Updated: Dec 8, 2021
The new book by Davids Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, has landed with a big splash, sending “the liminal web” of metamodernists, integralists, systems poets, Gebserians, et al. into quite a tizzy. No doubt you’ve noticed.
So, what gives? What does it say? And does it live up to the hype?
A BATTLE OF METANARRATIVES
Before I offer my own review of the work itself, I think it’s important to make some of the context here explicit. To understand the great interest in and intense responses to the work, it’s necessary to know exactly what many feel is “at stake” here. Since, for many, I would argue, it’s nothing less than their very metanarrative, and the myth by which they understand and give meaning to life.
Yikes. No wonder people are so touchy about this one, and so polarized. Worldviews are at stake, not just a theory of ancient history.
Basically, here’s the scoop: We all live with grand narratives to make sense of life. Traditionally, these were mythological religious stories. For millennia in the West, this was the sacred Christian history of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Apocalypse. In Western modernity, this narrative arc got replaced by one of rational “Progress”: evolution from savagery to civilization through increasing rationalism, secularism, and technological advancement. But after the horrific and truly savage disasters of the 20th century, postmodernists voiced skepticism about any such “Progress” arc, and claimed that metanarratives themselves couldn’t be trusted (ironically, asserting a grand narrative of no grand narratives).
Well, with the failures of postmodernism, metanarratives have returned (or, er, they never went away). A very powerful one that many post-postmodernists—whom consensus has dubbed the metamodernists—have coalesced around is a certain integrative “meta-worldview,” a worldview of worldviews actually, which offers a synthesis of traditional religious myth, modern rational progress, and postmodern skepticism/relativism. The engine of this grand narrative is a mechanism of emergent evolution, a complexification through time that leads from simpler, baser beginnings to richer, deeper advancements—including worldviews themselves. This development process is thus conceivable as a progression through sequential stages, each one building off the previous while adding new layers of depth and complexity. This cosmic, “diaphysical” pattern of emergent complexification can be seen operating in all levels of the universe, from matter to mind, in individual beings as well as their collective social structures.
Powerful stuff. But, is it true?
Here’s where The Dawn of Everything (henceforth DoE) could be seen as throwing a wrench into the mix. The book offers a 600 page invective against any sort of developmental narrative which would claim that humans have made any sort of social progress through history, and seeks to offer evidence that would disprove any such narrative. If such a withering critique were convincing, it could undercut a core tenet of the metamodernist metanarrative. And with metanarratives tend to go a person’s sense, meaning, orientation, and purpose in the world.
So, yikes. High stakes then. Big feels for the metamodernists, integralists, and stage theory meta-theorists of all stripes. This book isn’t just proposing a different theory for human origins and (so-called) civilization, but actually attempting (quite explicitly, actually) to undermine the basis of an entire worldview and, in the process, assert a different one in its place.
THE WRONG WAR
But here’s the thing: The metanarrative DoE has in its sights isn’t the metamodern one, but rather the modernist one. This is, quite clearly, (another) post-modern takedown of the modern Progress Myth. And, speaking as a metamodernist, so far as the argument here is “the world created by the modern West is vapid, dull, largely unfree, somewhat insane, and totally unsustainable—especially compared to indigenous society” then I heartily agree!
I spent this Thanksgiving in central Florida—a perfect time and place to be digesting this book. This had once been Timucua land, lush and green, tended by some 35 different chiefdoms across numerous villages. The Timucua grew corn, squash, and beans; played cool ballgames; and fought skirmishes with nearby rivals. They had rich spiritual traditions and ceremonies, and a deep connection to the land.
Then the European colonizers came. They conquered the Timucua, forced the women into harems for the conquerors, compelled them to convert to Christianity, and stole their land’s riches to export back to Europe.
Today, the area is a sea of asphalt. Strip malls stretch endlessly. Everything is barren shopping outlets and garish home developments of reduplicated housing models stacked on top of each other. For mile on mile, there is nothing but concrete highway, fast food franchises, and suburban sprawl.
Happy Thanksgiving, Progress.
