For the past three years, the Doomsday Clock has been set at one hundred seconds to midnight. Established by atomic scientists in 1947 (when the clock was set at a full seven minutes to midnight), the clock indicates how poorly humanity is responding to existential threats posed by nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies. But the clock hands’ recent stasis is far from promising. “On the contrary,” the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced in January 2022, “the Clock remains the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse because the world remains stuck in an extremely dangerous moment”—and this was before the magnified nuclear fear triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine a month later.
What does humankind’s ancient history have to do with our current existential predicaments? With millions of new refugees seeking to escape aerial attacks targeting civilians while billionaires playing at being astronauts seek planetary escape for a few million-dollar minutes? Well, everything, it turns out, according to anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow’s new world history, The Dawn of Everything. We are stuck in this precarious situation because, somehow, we have come to accept systems of violent domination and subordination as the inevitable outcome of the development of human societies. And we have come to accept being stuck because we are constricted by the religious and evolutionary myths that we continue to tell ourselves and by our propensity to ask the wrong questions.
It was the “wrong question,” ironically, that catalyzed Graeber and Wengrow’s “new science of history.” Setting out to reconsider the origins of social inequality, the authors realized how limited and limiting this question is. It is the wrong question, they contend, because “inequality” has little analytic value. Inquiring into inequality’s origins invites technocratic rather than political reforms and assumes that there was an original, idyllic state of equality from which we ascended or fell, depending on one’s Hobbesian or Rousseauian perspective. Moreover, the authors argue, the concepts of social equality and inequality began circulating only as recently as the seventeenth century as a result of the European colonial encounter with indigenous Americans’ views on human liberty and their critique of European society. By reframing their initial question to consider “the origins of the question about the origins of social inequality,” Graeber and Wengrow posit that it was Native American intellectuals such as the gifted Wendat statesman Kandiaronk (d. 1701) who helped shape “European” and, eventually, Enlightenment ideas about personal freedoms. What’s more, this “indigenous critique” triggered a conservative backlash that gave rise to the theories of social evolution, civilization, and progress still entrenched today.
The main contours of this theory of social evolution are familiar but become ever more conspicuous upon reading Graeber and Wengrow’s review. For example, I live in Abu Dhabi within walking distance of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi (est. 2017), a “universal museum” that proudly “highlights the characteristics shared by humanity throughout its history.” It does so by taking its visitors on a “chronological journey through twelve chapters” (similar in this regard to The Dawn of Everything) organizing artworks according to themes rather than “civilizations.” Adjacent museum display tables showcase, for example, a Chinese translation of the Sanskrit Buddhist text The Sutra of the Perfect Enlightenment (China, 1350-1400) alongside a manuscript containing the Juz‘ Amma, the 30th section of the Quran (Syria, 1250-1300) alongside a Yemeni Hebrew copy of the Pentateuch (Sana‘a, 1498).
Celebrating human diversity by way of our commonality, the museum’s depiction of human social development is nonetheless quite standard: originating in East Africa, humans spread out for millions of years until, around 10,000 BCE, they settled in villages, domesticated plants and animals, and adopted agriculture, which generated profit and power. This led to the emergence of the first kingdoms around 3000 BCE, strong social hierarchies, a population surge, and the birth of cities. Exchange in and between culturally diverse cities encouraged innovation, such as writing, which helped consolidate power. That is to say, diversity and inequality, innovation and power were born of this planetwide transition from Paleolithic foraging to Neolithic farming.
The problem with this and similar accounts, according to Graeber and Wengrow, is that they are incorrect. On page after captivating page, the authors lay out new and not-so-new anthropological and archaeological evidence to establish that humans were continuously experimenting with various social arrangements. Always already self-conscious political actors, Ice Age hunter-gatherers developed monumental constructions, communal buildings, public works, and intricate burial practices indicating complex forms of social hierarchy long before 10,000 BCE. They moved in and out of these social hierarchies, gathering into concentrated settlements and dispersing into smaller foraging bands on a seasonal basis. They also traveled and traded across vast distances—if anything, humans’ social worlds shrunk when they settled in cities and their cultural boundaries hardened.
While some foragers took on farming, others consciously rejected it or tried it out (as “play farmers”) and then abandoned it, moving in and out of cultivation for millennia much as their ancestors had moved in and out of settlements. Similarly, some populations developed cities without an agricultural base, while in other places, urban populations governed themselves without administrators or authoritarian overlords. In fact—the authors claim, overturning one received wisdom after another—bureaucratic control, including technological innovations that predated writing, arose not in cities but in small, egalitarian communities. “It is possible,” the authors suggest, “that administrative tools were first designed not as a means of extracting and accumulating wealth but precisely to prevent such things from happening.”
