When I finished reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow, I immediately started reading it a second time. I can count on one hand the number of times I've immediately reread a book, and two of them were on similar topics, so before I tell you what I thought of the new book, I'll tell you about the other two so we can see how they relate.
After I graduated from college in 1998, I went on a Daniel Quinn kick. A good friend had had an epiphany — bordering on existential crisis — after reading Ishmael, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. I wound up reading most of his books, and my favorite was Beyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure. It was a compelling read, not least because of its astonishingly short chapters, each containing a single idea. I not only read it several times, I bought copies for family and friends. His basic message in that book is that the story we've been told, that civilization as we know it is the best way to live and nothing lies beyond it, is a lie. Humans evolved to live in tribes, and rather than resist tribalism we should embrace it as the only proven, sustainable, and satisfying way to live.
Although I was passionate about the book, It bothered me that its bibliography was so sparse there was nothing to back up most of his points. In particular, I had visited Teotihuacán and was surprised by his assertion that the people there (and in other abandoned prehistoric cities) had just "walked away from the pyramid" unprovoked by any environmental or social crisis, so I emailed him and asked what his source was for that. He emailed me back telling me to "fuck off." I was so surprised by this response from my idol that I immediately deleted it — not that a 20-year-old email would prove anything anyway, but you'll just have to take my word that this happened.
The spell was lifted, and I could no longer see anything in his books but empty rhetoric and pompous bluster. Other assertions he'd made in his books, such as that agriculture was humanity's original sin, didn't stand up to scrutiny. I started looking for other writers who could uphold the standards of academic scholarship even as they critiqued it. I found what I was looking for in The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen, which is captivating but a long and painful slog — a 700 page litany of the atrocities our culture has committed. By the time I was done reading it, I was certain that society was a sinking ship, and we should be readying the lifeboats. So I spent a year bicycling around the country visiting ecovillages.
A Theory of Everything
When I finished my trip, I was feeling a bit better about the state of the world, but I still needed help making sense of it. I found that help in A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality by Ken Wilber. Reading it made me feel like my brain had been turned inside out, wrapped up in the picture from the box of the jigsaw puzzle I'd been struggling to assemble, and then stuffed back into my head. As with Beyond Civilization, I immediately read it a second time, then bought copies for friends and family so we could talk about it. When they were unimpressed, I found a book club of other people who were impressed that I could discuss it with. Ultimately I moved to Fairfield, Iowa, where people talked about ideas like that in every corner café. It was intoxicating.
What got me so excited was that Wilber's integral theory really does provide an explanation for everything, from how life evolved to why it's so hard to have a civil conversation about politics. It's a sort of recapitulation theory: because every individual human passes through predictable developmental states, and because society is made up of these individuals, therefore societies also pass through developmental states as the people in them develop. Every idea, school of thought, or worldview can be assigned a location on his "All Quadrants, All Levels" map corresponding to its state, which "includes and transcends" the previous states. For example, an integral theorist might say that Daniel Quinn's celebration of tribes is an example of the "pre-trans fallacy" because ethnic tribes are less inclusive than the corporate states most of us live in.
If calling other people "less developed" rings warning bells for you, you can be assured it did with my friends and family, too. My mom looked at that map and asked, "And where are you, if you believe this?" I pointed to the lower left corner, level 7, where "integral" is the step beyond "pluralistic." She pointed to the next level, "holonic." "And how do you get there?" Wilber says that you have to get comfortable in your current state, and then get uncomfortable with it, before you are ready to grow into the next stage.
I did ultimately get uncomfortable with integral theory. People resist categorization when you get to know them, and so do their ideas, and few people appreciate being labeled with a jargon that they don't understand. More to the point, although Wilber cited far more external sources in his end notes than Quinn, it's hard not to notice that they are overwhelmingly white male academics like himself. How can we take his calls for integration seriously while he runs with such a homogeneous crowd?
I sought out more diverse perspectives, but they were, well, diverse. All over the place. I didn't realize how much I was craving that feeling of being wrapped in the puzzle picture until it happened again.
The Dawn of Everything
Graeber and Wengrow ("the Davids") did not write a slim, bingeable primer like Quinn and Wilber did. The Dawn of Everything is an intimidating book, almost 700 pages including notes and bibliography. I chose to listen to the audiobook instead, and Mark Williams's chipper English-accented narration helped me imagine I was reading an article from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy exploring that great question of why "most of the people on [Earth] were unhappy for pretty much of the time." Unfortunately, I was left with the feeling that I'd lost the thread of the argument, which is part of why I immediately listened a second time.
