The Dawn of Everything

I’ve read Graeber’s “Bullshit jobs” before, so I was expecting something politically charged. Bullshit Jobs was eye opening for me. Graeber has a talent for reinterpreting the world and put words on things that define them in a new perspective. The lame thing about Bullshit Jobs I found was that it was very much unsubstantiated and amounted to a lot of straw man arguments.

This is the mindset with which I’ve read The Dawn of Everything. I knew Graeber was an anthropologist, but I was not expecting a book on archeology and… anthropology. The Dawn of Everything is still filled to the brim with revolutionary ideas and interpretations.

The influence of native Americans on the French Revolution

The book starts (that’s literally just the first point of many) with the reinterpretation of the French revolution. Graeber and Wengrow say that the ideals of personal freedom and mutual aid came in France during the Enlightenment (or Siècle des Lumières) by the exposure of French intellectuals to the rejection of European values by the native Americans. The common idea of foolish savages overwhelmed by the intellectual and technological superiority of Europeans cannot be further from the truth. Graeber and Wengrow focus on the interaction between the French missionaries and colonists with the Algonquians and Iroquois.

Specifically Kondiaronk, the Huron-Wyandot chief was a notorious diplomat that interacted not only with the then-warring Iroquois people, but also a lot with the French occupants. He was extremely appreciated in the colonial society as a talented orator and rational philosopher.

In fact, it is likely that Kondiaronk not only interacted with the colonists, but also went to France and met such people as Montesquieu and various architects of the new way of thinking society in Europe.

The stories and retelling of interactions with native Americans, especially their logic for rejecting European society were extremely popular publications at the time. Most notably Lahontan’s “New Voyages to North America”. Today, those books are interpreted as devices of rhetoric where Western authors attribute to foreigner ideas that they themselves have. This was indeed a popular device, most notable (at least from personal experience) is Voltaire, which even invents a giant robot from space landing on earth and trying to tease out the working of French society, completely baffled by how silly all of it is.

However, Lahontan having lived and interacted with Kondiaronk for a large part of his life, is likely to simply be retelling what Kondiaronk said. Especially given Lahontan was a military man, not a literate or philosopher. Graeber and Wengrow say that — indeed — the seeds of criticism of European society were sown by the Jesuit missionaries and other colonists who interacted with the American natives and imported their reasoning to Europe.

Graeber and Wengrow even go on to say that at the time, it would have been silly to assume that personal freedom was a western value. In fact, quite the opposite is true: Thinkers of the time thought that democracy or any form of power short of totalitarian monarchy would inevitably lead to complete anarchy and chaos. At the image of Hobbes’ savage in the Leviathan.

The first cities

Graeber and Wengrow paint a new landscape of early European and Mesoamerican cities. They list important excavation sites that came to light recently that would gain from being better known by the general public (if not for their impossible-to-remember names). Such as:

Graeber and Wengrow describe the archaeological records of those sites, take notice of the specific lack (or ominous presence) of typical markers of wealth disparity and imagine what a society leaving those records could look like, taking inspiration from known social structures (such as native American or Basque societies). This results in a surprising but realistic (if maybe imaginary and potentially far from the truth) depiction of the past that is in complete discordance with our commonplace naive and boring pictures of our ancestors.

The three forms of domination

This might be the part of The Dawn of Everything that changes most my perspective of the world. Surely Graeber and Wengrow take this theory of domination from some other authors, but regardless, it was new to me and not only very helpful to understand our world today, but also understand forms of powers in the past. Graeber and Wengrow identify three fundamental ways you can force someone to do something (willingly or not):

This is a surprisingly useful framework. Try applying it to anything. You’ll soon see how it underlies a lot of our social interactions or even the working of multiplayer games.

In The Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow forego the usual anthropology description of tribes, chiefdoms, complex chiefdoms and kingships and build an understanding of ancient societies based on the three dominations. Societies where power is based on none of them, one of them (first order), two of them (second order) or three of them (third order). It has a much more broad level of application.

Graeber and Wengrow dismiss the classical anthropology classification as being too weak to describe the rich diversity of cultures and form of dominations found across the world today and most likely in the past too. They also argue that the classical model is ideologically loaded, inherited from a mistaken past where the belief in linear evolution was firmly held.

