Book Review: The Dawn of Everything

The new book, The Dawn of Everything, by anthropologist David Graeber (who died before its publication) and archeologist David Wengrow is fascinating.  

It starts by exploring why the origins of inequality suddenly became a concern in 17th and 18th century Europe, a society that had experienced only inequality for millennia. The authors propose that the concern arose from the “indigenous critique,” the criticisms Europeans heard about their societies from peoples in the new world. 

In response to this critique, Europeans theorized about how their society came to be the way it was.  Thomas Hobbes claimed peoples’ lives were “nasty, brutish and short” before rulers came along. Whereas Jean-Jacques Rousseau speculated societies were free and equal until the development of agriculture led to private property in land and the inequalities that resulted from it. 

The authors fault the Physiocrat Turgot, and his acolyte Adam Smith, for arguing that such inequality was inevitable as societies evolved in complexity. This “evolutionist” argument has dominated the social sciences ever since.

The authors then examine the anthropological and archeological evidence for how societies were structured throughout history and from around the world. They argue that the evidence shows that all the responses to the indigenous critique are wrong. Many ruler-less societies existed without their members living lives that were nasty, brutish or short. Agriculture existed in several societies without it leading to private property in land. And a number of complex societies developed while still remaining egalitarian.

Especially fascinating is the authors’ exploration of the concept of “civilization,” which they say has wrongly been associated with societies like Pharaonic Egypt, Inca Peru, Aztec Mexico, Han China, Imperial Rome and ancient Greece, all of which were extremely stratified societies held together by authoritarian government, violence and the radical subordination of women.  

This association stems from an assumption that “civilization” refers to people living in cities. In fact, the word derives from the Latin civilis, which, the authors say, refers to habits of political wisdom and mutual aid that permit societies to organize themselves through voluntary coalition. 

The authors explain that an accurate history of the latter understanding of civilization would begin with the geographically expansive “culture areas” that pre-date any kingdoms or empires. These areas consisted of far flung small settlements that had common forms of domestic life, ritual and hospitality due to vibrant networks of kinship and commerce. It was in these areas that metallurgy was pioneered, maize, olives, vines and date palms were first cultivated, leavened bread and wheat beer were invented, and the technologies applied to fabrics, basketry, pottery and beadwork were developed. This understanding of civilization shows that the work, concerns and innovations of women were at its core. 

At over five hundred pages, the book contains a lot of information to absorb. But the insights gained from reading it are well worth the effort.

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