A second reading confirmed my impression that the first five chapters are really solid. They make the case that what we've been taught about prehistoric societies was based on very incomplete evidence interpreted through a cultural lens, and now that we have more archaeological evidence and more anthropological understanding, we can better appreciate how diverse human societies have always been. Contemporary tribes like the ones Quinn celebrated and promoted are not less evolved than corporate states, any more than we humans evolved from today's dolphins. We share a common ancestor, but they've evolved just as much as we have. In a moment of uncharacteristic brevity, the Davids sum up the whole book by saying, "Human beings are more interesting than other human beings are, at times, inclined to imagine."
Those other, unimaginative human beings would include evolutionists like Wilber, pessimists like Jensen, and anarchists like Quinn, though they are not mentioned by name; the Davids' sights are set on their fellow anthropologists and archaeologists whose interpretations were skewed by Enlightenment philosophers like Rousseau and Hobbes. It is very satisfying to read or listen as they meticulously and mercilessly take down their fellow white (and/or Jewish) male academics for misinterpreting facts and theorizing without evidence. It is rather less satisfying, though, when they go on to formulate their own theory. I had to wonder, can we trust that they really set their cultural lens aside?
One of my favorite parts of the book is how they demonstrate that Rousseau and Hobbes — and indeed, the Enlightenment as a whole — were responding to what they call "the indigenous critique of European civilization." Not only had native Americans seen European society and hated it; Europeans who experienced native societies often "walked away from the pyramid" (Quinn's term, not the Davids') as soon as they had the chance. The Enlightenment philosophers were trying to figure out how their own culture could be improved in the light of this devastating critique, and the democracies that emerged as a result bore a closer resemblance to native American democracies than anything in ancient Greece.
The main question of the book — namely, How did we get stuck in a social structure that doesn't work for most of us? — is laid out in the excellent first five chapters. In the second five, the Davids launch into a rambling series of vignettes from ancient societies around the world, though with the Americas and Eurasia heavily over-represented and almost no examples from Africa. While these case studies are interesting, and I am certain they are there to reinforce the authors' theory, even after a second pass I was unable to find a coherent thread that holds them together. I would encourage any reader who gets impatient to skip ahead to chapter 11.
Ultimately what the Davids propose is that people in early societies had three fundamental freedoms: the freedom to disobey orders, to leave societies they didn't like, and to form their own societies. By the time Kondiaronk and other native Americans issued their critique, they had observed that Europeans had traded those freedoms for three forms of domination: control of violence, control of information, and charismatic leadership. As for the question the Davids set out to answer, how it was that we colonizers came to make that trade, the final two chapters make a brave attempt to wrap it up but ultimately can only gesture vaguely in the direction of property rights in ancient Rome. That is, it was the legal right to destroy one's own property rather than pass it on that was humanity's original sin, and not agriculture. It's worth considering, but as an answer to the question at the heart of the book, I'm afraid it's not well supported by the evidence they presented.
Include and transcend
I want to say a bit more about how this book sheds light on the other two. I can't defend Daniel Quinn's empty rhetoric, and most of his assertions in Ishmael belong in the rubbish, but when it comes to Beyond Civilization, it seems the Davids have his back. The people who he says "walked away from the pyramid" of Teotihuacán and other ancient cities were exercising their fundamental freedom to leave, and people who form new, contemporary tribes like those Quinn champions are exercising their freedom to form their own societies. Those societies are not less evolved just because they have a tribal structure; on the contrary one could argue that after centuries of stagnation, any change at all from our current system would be a step forward. More than that, the Davids agree with Quinn that we have been fed a lie about our civilization being the pinnacle of progress.
As for Ken Wilber, it seems he is one of the folks who's been feeding us that lie. Even if it is true that each individual human develops in a series of predictable stages, we cannot look at our fellow adults — particularly across cultures — and conclude that they are less developed than us just because they hold different views. Human beings are, after all, more interesting than that. What Wilber got right is that we have to transcend that evolutionary worldview in order to move on to a more inclusive understanding.
In any case, I highly recommend The Dawn of Everything, and I welcome your comments about this article. Not here in the page; I've had to shut comments off due to spam bots, but if you submit your comments through the contact form, I can add them to the page myself. Thank you!