‘I’m certainly open to criticism’: David Wengrow and the trouble with rewriting human history
Last year a book called The Dawn of Everything announced that most of what we think we know about human history is wrong. Its co-authors, David Graeber and David Wengrow, took aim at the established story that has been repeated by brand writers such as Jared Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari and Steven Pinker – the one that says that for most of prehistory, we lived in small egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers, and it was only with the agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago that we adopted larger forms of social organisation leading to complex, hierarchical communities. All of that, they argue, is based on outdated information.
In their bestselling books Collapse, Sapiens and The Better Angels of Our Nature, those authors drew heavily on archaeological and anthropological findings, although none of them are archaeologists or anthropologists. By contrast Graeber, who died two years ago, was thought by many to be one of the leading anthropologists of his generation. And co-author Wengrow is a well-respected archaeologist.
Both disciplines have been subject to academic sniffiness, dismissed as “easy” options, with one foot in the sciences and the other in the humanities. The difficulty in acquiring empirical evidence that is common to both fields is the cause, say critics, of too much imaginative interpretation.
The Dawn of Everything, now out in paperback, argues that if there is creative myth-making, it has been most often carried out by outsiders – economists, psychologists and historians who have ignored modern scholarship and used old studies to rehash an inaccurate picture of human development. According to Graeber and Wengrow, that picture comes in two different forms, which amount to the same thing. Either it’s drawn by “neo-Hobbesians”, such as Pinker, who argue that modern civilisation, particularly after the Enlightenment, is a story of progress away from our nasty, brutish origins. Or by “neo-Rousseauians”, such as Diamond and Harari, who associate civilisational progress with the loss of freedom. But both camps, say the authors, endorse the idea of historical determinism by which humans have gone inexorably from cave-dwellers to car-drivers, seed-sowers to citizens.
Graeber and Wengrow reject this teleological approach and instead place the emphasis for change on human choice. Thus, they argue, our prehistory was not uniform but made up of myriad social arrangements, some involving large cities, some monarchical, some egalitarian, some with slave labour. For a long time after the arrival of agriculture, they maintain, there was no fixed model of community organisation but rather a rich diversity of societies, using agriculture but not succumbing to its regimented social demands.
Graeber was a renowned anarchist and activist, involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement at the outset, who is often attributed with having coined the slogan “We are the 99%”. And Wengrow, as he tells me when I meet him near University College London’s institute of archaeology, where he is professor of comparative archeology, is sympathetic to Graeber’s political ideas.
Unsurprisingly, then, the book seeks to do more than rewrite the past. It also wants to use that past to provide political inspiration for today. If a genuine sense of freedom in how we organised ourselves was fundamental to our prehistory, they say, then perhaps our prehistory is the key to our liberation in the future. Or as the advertising campaign puts it, employing a phrase that Graeber liked to use: “It’s time to change the course of history, starting with the past.”
What’s beyond doubt is that the book has captured the public imagination, becoming an international bestseller that has already been translated into 30 languages. It made most of the books of the year lists in 2021, and this year it has been shortlisted for the Orwell political writing prize. However, for all its acclaim, The Dawn of Everything has also attracted some pointed criticism, with a number of suggestions that the authors either misunderstood or misrepresented their extensive research material, and specifically that they made claims that were unsupported by the evidence.
Have any of these criticisms given Wengrow pause for thought?
“I’m certainly open to criticism – when it addresses what we’ve written,” he says wryly. “I haven’t seen anything yet that makes me pause in the way you suggest.”
As the book has snowballed, he says, he hasn’t had the time, or perhaps the inclination, to keep up with all the reviews and reactions. One review it’s known that he did read, because he wrote a response to it, is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s in the New York Review of Books. Entitled Digging for Utopia, it accuses the authors of making ideologically driven arguments at variance with the studies they cite.
Appiah is a philosopher and cultural theorist, so it’s the political underpinning of the book that most interests him. The authors contend that what they call the “standard historical meta-narrative” about the progress of human civilisation was invented largely to exclude the “indigenous critique” by native peoples who took exception to the culture and practice of colonialism. Appiah suggests that to arrive at this conclusion they have had to ignore the main thrust of social evolutionism.
“Graeber and Wengrow could be all wrong in their intellectual history, of course, and completely right about our Neolithic past,” he writes. “Yet their mode of argument leans heavily on a few rhetorical strategies. One is the bifurcation fallacy, in which we are presented with a false choice of two mutually exclusive alternatives.”