Why do these correctives matter—or rather, what do they have to do with play astronauts and today’s refugees? Central to Graeber and Wengrow’s thesis is that in addition to being “stuck” asking the wrong questions, we are “stuck” telling ourselves the myth of humanity’s ratchet-like progression from egalitarian bands (hunter-gatherers) to tribes (pastoralists) to chiefdoms (horticulturalists) to hierarchical states (intensive agriculture and urban consumers). This echoes the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden: humans lived in an idyllic state of nature until they tasted the fruit of knowledge (agriculture) and were thus condemned to cultivating crops and cities in which civilization developed hand-in-hand with our enslavement.
Given the impossibility of a return to Eden, we are stuck with the narrative that our current states of unfreedom and inequality are simply inevitable. We are likely to also remain stuck in our current predicament. Yet current advancements in the study of human history (e.g., the recent discovery that modern humans lived in the Rhône Valley as early as fifty-four thousand years ago, thus inhabiting the same region as Neanderthals for some ten thousand years) along with a clear-eyed reading of old evidence may just convince us that other social formations were and remain possible. “What if,” Graeber and Wengrow propose, “instead of telling a story about how our species fell from some idyllic state of equality, we ask how we came to be trapped in such tight conceptual shackles that we can no longer even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves?”
These myths remain so pervasive, I suspect, not for lack of contradictory evidence but due to the ways we tend to imagine both evolutionary and social progress. Over thirty years ago, Stephen Jay Gould demonstrated how textbook “iconographies of progress” depict biological evolution as a “ladder of linear progress” (typically, as a single file march from chimpanzee to Homo sapiens sapiens) or a “cone of increasing diversity” (from one singular, simple organism to a diverse range of complex forms). Not only are both incorrect, Gould explains; they obscure the fact that life began explosively with an “initial diversification of multicellular animals” followed by a process of “elimination, not expansion.” Whereas the number of species has diversified and increased over time, the number of disparate anatomical forms quickly decreased. This is, essentially, the model that Graeber and Wengrow wish to illustrate. Human social organizations did not “evolve” unidirectionally along a ladder or as a cone of increasing diversity. Rather, the earliest human populations were extraordinarily physically and socially diverse and experimented with what Graeber and Wengrow imagine to have been “a carnival parade of political forms.” In other words, the “diverse” political forms available to us today are but a few of the far more disparate possibilities humans experimented with before and could hope to experiment with once again.
While Graeber and Wengrow are extraordinarily adept at demonstrating how we got stuck asking the wrong questions and accepting the wrong myths, their book has less to tell us about how we came to give up our fundamental freedoms in the first place. These they identify as the freedom to move (away), the freedom to disobey authorities without consequences, and the freedom to create and transform social relationships. Taking these freedoms as a given, the authors devote more pages to explaining how three elementary forms of domination—the control of violence, the control of information, and individual charisma—may have given rise, through various and ever-shifting combinations, to modern states with their particular confluence of sovereignty, bureaucracy, and competitive politics.
Again, Graeber and Wengrow take pains to undermine our teleological thinking by demonstrating that there was no one way that early states originated or were organized. To the extent that there was a common way that once-seasonal and sporadic “play kings” developed arbitrary power over others, it appears to have something to do with the emergence of patriarchal domination within the household and how the relation between violence and care became confused. What remains to be written, therefore, is the history of women’s loss of freedom. For when we lose the freedom to move away, we lose the freedom to disobey. Without these two foundational freedoms, the authors contend, we also start(ed) “losing that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence.”
If Graeber and Wengrow are right about how we got “stuck” in this precarious state of unfreedom, the question remains: How do we get unstuck? Given that the authors had intended to follow The Dawn of Everything with at least three more volumes, this is not the question they address here. What they do offer are a bunch of provocative, “better” questions: e.g., “Is there a positive correlation between what is usually called ‘gender equality’ (which might better be termed, simply ‘women’s freedom’) and the degree of innovation in a given society?”; “How did we find ourselves stuck in just one form of social reality, and how did relations based ultimately on violence and domination come to be normalized within it?” They also insist, again and again, that our current social reality is neither inevitable nor inescapable.
To become unstuck, we will have to at least attend to the mythic substructures that constrain us. If this means revisiting the story of Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, it also means, I venture, retooling the myth of a chosen few being saved from a global extinction event by a technological innovation, a Noachian Ark. Every year that I teach Extinction, my students appear to place more faith in complex technological solutions, including planetary escape for some, than they do in simple, political transformations for all. Perhaps we all do, because we feel so powerless. While some modern-day Noahs are building seed vaults, amphibian arks, and cryogenetic zoos, others are constructing doomsday bunkers in which to ride out the coming Flood—expressly turning their backs on their neighbors. This is the myth that naturalizes the theological project of billionaires escaping to space while actual refugees drown in rising seas. Becoming unstuck—that is, recovering what Graeber and Wengrow name “the freedom to create new and different forms of social reality”—requires disabusing ourselves of multiple myths. These include not only Abrahamic myths or the teleology of egalitarian simplicity to hierarchical complexity but also the notion that our salvation exists in elite and isolationist technologies. As The Dawn of Everything reveals, we need new narratives that embolden us to recover truly more disparate forms of social existence here on Earth.