Why you should read The Dawn of Everything...

... even though it's 704 pages...

For the past year, I've been recommending The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity to friends. It's a great book, though 704 pages long (not including a 63-page bibliography) and dense in some parts. I thought I'd write about the main idea that stuck with me a year after reading the book, in case it moves the needle next time I recommend it to someone.

Simple historical narratives come at a cost

"One must simplify the world to discover something new about it. The problem comes when, long after the discovery has been made, people continue to simplify."

The idea that humans have lived and organised in lots of different ways seems obvious, but often the dominant narratives found in 'big-history' books (Fukuyama, Diamond, Harari, Pinker etc) simplify all of human history into a linear timeline: we went from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists to modern states by necessity.

The Davids (Wengrow the archeologist, and Graeber the late anthropologist) start the book firing shots at these authors, and argue much of their thinking can be traced to Hobbes and Rousseau:

  • Per Hobbes, we were hunter-gatherers who lived in violence, anarchy and poverty until the development of farming and top-down order from the state enabled peace and civilisation.

  • Per Rousseau, we were actually living in a state of peace and prosperity as hunter-gatherers, but then agriculture led to big government and an inevitable loss in freedom and happiness.

Why are the Davids so mad? They argue these simplified narratives trap us into historical determinism - believing societal development follows a fixed, inevitable path - limiting our capacity for imagination and experimentation.

So, (basically for the rest of the book) the authors break down these myths with examples: there was no single, original form of human society; the transition from foraging to agriculture was not a 'civilisation trap' that created inequality (and that it wasn't a linear transition); and large-scale societies often developed in the absence of centralised, top-down management structures.

By showing these examples of diversity and experimentation in indigenous societies, the authors move away from determinism to instead emphasise the role of human agency and creativity in shaping our future.

This post isn't intended to be a comprehensive summary of the book, but here are some other things from the book that stuck with me:

  • The 'origins of inequality' isn't a useful framework to understand human history, and originated from encounters between European settlers and indigenous populations in North America, which then influenced Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau. Indigenous societies' notions of freedom, equality and communal living challenged European ideas of hierarchy, governance and social structures. The authors go on to argue that the simplified narrative of social evolution (detailed above) originated partly as a way of silencing this Indigenous critique: by depicting the human freedoms Indigenous societies enjoyed as naive or primitive, it made it acceptable to have less freedom in order to scale and develop society.

  • Play and seasonality were a core part of many societies. For example, in some societies there were regular rotations of who would be leader, others shifted back and forth regularly between being hierarchical and egalitarian, and some engaged in 'play-farming', or shifted regularly from foraging to farming. Each of these examples in the book show the non-linear, experimental nature of earlier societies, and how urbanisation, scale and agriculture didn't always create inequality. “With such institutional flexibility comes the capacity to step outside to boundaries of any given structure and reflect; to both make and unmake the political worlds we live in.”

  • Interesting mental model for three basic forms of social freedom that they argue we've lost: the freedom to escape one's surroundings and move away, the freedom to disobey arbitrary authority, and the freedom to reimagine and reconstruct one's society in a different form. Parts of the book are focused on arguing most modern people don't practically enjoy those freedoms. Mental model for three basic sources of domination in human societies: control over violence (sovereignty), control over information (bureaucracy), and charismatic competition (politics).

Granted, there are a lot of questions asked in the book, and not a whole lot of conclusive statements (which is by design - to me, the main point of the book was to show how varied, diverse and unsummarisable societies were, thus encouraging us to imagine and experiment more, as outlined above). Lots of people have also written about the Davids' tendency to sometimes cherry-pick evidence or speculate.

I'd still say it's worth reading the book - it's a great way to unpack long-standing mental models and narratives about human development and history, get detailed depictions of diverse societies from our past, and feel empowered to imagine and experiment more. Chapters 1, 2, and the conclusion are the strongest parts of the book - maybe start there, and skim through the rest if you're pressed for time. Lmk what you think!

Collect this post to permanently own it.
Davo's Drafts logo
Subscribe to Davo's Drafts and never miss a post.