Dawn of Everything

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* Book: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. By David Graeber and David Wengrow. Penguin, 2021

URL = https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/314/314162/the-dawn-of-everything/9780241402429.html

<Dawn is different from most earlier books — and particularly different from Harari’s and Diamond’s works—in bringing to general readers a new interpretation that is not evolutionist. In fact, Graeber and Wengrow (from here on, GW) are explicitly anti-evolutionist. That makes Dawn’s publication an event of real importance.> (Ian Morris [1]

Contextual Quote

"Choosing to describe history… as a series of abrupt technological revolutions [Stone Age, Iron Age, Industrial Age, Information Age, etc], each followed by long periods when we were prisoners of our own creations, has consequences. Ultimately it is a way of representing our species as decidedly less thoughtful, less creative, less free than we actually turn out to have been.

It means not describing history as a continual series of new ideas and innovations, technical or otherwise, during which different communities made collective decisions about which technologies they saw fit to apply to everyday purposes, and which to keep confined to the domain of experimentation or ritual play. What is true of technological creativity is, of course, even more true of social creativity.

One of the most striking patterns we discovered while researching this book – indeed, one of the patterns that felt most like a genuine breakthrough to us – was how, time and again in human history, that zone of ritual play has also acted as a site of social experimentation – even, in some ways, as an encyclopaedia of social possibilities. (p.501)."

- David Graeber and David Wengrow [2]


1. From the publisher:

""For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike - either free and equal, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a reaction to indigenous critiques of European society, and why they are wrong. In doing so, they overturn our view of human history, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery and civilization itself.

Drawing on path-breaking research in archaeology and anthropology, the authors show how history becomes a far more interesting place once we begin to see what's really there. If humans did not spend 95 per cent of their evolutionary past in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, what were they doing all that time? If agriculture, and cities, did not mean a plunge into hierarchy and domination, then what kinds of social and economic organization did they lead to? The answers are often unexpected, and suggest that the course of history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful possibilities than we tend to assume."


2. Molly Fischer:

"Written in collaboration with the archaeologist David Wengrow, the book draws on new research to challenge received wisdom on civilization’s course. The story of humanity, as it is typically told, proceeds along a linear path. It passes in distinct stages from foraging bands and tribes on to agriculture, cities, and kings. But, surveying the historic and archaeological record, Graeber and Wengrow saw a wealth of other stories, taking humanity on varied and unpredictable routes. There were societies that farmed without really committing to it, for example. There were societies whose authority figures’ power applied only during certain parts of the year. Cities coalesced without any apparent centralized government; brutal hierarchies took shape among people who later reversed their course. The book’s 704 pages teem with possibilities. They are a testament, in the authors’ view, to human agency and invention — a capacity for conscious political decision-making that conventional history ignores. “We are projects of collective self-creation,” write Graeber and Wengrow. “What if we approached human history that way? What if we treat people, from the beginning, as imaginative, intelligent, playful creatures who deserve to be understood as such?”


3. Walter Scheidel:

"What are their principal claims?

  • Unlike their present-day remnants, ancestral foragers were not necessarily confined to small bands;
  • farming matured very slowly and hybrid foraging-farming arrangements endured for millennia;
  • crude stage models of social evolution fail to do justice to the complexities of the historical experience;
  • early cities did not immediately spawn autocracies or even avoided them altogether;
  • early polities were much more limited in scope than modern states;
  • one to two dozen generations ago, some Indigenous North Americans chose to turn away from farming and unequal arrangements and developed a political philosophy that inspired European Enlightenment thinkers;
  • the richness of the historical experience revealed by this book suggests meaningful alternatives to our current way of life and can therefore support social activism today."

Source: Scheidel, Walter. 2022. Resetting History’s Dial?A Critique of David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. CliodynamicsSI: Leading Scholars of the Past Comment on Dawn of Everything.Review 4, 1–27



0. Chris Knight et al.:

"It’s not often that a book by radical authors gets reviewed — let alone favorably reviewed — in the mainstream press. The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow, is an exception. Published just two months ago, it has already received accolades from many of the world’s most influential English-language newspapers and magazines.

Even reviewers who question the author’s arguments for anarchism have hailed it as “a brilliant new account upends bedrock assumptions about 30,000 years of change,” (Atlantic) and “a dazzling array of stories about civilizations across many continents and thousands of years, all of which are grappling with what it means to be free” (Washington Post). We’ve also seen positive comments — raves in some cases! — from left-wing posters on social media.

