Conclusion To Series On The Dawn Of Everything

Posts on The Dawn Of Everything: Link

The Dawn Of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow has 525 pages of text. I’ve discussed 10 of the 12 chapters in the last 14 months, and it’s time to move on. I’ll conclude this series with a few ideas triggered by the book.

1. The authors show that human societies didn’t follow any particular pattern of change. We didn’t move from foraging to agriculture to industrialization along a single track. We didn’t grow from bands to tribes to clans to small hamlets to towns to cities to nation-states. We didn’t move from one form of social organization to another in any particular order. Instead, the crucial factor is human agency. Agency is the antithesis of the mindlessness of Darwin-style evolution. People make choices. Genes don’t.

2. Greaber and Wengrow are clear about their biases. Among other things they think the current state of society is based on social inequality, and that this is bad. One of the principle themes of the book is laid out as a section heading at p. 111: Why The Real Question Is Not “What Are The Origins Of Social Inequality’ But ‘How Did We Get Stuck?’ They don’t answer the question directly, but it’s likely they think one of the central problems is domination.

In Chapter 10 they say that societies are held together by domination, which can take three forms, sovereignty (control of violence), control of knowledge, and charisma, which operates through virtues approved by the group, such as strength or rhetoric. Each of these can be used to achieve and perpetuate social inequality.

3. The authors think that societies have a shared mental component that links members and separates them from other groups. In ancient societies people shared creation myths or other cosmogonies, rituals, cultic practices, totems, and social practices. We moderns do too. In this post I suggested that

… we Americans share a sort of secular religion based on the founding myths of our country and a weak allegiance to what Jefferson called “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence. The latter is a formulation that originally meant Natural Law but I think now includes a science-based mental stance and values based on a vaguely Christian moral sense. The founding myths include our commitment to freedom, as “all men are created equal”; a government of laws, not of men; a form of capitalism; and representative democracy.

By “vaguely Christian moral sense”, I meant something like the Golden Rule, and that this Rule was given to us from something greater than our mortal selves. Each of us has many more beliefs, some fully supported by fact and reason, many less so, and some perfectly arbitrary, such as a preference between forks and chopsticks, or certainty that the end times are upon us.

One important mental component that holds citizens of the US together is a shared commitment to the idea that this is a nation of laws, not of men. We had a general agreement that we would select our leaders, and adhere to the laws and rules they enacted. There’s still some truth there even in these days of Republican treachery.

4. Control of knowledge is a powerful tool. In Chapter 10 the authors describe an ongoing problem in pre-dynastic Egypt, around 3500 BCE: whether the dead require food and drink, and if so, what. The answer turns out to be they need leavened bread and wheat beer. There is no known explanation for this. Skeptics might suggest the priests who gave this answer really liked leavened bread and wheat beer. In any event, this answer required a vast increase in the amount of wheat to satisfy the needs of all of the dead people. That led to vast increases in agriculture, away from the fertile floodplains of the Nile, increased need for irrigation, additional labor, accounting bureaucracies, and debt peonage. The baseless idea of feeding the dead changed the course of human history.

Many of the societies described in the book believed that their gods demand sacrifices of animals, food, or even human beings. We see this among the Aztecs, and in Gen. 4:3 and Gen. 22:2, for example. These ideas don’t ever really disappear. For example, the idea of helping one’s dead ancestors shows up in Chinese use of joss paper.

These ideas seem strange to me, even for the ancients. That’s because they are perfectly abstract. There is no way to verify them, or to justify them other than stories. And yet human beings have always acted on stories, and those actions shape whole societies.

5. At present, it seems to me that our mutual commitment to the rule of law is threatened by a drive to dominate and control knowledge. In most advanced societies knowledge was largely generated and vetted in and through an academic culture. Because of this commitment, no one cared that I read existentialist and surreal texts in college in the 60s, and no one cared that my history class was heavy on criticism of Gilded Age capitalism. Everyone assumed that it was important that as we got older we replace our child’s version of philosophy and of our history with a more adult ideas. Universities were thought to be the training grounds for leadership. Why would you want ignorant leaders, trained on a bunch of Young Adult stories?