Whatever force created such a soulless hellhole should and must be stopped. Period. Worse, to actually consider this “Progress” over pretty much anything the Timucua might have been doing here is a delusion of epic and downright perverse proportions. Any worldview that would claim that is, well, evil, backward, and savage.
Modernism, so conceived, is a bankrupt paradigm. Yes, we can be nuanced, and should be, recognizing that it also brought with it many emancipations, cured many ills and diseases, added many comforts and luxuries, and generally allowed people the opportunity to explore self-actualization as they never could before. For these reasons, metamodernism embraces and takes up the genuine insights of modernism into its worldview. But it also takes up its postmodern critique, which is valid and urgently necessary. For, as we speak, the very suburban wastelands I’ve just described are still spreading, growing, “developing” across the globe. Indeed, is not the meta-crisis itself the cancer created by this modernist metastasis? Is modernism itself not causing the end of the world as we know it, after causing the end of so many others’ worlds? And is it not this challenge that metamodern activists are eagerly responding to?
In short, DoE is actually fighting an old ideological battle: namely, the postmodernist worldview against the modernist one. We’ve seen this one before. It lampoons the earnest naivetes of early anthropologists and savages the ethnographers of “savages.” And in as much as it does this honestly and accurately, it does well. More power to you, Davids.
So, what do we say? To the extent that DoE can be seen as a weapon in the arsenal of postmodern critique of modernization’s insanity and the simple nonsense of modern “Progress,” then all the better?
Well, yes and no. Unfortunately, DoE makes big claims—too big. And, in its effort to blow up the simple Progress Myth, there’s a great deal of collateral damage. Lots. Arguably, good history itself is one of the casualties. But, more philosophically, developmental analysis of any kind is assaulted in this carpet bomb of a book. Nuance, ironically, is not its specialty.
Let me be clear. Exploding the simplistic Progress Myth is a good and necessary project. But that shouldn’t be at the expense of good historiography.
Let me be clear (again): The Davids are smart dudes. This is a smart book, with lots of competent research, and even some important new insights and revelations. But being smart doesn’t make you right; it can just make you ingenious.
This book is blatantly revisionist. Though, let me be clear, thricely. “Revisionism” is a dirty word for many, but sometimes revisionist history is necessary. Our postmodern appreciation for the true atrocity of the indigenous genocide by European colonizers is one example where revisionist history was necessary for upending old origin myths with a harder punch of searing, open-eyed critique.
But that revisionism (though also extended too far by some) emerged from an honest reappraisal of the historical record. In the case of DoE, the evidence too often seems tortured to make a particular case the authors want to make; ideology comes first, and the facts are forced to fit. Sometimes their hypothesis is a legitimate reading of the materials, sometimes it’s a stretch, and sometimes it’s simply an assertion that cements as a conclusion.
There are many ways this occurs. The most common is what you might call the “sleight-of-hand” argument. There’s an escalation of claims, each one building off the previous, but each one more tenuous than the last, such that by the end you’ve been led somewhere rather dubious, which nevertheless felt ineluctable. Or else the process works in reverse, beginning with a bold pronouncement that’s shocking and radical, but then gets walked back until the real, actually-supportable argument is really just a fairly mild but hardly revolutionary observation.
Consider this sleight-of-hand. Speaking of the true dawn of humanity, the authors begin with commendable transparency: “What were these ancestral societies like? At this point, at least, we should be honest and admit that, for the most part, we don’t have the slightest idea” (p. 81). From not having the slightest idea on page 81, though, they are nevertheless confident to “reasonably infer” on page 82 that “social organization…[was] likely to have been extraordinarily diverse” (82), which leads them to then declare emphatically and definitively, “In other words, there is no ‘original’ form of human society” a few sentences later. Well, we made short work of this whole argument, didn’t we! All you have to do is beg the question and The Dawn of Everything is settled.
