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Thursday, February 03, 2022

Review: The Dawn of Everything

 The Dawn of Everything comes with the subtitle A New History of Humanity. It stands proudly against books such as Sapiens and their glib, linear exposition of the dawn of civilization. Set against that, is that the book seems determined to be make its points obscure and as incomprehensible and incoherent as possible, so it's going to be a tough job to summarize its main points (since the authors seem unwilling or unable to write clearly!). But I'll try anything.

The book sets the stage by writing that the initial meetings of civilizations between the Western European cultures and the North American cultures were nothing like what is depicted in popular culture. For one, Europeans who lived amongst the native Americans would frequently go native, having discovered that the native American way of living was much less oppressive than the European society of the time. This persists even into the 1900s:

For two decades, Valero lived with a series of Yanomami families, marrying twice, and eventually achieving a position of some importance in her community. Pinker briefly cites the account Valero later gave of her own life, where she describes the brutality of a Yanomami raid.26 What he neglects to mention is that in 1956 she abandoned the Yanomami to seek her natal family and live again in ‘Western civilization,’ only to find herself in a state of occasional hunger and constant dejection and loneliness. After a while, given the ability to make a fully informed decision, Helena Valero decided she preferred life among the Yanomami, and returned to live with them.27 Her story is by no means unusual. The colonial history of North and South America is full of accounts of settlers, captured or adopted by indigenous societies, being given the choice of where they wished to stay and almost invariably choosing to stay with the latter. (Kindle Loc 460)

By contrast, Amerindians incorporated into European society by adoption or marriage, including those who – unlike the unfortunate Helena Valero – enjoyed considerable wealth and schooling, almost invariably did just the opposite: either escaping at the earliest opportunity, or – having tried their best to adjust, and ultimately failed – returning to indigenous society to live out their last days.  (Kindle Loc 471)

 Some emphasized the virtues of freedom they found in Native American societies, including sexual freedom, but also freedom from the expectation of constant toil in pursuit of land and wealth.31 Others noted the ‘Indian’s’ reluctance ever to let anyone fall into a condition of poverty, hunger or destitution. It was not so much that they feared poverty themselves, but rather that they found life infinitely more pleasant in a society where no one else was in a position of abject misery (Kindle Loc 486)

The common arguments were that such societies were primitive and poor, and that the price of egalitarianism and equality and freedom was poverty. The authors take various attacks against these common arguments, with varying success. The most effective argument they had was that it was clear that these tribal societies, far from being primitive and unthinking, had actually constructed their societies with deliberation and thinking.  In one particular account, a Wendat man frequently met with various French and Jesuit settlers and was judged a brilliant thinker and speaker of eloquence:

Some Jesuits went further, remarking – not without a trace of frustration – that New World savages seemed rather cleverer overall than the people they were used to dealing with at home (e.g. ‘they nearly all show more intelligence in their business, speeches, courtesies, intercourse, tricks, and subtleties, than do the shrewdest citizens and merchants in France’).26 Jesuits, then, clearly recognized and acknowledged an intrinsic relation between refusal of arbitrary power, open and inclusive political debate and a taste for reasoned argument. (Kindle Loc 971)

Thus the puzzle the authors pose is as follows: we know from lots of research that the adoption of cereal agriculture was one of the biggest mistakes humanity as a species could have made. Hunter/foragers had way more free time than the Western Farmers who invaded North America. So how did human beings (who were as smart then as we are today) fall into the trap of making their own lives worse? The traditional argument is the economic one: cereal agriculturist couples could produce a child every 2 years, compared to the hunter forager band who would produce one every 3-5 years. But of course, nobody says, "I will suffer and make my life much worse so that 5 generations from now my descendants will win!"