But now intellectual pursuits, such fields of study as Critical Race Theory, deconstruction, the history of Reconstruction in the US, and gender studies are the subject of political hostility. For at least the last 50 years private interests have been trying to take control of information. Think of tobacco companies and their scientists lying about their cancer-causing products. Exxon and its scientists concealed the dangers of climate breakdown while fighting changes in energy policy. Someone found a bunch of doctors to attack vaccines. The right-wing media dumps lies into the minds of its audience. Now politicians are reaching directly into the intellectual formation of college students, hoping to hide people and histories they don’t like and that don’t fit the Potemkin World they’ve created.

That Potemkin World is the endpoint sought by the reactionaries who have dumped billions into the project of knowledge control. They’re motivated by their desire to protect and extend their wealth, and defuse any opposition to their control. I see an obvious analogy to the priests of Egypt who divined that the dead needed wheat beer.

Graeber and Wengrow say “As soon as we were human we started doing human things.” P. 82. And apparently we keep doing them even when they make as little sense as feeding the dead with expensive wheat products or risking the future of the earth to make a few bucks.

52 replies
  1. dpa3.14159 says:

    A most interesting series, thank you. I was struck by the idea of ancient hunter/gatherers joining together annually in some great festival, and using that assembled manpower to build great monuments. All without any of what I would normally think of as the kind of organized society needed to pull off such tasks. Interesting to contemplate.

    And I guess we do continue to do such human-like things to this day, witness Burning Man.

    • praxEs says:

      I have been watching my Wildcats this year only after prerecording and learning the outcome. This is one I will not watch.

  2. Patrick Carty says:

    Thank you Ed, I wandered a bookstore yesterday and left empty handed. Maybe my next book could be this though. It seems to me that the largest divide in this country isn’t left or right, it’s top vs bottom. The wealthiest aren’t satisfied with what they have and are determined to mine the middle class of the comforts they have. Why would any society attack their own public schools? Should we not pour every rational resource into educating our next generations? Should we not offer decent accommodations back to our elderly, who paid their taxes to our communities? We are divided left and right intentionally by the top, who peddle fear to those who foster victimhood, as if the migrant at the border, who only seeks to wash the dishes in our favorite restaurant, is here to take our accounting job.

    Of course I speak of the right, as if I’m divided too.

    • rip no longer says:

      Patrick – a very concise and wise summation, IMHO.

      We have become a society of class – maybe always have been – but amplified by the extreme differences in wealth. The race/ethnic divides that are promoted by the current (r) politicians are a screen for the haves/have-nots.

      This has happened before many times. In the US with the robber barons and the landed vs. tenants. Not totally racial/ethnically based, but of course, these do appear together.

      Why would a class of people not support a lower class? Because they don’t want to lose their privileged status. And they won’t admit that only by the grace of fortune, are they privileged.

  3. David_28FEB2023_0917hET says:

    “People make choices, genes dont.”

    I think this very much over simplifies the extent to which genes influence our agency. It doesn’t seem reasonable to observe humanity’s obsession with sex, status and food and conclude our genetic evolutionary legacy isn’t a part of that obsession. Also independent twin studies very much confirm that identical genes result in a staggering amount of agency convergence.

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  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Critique of contemporary western, and especially American, capitalism in a nutshell:

    That Potemkin World is the endpoint sought by the reactionaries who have dumped billions into the project of knowledge control. They’re motivated by their desire to protect and extend their wealth, and defuse any opposition to their control.

  5. Bay State Librul says:

    Thanks Ed

    According to Bernie, it’s ok to be angry at capitalism.
    As he says, “60% of people live pay-check to pay-check.”
    Economic security is a requirement.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      America’s peculiar, effectively unrestrained version of capital (see, data privacy), is a global outlier worthy of criticism and reform. Restrained, it is capable of enriching the lives and health of billions. Unconstrained, it is a malignant cancer.

