History and Historiography

A Flawed History of Humanity

A critique of David Graeber

By David A. Bell

“The Dawn of Everything” has been hailed as a masterpiece. But a careful reading of its look at the Enlightenment exposes concerning mistakes.

“What if everything you learned about human history is wrong?” This is the way The New York Times titled its article covering the publication of David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: ​​A New History of Humanity. The book, which draws on archeological evidence to offer a new story about how human societies first developed, is hardly lacking in ambition. It also packs a powerful political punch, suggesting that the new story it tells can inspire political action in line with the anarchist principles that Graeber, in particular, long espoused. And even before its publication this month, the book received an ecstatic reception. In The Atlantic, William Deresiewicz called Graeber “a genius,” and the book “a gift” whose authors “demolish the idea that human beings are passive objects of material forces.” The Guardian’s reviewer termed it “an exhilarating read.” For Jacobin, it was “an instant classic.” As of this week, it is number two on the Times’s best-seller list for non-fiction. Graeber, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 59, was a legendary figure in academia, a rebel anthropologist who did much to inspire and start the Occupy movement.

But does the story stand up? Although Graeber and Wengrow concern themselves primarily with humanity’s early history, they begin by examining how Western thinkers have previously treated the subject, and in doing so they first turn to the French Enlightenment. This happens to be my own area of expertise, and I was curious to see what they would make of it. Quite frankly, I was appalled. Unfortunately, despite its promise, the work suffers from a slipshod and error-filled approach to this key moment in modern intellectual history.

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