SocraticGadfly: The Dawn of Everything? Rather, a mendacious scrapbook pastiche

December 03, 2021

The Dawn of Everything? Rather, a mendacious scrapbook pastiche

If late friend Leo Lincourt, a lover of David Graeber, were still alive, he'd surely disagree with me, both in my take on this book and on his previous "Debt," based on the second of not one but TWO fluffy New Yorker reviews, even though I have on record from my RIP for Graeber that Leo at least admitted he was "uneven."

But, from what I first read on the Atlantic's review, and now at the Guardian excerpt?

I think it's oversold. WAY oversold now that The Nation has crushed it.

(Note: This is an updated and expanded version of the review posted on my philosophy blog, designed to not only look at the newer information about the book, but to focus more on the political angles behind it. That review was more about facts, or lack of them, on history and social sciences and interpretation.)

That starts and ends with the title and subtitle: "The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity."

It's overarching, and oversold. And, especially via that review at The Nation and Brad DeLong? It's arguably mendacious, not just oversold. (That said, per the title, overselling something willfully is part of being mendacious, is it not?)

(Note: This is a reworking of the original review on my philosophy blog. That's in part because the second fluffy New Yorker review reminds me of Graeber's connections with Occupy and the Black Bloc, which I have long despised, and that puts us into modern politics.)

I've read multiple books that have already touched on how the old archaeological and anthropological paradigm of a straight,  permanent, line from hunter-gathering  to farming is wrong. Against the Grain covered this four years ago. Five years ago, John Wathey offered up new ideas on the development of early religion and spirituality, which this pair don't appear to cover at all.

Or, via, while not discussing the early "civilizations" of Southwest Asia, here's a paper FROM 1998 about the Fremont culture of today's Utah, discussing a mix of part-time foragers/part-time farmers, full-time foragers, full-time farmers, farmers who flipped to foraging and foragers who became farmers. (Unlike in the Old World, pastoral nomadism wasn't an option in most the New World before Columbian contact, due to lack of domesticated livestock, of course.)

OR? I'll certainly venture that their "everything" doesn't include a new date of 50,000 years, yes FIFTY THOUSAND years before present for the oldest figural, representational human-created art.

So, the pair aren't saying anything new, they're building on others, and right there, it's not a new history, and it's not complete, so not "everything."

It also smacks to me of trying to build on the reputation of Graeber, who died in the last year. Now, he could have been a great capitalist within his anarchism; anarcho-capitalism is a thing, complete with its own Wiki page. But, from what I know of Graeber on my own and via Leo? Uh, no. He would have shuddered to be in the same breath (I think) as Murray Rothbard. (Per the Guardian extract, that's why it's funny for the duo to talk about capitalists talking about social connections at Christmas WITH the implication that they're doing that INSTEAD OF capitalism rather than as a marketing adjunct.)

Now, to some specifics, via a trio of (unanswered, Twitter, natch, low signal to noise ratio) Tweets to the author of the Atlantic review.

First, I noted the pair were by no means alone, per the above.

Second, I noted that the HIGHLY sympathetic reviewer, William Deresciewicz, undercut himself in links in his piece, one in particular, in the claim that "towns" existed long before a permanent shift to agriculture (note that I also tagged Wengrow, also unresponsive):

Finally, I said that, at least per what the review says and more importantly, doesn't say, it's NOT about "everything."


Now, off to the Guardian excerpt, since I saw that later.

First, the pair are right that just about all of us, including our African Homo sapiens ancestors before leaving Africa, have DNA and mitochondrial DNA from other species within us. Nonetheless, that's yet more dilute than the bits of Neanderthal and / or Denisovan DNA that the typical non-African has. Ergo, the concept of "DNA Adam" and "mitochondrial DNA Eve" is still a good working theory and Graber-Wengrow come close to strawmanning. (The pair actually had a chance of tackling residual racial bias in human population genetics, that said, but at least here, appear to take a pass.)

Second, since cultural evolution is not evolution, unless the pair are slaves to evolutionary psychology, this is largely irrelevant to cultural evolution, contra their claims. So, without reading the full book? Lost a star. And, ev psych has a lot of political tie-ins and overtones as well. Seems to me like they're undercutting some of their other politics to even flirt with it. See Steve Gould and Richard Lewontin.

Third, they do next admit previous recent study of places like Göbekli Tepe, so a kudo of sorts back. That said, I see it as like Pueblo Bonito and the whole Chaco Canyon structures. We still don't know for sure what THAT was — permanent settlement, religious site with sparse permanent inhabitation, some mix of that, or something else. They're just claiming it was X not Y without support.

Fourth, it may be true that inequalities of various sorts were actually worse before a permanent transition to agriculture and a permanent transition to settled cities. Or it may not be. Right now, there's just not enough evidence to say that. We do have enough evidence to say we should get rid of old paradigms, but not enough to create new ones. Contra cheap versions of hot takes on Thomas Kuhn, paradigm shifts as in not just abandoning an old one but immediately replacing it with a new one, just aren't that common.

OK, so they got that much wrong about the past. And more.

Via Molly Fischer, the second fluffy New Yorker review (I'll get to her in a minute), leading me to a Brad DeLong Tweet, I see The Nation has some skepticism about the book, too. Daniel Immerwahr nails it, which is why DeLong Tweeted the link:

(H)e was better known for being interesting than right, and he would gleefully make pronouncements that either couldn’t be confirmed (the Iraq War was retribution for Saddam Hussein’s insistence that Iraqi oil exports be paid for in euros) or were never meant to be (“White-collar workers don’t actually do anything”).