Or consider how the entire Hobbes/Rousseau dichotomy plays out. We begin with a nuanced idea, like: “Of course, [the fundamental choice between a Hobbesian and Rousseauan interpretation] is a very crude simplification… The problem is that anyone seeking an alternative to this rather depressing view of history will quickly find that the only one on offer is…if not Rousseau, then Thomas Hobbes” (p. 2). Then, despite calling out this false dichotomy and claiming to seek an alternative, they give the basic dichotomy some credence: “Rousseau was not entirely mistaken. Something has been lost,” (p. 25), until eventually they basically just adopt the Rousseauan view, having paid enough lip service to nuance to get away with the slippage.
Consider the one that goes on in making the case for Kandiaronk being the real seed of Enlightenment philosophy (with other indigenous thinkers like him), whom Europeans supposedly just ripped off. The conventional reading is to see the ideas ascribed to Kandiaronk in Lahontan’s Curious Dialogue with a Savage of Good Sense Who Has Travelled (1703) as those of Lahontan himself, who used the pretense of reporting a “savage’s” critique of repressive ancien regime Europe in order to propagate emancipatory ideals without himself being implicated. The authors excoriate this idea as clear European hubris, and, in a tone dripping with cynical derision, troll:
“Certainly, if one encounters an argument ascribed to a ‘savage’ in a European text that even remotely resembles anything to be found in Cicero or Erasmus, one is automatically supposed to assume that that no ‘savage’ could possibly have really said it… [T]his habit of thought is very convenient for students of Western literature…who might otherwise be forced to actually try to learn something about what indigenous people thought about the world…” (p. 36)
After the hard hit has been delivered, though, and the revisionist critique has been cashed in, the authors walk the claim back, admitting: “One reason why modern commentators have found it so easy to dismiss Kandiaronk as the ultimate ‘noble savage’ (and, therefore, as a mere projection of European fantasies) is because many of his assertions are so obviously exaggerated,” (p. 56) and that “the text was no doubt augmented and embellished.” Ultimately, this deep denouncement of European historians is reduced to a rather tepid (though still interesting): “There is, however, every reason to believe the basis arguments were Kandiaronk’s own” (p. 51).
Well, sure, that’s a more defensible position—though far less sensational than suggesting the entire European Enlightenment was a smash-and-grab job and that European historians are a bunch of blind racists who can’t believe any non-European could have a good idea. Like so many of the arguments in DoE, this one is delivered forcefully up front, with all the cynical milking of resentment it can get. Then it’s walked back to something far less radical but actually defensible. This way they get to have their cake and eat it, too.
Same goes for the entire “noble savage” idea, which is first given a lip-service critique to suggest vantage and postmodern awareness, but then essentially argued for throughout the rest of the book: Sparknotes version: Europeans dull, oppressed, and evil; indigenous exciting, free, and good.
The problem, of course, is that DoE never really rises beyond the supposedly false dichotomy of Hobbes vs. Rousseau, of progressive civilization vs. noble savage. It claims to, but, arguably, it just gives the most up-to-date rendering of the Rousseauan myth. The nuance of seeing how both might hold truths is not really entertained; instead, Hobbes and Rousseau are made strawmen, and then the authors articulate a neo-Rousseuan view.
Actually, the issue of strawmanning is endemic to the entire text. They start early, and never let up. Here’s a nice strawman of Hobbes himself:
“The political implications of the Hobbesian model need little elaboration. It is a foundational assumption of our economic system that humans are at base somewhat nasty and selfish creatures, basing their decisions on cynical, egoistic calculation rather than altruism or co-operation; in which case, the best we can hope for are more sophisticated internal and external controls on our supposedly innate drive towards accumulation and self-aggrandizement.”
As anyone who’s read Leviathan will recognize, this is quite a caricature (it’s also inaccurate: Hobbes never said people without civilization were “nasty and brutish.” This slippage happens all the time when people strawman Hobbes, to play off of people’s emotions.) Hobbes also never said people don’t co-operate. Indeed, that’s exactly what civilization is. Also, how one uses a monarchist like Hobbes to justify neoliberalism seems curious, though apparently this requires "little elaboration."
