There are many direct references to the Garden of Eden in David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. This Edenic setting is a welcome acknowledgement that to inquire into the origins of inequality and domination and the supplanting of human freedoms—Graeber and Wengrow’s core aim—is to enter the realm of myth. Indeed, as they write in the last chapter, “Myth is the way in which human societies give meaning and structure to experience.” Graeber and Wengrow seem to use myth in two ways: as a synonym for narrative and in a more specifically religious sense. One might even say their book offers a religious argument. I offer this essay in that spirit. Unlike Graeber and Wengrow, I want to associate this Garden with the pulse of freedom and the act of disobedience. In other words, I think it is possible to reinscribe the Garden of Eden into Graeber and Wengrow’s argument, which consists of a double argument, really, in order to illuminate their theme of freedom and disobedience.
To begin, I want to note what appears as a sort of double loop in their argument. Both loops relate to narrative. The first loop, prominent at the opening and closing of the argument, refers us to the mythic: the Standard Narrative into which we are inducted on the origins of inequality and the emergence of the state. In this loop, Rousseau (1712-1778) and Hobbes (1588-1679) are prominent. The second loop relies on archaeological evidence of human prehistory, which corroborates the claim by Graeber and Wengrow that the myth of the first loop is not supported by data. There is no linear “first loop” tale that is viable, and the “second loop” corroborates this conclusion. Yet Graeber and Wengrow’s argument seems to hesitate at that point. Dawn does not aspire to narrate a fresh myth—to replace, if you will, the first loop—but instead to explain why the Standard Narrative is inadequate.
At the start of their final chapter, Graeber and Wengrow summarize their approach to the question of the origin of inequality thus:
We started out by observing that to inquire after the origins of inequality necessarily means creating a myth, a fall from grace, a technological transposition of the first chapters of the Book of Genesis—which, in most contemporary versions, takes the form of a mythical narrative stripped of any prospect of redemption. In these accounts, the best we can hope for is some modest tinkering with our inherently squalid condition—and hopefully dramatic action to prevent any looming, absolute disaster. The only other theory on offer to date has been to assume that there were no origins of inequality, because humans are naturally somewhat thuggish creatures and our beginnings were a miserable, violent affair; in which case ‘progress’ or ‘civilization’—driven forward, largely, by our own selfish and competitive nature—was itself redemptive.
What is wrong with this picture? These two “theories” are in fact compatible. The second theory begins in the Fall rather than in Eden (indeed, this is one way of reading Hobbes on the state of nature). Structurally, therefore, the second theory is identical to the first, with the initial stage of descent from an origin removed. The concluding references to redemption in both versions are compatible too: redemption is immanent to the outcome, even if only limited redemption is possible in both versions. What falls out of sight in these accounts is the Garden of Eden. The Garden is only implied in the first theory—humans must fall from some previous state—and the second theory begins after the Garden and in the Fall. Certainly, Graeber and Wengrow do not acknowledge—given its shadowy absence, perhaps they cannot acknowledge this—that the myth of Eden has been interpreted both for and against inequality.
We need also to note that Graeber and Wengrow’s summary is not precisely where “we started out.” In the opening chapter, Graeber and Wengrow dismiss myths of origin, declaring on the first page that worrying about whether humanity “fell” is unhelpful. ”It is basically a theological debate,” they claim. How so? According to Graeber and Wengrow, what is at issue here is whether humans are “innately good or innately evil.” Moreover, the authors maintain that this question “makes very little sense” in that good and evil are “purely human concepts” applied only to humans for the purposes of differentiation: “‘good’ and ‘evil’ are concepts made up to compare ourselves with one another.”
I think several issues are tangled up here. It is true that we apply moral concepts such as good and evil to humans, but that application is not necessarily an invention if we understand humans as agents, subjects of moral action. To report, accurately, that we do not ordinarily use such moral terms of fish or trees—the examples offered by Graeber and Wengrow—is merely to note that such moral terms refer us to the basis and outcomes of human action. Indeed, Graeber and Wengrow stress human moral agency through the book, not least by reference to their three freedoms (to move, to disobey, to live differently). (We do, however, on occasion use the term “good” with reference to non-humans: a tree is “good” to the extent that it performs well the function of a tree.) Moreover, given the historical sweep of the book, some interest in the evolutionary function of morality might be expected. Finally, an important implication of a myth of origin is that the conclusions drawn refer to all humans. To say that human beings are innately good or innately evil is not, as Graeber and Wengrow claim, a means of comparison between human beings but instead a claim about all human beings.
Nonetheless, even as Graeber and Wengrow object to a moral frame for human action, they argue that it is to this “foundational story” of original innocence/fallen state/future redemption that we habitually turn to make sense of human prehistory and the present. The following threefold structure thus emerges: hunter gatherers/development of agriculture and emergence of hierarchy/redemption but always with reference to the state. As we have seen, Graeber and Wengrow engage two versions of this story—one by Rousseau and the other by Hobbes. The most exciting part of this analysis raises a question about the state: that is, Graeber and Wengrow want both to free us from the framework and to argue that recent scholarship in archaeology and anthropology contributes to that emancipation. In addition, Graeber and Wengrow argue that the history of humanity suggests a social openness secured in the three freedoms they name. From this perspective, the absence of an obvious conversation partner, Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) and his “social ecology,” becomes clear. In his great book, The Ecology of Freedom (revised 1991), Bookchin appeals to an organic society, an appeal that might be understood as too close to the Rousseauian framing that Graeber and Wengrow find objectionable.
Nonetheless, what Graeber and Wengrow call the “Christian answer” is in fact more of a question. That is, the Garden of Eden does not need to be characterized as a monochrome state of original innocence. Consider only the disagreement between Augustinian and Thomist traditions over the status of government in the Garden of Eden and the consequent issue as to whether government restricts vice or encourages virtue. Or, to refer to a social contract theorist whom Graeber and Wengrow hardly cite, philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). In the first of his Two Treatises on Government, Locke objects to Sir Robert Filmer’s denial of the equality and freedom of all—this denial presented in part as based in Adam’s lordship over all creation. Among the English Levellers (1645-49), the counterargument was made: all people may trace their ancestry back to Adam and Eve, and so none may by nature assert dominion over another.
What conclusions can we draw from diverse interpretations of this Jewish and Christian myth of origin? Perhaps the opening chapters of Genesis pose questions rather than provide answers about an “original society.” Genesis may thereby support both freedom and hierarchy and as such may be a partial challenge to our “teleological habit of thought.” Among the three freedoms that Graeber and Wengrow name in The Dawn of Everything is the freedom to “ignore or disobey commands.” Does Adam and Eve’s disobedience indelibly inscribe this freedom, and freedom as such, into our habits of thought—for what disobedience could be more foundational than disobeying God?