It is certainly an enthralling book, but the two reviews published below, both from materialist anthropologists, argue that its account of human history ignores masses of contrary evidence, and that its political argument is idealist and voluntarist. Both reviews are particularly critical of the book’s failure to consider the causes of the oppression of women."


1. Pat Kane:

"The Davids’ target is a giant Western intellectual assumption—that we tragically fell from simple, egalitarian hunter-gathering into complex, hierarchical farming society. And it is a tragedy, the assumption continues—with all the inescapable fatedness the term implies.

If we want to be organised enough to reap the bounties that come from agriculturalism and industrialism, then we’ll have to pay the price of social hierarchy and class societies. It’s a sad, inevitable fall from innocence.

Ah! Not so, say D&D. They give example after example of societies which, for instance, “play farmed” (that is, cultivating crops for medicine, beauty and art materials, as well as for food). They consciously chose not to intensify their activities into full-blown agriculture.

Indeed, some communities, having tried out the agrarian method, then deliberately retreated from intensive farming—too much like hard work—returning to and revising their pastoral activities.

Hours and days were reclaimed from the agricultural model, which these communities then spent richly deliberating what to do next with themselves, using many different forms of assembly (well before ancient Greece, and often involving potlatch or carnival). This was often without a class of leaders, rulers or potentates to supervene the process."


2. Daniel Bitton:

"The three main issues that I have with Dawn of Everything, and the preview chapters that have been coming out since 2015 are:

  • Graeber and Wengrow’s allergy to materialist explanations for human social structure – which is the fatal weakness of an otherwise wonderful book.
  • Graeber and Wengrow’s maddening mis-representation of the literature on egalitarian hunter gatherer societies and the intentions of the people who write that literature.
  • and #3. Graeber and Wengrow’s tirade against the concept of equality and egalitarianism, which is a big problem in our political discourse in general."


3. Walter Scheidel's Diagnosis:

"The Dawn of Everything has formidable strengths. Its authors’ desire and ability to refresh, augment and rebalance conventional narratives by rescuing neglected millennia and muted experiences is impressive and commendable. They succeed in showing “what happens if we accord significance to the 5,000 years in which cereal domestication did not lead to the emergence of pampered aristocracies, standing armies or debt peonage, rather than just the 5,000 years in which it did” (523). Graeber and Wengrow are right to remind us of the risk that in more streamlined accounts, “huge swathes of the human past disappear from the purview of history, or remain effectively invisible (except to a tiny number of researchers)” who do not usually reach a wider audience (442). Their own project seeks to center rather than marginalize these experiences (524).14In that regard, their book renders us all a big service.

A related virtue lies in their critique of classicisms that fetishize state power, stability and the fine arts over freedoms and experimentation, a theme that—as they themselves suggest (382)—would have warranted further elaboration. Their resolutely global perspective—essential for the task they set themselves—is another strength, and especially their detailed engagement with North America. It is true that sub-Saharan Africa comes up short, even as sites such as Jenne-jeno would have supported their argument, but the book is already very long (and sequels might well have followed).Those qualities, in my view at least, are what makes this book worth reading. At the same time, a number of shortcomings and idiosyncrasies undermine their efforts. Graeber and Wengrow commit to an idealist approach with blinding ardor. In their view, ideas, reasoned deliberation and free choice are the crucial determinants of historical outcomes: material conditions and environmental or technological incentives and constraints pale by comparison. Even as they invoke ecological factors if its suits them, the specter of “environmental determinists” is never far away (204). Yet “determinism” and their occasional admission that ecology and technology made certain developments “possible” are merely extremes that bound a wide spectrum of more balanced explanatory approaches. At the very least, any plausible account of our early history must give due weight to the influence of natural endowments and technological change. More often than not, however, Graeber and Wengrow give short shrift to geography, ecology, demography and technology, and generally steer clear of materialist arguments and explanations: at best, these are brought up just for explicit rejection (e.g., 197).The authors explain their stance with commendable candor. Yes, they are aware that the “intersection of environment and technology does make a difference, often a huge difference” (205). And so, they concede, environmental and technological explanations (or cultural ones, for that matter) are not necessarily bad. Yet they consider them problematic for a very specific reason—such explanations “presume that we are already, effectively, stuck. This is why we ourselves place so much emphasis on the notion of self-determination” (205).This may well be the single most important statement in the entire book. The implications are clear. If we pay too much attention to such factors, we might be led to conclude that our own sociopolitical arrangements are too hard to change because they are too heavily constrained by current technology and culture. For Graeber and Wengrow, it does not seem to matter whether that is true or not: what counts the most is that it is ideologically unappealing. And they admit that it is for that reason that they sideline these factors—out of an ideological commitment to the feasibility of change through collective action today. Lest anyone think that such firm priors might corrupt their readings of our early history, they tell us not to worry — for “precisely where one wishes to set the dial between freedom and determinism is largely a matter of taste.” This premise allows them to “set the dial a bit further to the left than usual” (206; hence the title of my essay).But is it true that the balance of freedom and determinism in shaping the course of history is “largely a matter of taste”? One would think that it is something else entirely, namely one of the greatest intellectual challenges of all: to find ways to gauge, as best we can, where that balance lies. That it might never be possible to accomplish this to everyone’s satisfaction is a far cry from giving up in advance and declaring it (“largely”) a matter of personal preference.

