A New History of Humanity
This week: conversations about David Graeber and David Wengrow’s bestselling Dawn of Everything, with Wengrow, Peter Linebaugh, Philip Deloria, Joyce Chaplin, and Robin D. G. Kelley. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.
An encyclopedic history of humanity recently became a bestseller, popularizing its refreshing assertion that humans have long been able to live in complex societies without familiar hierarchies, without oppressive power structures. The history is The Dawn of Everything, and its authors are David Wengrow, archaeologist, and the late David Graeber—the anthropologist known for books including Bullshit Jobs (here’s the Open Source show on that) and for his role in the Occupy movement.
That a sophisticated, massive historical project has become a bestseller says something about this moment—there’s a hunger for rethinking humanity beyond the usual terms, for instance. This week, we reflect on that hunger, and on the rethinking.
David Wengrow joins us, and says: “Our whole point really is that people have always been able to make decisions, ethical decisions, moral decisions” about social organization, about politics. Human history is not a simple story in the Wengrow-Graeber telling, but an overbrimming drama of choices—sometimes good (better than many political choices made today) sometimes terrible.
This means, too, that we aren’t talking about a history of progression to today’s social orders, unlike the histories sustained by belief in social evolution and progress leading to the present. This is a history in which we find many branching paths, many possibilities beyond the constraints of our own social order. Says Wengrow:
In the course of writing the book we moved . . . towards questions along the lines of, “How did we get stuck?” How did we arrive at a place psychologically, emotionally where we feel unable to imagine alternative ways of organizing ourselves, where it seems so difficult for people now? You know, there seems to be this pervasive sense of, “Well, the system we have is really the only one that’s viable in this very densely populated, technologically complex world that we live in. Maybe we can improve things here and there, but essentially this is it.”.
Inspiring much of Wengrow and Graeber’s criticism of the Enlightenment narrative of progress is indigenous critique. We’re joined this hour by Philip Deloria, Harvard professor of Native American history, who describes that critique:
One of the things that happens when native people meet up with Europeans: Europeans don’t assume (or at least we’ve been taught that Europeans don’t assume) that those native people are their intellectual equals. But the fact is is that they always are and they always have been. They’re human beings with their own traditions of debate, of thinking about things, of arguing points out. They see Europeans and they pass their own kinds of judgements based on the societies and the cultures in which they live.
And they find the Europeans lacking. It’s quite clear and it’s quite a steady pulse of inadequacy that native people find. They find Europeans to be dishonest. They find them to be obsessed with property. They find them to have a kind of warped sense about what law and crime and freedom look like, they find that their class structures and their leadership mechanisms are faulty. They find that they’re untrustworthy. All of those things are part of a long tradition of native or indigenous critique when folks run into Europeans. It stretches from the very beginnings, first contact, up to the present day.
A chorus of historians follows Deloria this hour, including Robin D.G. Kelley, who has called the book “the most profound and exciting book I’ve read in thirty years.”
Joyce Chaplin, historian at Harvard, captures the enthusiasm about the Wengrow-Graeber history:
It’s obviously a really ambitious project and exhilarating and important, and especially its attack on any sense that societal inequality is ingrained somehow in people and in history—that it’s ingrained in human nature, it results from natural circumstances, it’s an inevitable outcome of “civilization,” so-called, and there’s a linear development of it that somehow now seems inescapable . . . I think it’s great to take this all down and to point out how much of it is nonsense, that the human record does not support any kind of linear conclusion about this. So I really think it’s wonderful to have it out there for public debate.
The historian Peter Linebaugh offers an explanation for why the book has become popular with today’s readers:
There’s a “back-to” movement, but it’s not nostalgic. And this is true of this book, too: it’s not nostalgic, it’s not romantic. It’s looking for solutions in the many, many forms of life. You know, [this book] speaks of the hippie commune, [this book] speaks of the biker gang as like two poles of domination and reciprocity. And then, whether it’s the Iroquois or the Yanomami or Amazonas or Turkey or Egypt or Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley, all over, these guys have such an encyclopedic knowledge of human societies from the Ice Age on. They are searching for solutions. And this is what young seekers are doing as well.
Read: 1,001 Nights
Producer Adam Colman’s series with Lit Hub on 1,001 Nights includes an interview with Yasmine Seale, who also reads from her new translations of 1,001 Nights. The translations bring forth the poetic sensitivity of the Nights, and Sam Sacks has praised the new edition with those translations as “a gorgeous illustrated volume.”
Next Week: Back to the Glasgow Pub
Next up, we check back in with Mark Blyth in our sonic pub, bringing him questions on just about everything.
This week’s ephemeral library
Before Thoreau: “Walden was a Black space before it was a green space.” The Supreme Court’s fragility. The art of Stephen Sondheim. Lydia Davis’s new collection of essays, reviewed.