- Book non-review: The Dawn of Everything
By Holden Karnofsky 4 min read

Book non-review: The Dawn of Everything

When I was putting out lots of posts about very-long-run history - e.g. Summary of History, Has Life Gotten Better? and Was life better in hunter-gatherer times? - a number of people encouraged me to read and review a recently published book called The Dawn of Everything: a New History of Humanity.

It’s billed as “A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution—from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality—and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.” Sounds relevant!

A normal thing for me to do would’ve been to diligently read the book and make a post pointing out some of my favorite quotes and anecdotes, as well as parts where I thought the book was weak.

But I think reading books is overrated. Instead of moving my eyes over each page, highlighting here and there, I generally prefer to strategically extract what’s valuable and skip the rest. And in this case - based on reading the first chapter and a bunch of online criticism/commentary - I’ve decided that I don’t want to read or engage with this book: I’d just rather spend my precious moments another way. So instead of a book review, this post will explain my process for deciding not to read the book, despite its relevance for my interests.

What I did read: chapter 1 of the book, plus reviews of the book in the New Yorker (by Gideon Lewis-Krauss), The New York Review (by Kwame Anthony Appiah), and The Nation (by Daniel Immerwahr).

I looked for claims attributed to the book that (a) would, if true, change my mind about something important; (b) seem reasonably likely to be well-cited/supported/argued. I didn’t find any, and I think authors need to make their important-if-true claims easier to find than this.

A bit more detail

The first chapter of the book (which I think an author should really make sure is communicating what the rest of the book has to offer) felt rambly and hard to pin down to a concrete hypothesis beyond something like “The past is complicated, and simple narratives are oversimplified” (something I already agree with ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ). The only sign of an important-if-true factual claim was this one (I’m quoting from the The Nation review):

In arguing that people hate hierarchies, Graeber and Wengrow twice assert that settlers in the colonial Americas who’d been “captured or adopted” by Indigenous societies “almost invariably” chose to stay with them. By contrast, Indigenous people taken into European societies “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.”

Big if true, as they say, but the claim is ballistically false, and the sole scholarly authority that Graeber and Wengrow cite—a 1977 dissertation—actually argues the opposite. “Persons of all races and cultural backgrounds reacted to captivity in much the same way” is its thesis; generally, young children assimilated into their new culture and older captives didn’t. Many captured settlers returned, including the frontiersman Daniel Boone, the Puritan minister John Williams, and the author Mary Rowlandson. And there’s a long history of Native people attending settler schools, befriending or marrying whites, and adopting European religious practices. Such choices were surely shaped by colonialism, but to deny they were ever made is absurd.

All of the reviews - plus this Twitter thread by Brad DeLong - echoed the theme that the book is thinly cited and that many of its claims seem overstated or unsupported. That makes it a tough sell for me, as I’m not excited to read 500 pages of claims that aren’t particularly likely to hold up once I dig in and check them out.

And based on my investigation into whether life has gotten better, I generally expect most claims about our distant past to - at best - get resolved into a big “maybe, who knows.” (That’s why I’ve been selective in what I’ve tried to examine, highlighting things I think can be known while making the case that most of our distant past is a mystery.) If we’re looking for insight into what the world might look like without states (apparently a major theme of the book), I’d rather just hope for modern experiments than try to read archeological tea leaves.

At a high level, I think I might agree with the main conceptual claims of the book: that we shouldn’t be too confident about what our past looks like, that there are exceptions to most generalizations about it that we could come up with, and that we shouldn’t assume that any particular form of social organization is impossible in our future. These seem like reasonable default views to have; to the extent they “revolutionize” someone’s understanding of history by “tearing down” some tidy story, that someone isn’t me and that tidy story isn’t mine. (I do think there are directional trends running throughout history, and I think it’s worth deliberately simplifying things down to notice the “highlights”; this is different from claiming that history in all its detail is simple or consistent.)

Bottom line … it’s over 500 pages, it sounds inconsistently (at best) cited, and I couldn’t quickly identify particular claims that seem like a good use of time to investigate. It would’ve been nice to be able to say I read this prominent book on a topic of interest. But life’s too short.

But I am definitely interested in hearing from any readers who can point to specific parts of this book that seem particularly worth engaging with, with explanations of why!

Twitter Facebook Reddit More

For email filter: florpschmop