A book review – “The Dawn of Everything” by David Graeber and David Wengrow

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.

The great wave off Kanagawa

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.

Proxima Centauri b – artists’ representation. From the European Southern Observatory.

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.

3 thoughts on “A book review – “The Dawn of Everything” by David Graeber and David Wengrow

  1. “The Dawn of Everything” is a biased disingenuous account of human history (www.persuasion.community/p/a-flawed-history-of-humanity ) that spreads fake hope (the authors of “The Dawn” claim human history has not “progressed” in stages, or linearly, and must not end in inequality and hierarchy as with our current system… so there’s hope for us now that it could get different/better again). As a result of this fake hope porn it has been widely praised. It conveniently serves the profoundly sick industrialized world of fakes and criminals. The book’s dishonest fake grandiose title shows already that this work is a FOR-PROFIT, instead a FOR-TRUTH, endeavor geared at the (ignorant gullible) masses.

    Fact is human history has “progressed” by and large in linear stages, especially since the dawn of agriculture (www.focaalblog.com/2021/12/22/chris-knight-wrong-about-almost-everything ). The book’s alleged major “fundamental” insight is “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently” (the first part of that statement is hardly a great insight because a perceptive child can recognize that) YET fails to answer why we do NOT make it differently than it is now if we, supposedly can make it “EASILY” different, why we’ve been “stuck” in this destructive system for a very long time. THAT is really where “the ultimate, hidden truth” is buried and the answer is… it is because of the enduring hegemony of “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room” (www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html ) which the fake hope-giving authors of “The Dawn” entirely ignore naturally (no one can write a legitimate human history without understanding the nature of humans)

    A good example that one of the authors, Graeber, has no real idea what world we’ve been living in and about the nature of humans is his last brief article on Covid where his ignorance shines bright already at the title of his article, “After the Pandemic, We Can’t Go Back to Sleep.” Apparently he doesn’t know that most people WANT to be asleep, and that they’ve been wanting that for thousands of years (and that’s not the only ignorant notion in the title). Yet he (and his partner) is the sort of person who thinks he can teach you something authentically truthful about human history and whom you should be trusting along those terms. Ridiculous!

    “The Dawn” is just another fantasy, or ideology, cloaked in a hue of cherry-picked “science,” served lucratively to the gullible ignorant underclasses who crave myths and fairy tales.

    “the evil, fake book of anthropology, “The Dawn of Everything,” … just so happened to be the most marketed anthropology book ever. Hmmmmm.” — Unknown


    1. Tell me how you really feel. I would offer that criticism of Dawn can arise easily if deviating even a short distance from the particular question Graeber and Wengrow dive into – does the evidence support the labels and stages typically used to describe ancient or “pre”-history? It turns out societies that prospered on large scales and for long time periods were a lot more interesting than we thought. Lack of royal tombs or lack of large ceremonial structures is just as telling about societies as when they are found (when found, paid more attention to, fitting biased expectations.) There is ample literature out there that is more about how we ended up where we are, aside from the many directions Graeber/Wengrow point out as having very likely existed. Say “Why the West Rules-For Now”, “The Lucifer Principle”, just about anything Jared Diamond, “Human Natures” or (my old-time favorites) “Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches.” More so, the discussion I find of value is how we try to understand our past, unflinchingly, if often hidden by time, and how such a task will help us talk about a future we can choose with open eyes.


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