Establishing a proper balance is hard work. More specifically, it requires precisely the kind of scholarship Graeber and Wengrow shy away from: large-scale mapping and data processing and coding in support of statistical investigation of correlations, probabilities and significance that help us understand the strength and limitations of particular patterns and trends and to weigh the impact of specific factors (e.g., Turchin et al. 2018; Currie et al. 2020). Without such inputs, the exercise of setting the dial is indeed reduced to a mere matter of taste. But it doesn’t have to be, and—among inquisitive academics at least—it shouldn’t be.15Other problems of substance and style likewise catch the eye. In their thoughtful review, Lindisfarne and Neale 2021 indict Graeber and Wengrow for their neglect of class and class conflict, which strikes me as a legitimate charge. The most interesting question is not so much whether there was a king or a bureaucracy or how powerful they were, but rather in which ways andto what extent elite groups wielded power and enjoyed structural privilege. After all, tax and tribute rendered to rulers and rent collected by those in control of the means of subsistence were merely two sides of the same coin, reflecting the struggle among the few over the resources generated by the many. I have already alluded to the book’s relative neglect of warfare as a force in societal development. I have likewise referred to examples of Graeber and Wengrow’s readiness to devise all-or-nothing scenarios in which deviations from simplifying templates are taken to invalidate the templates as such. Their mode of engagement with their peers is also a cause for concern. Ars longa vita brevis— whoever paints on a canvas as wide as theirs must needs be selective. There is no doubt that a popularizing account of the dawn of “everything” cannot adhere to the exacting standards of a dissertation literature review. Then again, Graeber and Wengrow erron the side of parsimony, disavowing the conventional approach of setting out different interpretations and explaining their own preference for a particular version by noting that this would have overburdened the reader (514–55). Not quite: it could easily have overburdened the text. But that’s what endnotes are for.It can be hard to decide what grates the most: the tacit sidelining of scholars who already espoused ideas Graeber and Wengrow present as shiny and new; the tacit sidelining of literature that prioritizes the impact of factors such as geography, ecology, technology, or warfare; the parading of choice quotations by non-specialist writers who espouse outmoded positions as though they represented common failings of contemporary scholarship; or the unreferenced indictment of imaginary positions. Instead of taking issue with fellow historians, archaeologists and anthropologists over substantive points, they prefer to lambast eclecticists such as the physiologist Jared Diamond, the psychologist Steven Pinker, or the primatologist Robin Dunbar. Mercifully, outright insults along the lines of their dismissal of several fellow scholars with the words that “at some point, you have to take the toys back from the children” (529 n.12) remain rare."



Daniel Bitton:

"Something that’s worth noting about the idea that human social structure is mostly a matter of choice, is that if you take it to it’s logical conclusion it just ends up taking us to some very ugly places. Like if the traditional Haida of the pacific north west coast have chiefs and nobility and commoners and used to have slaves, and the Nuer in Sudan have male dominance, but the Mbendjele are totally egalitarian and gender egalitarian, and if it’s all just a matter of conscious choice, then that must mean that the Haida and the Nuer people are just choosing to bad people and the Hadza are just good people.

Or maybe Lese women are pathetic because they choose extreme subservience instead of “choosing” equality the way awesome Hadza women do. It’s like in our society, when people say that if you’re working the cash at McDonalds it must be because you’re stupid and lazy and it’s your choice, but if you’re CEO of ratheon, it’s because chose to be some kind of brilliant hard working genius, and you chose parents who could afford MBA school.

It’s ultimately right wing thinking – thinking that justifies hierarchy. Obviously that’s the opposite of what Graeber and Wengrow are trying to do, but again, their whole project is an incoherent, ill conceived mess, and one of the reasons it upsets me so much is that on top of making us stupid, it’s inadvertently giving right wingers a bunch of rhetorical gifts, just like occupy not making any demands was giving all the banks and governments of the world a giant gift.