He then goes on to itemise what he says are discrepancies between the sources they cite and the conclusions they reach. Wengrow wrote a reply to Appiah in the NYRB defending his and Graeber’s thesis, to which Appiah responded with further claims of misrepresentation. However the philosopher concluded by celebrating the “work of two remarkable scholars” that on “almost every page is energised by their intelligence, imagination, and surly sense of mischief”.
It’s clear that despite those warm words, the criticism hasn’t been entirely forgotten. Wengrow doesn’t sound bitter so much as bemused. “Anthony Appiah read it as a utopian book,” he says. “I find that hard to understand. It seems about as unutopian as you can get.”
Utopian is probably the wrong word. After all, the authors make a conscious point of rejecting Rousseau’s romanticising of the “noble savage”. But it’s fair to say that many of their characterisations of earlier forms of social organisation tend towards the most progressive, or cast modern western society in the most unfavourable light.
Another scholar, the historian David A Bell, took Graeber and Wengrow to task on their argument that the Enlightenment was inspired in large part by the “indigenous critique” encountered by early colonialists. Bell wrote that he was “appalled” by Graeber and Wengrow’s understanding of the French Enlightenment. He referred to “an astounding collection of errors” and accused the authors of coming “perilously close to scholarly malpractice”.
The main focus of Bell’s complaint centres on the work of the Baron de Lahontan, a French nobleman, who wrote a book based on his travels called Dialogues avec le sauvage Adario. Graeber and Wengrow maintain that Adario, who makes an astute critique of the European outlook and offers progressive views on religion, is really just a pseudonym for Kandiaronk, a real-life Native American diplomat and warrior renowned for his intellect and debating skills.
They go so far as to suggest that the arguments that Adario/Kandiaronk made were instrumental in shaping the French Enlightenment. Bell believes that this is an egregious error that stems from a false understanding of 18th-century literature, which often used Indigenous people to ventriloquise the progressive opinions of the day.
Wengrow is well aware of that tradition, he says, and doesn’t believe the Dialogues are part of it. “I think by comparing Lahontan to Gulliver’s Travels, Prof Bell has taken a step off the precipice, from which he may now have to extract himself,” he says, laughing.
If Wengrow is troubled by these attacks, he doesn’t show it. But he does admit that the experience of being subject to such fierce critical attention has given him some sympathy for the likes of Pinker and Diamond, because he understands that they get “condescended to” for being bestsellers, despite the intellectual efforts they put into their work. That said, he has no regrets about admonishing them himself for their “terribly outdated ideas about human prehistory”.
It’s only now, he says, that academic reactions to The Dawn of Everything are beginning to come through. The early signs are “extremely interesting”. What he’s particularly pleased about is the response from his fellow archaeologists, and the fact that applications for the subject are up and the book is being cited as the reason why students apply to do archaeology courses. It’s probably the biggest boost to the field since Indiana Jones escaped from the snake pit.
The day before I met him, Wengrow had been in Berlin promoting the book and a few days later he was heading to Canada to meet Indigenous thinkers and artists, including members of the same extended tribal grouping of which Kondiaronk was once a part.
With all of these meetings, and all of the criticisms and plaudits, he must of course engage without the co-author with whom he spent 10 years writing the book. Graeber died suddenly in September 2020 from necrotic pancreatitis, which some members of his family believe may have been Covid-related.
“I miss his input on a daily basis,” he says. “And it’s a very strange situation to be confronted with David every day, not really having had the opportunity to grieve fully. The only thing I’m absolutely positive of is that he would want me and expect me to be out there doing it. So I keep doing it. But I’m very conscious that grief is a strange animal. And I fully expect that when I eventually slow down and I have time to reflect, it will hit me fully that he’s gone.”
In the meantime he hopes the book will help start a public conversation about change. In that debate a question is likely to recur as to how or why human society came to be stuck in the paradigm he and Graeber describe, one in which violence and inequality are normalised.
He says that there is no one answer. The lessons to be learned, he believes, are not about the effects of the agricultural revolution or urban revolution, or the origins of inequality or the state. What matters is the diminishing political imagination, the freedom to rethink the social order.
Put like that, it sounds uncontentious. But can a world of 7 billion people, striving for an improved material life, reasonably expect to enjoy the freedoms enjoyed by the relatively tiny number of our ancestors dotted around the planet tens of thousands of years ago? When all is said and done, is that feasible?
“I guess my response to that question,” says Wengrow, “would be to point out that what we’ve got now is not feasible. If we carry on like this, we will probably not be here.”