and genocide apologist to even consider such a thing.
2. DEVELOPMENT IS A CHOICE
To the extent that the authors do cognize development as a reality, it most certainly isn’t something that exerts any kind of “top down” pressures or evolutionary compulsions on people. If foragers did adopt farming, it had nothing to do with competitive edge, attractors, or Realdialectic. They just…wanted to, OK?
“Rather than defining the indigenous inhabitants of the Pacific Coast of North America as ‘incipient’ farmers or as examples of ‘emerging’ complexity – which is really just an updated way of saying they were all ‘rushing headlong for their chains’ – we have explored the possibility that they might have been proceeding with (more or less) open eyes, and found plenty of evidence to support it.” (p. 207)
Again, their phrasing is extremely telling: for the authors, “‘emerging’ complexity” = “rushing headlong for their chains.” Complexification leads to hierarchy leads to inequality leads to loss of freedom. And any intimation from historians that such moves were part of much broader, recognizable trends in cultural evolution visible in countless societies the world over since, well, the dawn of everything?
They write: “And if certain hunter-gatherers turn out not to have been living perpetually in “bands” at all, but instead congregating to create grand landscape monuments, storing large quantities of preserved food and treating particular individuals like royalty, contemporary scholars are at best likely to place them in a new stage of development: they have moved up the scale from “simple” to “complex” hunter-gatherers, a step closer to agriculture and urban civilisation. But they are still caught in the same evolutionary straitjacket, their place in history defined by their mode of subsistence, and their role blindly to enact some abstract law of development which we understand but they do not.” (96)
Any model based on complexification imposes an “evolutionary straitjacket.” If I were a psychoanalyst, and a bit less charitable, I might be led to assume that one or both authors are suffering from a claustrophobic neurosis, constraints of any kind feeling like abject oppression. To their minds, the prospect of living out the invisible dictates of “some abstract law” is so unfathomably constraining it must be projected as an external imposition of deluded European thinkers. (Again, not sure what they’d make of the laws of Newton, Kepler, etc., which presumably prehistoric people were “blindly” obeying, which we now understand even though they did not…)
That said, there is indeed good reason, as they say, not to limit our understanding of cultural evolution too much by typologies of modes of subsistence/production. Here is one area where the book’s frequently tortured analysis yields to genuine insight. So let’s give credit where credit is due and see what they are referring to.
In conventional stage theories of cultural development, it’s common to classify stages according to what mode of production characterizes the society. Hunter-gatherer societies are at one stage, then rise to the next if and when they develop agriculture, then rise to the next when they develop industrialization, etc. Wilber himself does this in his Four Quadrants, specifically the lower right, plotting the advancement from “foraging” to “horticultural” to “agrarian” to “industrial” to “informational” stages, which are mapped to archaic, magic, mythic, rational, and centauric cultural codes, respectively.
One area where DoE offers a truly helpful revisionist understanding of civilization development and a meaningful critique of stage theories is by showing that such clean progressions through modes of production is actually not an accurate representation of the archeological data. Or, at least, that enough discrepancies and outliers exist that call this sort of view into question. Graeber and Wengrow provide a litany of cases where city-level organization and public works occurred entirely in the absence of an agricultural base. They note that “between 25,000 and 12,000 years ago public works were already a feature of human habitation across an area reaching from Krakow to Kiev” (p. 90). The Native American population who erected the monumental structures at Poverty Point in 1600 BCE “were hunters, fishers and foragers” (p. 142), not farmers. And Stonehenge, once thought to be the work of early farmers, has also been dated to a time of foragers. The authors call these sorts of material culture “forager monumentality” (p. 147), and it calls into question the assumption that such productions could be achieved only after a society had attained the requisite level of complex organization thought to be brought on only by the switch to agricultural modes of production. As they succinctly declare, “we can now put a final nail in the coffin of the prevailing view that human beings lived more or less like Kalahari Bushmen, until the invention of agriculture sent everything askew” (p. 157). (As an aside, note again how they frame that: development of agriculture sending things “askew”—how Roussean.)
More than that, it is not accurate to suggest that tribal/hunter-gatherer societies were necessarily more egalitarian than later agricultural ones. Hierarchy, it seems, extends even to tribal societies. For “thousands of years before the origins of farming, human societies were already divided along lines of status, class and inherited power” (p. 88). We know this from elaborate burials and other evidence DoE presents.
For me, the evidence is compelling and convincing. Of course, it doesn’t then follow from this that all models of stage development are bunk. Rather, it means we need to update our models. That’s how theories and evidence should work. DoE does a valuable service in problematizing a simplistic link of stages with modes of production. The relationship is clearly more complex, and this should factor into any further honing and clarification of metatheoretical maps of cultural evolution.
Of course, this nuancing of the LR quadrant (to use integral terms) is far less dramatic than a total disproval of developmental stage theories entirely. As I noted previously, the tragedy of DoE is that it is always overstating its case in the service of ideological pre-commitments.
Much of the remaining evidentiary basis for casting stage theories into doubt falls into two broad categories: 1) dubious interpretation, and 2) focusing on outliers and ignoring general trends.