In contrast, if you shift the focus onto the conditions that shape our social structures and our choices, this implies a “there but for the grace of God go I” type of philosophy. Individuals are different, and we all have agency, but in similar conditions, given similar constraints, people will tend to make similar decisions on average, and in the long run which is the scale of social structure formation. We spend less time judging people and more time trying to figure out how we can change the conditions which generate shitty people."


A Habit of Making Bold Speculative Claims Based on Poor or No Evidence

Walter Scheidel:

(reviews Graeber & Wengrow's claim one by one)

"They readily concede that the evidence for early conditions is generally poor—the lowest layers of sites that sprang up in floodplains and wetlands are particularly hard to investigate (287–88)—but they nevertheless deem it good enough to “upend the conventional narrative” (283–84). What, in their telling, sustained these early agglomerations of people?

Environmental factors make sporadic appearances: the authors note that more stable flood regimes made river basins more useful for habitation after about 5000 BCE (286–87) and that black earth soil formation in Ukraine supported the rise of the “mega-sites” of the fourth millennium BCE (290). Even so, Graeber and Wengrow are quick to put ecology and technology in their place with the unsupported assertion that “In point of fact, the largest early cities, those with the greatest populations, did not appear in Eurasia — with its many technical and logistical advantages—but in Mesoamerica, which had no wheeled vehicles or sailing ships, no animal-power traction or transport, and much less in the way of metallurgy or literate bureaucracy” (285). But this is impossible to reconcile with the historical record: in terms of absolute chronology, mega-cities such as Babylon predated Teotihuacan by a wide margin, as did large urban sites in South and East Asia. Moreover, in terms of actual urban population size, Teotihuacan appears to have been a solitary outlier in the Americas until Tenochtitlan rose in the fifteenth century. That matters because the ecological and technological preconditions for urbanism differed so much between the Old and the New Worlds. Compared to their discussion of the origins of farming, much more strenuous mental gymnastics are required to fashion early urban settlements into initially peaceful, cooperative enterprises. Poor evidence is never allowed to deter us from this conclusion: the poorer the evidence, the bolder the claims. Thus, the authors advance the “speculative” claim that certain structures on the late fourth-millennium BCE acropolis of Uruk may have been assembly halls, which were subsequently razed and replaced with gated courts and ziggurats that appear more consistent with the exercise of priestly and then royal power (306).Yet this explicitly “speculative” take swiftly morphs into fact, turning into “at least seven centuries of collective self-rule” at Uruk (380).

For the Indus civilization of the third millennium BCE, Graeber and Wengrow fill the absence of evidence for kings or warrior elites with the model of a caste system that maintained order—a model inferred from later customs and the presence of a citadel with monumental purification facilities in the city of Mohenjo-daro (317–18). Piling conjecture upon conjecture, they maintain that although the system they envision implies “a clear hierarchy between groups,” “this doesn’t necessarily mean that the groups themselves were hierarchical in their internal organization,” or, for that matter, that the higher caste called the shots in “matters of day-to-day governance” (319). While this last point is indeed impossible to disprove, “necessarily” does a lot of heavy lifting here; yet readers suspected of harboring doubts are promptly chided for their lack of imagination (319). True, there are no iron laws of history, “no necessary correspondence between overarching concepts of social hierarchy and the practical mechanics of local governance” (321), but there are affinities, patterns and trends.In a case that is even less well understood, that of oblong Trypillian “mega-sites” in what is now western Ukraine, Graeber and Wengrow haul in contemporary Basque rural communities because these “also imagine their communities in circular form ... as a way of emphasizing the ideal equality of households” (295). An instant hedge — “obviously, the social arrangements of these existing communities are unlikely to be quite the same as those of ancient Ukraine” (295) — jars with the “also” that confidently conjoins Basque and Trypillian mentalities. We are left to marvel at reasoning as perfectly circular as Basque communal ideals. But there is more.