  6. oldtulsadude says:

    It appears to me that the opposition to education is political only in the sense that the political right has become an extension of the conservative religiosity it serves; it is the modern Inquisition .

    • Jockobadgerbadger says:

      Hear hear, oldtulsadude!

      [Moderator’s note: Please confirm you’ve changed your email by using your old one in a reply. Please also confirm which username you’re going to stick with here forward: one badger or two? It makes a difference when other identity attributes don’t match. Thanks. /~Rayne]

    • Patrick Carty says:

      I would add the conservatives fear nothing more than an educated woman, except for maybe an educated minority woman.

  7. John Paul Jones says:

    Thanks Ed for this series. I’m looking forward to your next choice of book.

    As to gatherer-hunter societies building monuments, my understanding is that current archeological thinking is that that was precisely how Stonehenge was built and maintained over centuries.

    As to the care for the dead which all human societies seem to provide, I think it’s probably related to the notion that though they have passed, they still remain, for a short while, members of the community. I wouldn’t regard it as irrational per se though obviously it can lead to larger irrationalities (over-investment in grain production).

    As to human societies not following neat “evolutionary” pathways, sure, but it seems fairly clear that some pathways (large scale agriculture, for example, or the proliferation of social media), once chosen, can foreclose going back to earlier states of society. In other words, trying to fit social change and development into an “evolutionary” model was always a non-starter – except for the enormous prestige of Darwinian ideas through the middle of the twentieth century.

    A great series, btw, with much food for thought. Thank you.

    • gmoke says:

      _You Can’t Steal a Gift: Dizzy, Clark, Milt, and Nat_ by Gene Lees
      Lincoln, NE: Univ of NE Press, 2001
      ISBN 0-8032-8034-3

      (xvi) from the preface by Nat Hentoff: [James] Loewen writes: I have found useful a distinction societies make in east and central Africa. According to John Mbiti, Kisawahili speakers divide the deceased into two categories: sasha and zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living dead. They are not wholly dead, for they live on in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead…

      I sometimes think there is a third stage for the dead after zamani. At this stage, they return to the gods or the spirits and help keep the world vital and revivifying.

      But I could be wrong.

      PS: The popular conception of Darwin’s work is still mostly wrong, it seems. We have yet to learn that “fittest” doesn’t mean muscles and strength but merely how well we “fit” within our ecological niche, another concept that is missing in popular conception which says “save the world” when it actually means “save our species” or “our ecological niche.”

    • Bruce Olsen says:

      Humanity has gone back to earlier societal states often. All it takes is invasion from outside, or collapse from the inside, or environmental collapse of some kind.
      As a species we’re especially vulnerable today because so much of our knowledge exists only as bits–and making use of that knowledge relies on a thick layer of advanced technology.
      Society will be resilient until it suddenly isn’t, much like Mike in The Sun Also Rises.

  8. Epicurus says:

    I would suggest Mr. Walker’s next book be the Shield of Achilles by Phillip Bobbitt. It discusses in great detail the elements in his points 1-5 above and the potential fit in the the future beyond the nation state.

  9. john gurley says:

    “Agency is the antithesis of the mindlessness of Darwin-style evolution. People make choices. Genes don’t.“

    Sorry, disagree. Human progress shows all the hallmarks of evolution: competing systems, weeding out of weak societies, slow incremental improvements punctuated occasionally by extinction events and revolutions..

    The same is true of human technologies. Today’s computers evolved through many generations, agency only playing a role in creating new variations to be selected from by market forces.

        • John gurley says:

          It’s an amusing example, but not a disproof of the evolution of technology.

          It’s comparable to the argument that since a T Rex is a much deadlier animal than a mouse, the fact that mice have survived and T Rex’s went extinct is proof that evolution is a false theory.

