Note — Oct 24, 2021

It Didn’t Have to Be This Way

As mentioned above, William Deresiewicz reviews Graeber and Wengrow’s book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. It’s a recurring theme here, a fascination with how knowledge changes as we make new discoveries, come up with new methods for research, new technologies to question the past, etc. Deresiewicz takes us on the authors’ whirlwind tour of re-interpretations of history, with the stated goal of debunking the usual narrative where civilization emerges, through steps that can’t be reversed, from hunter-gatherers to today’s Uber-capitalism (see the first quote).

It can be expected that some other interpretations will be presented, that the authors’ ideas will be challenged, but the articles remains an excellent teaser for what seems like a great book, and a number of the examples are ideas that have been slowly emerging as newly discovered and accepted facts.

Once upon a time, human beings lived in small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers (the so-called state of nature). Then came the invention of agriculture, which led to surplus production and thus to population growth as well as private property. Bands swelled to tribes, and increasing scale required increasing organization: stratification, specialization; chiefs, warriors, holy men. […]

[T]hey demolish the idea that human beings are passive objects of material forces, moving helplessly along a technological conveyor belt that takes us from the Serengeti to the DMV. We’ve had choices, they show, and we’ve made them. […]

[T]he authors’ most compelling instance of urban egalitarianism is undoubtedly Teotihuacan, a Mesoamerican city that rivaled imperial Rome, its contemporary, for size and magnificence. After sliding toward authoritarianism, its people abruptly changed course, abandoning monument-building and human sacrifice for the construction of high-quality public housing. […]

The book is something of a glorious mess, full of fascinating digressions, open questions, and missing pieces. It aims to replace the dominant grand narrative of history not with another of its own devising, but with the outline of a picture, only just becoming visible, of a human past replete with political experiment and creativity.

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