The authors fail to mention that the Basque settlements look nothing like those ancient mega-sites: unlike Talianki or Nebelivka, they are not physically round, and not even coherent sites, merely social communities loosely spread out over miles of scenic countryside. The leap from (spatially) circular sites 6,000 years ago to the (mental) “circular template” (295) of Basque villages is breathtaking. Yet although “we must admit that much remains unknown” (297), the former nonetheless offer “proof that highly egalitarian organization has been possible on an urban scale” (297). “Proof”—their word, not mine. In the end, all we end up with is a single solid case of a large city without clear signs of highly centralized authority, Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico. A metropolis of around 100,000 residents in the first half of the first millennium CE, it has not left written records but lacks iconographic evidence of royalty, even as men hailing from there occupied positions of power in Mayan Tikal (331–36). Conventional beginnings—ritual mass killings, ambitious temple projects that must have required vast labor inputs—were derailed around 300 CE (or perhaps rather earlier). Pyramid construction ceased, the fanciest temple was desecrated, and high-quality stone-built multi-household apartment compounds were erected to house the urban masses, arranged around 20-odd local temple complexes that may have provided local coordination. This situation prevailed for several centuries before things started falling apart, culminating in the abandonment of much of the site (341–45). Nobody knows who ran the city during the second phase: some layer of overarching control, for instance by religious authorities, is an option, as is more dispersed authority centered on the local temple complexes. The relationship between these precinct installations and the general population is likewise unknown. While the city’s grid design implies strong governance, this does not allow us to infer whether it was centralized or collective in nature: both options are empirically attested elsewhere. What is known is that in terms of its design, Teotihuacan was unique in the sense that it was without precedent and successor among Mesoamerican cities (Smith 2017).

Palaces in particular were common and readily identifiable in other Mesoamerican cities from at least the early first millennium CE onward, whereas Teotihuacan may well have lacked them entirely, just as it lacked the otherwise ubiquitous ball courts. Conversely, other cities did not feature comparable multi-household compounds. Something unusual was clearly going on, and a non-royal form of governance seems more likely than not. It is unclear how far beyond this we can push the data. Graeber and Wengrow infer from all that a “surprisingly common pattern” of scaling-up “with no resulting concentration of wealth or power in the hands of ruling elites” (322). Leaving aside the meaning of “common,” it is difficult to reconcile this with the evidence they themselves present. By their own account, Teotihuacan appears to have started out in more authoritarian ways and even later may well have been maintained by elite groups, and Mohenjo-daro is thought to have been controlled by a higher caste. Their speculative scenario of a “social revolution” in the previously stratified city of Taosi in Shanxi, China, around 2000 BCE is likewise predicated on several centuries of initial urban formation characterized by “rigid segregation between commoner and elite quarters” and the presence of a palace (324–26).Nobody can tell if there were religious elites in Uruk well before there were kings, and even less is known about the Ukrainian mega-sites. Moreover (and as Graeber and Wengrow themselves note: 323), other than Uruk, where monarchs become visible by the early third millennium BCE, all of these sites failed spectacularly, not to be replaced by anything comparable. Taken together, all this hardly amounts to a formidable challenge to the standard paradigm that links urbanization to hierarchy and centralized control, nor does it in any way “upend the conventional narrative” (284). We are left wondering — how much revision do prevailing interpretations of the emergence of urbanism actually require?"



Chris Knight 2021 – Did Communism Make Us Human? The Anthropology of David Graeber [3]

Christ Knight 2021 – The Anthropology of David Graeber (video) [4]

Camilla Power 2018 – Gender egalitarianism made us human: A response to David Graeber & David Wengrow’s ‘How to change the course of human history’ [5]


Critique of Evolutionary Theory and Evolutionary Critique

What do evolutionary theorists think of Graeber/Wengrow's put downs ?

Daniel Hoyer:

"It needs to be stressed, however, that when Graeber and Wengrow critique the “familiar narratives” of cultural evolutionists, it is clear that they are referring to the concept of ideal-typical “stages” of social development—hunter-gatherer band to small sedentary village, then on to chiefdoms, proto-states, archaic states, ancient empires, and so on. These are arguments found more often in the works of anthropologists and archaeologists from the mid-twentieth century like Elman Service and Marshall Sahlins (Service and Sahlins 1960; Service 1962)than contemporary cultural evolutionists such asRobert Boyd, Peter Richerson, Richard Blanton, Lane Fargher, Gary Feinman, Joyce Marcus, and many of the authors who written for this journal. To this latter group, sociocultural evolution is neither linear nor singular (nor always “beneficial”), but displays great diversity in trajectory and pressures leading to many different sorts of outcomes for different communities; precisely what DoE chastises the field for failing to recognize. Nevertheless, Graeber and Wengrow do propose to offer a different way of understanding long-term cultural and sociopolitical change which, at the very least, deserves consideration and response."


Source: Hoyer, Daniel. 2022. Introduction to Special Issue: Leading Scholars of the Past Comment on Dawn of Everything. Cliodynamics SI: Leading Scholars of the Past Comment on Dawn of Everything.