          • BobBobCon says:

            You’re basically arguing since a T-Rex had relatively short arms compared to a Wisconsin State Fair butter sculpture of a Pokemon, George Washington battleshipped the plankton in catfish whistles.

            Evolution just doesn’t apply. It’s a nonsensical string of words no matter how anyone tries to put them together, just like Charles Murray.

            • john a gurley says:

              I am sorry if I am offending your religion in some way, but evolution can be found almost universally in systems that replicate information, including the evolution of human memes, from culteral to technological. Almost any large set of systems that imperfectly replicate information and are filtered by a competition “threshold” will evolve.

              Even our immune systems employ evolutionary algorithms to search for antibodies that match specific antigens. It is how our immune system keeps up in the arms race against rapidly evolving bacteria and viruses.

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            • john gurley says:

              As far as why VHS beat Beta, VHS won because it was cheaper, had more movie titles, and could record two hours, not just one. Not sure what that has to do with the evolution of, say, communication technologies from beating on drums up to current systems like Starlink.

      • john gurley says:

        You need a better grasp of evolution. then, which applies generally to imperfectly replicating information that is filtered by some fitness test. It doesn’t matter whether the information is in the form of genes, in sound reproduction technology. or even computer-driven evolution of novel drugs.

        Human understanding of practically any area of knowledge “evolves”, it does not advance through agency alone, which is an accelerant of evolution not a replacement.

        For example, computer design has advanced through the “agency” of countless inventors across several generations. A statistical ensemble of inventors does not act as single “agent”, it evolves.

        • bmaz says:

          Welp, since you are dubiously conflating machines with evolutionary biology, do tell how Betamax was “NOT” superior in every metric of usability than VHS. I’ll be waiting.

          • BobBonCon says:

            “Evolution” is a word people use to try to cover up the fact that they aren’t capable of understanding what evolution is.

          • john a gurley says:

            What is at all “dubious” about evolution being applicable to information systems beyond DNA/RNA?

            We are information processing apes.

            Take human memes, for example. Who would deny that jokes evolve? Or religions? Or the platforms of political parties?

            • john a gurley says:

              As far as Betamax vs VHS, the survivor is quite apparent, isn’t it?

              So your intiution into the outcome is what is wrong, not the well-founded concept of evolution..

          • john gurley says:

            Seriously, you did not know that evolution of information is a basic pattern of nature that extends well beyond biology? Even human memes evolve. Would you deny that jokes evolve? Human cultures?

            In terms of Beta vs VHS, you have the case of a wonderful, superior, specimen that failed to reproduce.

            • bmaz says:

              Thanks for the relentless lecture on how information and marketing is just like biological evolution. But, no, it it is not. This type of business BS is the place where the term “collusion” is actually germane (it is not in criminal law).

              In the case of videotape, Beta was a FAR superior product that was pushed out because most other manufacturers did not want to pay Sony the licensing fees. So they, led by JVC as I recall, all banded together behind the far inferior, but much cheaper, VHS. But thanks!

              • john gurley says:

                Mr bmaz, thank goodness I come to this site for your expertise on law, not science. That is my expertise.

                Read up on what the modern understanding of evolution actually is, not some vague recollections you have from high school science.

                • bmaz says:

                  My undergrad degree is in neurobiology. I understand evolution just fine, thanks. I think you will find that a lot of people here understand things just fine without your help. And screw off with your ignorant “vague recollections from high school” horse manure. Apparently what your “expertise” is in, is in being a jackass.

                  And you are still full of shit about the “evolution” of videotape as to VHS versus Betamax. If anything, that example disproves your BS. So, “read up” yourself.

    • rip no longer says:

      So many interesting tangents that veer off into the voids.

      John (A) Gurley – I agree with you. Evolution is not restricted to some biological group. The universe evolves, technologies evolve, even one human’s capacity for understanding can evolve.

      I do think we try to see evolution as some fairly nice plotted line that goes generally up or down. The reality in this universe and life as-we-know-it is that it is very jagged – perhaps even brownian. Think of Conway’s Game Of Life where some of the beings could go on forever but most would flicker and die. Thus examples of beta vs. vhs.

