A Flawed History of Humanity

"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.

Graeber and Wengrow focus their discussion of the Enlightenment, not surprisingly, on the figure of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his enormously influential 1754 Discourse on the Origins and Foundation of Inequality Among Men, Rousseau engaged in conjecture about humans in their original “state of nature,” and in the earliest stages of social development. In it, he posited, as Graeber and Wengrow put it, that “there was a time when human beings were equal – and that something then happened to change this situation.” Graeber and Wengrow call this insight “quite a startling thing for people living under an absolutist monarchy.” They argue that in eighteenth-century France, “almost every aspect of human interaction… was marked by elaborate pecking orders and rituals of social deference.” So how did Rousseau come by his insight, and why were so many of his contemporaries convinced by it? Their explosive answer is that Europeans only came to meditate on questions of equality in this way when prodded to do so by indigenous Americans. The chapter that follows elaborates on what they call “the indigenous critique” of European society, and the way it sparked a European “conceptual revolution.” They add that historians of European ideas, who have a practice of “infantilizing non-Westerners,” have effectively suppressed the story: “among mainstream intellectual historians today it is almost a heresy.” But some scholars, “most themselves of indigenous descent,” have begun to make the case, and “here we follow in their footsteps.”

It is an inspiring and defiant call to arms, and for me, as a scholar of the Enlightenment, a troubling one. If true, it would overturn almost everything I thought I knew about my own scholarly field. But how do Graeber and Wengrow make their case? Do they really know what they are talking about?

The history of equality, as a concept, is a long and complex one. In the Western world it has many roots: notably in ancient Greek philosophy, in the Roman tradition of civic republicanism, and of course in Judaism and Christianity. “The first be last and the last first.“ “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” It would be “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to the kingdom of God.” Eighteenth-century French people might not have had much experience of equality in their daily lives, but they could find plenty of evocations of it in their schoolbooks and their scriptures. Graeber and Wengrow’s apparent disregard for this commonplace of intellectual history already raised a warning flag. Still, the existence of this intellectual heritage did not preclude the possibility that indigenous thinkers had pushed European thinking about equality in a fundamentally new direction. Was this the case?

Right at the beginning of the chapter, Graeber and Wengrow give readers a very big reason to doubt their scholarship. Jean-Jacques Rousseau composed his 1754 essay as an entry for an essay competition sponsored by the learned Academy of Dijon. Graeber and Wengrow write that “the authors who submitted their essays to this competition were men who spent their lives having all their needs attended to by servants… Rousseau was one such man: an ambitious young philosopher, he was at the time engaged in an elaborate project of trying to sleep his way into influence in court. The closest he’d likely ever come to experiencing social equality himself was someone doling out equal slices of cake at a dinner party.”

These short sentences contain a simply astounding collection of errors. As anyone would know from a few seconds’ perusal of Wikipedia, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was in no sense a member of France’s upper crust. The son of a poor Genevan artisan, he himself had worked as a domestic servant in aristocratic households and had lived for many years in real poverty. In 1754, he was 42 years old – not exactly young. As for “trying to sleep his way into influence in court,” I have no idea what Graeber and Wengrow mean, considering that two years earlier Rousseau had refused a comfortable sinecure from the French court in order to preserve his moral independence. All of this is well known because Rousseau told the stories himself in what still stands as perhaps the most famous autobiography of all time: the Confessions.

Mistakes of this sort do not inspire confidence, to say the least, but they are still not, by themselves, crucial to Graeber and Wengrow’s argument. Unfortunately, the rest of the chapter is just as sloppy and erroneous.