1) Dubious interpretation should be pretty self-explanatory. There’s consensus on King David’s reign; but if I only read Finkelstein, I’d have a very idiosyncratic view of things. The evidence itself is the same; it’s all about what you bring to it, how you weave a narrative from it, and what prejudices are at play that might be influencing how and why you see it that way. Many examples raised by the Davids fall into this camp. I can’t speak as much to Mesoamerican contexts, but what they say about Mesopotamian and European history is a different way of viewing the same evidence and coming to different, and more radical, conclusions. Theirs is still very much the outlier view compared to the consensus. 2) Focusing on material that doesn’t fit the usual pattern can give the false impression that there is no pattern. Undoubtedly there have been a handful of archeological finds in the last 30 years that diverge from the “normal” sequence of cultural complexification. They are striking, though, precisely as exceptions that prove the rule. If it’s shocking to discover monumental works created by a forager society, it’s precisely because the vast majority of monumental works were created by agricultural societies. If you write a book just about the exceptions, you can paint a picture that all of history is exceptions with no patterns—which is, incidentally, basically the main thesis of TDH.
For those not otherwise familiar with the material the authors are referring to, it won’t be clear when they’re presenting an interpretation that’s radical and idiosyncratic but open to much more conventional readings vs. new finds that consensus holds doesn’t abide by the standard patterns, etc. The book is massive, and covers vast swathes of temporal and geographical distances. It overwhelms you with material, not all of which is clearly parsed. It all lands at once, dubious claims and valid new evidence, assumptions and established facts, interpretation and reality. Ultimately, in the broad sweep, some things are smuggled in that presume the case rather than make it.
IS COMPLEXITY REAL?
The authors proclaim that “indigenous life was, to put it very crudely, just a lot more interesting than life in a ‘Western’ town or city” (p. 21). Of course, a word like “interesting” is ambiguous and open to interpretation. But to the extent that it means something like “compellingly novel, unusual, extraordinary, etc.,” there’s an important point to be explored here. What are we to make of the idea of complexification? Presumably, five options would be less "interesting" than five thousand, to say nothing of the countless permutations of interactions possible for those five thousand. If more isn’t necessarily better, is more complexity?
For the authors, as we’ve seen, the answer would seem to be a settled No. More complexity would actually be worse, because it means more inequality (their assumption). That is, it seems, the takeaway from their underlying presumptions, if not their explicit claims. I think it’s a poor argument. Complexity does provide a qualitative shift. Pretending the options available to hunter-gatherer societies were not only as "interesting" but moreso than anything else happening in the world just doesn’t seem accurate, even if "interesting" is a terrible metric by which to assess value.
For the authors, history is not one of increasing complexity, just one of volitional fluctuations. Things don’t develop; they exist in a sort of eternal present. Differences are accounted for by choice: “Since almost any existing style, form or technique has always been potentially available to almost anyone, these too must always have come about through some such combination of borrowing and refusal” (p. 174). One society just chooses to be a modern information age society, another a traditional foragers, etc. We can conveniently forget about evolutionary/social/environmental pressures and just choose whatever. We make the laws, period.
That’s clearly silly, even if there is a lot to be said for ideas of social self-determination and ideas like schismogenesis. There’s also complexity, and, it seems, pressures to complexify. There are many ways in which equating simple complexity (sic?) with goodness is profoundly problematic, and part of the nuancing and refinement needed for properly wielding development theories. We need more than simple “growth-to-goodness” models; complexity is not the same as worth. I hope to think and write more on this topic. But, all that being said, I find it equally dubious to simply pretend complexity is not real, that a hunter-gather society and a Bronze Age one and an informational age one are not qualitatively different owing to their different complexities, for good or ill. That’s why I find problematic statements to the affect that surely “those who make their living hunting elephants or gathering lotus buds are just as sceptical, imaginative, thoughtful and capable of critical analysis as those who make their living by operating tractors, managing restaurants or chairing university departments” (p. 96). We get so swept along in the authors’ rhetoric and argumentation that a claim like this just flows by without question. But is it true? Is skeptical critical analysis really a human universal, as common to the average Nuer as to postmodern university department chairs? Of all the other denials of universals the authors engage in, why do they feel comfortable retroactively importing this faculty, so uniquely a present and poison of late modernist thought, onto those of the distant past?
What does the evolution of consciousness even mean if, well, it hasn’t actually evolved?
There’s clearly more to this story. We can thank the Davids for filling in some gaps (even if that’s often with as much ideology as information). Though their narrative is deeply problematic at many levels, it has also added something to the discussion. If nothing else, it can be seen as part of a broader trend to break open old assumptions—something we can use in our efforts to further hone and refine more robust stage theories, ones that account for the messy, pluralistic, nonlinear realities of humanity’s dawn. Quite specifically, we need a more accurate assessment of to what degree, if at all, socio-cultural development maps to individual psychological development: that is, how does the evolution of culture track with the evolution of consciousness? Just as individual psychological development has been further nuanced from a few clunky stages or colors to more dynamic, context-specific, range-limited, skills-based assessments, so must our understanding of socio-cultural development be nuanced to include divergences, outliers, regressions, aggregates and extremes, etc. Perhaps the next Hanzi book on the 6 Hidden Patterns of History will be the dialectical response to Graeber’s and Wengrow’s gauntlet. In any event, the spiral turns. Our understanding of development develops. And every day that Strange Attractor grows a little more strange, an ever deepening Mystery.