        • whocansay says:

          Yes, really, this.

          The compulsion to conflate biological evolution with everything that changes or “wins” is quite annoying.

          As if VHS/Beta didn’t have any externalities like competing cabals who had more money/ motivation/ power.

          Even Dawkins won’t to equate memes and religions with evolution.

          What’s the external agenda/ direction of biological evolution? Nothing.

          And dog save us from the “free market of ideas”.


          Back to the excellent tract..

  10. harpie says:

    Huh, that’s twice in two weeks I’ve read the words “the Gilded Age”.

    The other:
    Dark money and special deals: How Leonard Leo and his friends benefited from his judicial activism The Federalist Society co-chairman’s lifestyle took a lavish turn after he became Donald Trump’s adviser on judicial nominations. 03/01/2023

    […] Weeks after Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, in August of 2018, Leo paid off the mortgage on his home in Virginia after making numerous renovations.

    Just months after that — and one day before the Senate took a controversial procedural vote clearing the way for Kavanaugh’s appointment to replace Kennedy — Leo bought a second home, a $3.3 million mansion in Mount Desert, Maine.

    The affluent seaside village is a haven for a number of heirs to Gilded Age oil, industrial and banking barons like the Rockefellers and Morgans. The seller was an heir to chemical giant W.R. Grace chairman and CEO J. Peter Grace. […]

    This is what LEO’s up to, now:
    Inside the “Private and Confidential” Conservative Group That Promises to “Crush Liberal Dominance” Leonard Leo, a key architect of the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority, is now the chairman of Teneo Network, a group that aims to influence all aspects of American politics and culture.
    by Andy Kroll and Andrea Bernstein, ProPublica, and Nick Surgey, Documented March 9, 7 a.m.

    • harpie says:

      And this THREAD by Seth Cotlar seems to fit in with the discussion here:
      10:57 AM · Feb 18, 2023

      Thread, For decades now the intellectuals of the right have hived themselves off from the mainstream world of academic inquiry. This groupthink bubble then leaves them vulnerable to what would otherwise be easily detectable and avoidable mistakes like this. […]

      This problem derives in part from American conservatives tendency to identify a pure, correct, and timeless bundle of ideas that the US was founded on and which are in epic battle with other sinister ideas that will put us on the slippery slope to the gulags if embraced. […]

    • harpie says:

      And, then there’s Charlie KIRK’s Turning Point USA [TPUSA]:

      Turning Point USA

      Turning Point USA is a right-wing youth and student group, with a mission to “identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government […]

      KIRK counts Morton BLACKWELL as a mentor.

  11. David F. Snyder says:

    “Agency is the antithesis of the mindlessness of Darwin-style evolution. “

    I’m skeptical of this statement. I’m not clear if this is the authors’ statement or a summary by Ed, but I feel it’s worth addressing as it is a common enough misunderstanding. But I only have time to outline my points.

    It is not clear to me which sense of “agency” is meant, but whether it is instrumental or operational, it’s difficult to deny agency to genes without engaging in mental gymnastics that reveal the weakness of the position.

    If the Darwinian evolutionary process can be characterized as being “mindless” (which if one ascribes to God universal agency (I.e. Free Will), is a self-contradictory position), then agency is just as often mindless — “The highway to hell is paved with the best of intentions.”

    Furthermore, according to recent and ancient researches, agency may well be ascribable to all matter.

    So is Darwinian evolution as “mindless”? The truth is, we just don’t know. Evolution is countless experiments being conducted in parallel. Some lead to more viable results than others, results that allow for continuation of an experiment into a new generation. This does affect, for example, what types of human agency persist. On the other hand, I like to remember that ~100% of all species have gone extinct. And I’ve not seen anyone with enough agency to influence their own genes, other than squids.

