Review of “The dawn of everything”: false from the beginning

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“The dawn of everything” is an intelligent and boastful book, which presents itself – without any shame – as “a new history of humanity”. combative work which pushes a revisionist vision of prehistory, it leads its fight against Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes, whose ideas on primitive man as a creature mired in a state of nature that it rejects as pure fancy. It is the anthropological equivalent of dismantling statues. Its authors are (late) David Graeber and David Wengrow, professors at the London School of Economics and University College London respectively. Their book is a manifesto for primitive man, an attempt to give him back his “full humanity”.

Prehistoric man, say MM. Graeber and Wengrow, was neither a fool nor an idiot. Far from being akin to modern day apes to which he is readily compared by popularizers of anthropology – such as Yuval Noah Harari in “Sapiens” (2014) – he was complex, creative and “full of playful possibilities”.

Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

By David Graeber and David Wengrow

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

704 pages

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“The Dawn of Everything” is the latest – and most provocative – in a line of Big History: daring panoptic works that offer to explain all of human history. The genre began with “Maps of Time” (2004), by David Christian, and includes practitioners such as M. Harari, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond and Francis Fukuyama. The book ran for 10 years and is just as dense and passionate as one would expect from a ten-year labor of love, devised by two erudite and mischievous men.

Mr. Graeber, the more ungovernable of the two authors, died in September of last year, three weeks after the book ended. An American anarchist and anthropologist, he immigrated to Britain in 2008 after failing to secure a job at Yale (and, subsequently, failing to secure employment at any of the more than 20 American universities he had applied to) . His views were just too radical, which is astonishing in light of the current obsessions of American campuses. Mr. Graeber also helped organize the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, when his anti-capitalist book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” was published.

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Mr Wengrow, his British writing partner, is a soft-spoken archeology professor with a lower public profile. In a dedication to Mr. Graeber, he describes the latter as someone who “tried to live up to his ideas on social justice and liberation”. It is not surprising that such a man, with his co-author, tries to free prehistoric humans from the shackles in which they have been locked since Rousseau wrote his “Discours sur origin et le basis des inequalités entre l ‘humanity’ in 1754.

Until the early years of the 19th century, the authors tell us, “there was no ‘prehistory’ yet. There was only history, even though part of it was completely wrong. The term ‘prehistory’ only entered common parlance after an 1858 excavation in Brixham Cave in Devon, which uncovered stone axes in a sealed rock enclosure, alongside the remains of ‘extinct animals. After that, archeology and geology began to play a major role in our understanding of man and the earth.

Although science has helped to disseminate the biblical accounts of the origins of man, the political myths of prehistory – as MM. Graeber and Wengrow – endure to this day. And they endure, say the authors, even though “most of human history is irretrievably lost to us.” We can be sure that there was a time when someone started a fire or cooked a meal for the first time, but we really don’t know how these things turned out. It is therefore difficult to resist the temptation to “make up stories about what could have happened”. As a result, “distant times can become a vast canvas for the elaboration of our collective fantasies”.

The first analytical fictions are those of Rousseau and Hobbes. Like MM. Graeber and Wengrow describe the former’s point of view, the early humans were hunter-gatherers “living in a prolonged state of childlike innocence, in small groups” who were egalitarian. This state of equality ended with the adoption of agriculture, which ushered in “civilization” and “the state”, as well as hierarchies, rulers, laws and inequalities.

Hobbes had made his mark earlier in “Leviathan” (1651). Intrinsically selfish humans, he wrote, had existed in a state of nature which had nothing of the innocence in which Rousseau believed, but which, on the contrary, made life “lonely, poor, wicked, brutal and short.” . Civilization and the rules, with their obstacles to freedom, have improved the condition of man. From this point of view, write MM. Graeber and Wengrow, human society is “founded on the collective repression of our lowest instincts.”

The authors state that these accounts of human history – of Rousseau’s gentle but inept primitive man and Hobbes’ thug – “are simply not true.” Showing their left hand, they add that Rousseau and Hobbes’ positions “have dire political implications” for the way we live now.

They mean that the loss of freedom that came from the transformation of primitive man into, first, a farmer, and then a member of a stable society, made the current ‘inequality’ look like a natural consequence of that. ‘history and’ a melancholy pessimism about the human condition seem like common sense. And because our early days were so bleak, civilization – “pushed forward, in large part, by our own selfish and competitive nature” – is touted as “redemptive.” (In the Hobbesian perspective, this saved man from perpetual violence, and in Rousseau’s from stultifying weakness.) This point of view, write MM. Graeber and Wengrow with something approaching rudeness, “is extremely popular among billionaires but hardly attracts others. How do they explain the opinion polls (including the most recent from Gallup) which show a solid majority of Americans in favor of capitalism?

“Received wisdom,” the authors continue, also makes the past “unnecessarily boring” and one-dimensional. They scold today’s writers – like Mr. Pinker, a “quintessential modern Hobbesian” – for embracing the idea that prehistoric man lived exclusively in small groups devoid of hierarchy. It is “bizarre to imagine,” they say, that in the roughly 10,000 years that people have painted on the walls of Altamira (caves in modern Spain that house prehistoric paintings), no one “has experimented with other forms of social organization. How lucky is that?” Furthermore, there is simply no evidence, they say, to believe that “small groups are particularly likely to be egalitarian” or that, conversely, large ones must have strong leaders and men. . “Statements like these are all prejudices disguised as facts, even laws of history.”

Curiously – and tendentiously – “The dawn of everything” concerns the Enlightenment in Europe as much as it does prehistory. This part of the authors’ thesis requires careful unpacking, as the content is fragile.

The idea that human society could be organized “according to stages of development” (hunter-gatherers, farmers, city dwellers, etc.), each with its characteristic technologies and organizational forms, was, claim the authors, the product of “a conservative backlash” —a reaction to the critiques of European civilization that came, in the early decades of the 18th century, from indigenous observers from North America. Although MM. Graeber and Wengrow say that such a view is “almost a heresy” among mainstream historians today, they insist that there was a lively exchange of ideas in the early decades of the 18th century. century between the Amerindians and the French settlers and colonizers who arrived on the eastern shores of Canada today. The French Enlightenment was influenced by these debates, say the authors, and even Rousseau took note.

MM. Graeber and Wengrow linger at length on Kandiaronk, a Huron-Wendat statesman who visited France and whose reflections on European civilization were written in 1703 by Baron de la Hontan, a French aristocrat. His book, entitled “Curious Dialogues with a Savage of Common Sense Who Traveled”, has had, we are told, a profound impact on European thought. “Any self-respecting eighteenth-century intellectual, the authors write, would have been almost certain to have read” Kandiaronk’s opinions. These include thoughts such as this: “I affirm that what you call money is the devil of demons; the tyrant of the French, the source of all evil. Kandiaronk also wondered what kind of humans are the French, that they “refrain from evil only for fear of punishment”. (He sounds almost Hobbesian in his description of Europeans.)

MM. Graeber and Wengrow suggest that it has become politically expedient to present Native Americans as a species of “contemporary ancestors” living in a Hobbesian or Rousseauian state of nature, therefore unable to understand the complexities of modernity or the full scope of what is involved. was truly in their own best interests. This makes it possible to reduce them more easily and to justify their subjection to France as a civilizing mission.

This is how a hitherto free people was brought to heel by a theory which he himself had helped to bring about. It’s a smart idea, yes, but not entirely convincing. Readers who buy what MM. Graeber and Wengrow have for sale could do worse than call it the prehistoric paradox.

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