And what does any of this have to do with space exploration?
Talianki, Ukraine, a thriving city of thousands, about a few hours away from Kyiv by car, but a much longer trip 5,800 years ago. Except, wasn’t the going story there were no cities that far back, at least as far as we call a place a city? The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow questions everything we were taught since grade school. Yes, these were cities – if we get away from the myth-making where history is a series of inevitable stages in human material advancement. The Dawn of Everything upends everything.
The history, and myth: Our ancestors happened upon agriculture after languishing for tens of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers. This revolution, queue dramatic music, brings an unimaginable surplus of food and time and a sharp rise in population. With no choice in the matter, to manage the flow of work and all these new tasks, luxuries, and goods, we get aristocrats, warriors, and bureaucracy. In exchange, we lose freedom. The newfound wealth sits atop a pyramid scheme (literally) with the power of the few over the many. Most simply, so it goes, cultivating cereal grains naturally bred hierarchy. Right along, another defined transition occurs, the leap to cities then states. Once there was no city, but now there is, thanks to growing crops!
Graeber and Wengrow, across this not-so-small book (526 pages, with a section of notes that alone is longer than many books), dismantle these simplistic notions of inevitable historical patterns. Page after page, we find out the evidence was never really there for the narrative of people as so predictable, steps as a given, or that a city, agriculture, and peoples are so easily labeled. Humans, it turns out, are incredibly imaginative, and Dawn reminds us of this with an unflinching look at the historical record. Dawn also points out there often is no record, no more than a tooth or a handful of flint pieces, and historians just filled in the gaps with unsupported conjecture. More recent findings are filling in the record very differently.
We wonder where we are going, yet do we really know where we have been?
Forward to 2022, as we explore how we will explore and settle beyond Earth. In one train of thought, inevitably, humans will industrialize space resources in our vicinity, mining asteroids or our Moon. The mad dash taking us to the four corners of the Earth as we -did we say inevitably– deplete more accessible resources nearby will define our space expansion. Just as we end up in the Arctic, we will take our next steps in space as that simple linear progression pushes us further.
Maybe too, we commercialize space, starting with low Earth orbit. Only commerce will provide the resources to grow, just as trade has fueled past material and technological growth. Space tourism, business, and new products will be expensive and exclusive at first, but eventually, everyone will benefit. As with air travel, where once only the wealthy could afford to fly, progress will assure that one day anyone can enter the ninth level of hell at O’Hare. After a narrow start, the analogy repeats, eventually, everyone will benefit.
All these tropes of space exploration, from a final frontier, to colonies, to a new Earth (what happened to the original?), to billionaires and business, from wild west to gold rush, have an uncanny resemblance to our flawed understanding of pre-history. As Dawn reveals, steps, patterns, and the sense “there is no alternative” when interpreting our past are poor notions. Worse, these notions neglect our demonstrated ability to make choices about how we organize and live, thinking through how everyone will benefit.
We should be wary of future paths presented as a given, just as with history as a narrative of humans helplessly riding a powerful wave at sea. The mountain that must be climbed, the resources that must be exploited, the wealth that must be created, or the urges compelling us, all strip us of what is most human – making choices. Choices are about agency and awareness. Tropes about our future beyond Earth can’t be maladaptive myths about ancient human history run in reverse.
Dawn is not a history an avid reader will find a fit to the sci-fi of Asimov, where his Foundation series leaves us firmly believing history is oh so predictable. Asimov ran with the idea of history as forces, not choices. We just have to figure out a mathematical way to predict the obvious, if only! As an empire declines, we learn in Asimov’s Foundation and Empire that a strong emperor and a strong general cannot co-exist. To read Dawn is to entertain the possibility that Asimov’s “psychohistory” ruined many a childhood brain, forgetting science follows the evidence, not the bias. This is also so for understanding our pre-history.
Graeber and Wengrow give us all these humans running around tens of thousands of years ago making choices. Importantly, they were likely very aware of the impact of their choices, and there is ample evidence across continents they may have consciously explored just about every option. Unfortunately, our western trope is an initial state of grace, hunting, foraging, and lacking self-awareness – a story after the fact, not what the archeological record suggests.
Imagine 2135, Proxima Centauri b, and one of the first human settlements beyond our solar system. As Graeber and Wengrow show in Dawn, humans have an immense capacity for choice. We could look back from 2135 and learn that we also made choices. We rejected the notion anything about moving off-Earth was inevitable, and any ill that stowed away was a price to be paid. Perhaps unknown forces do not carry us down a road with poor consequences, all to be explained away or ignored by comforting romantic myths.
Graeber and Wengrow remind readers about an ancient world full of choices and freedoms, where there were always alternatives. As we look to a future among the stars, Dawn can help shape the discussion. An Expanse-like future in space, where we take all our divisions and baggage with us, is only as inevitable as we choose. Perhaps we have more Iain Banks culture-like anarchy, as Dawn finds in many large-scale, complex, self-organizing ancient societies – and they did quite well, thank you. Perhaps the well-worn labels we know won’t fit, or we’ll imagine some other organizing principles. Suppose we look back as we look forward to space exploration. Dawn will leave you valuing choices still to be conceived and understood well over any inevitability we may erroneously think is the only option.