What if we narrated a history of humanity that was actually about humans?
This is the daring approach of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask us to consider what our understanding of history would be if we narrated it—particularly for those time periods and places where we don’t have written records—as if it happened to actual people? That is, as if the people and communities involved were capable of self-reflection and conscious decision-making? Throughout the book, Graeber and Wengrow highlight the myriad ways that contemporary thinkers (particularly those outside the actual empirical study of human archaeology and anthropology) envision historical humans as naive simians without interior lives or political convictions.
Graeber and Wengrow try to shake us out of our collective fealty to the Standard Narrative of human history. The Standard Narrative has for the last three centuries shaped Euro-American understandings of poverty and population growth, debates over education and race, conceptions of colonial rule and decolonization, and contests over immigration and birth control. It is the framework in which we make sense of the modern world and how it is different from the worlds that came before it and exist alongside it in the present.
Graeber and Wengrow argue that this narrative’s stadial account of human history (in which cultures necessarily pass through an agricultural revolution on their way to the oppressions of modern statehood) was not, in fact, simply a discovery made by the new scientific rationalism of the European Enlightenment. According to Graeber and Wengrow, European elites did not embrace naturalism and empiricism in their accounts of human history to shed religious epistemologies and institutions. Rather, Graeber and Wengrow argue that the Enlightenment was itself partly a reaction to criticisms of European society—criticisms that Europeans encountered from Indigenous American intellectuals.
This is such a basic yet such a revolutionary claim. It has become difficult in the last several decades for even the most internalist accounts of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution to ignore the influence of European colonialism in the emergence of these new epistemologies. However, even these histories have tended to narrate the role of colonialism in the Enlightenment as a series of material experiences on the part of European intellectual elites. What Graeber and Wengrow want to take seriously is the movement of ideas in the Columbian exchange. What Europeans encountered in the “New World” was not only foodstuffs, new geographies, or even their own observations of people with different social and physical characteristics. The Americas contained humans with different ideas than those found in Europe. These people had political convictions, social debates, varying perspectives on knowledge, ethics, reason, gender relations, and family life. They had complex interior lives that they explored with artistic creations and complex genres of oral expression.
Of course they did, because they were people. Our histories of humans of any period should reckon with the intellectual capacities of those people with the same respect that we accord ourselves.
Importantly, Graeber and Wengrow are far from the first thinkers to criticize deterministic accounts of human evolutionary history. One of the most vital threads of this critique has come from feminist scholars. Both within the empirical study of human evolution, as well as in critical studies, Sandra Hrdy, Donna Haraway, and Banu Subramaniam have laid bare the inadequacy of modern versions of the Standard Narrative found in the fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. During the late 1970s, feminists led the intellectual and activist responses to the publication of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. The text captured a larger movement in the evolutionary and behavioral sciences to account for the development of social systems. Although much of the discipline was based in fieldwork on non-human animals, Sociobiology, as well as Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene and Donald Symons’s The Evolution of Human Sexuality, also sought models for human sexual and social behavior. These works claimed that contemporary human gender relationships had been engineered in the ancient past through natural and sexual selection. According to these authors, gender roles were not the work of political agency and will but the result of biological processes that we had little hope to reform.
Seeing these scientific texts as clear attempts to use biology as a buttress against the political demands of the women’s movement, feminists organized critiques of the empirical foundations and political motivations of academic disciplines. Formed in 1977, the Genes and Gender Collective, for instance, led conferences, public workshops, and radio programs that discussed the anthropological evidence, genetic claims, and social perspective of Sociobiology and other evolutionary determinisms. In ensuing decades, key figures in the collective such as Ruth Hubbard and Marian Lowe were central voices in developing feminist science studies, a field that continues to press the importance of gender analysis in the historical and contemporary life of science.
Graeber and Wengrow, like earlier feminist critiques, reveal yet again that the seemingly neutral and universalizing claims of Western Enlightenment science are, in fact, deeply political. Following in the footsteps of feminist historians of science such as Londa Schiebinger, Graeber and Wengrow take this critique to the birth of the Enlightenment itself by showing how it was structured (in large part, as they claim) as a reaction to criticisms of European society by Indigenous intellectuals.
But Graeber and Wenger do not only reveal the political motivations of the Standard Narrative. They engage with the ongoing political arguments that are made possible by its account of human evolutionary history—and they offer an alternative. In this, their work echoes the writings of another figure who began his public career in the activism of the 1970s: the paleontologist, leftist, and celebrity scientist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould argued that sociobiology’s confidence in the engineering prowess of natural selection meant that the field understood evolutionary history as an unfolding of a necessary series of hierarchical stages. The political arguments made possible by the sociobiological or Standard Narrative perspective is the necessary inevitability of the world as it is. Importantly, this isn’t a stance that the world is fully good as it is (either subjectively or objectively). Rather, the affective tone of this political view is something akin to, “Yes, of course it is regrettable that Atlantic slavery happened,” or “Yes, of course the fact that colonialism devastated cultures and enacted genocide isn’t preferable.” The story and tone will go on, “If Europe hadn’t exerted the forms of land domination that it did, we wouldn’t have had the social configurations necessary to develop philosophical reason, and without this, we would not have had the means to escape dogmatism, superstition, and authoritarianism and enact liberal equality.”
Gould dismissed this understanding of history as “Panglossian” and spent decades of his career promoting the role of contingency in the evolutionary process. In his public writings on fossil formations or on the concept of progress, Gould argued that it was only by embracing the role of historical contingency—by seeing that the world could be other than it is—that we might fully accept responsibility for the social worlds and evils we built, instead of reading our ethics and morality passively from nature. Like Gould and other writers before them, Graeber and Wengrow help us to see how the Standard Narrative makes the violence of colonialism, the devastation of slavery, or the erasures of patriarchy into necessary evils. More than this, the Standard Narrative makes it possible to argue that the only route to equality for the oppressed—whether minoritized racial groups, women, or queer folk—is that they stop speaking from their point of view and embrace the salvation of the Enlightenment. The writings of Gould, Haraway, Hrdy, Lowe, Hubbard, and Subramanian have done vital work to show the ongoing damage done by the modern incarnations of the Euro-American Standard Narrative.
However, it is hard to say whether they have won the contest for public persuasion. Certainly the Enlightenment defense of Western science and liberalism remains a popular publishing industry. A recent assessment of the “Complicated Legacy of E.O. Wilson” after his passing by Monica R. McLemore, a scholar of health sciences and a Black woman, occasioned a series of barely-veiled racist and sexist criticisms of her work. Even as Graeber and Wengrow take to task thinkers such as Steven Pinker, who they criticize for claiming the mantle of Enlightenment science, substantive support for the narrative of Western liberalism endures. Especially in a world still shaped by a global pandemic, with ongoing right-wing attacks on the science of vaccines, there can be little appetite amongst liberal thinkers for more radical critiques of Western science.
Will this book by Graeber and Wengrow matter? Will their lengthy exploration of the empirical evidence of ancient civilizations make possible a reckoning with the role of humanity in the history of humans? I honestly don’t know. Yet I believe their project is entirely worth doing. Because even if their archaeological and anthropological arguments are without merit, this wouldn’t discount their most fundamental point, even if we take it on faith. Other humans are people just as we are. They are full of ideas just like us. Let us write our history with the full conviction of this truth.