The argument the authors make in this book are as follows:

  1. Many impressions of primitive cultures are wrong. For instance, throughout North America, different clans would occupy the same villages, and despite long distances you would find the same totem animals in use. This strongly suggested that many native Americans could travel far and wide.
  2. The basic unit was not the family. It suggested that early humans have always lived in a somewhat virtual existence, where they could always move with their feet in if they didn't want to be told what to do:

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. (Kindle Loc 2628)

Even within cities that were built, leader selection was deliberate as opposed to the modern charismatic politician we expect to see today:

Those who aspired to a role on the council of Tlaxcala, far from being expected to demonstrate personal charisma or the ability to outdo rivals, did so in a spirit of self-deprecation – even shame. They were required to subordinate themselves to the people of the city. To ensure that this subordination was no mere show, each was subject to trials, starting with mandatory exposure to public abuse, regarded as the proper reward of ambition, and then – with one’s ego in tatters – a long period of seclusion, in which the aspiring politician suffered ordeals of fasting, sleep deprivation, bloodletting and a strict regime of moral instruction. The initiation ended with a ‘coming out’ of the newly constituted public servant, amid feasting and celebration.63 Clearly, taking up office in this indigenous democracy required personality traits very different to those we take for granted in modern electoral politics. On this latter point, it is worth recalling that ancient Greek writers were well aware of the tendency for elections to throw up charismatic leaders with tyrannical pretensions. (Kindle Loc 6890)

The authors spend chapter upon chapter arguing that essentially, historians/sociologists and other academics have been guilty of cherry picking their evidence to suit their arguments, that entire eons of history and civilizations that didn't exhibit the modern predilection to strict control, inequality,  and brutal control of humans were simply ignored or not studied. They pointed out that even in many cultures where the "King" was considered a god, couldn't command anyone who wasn't in direct earshot, and that there's a lot of evidence that in many such cultures, most people would chose to live a conveniently far distance from the king.

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 in which it did? What happens if we treat the rejection of urban life, or of slavery, in certain times and places as something just as significant as the emergence of those same phenomena in others? In the process, we often found ourselves surprised. We’d never have guessed, for instance, that slavery was most likely abolished multiple times in history in multiple places; and that very possibly the same is true of war. Obviously, such abolitions are rarely definitive. (Kindle Loc 10099)

 I'm not a historian, archaeologist, or academic, so I have no rubric to judge the evidence or understand the believability of what they're saying. What is clear though, is that the native American Indians were given far less credit for bringing the concepts of freedom, individuality, and democracy to Western civilizations than most people would give them today, and that many societies today would do well to consider that the strictures that govern them need not be taken for granted. If the book was better written, its points would be clearer, but it makes very good points. I can't say this book wasn't a slog, but the ideas in it were valuable and interesting. Recommended.


Sojka's Call said...

I've read much about this book in various podcasts, reviews and discussion boards yet have not read the book myself. An archeologist friend finds much of the suppositions hard to swallow.

The basic premise though that some societies consciously chose a hunter-gatherer lifestyle over agriculture is certainly a very enticing concept to embrace as we see humanity racing towards an increasingly unsustainable future. Of course this is not a new idea and was explored in the Daniel Quinn books using the Ishmael character as a vehicle.

Guess I need to read this one. Thanks!

N said...

This book is my book club selection for this month, so I'm starting to read it now

Sojka's Call said...

Finished the audiobook version this summer and found the book quite entertaining. The authors alternate between facts and supposition to challenge our basic beliefs about hierarchy and technology. They endeavor to show that what is being taught as history today is very biased.

Indeed, I found the arguments persuasive that Native American history as recorded in the history books has been quite distorted. And, their evidence that so-called primitive cultures had made conscious decisions to abandon what we would call advanced agricultural techniques was convincing.

What some critics called a meandering and incoherent text, I found was the authors attempt to help the reader reset their beliefs. All of us who have grown up in western/modern societies have so many beliefs and biases based on education and a hierarchal view of reality that it is very difficult for us to even see those as biases. We just accept them as facts and move on. The Davids narrative worked to help me see at least some of the beliefs I have held for a lifetime as possibly false.

Overall, I found the book liberating. Suspending or discarding long-held biases and falsehoods helped me accept that much of our western assumptions about superiority have caused us to misunderstand indigenous societies and grossly underestimate their intelligence and sophistication. For instance, the Davids spent a lot of text showing that in Native American society the clan societies transcended individual tribes providing a rich matrix experience and sense of belonging resulting in immense freedom. An individual could leave a tribe knowing that the clan society would support them in spite of language differences.

The audiobook narration was well-done and recommended.