Anthropological freedoms

Pat Kane (citing the authors):

"The authors ask us to consider three basic “freedoms” in human history - the freedom to move, to disobey and to change our social arrangements. They put them in context here:

The freedom to abandon one’s community, knowing one will be welcomed in faraway lands; the freedom to shift back and forth between social structures, depending on the time of year; the freedom to disobey authorities without consequence – all appear to have been simply assumed among our distant ancestors, even if most people find them barely conceivable today.

Humans may not have begun their history in a state of primordial innocence, but they do appear to have begun it with a self-conscious aversion to being told what to do. (pp. 132-133).

If these freedoms are actually what Marx once called our “species-being”, then we may begin to conceive this “barely conceivable” politics."


The Authors Systematically Ignore the Material Conditions that Influence Choice

Daniel Bitton:

"Something that never seems to have entered the minds of the authors is that a hierarchical social structure is rarely some kind of democratic choice. Rather, it’s a matter of relative bargaining power.

People have conflicting interests and desires – but certain conditions give certain people advantages such that some people get more of what they want than others do. If your livelihood depends on a specific territory – like it does for farmers or for fishing based hunter gatherers – then if you and your allies can control the productive territory, then you have power over those people who need the products of that territory to survive – boom hierarchy. That’s how capitalism works. Or how any hierarchical system works. In other words, social structure is usually a reflection of the balance of powers in a given society.

Sometimes, social structure can be more of a democratic choice involving trial and error. But people don’t do those kinds of experiments for kicks or as an BDSM bondage kink game or because they have superhuman agency. We do it to solve problems. And people with similar problems in similar conditions end up coming on similar solutions over time – because reality!

Like people who are stuck together on plots of land for extended periods of time will often choose some kind of person to endow with a little bit of authority so that they can arbitrate disputes, which are much more frequent and hard to resolve when you’re sedentary than if you can just go off to another band when you get annoyed or want a divorce like nomadic hunter gatherers do. And theories around how we got stuck with more serious hierarchies over time all revolve around certain changes of conditions which gave people in those positions of weak authority, leverage to turn it into stronger authority. Conditions!

Another example of people making conscious choices in reaction to conditions is when people come under frequent attack, they’ll usually organize themselves around closely related men who grow up together and stay together forming a tight team, while their sisters will marry outside the group, and unrelated women will marry in to the group from the outside.

And this choice, called Patrilocal Residence, which we see all the over world among people faced with frequent attacks – for example every single nomadic pastoralist society known to exist or to have ever existed organizes this way because it’s easy to steal animals from herds – when people organize this way for self defense, it means that all the women end up coming from separate families and are socially isolated from eachother while all the men are close allies and form a close coalition.

And so, the unintended consequence of this is that it gives men political advantages that women don’t have, which leads to varying degrees of patriarchy. And this is why every single nomadic pastoralist society ever known to exist from northern scandinavia to the deserts of arabia to the mongolian steppe, have all been male dominated.

This is one of the best known and easiest to explain paths to male domination – but it’s totally absent from The Dawn of Everything, because they don’t want us to think about conditions, it’s all just freedom and choices!"


Materialism and Agency Are Not Opposed To Each Other

Daniel Bitton:

"if we want to answer Graeber and Wengrow’s question of how we got stuck in hierarchy – meaning if you want to understand where a particular dominance hierarchy comes from and how to get rid of it, or how to reduce it’s severity, then first you need to ask “what are the conditions that are giving some people the ability to impose their choices on other people”. And then once you’ve identified those, the next thing you need to ask is “what can we do to change those conditions in a way that reduces or eliminates those advantages”.

Unfortunately, as Graeber and Wengrow will later tell us in Chapter 5, they explicitly don’t want to think about conditions or circumstances. Instead, they want to focus on conscious choice and “freedom”. And the reason for this, is because they mistakenly think that if conditions are what result in hierarchy or equality, then this means that we are truly stuck forever stuck in hierarchy today because of the conditions inherent to advanced industrial civilization. And they quote Jared Diamond and others to that effect in chapter 1.

But what the authors forget as they go down this dead-end path of seeing hierarchy as a random choice disconnected from conditions, is that one of the powers of human beings is that we have the power to choose to shape and change the conditions that we live in – at least sometimes – it all depends on the conditions!

Unfortunately, as a result of trying to avoid materialist answers, and of trying to focus on discombobulated conscious choices outside the context of the conditions in which those choices are made, not only are the authors unable to answer their own questions, but they routinely bury or ignore all of the parts of the sources that they discuss which actually do answer those questions, which we saw last time and which we’ll see more of today.

Materialism and agency are not opposed to each other – materialism is simply the context in which freedom and choice are exercised. And without it we throw away our best tools for understanding why people make choices, or for predicting what choices they will make, which makes it impossible to design institutions and rules that will have the effect we want them to have."