Yep. Now, that's today's politics, but Immerwahr also tackles the past that they tackle.

Just before that, Immerwahr noted a tendentious reading of Mayan ruins by the pair, claiming that the site in question does NOT show "lords" or similar.

The latter third of the review raises a big-ticket item. Accepting that late Neolithic humans did indeed "experiment" with sedentary farming, state structures, etc., for 2-3 millennia or more, at some point, they "locked in" and we became "stuck." This is definitely true in most of Eurasia plus North Africa, and also true, albeit at a lower level of hierarchy and without firm territories, in the Americas and much of sub-Saharan Africa pre-Columbian contact. And, Immerwahr says they never answer why this happened, at least not in satisfactory fashion. 

Since they can't construct an overarching narrative for that? He says that makes the book a "scrapbook" as much as anything.

At the New Yorker, Gideon Lewis-Krous also appears to give it a fluffy review, the first of the two I noted. His take is addressed between me and Immelwahr, above. He also petard-hoists, re what Immelwahr says about interpreting Mayan ruins at Tikal. They basically claim that about everybody else has gotten it wrong but voila, here we are! And we know you're all right rather than all wet why?

Lewis-Krous doesn't address the Immelwahr bottom line critique, either. At some point, whether triumphalist or defeatist, to use his words, much of the world DID "lock in" on sedentary agriculture. Per my notes above about the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, while hunter-gatherers will have very limited rulerships and hierarchies, this is not the same as "none." And, pastoral nomadists have plenty of both. Genghis Khan, anybody?

In turn, that seems to be, from all the reviews, something the pair just ignores. After all, after livestock were domesticated in the Old World, and especially after somebody realized you could ride a horse instead of eating it, boom! Pastoral nomadism became a third alternative to both hunter-gatherer and sedentary agriculture lifestyles. BUT! As I see it, it requires a conscious commitment and you can't wobble in and back out of it.

On to a second New Yorker fellation of Graeber and the book by Molly Fischer. Fischer does remind me of Graeber not only being the "intellectual voice" behind Occupy, but a supporter of Black Bloc types, including their property destruction, which this leftist of some sort has long rejected. It also reminds me of the lies told about Occupy in general and Occupy New York in particular being "leaderless," which it was not. Fischer starts with New York City's Direct Action Network, a predecessor of Occupy NY that got a new round of prominence after the Black Bloc destructiveness at the Seattle WTO event in 1998. 

I should note that this is why, other than what I've called the pretentiousness of the name, I don't identify with the so-called "antifa": their Black Bloc roots, including the anarchism. A lot of this gets coupled with myths about the police, whether from anarchists, New Left not including them, or libertarians. I've exploded many of them.

With that, per Fischer's piece, I wonder if Graeber, with the Malagasy and others of his anthropology work, while being right on them being anarchist in not having formal governments, nonetheless had leadership structures that he either flat missed, or ignored by de-emphasis, or else willfully turned a blind eye to. I say that because of his claim that Occupy "worked," a claim rejected by many people who, like him, were involved with it.

Re what I said above about their work, the Graeber-Wengrow for the book, not being new? Fischer reports that professional colleagues said at first, on their first journal submission, that it was insufficiently new. They should have stuck with that.

As for "Debt"? First, Brad DeLong has receipts on how error-ridden it is. And, how smug and defiant Graeber is about the errors. (Note Lewis-Krous review.)

Second, per this blog post, I long ago tackled the bullshit claim that Occupy Wall Street was leaderless. And, for Graeber, a PhD anthropologist, to claim that it was? That's mendaciousness. Given that he was essentially a cofounder of OWS, and he and Marissa Holmes were acknowledged as "primus inter partes," and all the other leadership sociological structures mentioned at at the second link, he knew it was bullshit. And, per those links, by lying about OWS leaderlessness, Graeber was ultimately an accomplice to bandit predatory capitalism. He was also arguably an accomplice to the classism and racism that a good anarchist should have despised, as self-done demographic surveys indicate that Occupy Wall Street had a fair chunk of both, and with that, probably was largely nowhere near as idealistic as Graeber tried to make it out to be.

Third, per what Fischer seems to say about it, Graeber seems to have the same belief about how antiquity treated debt as does Michael Hudson. I've dealt with Hudson before; in brief, he takes the aspirational stances of ancient texts on debt jubilees as realities. Any good biblical critic knows better about Israel. Second, to flat-foot Graeber, this was nation-states doing this. Private lenders can't be forced to tear up debts on their own without the power of a nation-state. I can, as a private person, per the Lukan version of the Lord's Prayer, forgive a debt. But, short of a nation-state, who will force me? Likewise, per Jesus' parable of the two debtors, I can't force anybody to pay it forward. Pre-state society may not have been as brutish as Hobbes posits. But, the evolutionary biology problem of free riders hits Homo sapiens as much if not more, than any other eusocial species.

I tackled this most recently in that RIP up top; here it is again.

As for modern monetary theory, dinging both him and Hudson again? I called it a Maoist cult.

And, I'm glad I did this longer update as, per the RIP link, it reminds me that I indeed won't miss Graeber that much. Nor any cult around him.

Update, Dec. 22: Here's another way of seeing what's wrong with the book, to summarize the first part of this post: It's "Big History," with all its problems, including its myth-creation.

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