The Dawn of Everything

A New History of Humanity

Hardcover, 691 pages

English language

Published Oct. 17, 2021 by Signal.

ISBN:
978-0-7710-4982-8
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4 stars (17 reviews)

For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike--either free and equal innocents, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could only be achieved by sacrificing those original freedoms, or alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. Graeber and Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction to powerful critiques of European society posed by Indigenous observers and intellectuals. Revisiting this encounter 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 archaeology and anthropology, the authors show how history becomes a far more interesting place once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles 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 all that …

3 editions

weakens under closer inspection

3 stars

Wide-ranging on themes of pre-history and archeological evidence for alternative social organization., a rich history of creative perspectives on human relations. Many of the arguments are compelling for non-domination, non-hierarchical societies and rejecting a still-common "myth of progress", "stages of social evolution", or that social inequality is an inevitable or inherent outcome of agriculture or urbanism or social complexity. Instead they find our societal problems in violence, patriarchy, and domination, and point us to look at the margins of history and society for answers.

Upon digging in to most of the areas discussed, looking to cited sources and other current experts in a topic, much of what is presented as novel or based in new evidence gets weaker, unsupported conjecture, or misrepresentation. It took me a while to write this review as it took me a while to become comfortable with this disappointment. There is just too much too broad …

Beyond great.

5 stars

Dream quests. Empires without war. Women leadership. A city centered around hallucinogenic journeys filled with weird architecture. An enlightenment of democratic settlements blossoming from the ruins of a centralized, aggressive kingdom throughout the current USA. Being able to travel across all of North America and find allied clans who must help you, even though you don't share the same language. People groups taking up farming, and then discarding it. The potential origins of private property. Axes of ideas that lead to entrenched arbitrary power, and the multiplicative danger that comes when multiple axes are involved.

The authors do cherry-pick examples from history to support their thesis that people throughout history lived in a wide variety of political structures, and that history is not stuck in a set evolutionary channel, because, well, that's what actually happened. History is much more complicated than most people think, and this means that the present …

Dishonest

2 stars

Despite the fact that I'd like their premise to be true, and that it seems there is truth to the idea that "primitive" societies in the past were more complex and interactive than we once thought, the authors have cherry picked data and built a variety of straw men to dismantle in order to recklessly extrapolate and generalize to make an argument about what they would like society to be like.

Read this book with a lot of caution, and do some other reading of both the specific examples they discuss, and also of the general context and premises that they put forward. They present a lot of information and it is easy to take them at their word if you have no knowledge of these or related fields.

An account of how unimaginative we seem to be at the moment

No rating

How else could we organize ourselves? How did we lose "the ability freely to recreate ourselves by recreating our relations with one another"?

This book gets into the weeds of anthropology and archaeology, but it's "zoom out" moments are really interesting. The Rousseau/Hobbes debate leaves out much and, they argue, makes everything much more boring than in actually is, given the actual data available about previous social arrangements.

How did we get stuck? We have forgotten that social organization have been a matter of play, tinkering, and sometimes is even dependent on things like seasonal changes. It feels like we are in the least playful and least imaginative epoch, succumbing to the ideology of Thatcher's "There is no alternative."

One interesting set of arguments in the book is about scale. Received wisdom says that structures of domination are tied to population scaling up. Larger, more dense populations means complexity, which …

It matters what thoughts think

4 stars

A tale of two David's: Graeber's final book, co-authored with Wengrow, is an epic volume of archaeology and anthropology that decentres and challenges accepted patterns of western thought that many social scientists present as facts. In particular, the authors take aim at books like Sapiens by showing how they proliferate accepted but unproven myths about human behaviour without following the evidence. As a book of critique and challenge, it is funny, thoughtful, and sharp. Some of the ideas, such as that the European idea of democracy may have originated from colonised Native American cultures, are radical but well argued.

Despite this, there are some flaws. A couple of chapters run far too long with too much repetition, and the scope of societies that are used to construct the arguments is limited. Also, there is a repeated insistence of humanist thought, dismissing animal or nonhuman relationships as unrelated to the story. …

Fascinating archeology, disappointing pedagogy

3 stars

Content warning Their thesis statement, as I can glean it, which they only state in the last chapter.

Didn't really work for me, I'm afraid...

4 stars

It feels odd giving anything but an enthusiastic review to a book co-authored by the late, great David Graeber, but I'm afraid this one didn't really work for me. In my (and perhaps the book's?) partial defence, the circumstances weren't ideal. I read it as an ebook (so hard to flip back to check on facts) and, what's more, as a library ebook (so with limited time to finish it). I also haven't really been firing on all cylinders over the break, so maybe that's part of the problem? Anyway, if you take all those mitigating factors away, what I think we're left with is a book that somewhat uncomfortably straddles an attempt to provide a comprehensive, but alternative, 'big history', with an attempt to advance a counter to the default assumption of a teleology of societal evolution, that holds that agriculture is inevitable (and so hunter-gatherers are really just …

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