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The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

by David Graebaer and David Wewgrow

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.

This is a book everyone should read as it is transformative! It is an intellectual feast. There is not a single chapter that does not (playfully) change well-seated intellectual beliefs. It is deep, effortlessly iconoclastic, factually rigorous and a pleasure to read. For generations our remote ancients have been cast as primitive and childlike – either free and equal innocents or thuggish and warlike. Civilization we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing only those original freedoms or by taming our basic instincts. David Graebaer and David Wewgrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction to powerful critique of European society posed by Indigenous observers and intellectuals. Revisiting this dialectic has startling implications for how we make sense of human history today, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy slavery, and civilization itself.

Drawing on path breaking research in archeology and anthropology, the authors illustrate how history becomes a far more interesting place once we learn to throw off our conceptual blinders and perceive what’s really there. If humans did not spend 95% of their evolutionary past in tiny bands of hunter gatherers, what were they doing in all of that time? If agriculture and cities did not mean a plunge into hierarchy and domination, then what kinds of social and economic organizations did they lead to? The answers are often unexpected, and suggest that the course of human history may be less set in stone, and more open to playful, hopeful possibilities, that we tend to assume. The Dawn of Everything fundamentally transforms our understanding of the human past and begins to imagine new forms of freedom, new ways of organizing society. This is a monumental book of formidable intellectual range, animated by curiosity, moral vision and a faith in the power of direct action.

The book began with an appeal to ask better questions. We started out by observing that to acquire after the origins of inequality necessarily means creating a myth, a fall from grace, a technological transposition of the first chapters of the Book of Genesis – which, in most contemporary versions, takes the form of a mythical narrative stripped of any prospect of redemption. In these accounts, the best we humans can hope for is some most tinkering with our inherently squalid condition – and hopefully, dramatic action to recent any looming absolute disaster. The only other theory on offer to date has to assume that there were no origins of inequality, because humans are naturally somewhat thuggish creatures and our beginnings were a miserable, violent affair; in which case ‘progress’ or ‘civilization’ driven forward, largely by our own selfish and competitive nature- was itself redemptive. This opinion is extremely popular among billionaires but holds little appeal to anyone else, including scientists who are keenly aware that it isn’t in accord with the facts.

The book began with a quote which refers to the Greek motion of kairos as one of those occasional moment in a society’s history when its frames of reference undergo a shift- a metamorphosis of the fundamental principles and symbols, when the lines between myth and change is possible. Philosophers sometimes like to speak of ‘the masterpiece’ that is, a breakthrough that reveals aspects of reality that had previously been unimaginable but, once seen, can never be unseen. If so, kairos is the kind of time in which Events are prone to happen.

Societies around the world appear to be cascading towards such a point. This is particularly true of those which, since the First World War, have been in the habit of calling themselves ‘Western’. On the one hand, fundamental breakthroughs in the physical sciences, or even artistic expression, no longer seem to occur with anything like the regularity people came to expect in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet at the same time, our scientific means of understanding the past, not just our species’ past but that of our planet, has been advancing with dizzying speed. Scientists in 2020 are not (as readers of mid-twentieth-century science fiction might have hoped) encountering alien civilizations in distant star systems; But they are encountering radically different forms of society under their jar, but now understood in entirely new ways.

This is a scholarly and dense work that needs to be read by all. It asks good questions and gives us much to ponder.

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