  12. Tom-1812 says:

    Ron DeSantis and his book-banning followers would probably agree with Captain Beatty in Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” when he explains to Fireman Montag:

    ‘You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred … People want to be happy, isn’t that right? … That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.’ So books have to go. ‘Colored people don’t like “Little Black Sambo”. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.’

    Novels and academic writing are useless. ‘… the books say nothing! Nothing you can teach or believe. They’re about non-existent people, figments of imagination, if they’re fiction. And if they’re nonfiction, it’s worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another’s gullet … You come away lost.’

    Captain Beatty concludes by reminding Montag of his duty as a Fireman. ‘… [W]e’re the Happiness Boys … We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought … Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world … I don’t think you realize how important you are, we are, to our happy world as it stands now.’

  13. Savage Librarian says:

    Gene proposes new Arc narrative:

    “Ancient viruses gave us a gene called “Arc” — and it may explain consciousness, scientists say” – Matthew Rozsa, 12/6/22

    “Viruses can leave behind their genetic material after infecting us. Sometimes that has unintended consequences”

    “…It’s not proven, but sometimes circumstantial evidence is the best you’re going to get, and there is a huge amount of circumstantial evidence” that Arc is crucial to the creation of thought.”

    “And given that Arc acts like a virus in its most crucial aspect — it seems to exist with the “purpose” of creating more copies of itself, even as it is used by the very same cells it invades — one has to wonder, as Thomson put it, “who is holding the leash, who is being domesticated. I can’t tell you that for sure, but I think it could be either way.”

    “Even if our knowledge of Arc does not allow humans to answer the most significant spiritual questions, it may still have life-altering technological implications.”

  14. Ed Walker says:

    I almost wish I hadn’t put this sentence in the post: “Agency is the antithesis of the mindlessness of Darwin-style evolution. People make choices. Genes don’t.” It doesn’t carry the burden I tried to give it.

    One of the points in the book is that Western writers like Rousseau were influenced by historicizing frameworks, and tried to show that human societies followed fixed patterns of progress all around the world.

    The first anthropologists and archaeologists were influenced by Darwin’s ideas and to some extent to Rousseau’s when they began synthesizing their findings in the late 19th C. They too looked for general patterns of development of societies, thinking that all societies followed over the centuries, analogously to the patterns identified by Darwin and others in nature.

    This is not what happened, according to Graeber and Wengrow. They attribute the changes in human societies to choices made by human agents. They provide massive piles of evidence to support this view. FWIW, I think they’re right.

    Darwin, of course, didn’t know about genes. He doesn’t explain how evolution happened at any fundamental physical level. He observed what happened and organized his findings as patterns using terms like “survival of the fittest”. I’m no expert on evolution as scientists use the term today, but I know it doesn’t happen through human agency. Genes don’t have agency in any meaningful sense.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      As you know, Darwin’s observations, even without an explanatory rationale, were explosive. They upset very big apple carts and still do. It’s one reason he waited so long to publish them.

  15. Olav Kvern says:

    Nice summary, Ed.

    re: evolutionary musings

    I’ve always thought that the “meme” is a poor idea–Richard Dawkins is usually better than that. At best, it’s a superficial metaphor that sometimes seems to work. I think it’s always dangerous to compare something that is a product of human culture with something that isn’t.

    Also, thought you might like this–it’s something like “The Dawn of Everything,” but in comic form (by the brilliant Dorothy Gambrell):

  16. Aardvark Cheeselog says:

    I looked at this post, then took the link to the first one, read part of it, and then the rest of this one.

    The book has been sitting on my Kindle for a while. I’m sort of not in a hurry to get to it.

    I didn’t read Debt: The First 5000 Years, though I did look some at Bullshit Jobs. I gather that Graeber had a compelling way of overturning conventional interpretations of things.

    But I have read some stuff by him related to subjects that I was knowledgeable about, and concluded that the marvelous certitude he writes with comes from his not realizing the extent of his own ignorance. Sometimes the bold contrarian take really is just nonsense. So IDK if I will read this book or not. Your first post on it has me re-thinking that.

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