The potential origin of Graeber's rejection of original egalitarianism

Chris Knight:

"Graeber’s mature outlook on politics and anthropology is such a seemingly paradoxical combination that it can seem difficult to understand where it all came from. The clue lies in the title of his major fieldwork publication, Lost People (2007).24 It was his experience in a rural community in central Madagascar that decisively cemented his perspectives on social inequality, history, religion, state coercion, the power of narrative, and, critically, grassroots opportunities for resistance.

In this rural community, people were identified as either Black, known as “Mainty,” or noble, known as “Andriana.” The Mainty were lost people in being descendants of African slaves, uprooted from their former homes, cut off from their families as they were dispersed and sold to new owners. The Andriana came originally from South Borneo. Attached tenaciously to their ancestor-worshipping traditions, they too were “lost,” but in a different sense. Reticent about their slave-holding past and still reluctant to perform physical work for cash, they became increasingly impoverished when descendants of their former slaves began to skilfully manage the rising economy of money-lending, cash transactions, and trade.

Graeber’s ethnography describes a world turning upside down as the descendants of slaves progressively employ, exploit, and partially expropriate their former masters, against the background of a colonial-era state apparatus now so moribund as to be virtually irrelevant. With insight and humour, Graeber describes a dilapidated state of post-colonial near-anarchy, giving each “lost person” freedom to construct their own narrative in their own chosen way, with effective story-telling the surest route to confidence-building, public support, and some chance of financial success. Among the more economically successful people might be an astrologer, for example, whose success would rest on a special talent for plausible fictions.

Graeber, then, found himself in a world where economic facts seemed to be determined by imaginative fictions. That was a far cry from Marx’s idea that myths and ideologies are constrained ultimately by economic processes. In Madagascar, the primacy of story-telling seemed to make a mockery of any idea of conducting rigorous science. Worse, any attempt to conduct science seemed an external imposition, reinforcing the form-filling addiction of the colonial administrator, interested only in regularities. To follow the scientific method, Graeber felt, is to close your mind to the surprises and exceptions which make up real life, subordinating people’s creative agency to alien priorities of your own. In sympathy with his eminent supervisor, the late Marshall Sahlins, Graeber resolved not to bend his own creative imagination to such deadening and artificial imperatives.

For Graeber, setting aside science was a matter of according respect and equality to the people he was living among. He saw no reason why the visiting anthropologist should set himself up as a mind operating on a higher level. So decisive was that fieldwork in shaping his world view that he went on to apply its lessons elsewhere. Human beings, he came to insist, are by their very nature free agents, not robots or slaves to scientific laws. His reluctance to seek out regularities or norms among the Malagasy became matched, in subsequent publications, by a reluctance to claim regularities in any field.

This stance led Graeber to dismiss historical materialism, in particular the idea of history as a sequence of stages. In his view, allegedly “simple” hunter-gatherers are no more likely to share their land or resources than so-called “complex” storage hunter-gatherers, farmers, or city-dwellers. For Graeber, extant hunter-gatherers are just people who happen to have been thrown together by fate, often marginalised in impoverished, hostile environments, living as best they can and inventing myths as required. We have absolutely no reason to assume that current customs of the Bushman people of the Kalahari, for example, are genuinely ancient or can teach us anything about our distant past. Graeber does not quite say that today’s hunter-gatherers are “lost people,” but the implication is there. When it comes to human origins, in his view, nothing is to be gained by focusing on hunter-gatherers. Graeber’s Madagascan experience taught him to dismiss any notion of cultural regularities or laws. Irrespective of the prevailing mode of subsistence, people will always be free to choose between alternative political forms.

Much of Graeber’s later work, co-authored with the archaeologist David Wengrow, was an approach to human origins and prehistory moulded by these views. In place of evolutionist assumptions about complexity emerging incrementally from simple beginnings, the authors argued that the very earliest fully cultural societies, such as those of Upper Palaeolithic Europe, were already highly complex. In a controversial article, the authors offered a triumphantly non-Darwinian, explicitly anti-evolutionist account of human origins."


On not understanding the Difference Between Democratic and Dominance Hierarchies

Daniel Bitton:

"A conventional or democratic hierarchy is where a group of people voluntarily organize into a hierarchy in order to achieve some goal. And while, like in every decision-making hierarchy, the people on top of the hierarchy have more decision-making power, the people at the bottom are still the ultimate deciders, in that the leadership position exists only because it serves their interests – and they can remove the person filling that position it if they’re not happy with their leadership service, and even remove the position entirely if they want to. And the terms of getting to be on top of a conventional hierarchy – like the degree of authority and responsibilities you might have, and the rewards you get – if any – are all ultimately determined by the people on the bottom.