Usually, the authors’ strawmanning goes hand-in-hand with an implied moral denunciation of an opposing author. It’s not just that non-revisionist historians are wrong, it’s that they’re, well, racist chauvanists as well. Now, I’m no great fan of Steven Pinker. He gives the simple Progress Myth too much credit. But for the Davids, you’re either with us or against us—a good guy or a bad guy. And Pinker is clearly a bad guy:
“Pinker positions himself as a rational centrist, condemning what he considers to be the extremists on either side. But why then insist that all significant forms of human progress before the twentieth century can be attributed only to that one group of humans who used to refer to themselves as ‘the white race’ (and now, generally, call themselves by its more accepted synonym, ‘Western civilization’)?” (p. 17)
The answer, one is forced to presume, is that Steven Pinker is simply a goddamn white supremacist, I guess. They go on:
“Insisting…that all good things come only from Europe ensures one’s work can be read as a retroactive apology for genocide, since (apparently, for Pinker) the enslavement, rape, mass murder and destruction of whole civilizations – visited on the rest of the world by European powers – is just another example of humans comporting themselves as they always had; it was in no sense unusual. What was really significant, so this argument goes, is that it made possible the dissemination of what he takes to be ‘purely’ European notions of freedom, equality before the law, and human rights to the survivors.” (p. 17-18)
In short: Steven Pinker is just a racist genocidal apologist. Period. Surely this needs little elaboration, either. But…has Steven Pinker ever actually "insisted" that “all good things come only from Europe” and that “enslavement, rape, mass murder and destruction of whole civilizations…made possible the dissemination of…‘purely’ European…freedom…to the survivors”? Find that quote for me and I’ll agree with the characterization. If not, this is just rabid strawmanning and character assassination to make a point. That is, bad historiography.
How about this one, of the great comparative mythologist Mircea Eliade:
“Eliade himself had been close to the fascist Iron Guard in his student days, and his basic argument was that the ‘terror of history’ (as he sometimes called it) was introduced by Judaism and the Old Testament – which he saw as paving the way for the further disasters of Enlightenment thought. Being Jewish, the authors of the present book don’t particularly appreciate the suggestion that we are somehow to blame for everything that went wrong in history. Still, for present purposes, what’s startling is that anyone ever took this sort of argument seriously.” (p. 497)
Again, as anyone with a familiarity of Eliade's work will know, this is an absurd caricature of both his ideas and his person. But, it seems, for the authors, you can’t just be incorrect about something, you also have to be evil.
As standard procedure, the authors strawman the classical historical narrative and its evidence and steelman their neo-Rousseauan claims for indigenous society. Europeans are just dumb and savage brutes, but the indigenous guy who “might dribble, drool, maintain a vacant stare…or…eat excrement or ashes …[or] sit with tethering pegs up their anuses” is a “prophet” and “non-conformist” (p. 97), an “eccentric” who’s accepted as “unorthodox” (p. 98) by the rest of an extremely open-minded community. As you might imagine, little mention is ever made of the crippling superstitions, warfare, and extinctions that also characterized indigenous societies. That would muddy the argument too much. And history, clearly, is no place for nuance.
Let me be clear once more: In saying the above, I'm not at all trying to argue the counter: that Europeans were sages and indigenous thinkers were brutes. That's not my point at all. And it bears repeating, again and again, because by critiquing the Rousseauan view one always get labeled the Eurocentric racist. The unorthodox behavior of shamans was and is, for instance, part of profound spiritual activities, and not something that should be derided, however bizarre such activities may seem to modern Westerners. No, what I'm taking issue with is the selective characterizations the authors engage in. More broadly, I'm taking issue with the authors’ methods of historiography. I’m not necessarily saying their hypotheses, or their inclinations, are all bunk—especially once you get past their sensationalist presentations and get to the truly defensible portions of them. It seems entirely plausible to me that what we think of as the Enlightenment was catalyzed and informed by interactions with indigenous thinkers. It’s also very likely that human origins are far from linear, but messy and multiplistic, etc. Even more emphatically, let me say again: My critique of the authors’ steelmanning indigenous society to prop up their own version of the ‘noble savage’ image should not in any way be read as a suggestion that I must necessarily then believe indigenous society to be the opposite: brutish, savage, etc. DoE being wrong doesn’t make 19th century racist anthropology right. It is, however, just this silly dichotomy that I want to challenge: the one it initially sounded like the authors wished to challenge as well, before simply falling into the old dichotomy themselves. It is the problem that there is a dichotomy, a being on "this side" or "that side," of being a good guy or a bad guy. Framing history in such terms is never a good idea, and yet it is the very thrust of DoE, and the source of its authority.