The authors start out with a point that is correct, but also uncontroversial and unoriginal, namely that “European intellectuals had come to fix on the idea of primordial freedom” in large part because of travel literature that made them aware of non-European societies, including especially ones lacking large, organized states. Since the time of Columbus, works that described the religious, political, social and sexual practices of such societies had fascinated European readers, and challenged them. Here were examples of people who lived without the stultifying social hierarchies and moral restrictions that characterized European states. Above all, here were people who lived without a knowledge of Christianity. And yet they often seemed healthier and happier than Europeans, and quite capable of arguing back in sophisticated terms against European missionaries trying to convince them of the error of their ways. In the late sixteenth century, Michel de Montaigne famously argued that even if some Native Americans ate human flesh, it was Europeans, with their vicious persecutions and religious wars, who were the true “cannibals.” It is not always easy to excavate what indigenous people actually said from the European texts that reported on them. Still, their voices were not by any means entirely erased or obscured. Missionary reports—especially the ones known as Jesuit Relations—were written in part to instruct future missionaries on what they could expect in their missions. They therefore generally made every effort to report accurately on indigenous customs, and on the arguments that indigenous people might make in response to attempts to convert them to Christianity.

Graeber and Wengrow devote many pages to this literature. Their survey, however, does little but repeat points that many scholars—Anthony Pagden, Tzvetan Todorov, Sankar Muthu, Michèle Duchet, David Allen Harvey and Antoine Lilti, to name just a few—have made before them. And while they are correct to say that this literature played a role in the genesis of Enlightenment thought, so did many other things: the scientific revolution, the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, the radical religious ideas of Benedict Spinoza, the rise of the periodical press, critiques of absolute monarchy. Enlightenment thinking, on human equality as on many other matters, had multiple, complex roots. To make a case that the “indigenous critique” mattered more than everything else requires looking at the Enlightenment in its full complexity and weighing its different elements against each other. This, Graeber and Wengrow fail to do.

The truly egregious part of their analysis, however, goes beyond simply the repetition of commonplaces and an exaggerated emphasis on one part of the story. Graeber and Wengrow don’t just attribute Enlightenment thought on equality to the “indigenous critique” in general, but to one “indigenous intellectual” in particular. The figure in question was named Kandiaronk, a leading figure in the Native American nation known variously as the Huron, Wendat and Wyandot. After the destruction of their homeland by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) in the seventeenth century, many of them ended up in French Canada. Kandiaronk impressed many French observers with his eloquence and brilliance, frequently met with the royal governor, Count Louis de Buade de Frontenac, and may himself have traveled to France. In the 1680s, he also almost certainly met a young French soldier with the elaborately aristocratic name of Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron Lahontan, who traveled extensively in North America and learned Native American languages. Lahontan returned to Europe in the early 1690s, and ten years later published a series of works about North America, including one known under the title Dialogues with a Savage. It purported to be an accurate recreation of debates between himself and a Huron he called “Adario,” in which the Huron brilliantly refutes Lahontan’s arguments about the truth and superiority of Christianity, and more generally criticizes European customs. This character was probably based at least in part on Kandiaronk.

Lahontan’s Dialogues fit into a long European tradition of what Anthony Pagden calls the “savage critic.” It extends back at least as far as an anticlerical Spanish work of 1519 that featured a Native American chieftain who exposed the delusions of European Christian society. Although often informed by encounters with indigenous people, and with works like the Jesuit Relations, these works were still fundamentally fictional. Critics have almost always assumed the same thing about Lahontan’s Dialogues. The work owes an obvious stylistic debt to the ancient Greek satirist Lucian. Adario’s exposition of Huron religion sounds suspiciously like contemporary European deism. His critique of European marriage customs echoes many European works of the period, including those of the proto-feminist philosopher François Poulain de la Barre. In short, the Dialogues are a classic early Enlightenment work that blend observations of non-European societies with arguments drawn from European intellectual traditions to produce new and radical thought about society, politics and religion, all given extra spice by the figure of the wise “savage” who deliciously exposes one European custom after another as harmful and absurd. It was also just one of many works that used similar devices, including Montesquieu’s vastly more popular Persian Letters of 1721, and Françoise de Graffigny’s Letters of a Peruvian Woman of 1747. Lahontan certainly influenced Rousseau, but so did many others.