The fallacy of linear social evolution

Linear social evolution is the idea that the western social system of an hyper-hierarchic top-down decision system is the inevitable outcome of agglomerations. The idea goes that first people lived in a pure natural state of small independent egalitarian groups, and with the adoption of agriculture and the potential for wealth accumulation (eg: granaries), hierarchies and small chiefs spawned, either by appropriating the resources or in response to attempts to violently overtake them. Those chiefs confiscating parts of those resources to employ armed men to keep their power. And as societies grew and population centers densified, inequalities grew more and more, creating kings and other chief types we are familiar with today.

If there is only a single thing Graeber and Wengrow want us to remember from the book, it is that the linear social evolution that inevitably leads to the creation of a small powerful elite is a busted idea, a fallacy invented by Victorian English philosophers to defend the most atrocious and inapt form of power (absolute divine monarchy). The second part of the argument (for me personally) is questionable, but the first seems self evident. To the point that I sometime feel like Graeber and Wengrow are beating a dead horse. The diversity of social arrangements at the dawn of humanity was extraordinary. It is easy, but also very dumb, to say after the fact that the only surviving mode of society was the necessary and inevitable one.

Archaeological records show many large cities with very little social inequalities, as well as small settlements or tribes with large inequalities and holding slaves. On all continents. In The Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow describe a rich variety of societies, both existing and extinct with a staggering large palette of social systems and inter-relational behaviors. Graeber and Wengrow speculate that humans, for at least the last 20 thousand years, were consciously engineering their society. Learning from the mistakes of their forebears or consciously rejecting the models of their neighbours, and making a society explicitly in opposition to the ones they knew.

A palaeontological aside

This argument reflects in fact a debate that already happened in a completely different domain of science: paleontology. In “Wonderful World”, Gould defends a reinterpretation of biological evolution. Wonderful World tells the story of how the discovery of the Burgess shale, a fossil deposit dating from the earliest known time of multicellular life, went misinterpreted for 60 years.

The deposit was discovered by palaeontologist Charles Walcott. He excavated a lot of fossils, but did only superficial analysis of them. He failed to see the beautiful diversity of creatures and body plans captured by the fossils. It’s only 60 years later, when the fossil collection was re-examined by Whittington, Conway Morris and Briggs that completely new and surprising species were properly described.

Gould says that Walcott’s understanding of evolution, inspired by Victorian ideals, (in addition to his ridiculously busy schedule) was what prevented him from appreciating the diversity of fossils he had under the eyes. Indeed, at the time, evolution was understood as a progression from the most basic unicellular creature to an inevitable intelligent human (a view called orthogenesis). Coming from simple beginning to increasingly complex and adapted organisms. Gould counter this with what he calls “the contingency of history,” that really what survives is random. All great extinction events are trimmings. The diversity of life narrows with each extinction and species filling the newly opened ecological niche are only but small iteration on the surviving species. The conditions of extinctions cannot be predicted, therefore, the species that survive may do so because of purely incidental features, there is no “better” species that are bound to survive and take over the world, just the random set of species that just happen to be capable of living in the new arbitrary environment, the most “lucky” ones. So the world would look completely different today if the order of the massive extinction events or their nature changed even a little bit (apart from sharks and crabs, it seems nothing can possibly kill them)

Gould exemplifies the linear mode of thinking by the popular March of Progress iconography. Representing small monkey → walking monkey → ape → bipedal → humanoid → Homo Sapiens with a spear → Modern man. The picture omits the rich arborescence of speciation or the fact that by nature evolution is directionless. Leading to the idea of an inevitable march toward the current world. This is in complete disregard of the modern understanding of evolution, even the fundamental workings of evolution.

Graeber and Wengrow really are making no different claim. Linear evolution, both social and biological are political ideas from centuries ago that cannot have any claim of scientific legitimacy today. The Dawn of Everything is just a reminder that we should apply this updated knowledge to our understanding of the world. In fact this iconography of the March of Progress includes the prejudices of social evolution by putting tribal savages as a step to attain the level of civilized westerner.

The lack of social imagination

This concept of evolution did impede scientific understanding of evolution, and is likely to have severely hurt the understanding of human social relations.

Graeber and Wengrow’s vivid descriptions of alternative human societies may veer on the side of fantasy at times, but outright discarding any interpretation of previous societies that do not involve violent domination is as fantasist if not more than accepting the potential for societies where people live with each other in mutual understanding and respect.

The Dawn of Everything is a reminder that a better society is possible, where our fundamental freedoms are not given up from birth and where there is no self-important assholes projecting and enforce their bankrupt mindset on everyone through arbitrary vertical hierarchies.