To the extent that the authors are indeed breaking new ground, great. But all of these arguments could be made without sensationalism, cynicism, bad faith character assassination, strawmanning, conflation, sleight-of-hand rhetoric, etc. History books shouldn’t be revisionist hypotheses wrapped in overstated facts and written as red meat ideology thrown to a particular demographic. But that seems largely what DoE is, to be blunt. There are some legitimate fresh ideas here, but you have to tease them out of the exaggeration and hyperbole. Unfortunately, a book like this, which could add nuance to, if not outright challenge stage theories of social evolution, is too crude in its assertions and commitments to bring anything resembling nuance. It’s not a tuning fork, but a hammer.
And if it were just the simple modernist Progress Myth it was shattering, I’d be fine with that. You don’t need to make great leaps—logical or rhetorical—to show how rotten and hollow that idea is. Just visit central Florida. There you will be greeted by a whole Thanksgiving banquet’s-worth of soulless and dehumanizing nonsense, a rational stupidity of epic proportions which only the oppressed and deranged might label “Progress.” Evidence for the failures of that myth are berating us every day. No, destroying that claptrap would be welcome. The shame in all this is the conflation of the Progress Myth with any notion of developmental stage theories whatsoever. The problem is that the book overstates its case: If this isn’t utopia, then European culture is an evil lie. Well, it’s not utopia. Far from it. Of course, neither was indigenous society.
In (regrettably) rare moments of true clarity untarnished by ideology, the authors recognize as much: that the earliest humans at the dawn of history “grappled with the paradoxes of social order and creativity as much as we do. …They were perhaps more aware of some things and less aware of others. They were neither ignorant savages nor wise sons and daughters of nature. They were, as Helena Valero said of the Yanomami, just people, like us; equally perceptive, equally confused” (p. 119). One can see in our ancestors the same humanity without romanticizing or demeaning them. One can appreciate how complexities of society and information might shift, even as our humanity stays the same. One can imagine dignity and meaningful lives unlike our own, that don’t seek to superimpose our own standards onto the past, and appreciate difference through the ages. One can acknowledge that complexification doesn’t always mean improvement, that development can occur across different lines, and that it can become imbalanced, out of joint, pathological. One can realize that there is much to be gained by learning from and about different worldviews and cultures, not in an attempt to lionize one and shame the other, but because true holistic depth and integration occur when our rich human heritage is seen and harmonized.
Unfortunately, DoE still mostly exists in the realm of using one worldview to bash another. Sure, it’s “punching up,” but it’s still punching, and that’s sort of the problem with the world these days, isn’t it? Everyone’s still punching each other, and offering lengthy justifications for doing so. Ironically, the way the metamodern worldview would try to move past this perennial violence of worldviews is by owning and accepting a nuanced appreciation of stage theories—one thing DoE is eager to problematize and deny in its own quest to try and make the world a better place. This will remain the somewhat consternating legacy of DoE for me, I suspect, as it becomes the new go-to reference anytime anything like stage theories are discussed. “Stage development? Ha! Didn’t you read Graeber’s book?” A continual refrain for some time to come, I suspect.
To which, in summary, I’d say: “Thinking of cultural evolution in terms of stages analogous to individual development may, ultimately, turn out to be a bad model and one we should discard if the evidence demands it. But to say that this is what The Dawn of Everything actually achieves would be as bold, simplistic, ideologically-driven and ultimately empirically unsupported as most of the claims its authors make.”