Graeber and Wengrow, however, insist that Lahontan’s Dialogues had greater influence than any of these other books. And more importantly, they also insist that the work was not fictional, but a recreation of actual dialogues between Lahontan and Kandiaronk. Far from being a fictional character devised by a European to criticize his own society, “Adario” was a real indigenous intellectual whose powerful words amazed Europeans with the force of truth, and forced a fundamental reevaluation of European notions of equality. It is a striking claim.

But what is the evidence for it? Graeber and Wengrow cite many different sources in their impressive footnotes, but not all of them actually support their case. The Canadian scholar John Steckley, for instance, in an article they cite, writes of the Dialogues: “Although some turns of phrase sound Native, and may have been lifted from Kandiaronk's speeches, Adario's critical voice of pristine purity spoke with Lahontan's jaded intellectual accent. It reflects a wealth of embittering experiences the Baron had had with European society in areas of life that had not touched the Wyandot of Michilimakinac.” This does not exactly support the claim made in the text of The Dawn of Everything

The most important source Graeber and Wengrow draw on is a book entitled Native American Speakers of the Eastern Woodlands, by Barbara Alice Mann, a scholar of Seneca descent. Graeber and Wengrow not only quote her at length, but paraphrase her arguments very closely. Mann argued that the “flat dismissal” of the Dialogues as an authentic transcript of a Native American voice reflected racism and a “western sneer.” She argues that in fact a “beguiled Lahontan” took elaborate notes as he conversed with Kandiaronk, and then later put them together into the Dialogues.

But what is Mann’s principal evidence? In her book, she triumphantly quotes Lahontan himself: “When I was in the village of this [Native] American, I took on the agreeable task of carefully noting all his arguments. No sooner had I returned from my trip to the Canadian lakes than I showed my manuscript to Count Frontenac, who was so pleased to read it that he made the effort to help me put these Dialogues into their present state.” The case seems irrefutable, except for one important point: These words come from the preface to the Dialogues themselves. And as anyone familiar with European fiction knows, there was no conceit more common for European authors of this period than presenting a fictional work as a first-hand account of real events. “The author of these Travels, Mr. Lemuel Gulliver, is my ancient and intimate friend…” This is how Jonathan Swift began his most famous work of fiction, but few of his readers believed that a real Lemuel Gulliver had actually visited a land called Lilliput. Nor did they believe that the best-selling novels Pamela and Clarissa were real collections of letters. If serious scholars have failed to give Mann’s work much credit, it is not because of racism or a “western sneer,” but because her arguments on this score simply do not hold water.

The error that Mann makes—and that Graeber and Wengrow uncritically repeat—is in some ways an understandable one. It can be very tempting to mistake Western critiques of the West, placed in “indigenous” mouths, for authentically indigenous ones. The language is familiar, and the authors know exactly which chords will resonate with their audience. Genuinely indigenous critiques, coming out of traditions with which people raised in Western environments are unfamiliar, can seem much more strange and difficult. The reductio ad absurdum of this mistake comes when people take as authentically Native American the words of Pocahontas, in the Disney film of the name: “You think you own whatever land you land on / The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim…”

The error is also—of course—deeply political. It fits what Graeber and Wengrow describe in their conclusion as a principal aim of the book: to “[expose] the mythical substructure of our ‘social science,’” and to reveal, contrary to what social scientists insist, that humans still have “the freedom to shape entirely new social realities.” Many Native Americans in the time of Kandiaronk still possessed this freedom, they claim. European societies, meanwhile, were incapable of real self-criticism. It took the wise Huron to open Western eyes to the possibility of a genuinely revolutionary politics. Graeber and Wengrow themselves now want to play a similar role.

Unfortunately, if their treatment of the Enlightenment is any indication, in pursuing this goal they are willing to engage in what comes perilously close to scholarly malpractice. I don’t have the expertise to comment on Graeber and Wengrow’s arguments about matters other than the French Enlightenment, but the quality of their scholarship on this subject does not bode well for the remainder of the book, to say the least.

David A. Bell teaches history at Princeton and is the author, most recently, of Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).

Update: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly cited the author of Gulliver's Travels. The work is by Jonathan Swift, not Daniel Defoe.

A guest post by
Professor of History at Princeton, author of Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).