In this intro to our first edition of Humanist Book Club, on The Dawn of Everything, we talk about the publishing context that can make it difficult to read a book's arguments on its own merits.
A year ago, I reflected on decolonizing our thinking around archaeology, and the immediate challenges posed by such an attempt. Although on one level it’s self-evident that the field has been informed by extremely biased (and racist) actors, secular folk like me rely on scientific positivism for so much in our lives that it can be difficult to recognize its vulnerability to abuse. If the only thing that counts is concrete evidence, but one demographic has a history of destroying evidence of another, recovering our shared history becomes a much more challenging affair.
In that article, I drew from an excellent piece by Jude Isabella, “Declared Extinct, the Yaghan Rise in the Land of Fire”, which highlighted our overconfidence in building definitive stories of early human history from positive evidence with obvious limitations. One key example involved the use of shell middens to define the timeline and culture of the Yaghan people: even though shell middens by their nature decay the deeper they go, making it unrealistic to ascertain regional start dates from them; and even though, if you’re only looking at shell middens and overlooking other possible gathering sites in the vicinity, of course you’re going to define the culture you’re studying as a solely water-bound society.
But we also don’t need to go back to early human history to realize how much rigid thinking closes off possibilities. One of the deepest pains, early in pandemic, was the shock of how quickly everything could transform if it needed to, and how quickly money that governments always insisted wasn’t available for vital healthcare, education, and social welfare reforms showed up overnight to help corporations get by. How cruelly individuals were also pathologized, especially the US, for asking for direct assistance during that period, and how grim a reminder we all gained of how Western economic systems don’t want people paying off their debts in full: not when that gives individuals more autonomy to think about refusing work that doesn’t serve them and their families well.
In 2020, we gained our strongest evidence in at least a generation that, as per Whose Line Is It Anyway?, “everything’s made up and the points don’t matter”. Except that, in a very real way, all those points do shape the quality of our lives. Credit scores, debt cycles, highly selective pricing systems, tax policies, border penalties: we are swimming in quantifiable pressure points that define the limits of our lives, but which also reflect little more than social contracts that have been set by people, and can be changed by people too.
So what stops us, outside of these pandemic-level crisis points, from recognizing and leaning into our species’ capacity for change?
The aim of a Humanist Book Club
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be deep-diving into David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Published in late 2021, it should hopefully now be available to most of us in some format—and many might even have had time to delve into its full 700-page contents! This will be my second time through the text, but even if you haven’t had a chance to read it yourself, there should be enough touchstones in these weekly articles, every Friday, to make the work relevant to other contemporary themes.
There are twelve chapters, but we’ll be compressing the topics to around two per post—so, six weeks of material, before we consider whether or not we want to tackle something new.
What makes a Humanist Book Club different from a regular one? Purpose-driven reading, mainly: using analysis of a given text as an opportunity to reflect on how best to build policies and cultures that elevate human agency, and to improve the store of comprehensive data that we draw upon when making assessments about ourselves and the world.
The Dawn of Everything strikes me as an ideal starting text for a few reasons, including the sheer hype and near-hagiographic treatment of this revisionist and materialist romp through early human history. This hagiographic treatment comes from the fact that one of its co-authors, David Graeber, died suddenly at 59, just a month before the book’s release. I was never a “Graeber-ite”, which is not to say that I disliked the human but that (secular humanist rotter that I am) I dislike the idea of putting anyone on a pedestal. As such, I’ve found it fascinating how difficult it can be to talk about this book even among fans, because the conversation often diverts into exaltation of one of its authors.
Graeber is a perfectly polarizing figure, though, so I also don’t want to suggest that the author doesn’t matter. He had a robustly privileged education in anthropology, then was infamously let go by Yale for reasons many considered political, related to his pro-union and anti-capitalist activism. He surged to fame in 2011 with the publication of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, around the time when he was prominent in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and thereafter built quite a following. He was a man who had gained authority to speak from his education on the “inside”, and who was now speaking “truth to power” for the outer masses about the systemic myths underpinning injustice in the contemporary world.
David Wengrow, by the way, is still very much alive, and without moving in prominent activist circles like his late colleague, also built a career on deconstructing ideas about civilization given to us as definitive truths: around the concept of civilization itself, and the formation of modern cities, and the role of agrarian revolution in early history. But of course, academic biography doesn’t make for nearly as exciting a rallying point around a given text.
Reading in context, outside of hype
What’s unfortunate about the hagiography of The Dawn of Everything (which its title, as grandiosely inaccurate as anything in the pop-sci wheelhouse, does not help) is two-fold:
First, it means that a lot of folks have built their responses to the text around their responses to Graeber, and to the book’s outsized popularity in mainstream media, the likes of which we maybe haven’t seen since Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997). To an extent, this pushback is important: when a message travels far and wide so speedily, expert analysis of that message and its evidence is crucial to mitigating any blatant errors it might contain.
But that critical backlash can also easily reinforce the idea that this book is best viewed only as a sensation, only as a battle of intellects between Great Men of Science. And then the average person becomes less inclined to read the work itself, in favor of simply figuring out which side everyone is on in relation to it. The potential for a meaningful intellectual exercise is thus reduced to media-based soap opera.
Lost in such hot takes is also the second factor: the fact that the book itself, silly title aside (the book only deals with a few tens of thousands of years of human history, so not “the dawn of everything” at all), is expressly an invitation to play, to sit with new ideas and to hold them in tension with the old. Although touted as a definitive anthropological undressing of the whole academic field, much of the work is better defined as historiography: an unpacking of how our histories of anthropology have been made, and what bodies of archaeological data those constructions overlook.
The overarching questions in this book are also good ones for humanists: How did we get stuck in our current sociopolitical structures? Why have we come to assume so much inflexibility in our human systems? And can we ever get ourselves unstuck again?
These, then, are what I hope we can explore through the next six Humanist Book Club articles: using a brief overview of the text’s contents and form, and inviting all manner of contemporary comparison to events discussed in early human history. But please feel free to bring other bugbears to the table every Friday, if specific elements of the text or its reception context are driving you batty as well!
READ: 10 books for deep dives: A humanist summer reading list
And if the exercise proves worthwhile? Please also suggest, at any time over the next six weeks, a text you think would make for an excellent follow-up read. Goodness knows we don’t lack for options, but it would be nice if more of us could slow down and dig deep together into the kind of humanist practice that any one of them might provide.