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Why civilizations move through stages
In the Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow argue that linear views of the past are mistaken. I am unconvinced.
The Dawn of Everything is an impressive book. Authored by anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow, the work disputes the ‘stagist’ view that human societies develop linearly. According to stagists, egalitarian hunter gatherer societies develop into more disciplined (but productive) agricultural and (eventually) industrial societies. This position is culturally dominant, authorities such as Jared Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari, Francis Fukuyama and Steven Pinker advancing it in bestsellers. It features in videogames, Sid Meier’s Civilization series being predicated on this. But according to Graeber and Wengrow, this interpretation underestimates the diversity of human achievement. For example, hunter gatherers held ceremonial burials and built monumental architecture; democracy thrived in Pre-Columbian America. This shows that linear views of the past are myths.
The importance of this debate cannot be underestimated; it concerns the origins and trajectories of human civilization. Though anthropology is not my area, I have a stake in this discussion, using the cultural evolution framework in my research on employment stratification and ideology. This makes me partial – it was unlikely that I would agree with Graeber and Wengrow – but means that I can advocate the significance of this debate. In this review, I hope to convince you of its consequence.
My problem with Graeber and Wengrow’s book is that it does not explain the development of human societies. As they develop, societies become more complex and efficient, economic surpluses and productivity tending to increase. This is not necessarily a good thing, our world being close to environmental collapse, and it is not politically fashionable, many being uncomfortable with interpretations that treat indigenous societies as less ‘advanced’. But I do not see how this interpretation can be reasonably disputed; according to multiple indicators, contemporary societies are more complex and efficient than traditional ones.
Admittedly, explaining change is difficult. Herbert Gintis and Samuel Bowles make a worthy attempt, using economic models to demonstrate that cooperation gave human groups an advantage over rivals. Theories of cultural evolution argue in similar terms; Joseph Henrich shows that accumulated culture has made humans more efficient. This approach is admirably simple. Reflecting biological evolution, variations fit certain environments, driving efficiency; but changes build upon and complement existing structures. Such theories can be problematic, lack of data on prehistoric societies compounding issues, but this does not mean that such efforts should not be undertaken. How else does one explain the development of human societies?
Critics of stagism tend to avoid this issue. Rather, they emphasize societal diversity at the supposed stages, implying that development is non-linear. Graber and Wengrow argue that prehistoric societies were organized distinctly. Contrary to the orthodox view, some hunter gatherer societies seem to have been hierarchical; others may have been matriarchal. Moreover, hunter gatherer and agricultural societies existed simultaneously, certain populations adopting the lifestyles seasonally. According to Graber and Wengrow, this shows that stagist distinctions between hunter gatherer and agricultural societies are unrealistic, the long coexistence of these modes of production being emphasized.
But this is a strawman. Stagists do not argue that alternative modes of production cannot co-exist. Rather, they assert that distinct societies may exist concurrently, sometimes in the same region, the more efficient prevailing in the longer term. Less efficient societies can exist for thousands of years, geographical barriers promoting this. Stagists merely argue that such societies tend to be outcompeted in the longer term, reflecting lower yields.
Relatedly, stagists demonstrate that societal development depends upon structural conditions. In Guns, Germs & Steel, Jared Diamond shows that plant and animal species and the east-west axis provided Eurasia with an advantage over the Americas and Africa. The postcolonial left has long resented these explanations, associating them with imperialism; there is an academic journal article entitled ‘f**k Jared Diamond’. Given such critiques of structural explanations, Graber and Wengrow appeal to agency,
Just as it is reasonable to assume that Pleistocene mammoth hunters, moving back and forth between different seasonal forms of organization, must have developed a degree of political self-consciousness – to have thought about the relative merits of different ways of living with one another – so too the intricate webs of cultural difference that came to characterize human societies after the end of the last Ice Age must surely have involved a degree of political introspection. Once again, our intention is simply to treat those who created these forms of culture as intelligent adults, capable of reflecting on the social worlds they were building or rejecting.
Whilst the goal of reclaiming the agency of hunter gatherers is laudable, Western scholars having underestimated this, this argument also misunderstands the stagist position. Such researchers think that the agency of all humans is limited, pre-historic and modern humans included. This view evokes structuralist interpretations, some of which are too deterministic, but recent discoveries are supportive; neuroscientists find significant limitations on human agency, reflecting our impressionistic brains. Crucially, stagists establish the relationship between such constraints and developmental logics. Structures reward particular behaviours, unconscious human actions being directed towards productive ends.
Relatedly, stagists perceive social institutions as complementary, particular customs suiting particular societies. Hunter gatherers lived itinerant lives, the absence of property entailing low material inequality and relaxed sexual mores; with little to inherit, paternity is less important. Values are inverse in agricultural societies, reflecting fixed abodes and property. Such relationships are key to the stagist argument, yet Graeber and Wengrow do not unpick them, merely asserting the principle of self-determination.
I disagree with this book, but people should read it. This debate is essential and perennial, relevance extending beyond the field of anthropology. Graeber and Wengrow assemble an impressive body of evidence, writing in an engaging style. Moreover, the book articulates a widespread attitude. The postcolonial left suspects any approach which is perceived as belittling indigenous societies; this is why Jared Diamond has so many critics. But whilst such thinkers are skilled at finding holes in the stagist position, this does not constitute a full critique. To do this, the postcolonial left must develop robust explanations of its own. In fairness to Graeber and Wengrow, they have attempted to do this. Whether it is coherent is another question.
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