A dominance hierarchy on the other hand, is something that people on the top impose on the people on the people below them because of differential bargaining power between the two sides. And if the people on the bottom tolerate the power imbalance, it’s because they don’t have any better options – like how you go to your job that you hate and you obey your dingus boss, because not going to that job will be worse in various ways than going to it.

For an example of a conventional hierarchy – even in the most hyper egalitarian hunter gatherer societies, who have no chiefs or authority figures – when there’s a hunting party, the hunters will often pick someone among them who has a lot of experience and good skills and instincts to be the party leader, and they’ll look to him for guidance and leadership on the hunt.

Not only do these hunting leaders not have any official authority, but the second that people don’t like what he’s doing they’ll either stop listening, or else never appoint him again, depending on the circumstances.

In that video I mentioned last time with the bro dude going hunting with the Hadza, the translators refer to one man called Sokolo as the “chief” but that’s a mis-translation from the translator who’s from a different more hierarchical ethnic group – Sokolo was just the hunting party leader – and any Hadza trying to pass himself off as a chief would get into enormous trouble with the rest of the community.

Now sometimes the lines might get blurry between a conventional and dominance hierarchy, and there’s a bit of a spectrum, which we can talk about more another time – but a good analogy to know which kind of hierarchy you’re dealing with is like the difference between Sadomasochism and sexual assault. On the surface they might look like the same thing – but the second someone says stop, and the other person doesn’t stop, then it becomes sexual assault.

So, by definition, when the authors ask “how did we get stuck” in hierarchy – what they’re talking about is dominance hierarchy not a democratic hierarchy, because you’re not stuck in a democratic hierarchy, you have entered into it on an equal footing with all the other members of that hierarchy, and you have an equal say with everyone else on determining how it will be shaped, and who gets to be in what position, and whether or not the hierarchy continues to exist at all.

Now one thing to note about dominance hierarchy is that since by its very nature, no one chooses to have it imposed on them – dominance hierarchy can only exist if there are certain conditions or circumstances that give some people a set of advantages which allow them to impose their dominance onto other people.

These sorts of conditions are things like – I have guns and you don’t, i’m an adult and you’re my child and you depend on me for food and shelter – or our economy depends on fishing, and my family got to this fishing spot first, and we’re numerous and strong enough to control it by force and you have no where else to get your fish, etc.

And so, by not distinguishing between conventional vs dominance hierarchies, and by not understanding that dominance hierarchy can only exist because of conditions and circumstances – the Dawn of Everything creates a lot of confusion when it comes to understanding why we got stuck in hierarchy and how we can get unstuck."


On not understanding the difference between Equality and Hierarchy

Polly Wiessner:

"Graeber and Wengrow struggle with the concept of egalitarianism, which they see as “sameness” in some specific ways that are agreed upon to be important (p. 126).However, egalitarian relations are not about sameness in small-scale societies, but rather about respect and appreciation of different skills offered by group members to build complementarity and dependency. As a group of Ju/’hoansi put it during a firelit conversation about what constitutes the core of their culture: “It is not the trance dance, hunting techniques, apparel or songs that are the essential elements of our culture but rather relations of respect and appreciation for what others have to offer. We walk/talk softly, unlike the Bantu who are big penises” (an expression for relations of dominance). This fits with what is probably the best anthropological definition of egalitarian societies, that proposed by Fried (1967): in egalitarian societies there are as many positions as there are qualified individuals to fill them. The respect for the abilities of different individuals creates tolerance for the variation on which cultural developments draw. It is this respect that lies at the heart of the testimony by the Huron-Wendat chief Kandiaronk about the dynamics of his own society, mentioned frequently by Graeber and Wengrow. Egalitarian and hierarchical elements co-exist in all human societies. Though both appear to have roots in our simian heritage, why were both maintained through social selection and cultural means? Institutionalized hierarchy reduces internal competition and the often-destructive race to the top, allows for efficient organization of collective action, and coordinates responses to intergroup competition which benefit many group members. Egalitarian institutions reduce the transaction costs of social and economic exchange in a number of respects. As equals, it is not necessary to work out relative social standing with every interaction. Women and men can help each other knowing that as equals they can give, ask, take and receive help when in need. With egalitarian institutions people do not fear that assistance given will be used to dominate, fostering the conditions and trust for delayed exchange. Finally, equality facilitates the mobility necessary for intergroup interaction, as hierarchies do not mesh easily."


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