Skip to main content

We are in the middle of a run in the publication of “new histories.” In the five months after The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity was published, eight other books with “New History” in the subtitle were published in my library’s database, on topics from the evolution of mammals to Watergate. Hundreds of previous titles contain “new history.” I have reviewed the 2014 book A New History of Life by Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink1 and contributed to the genre myself in 2016, with A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life.2 Someday an enterprising scholar may write a history of new histories. When that book is written, The Dawn of Everything deserves to be included as an important summary of recent research, although it is not quite as important or comprehensive as its expansive title implies.

The genre of “new histories” produces books, not papers. A book’s length allows it to tell a single story that spans millennia, but also forces details and caveats to be edited, allowing the author’s own biases to shape the story. Full disclosure of the author’s perspective is key to new histories.

In my own new history, I disclosed several influences that shaped my perspective in an Author’s Note, including my Christian faith. The Author’s Note in The Dawn of Everything discloses a similar perspective, when David Wengrow describes the late David Graeber as an “activist … giving hope to the oppressed.” In the book’s conclusion, the authors identify as Jewish (497), so our holy texts and motivations overlap. Our occupations overlap too, all of us being 21st-century academics, and this overlap may exert invisible influence. In several places, Graeber and Wengrow project modern values and motivations onto pre-modern people.

The archaeological evidence described is fascinating, spanning the globe with varied examples of ancient political and social structures discovered in the past half-century. Graeber and Wengrow write that they want to establish “a new science of history, one that restores our ancestors to full humanity” (24). The authors speak up for the forgotten and restore the agency of our ancestors from societies without writing. I enjoyed learning about the complexity and accomplishments of the first societies in the Western hemisphere, where most examples in the book originate, including sites in the Mississippi River basin (from Cahokia to Moundville) and the Valley of Mexico (Teotihuacan). Much of this history is indeed new to me, and hopeful: for example, “slavery was most likely abolished multiple times in history in multiple places” (523).

The authors have a dynamic but not directional view of history. For example, they assert that “play farming,” a form of small-scale agriculture maintained more for leisure than survival, was adopted and abandoned multiple times throughout history (270), implying that large-scale agriculture and political states are not inevitable steps of progress. The authors began writing the book itself “as a form of play” (521), and it maintains a playful, anarchic spirit throughout, delighting in evidence that contradicts the modern, imperial tale of progress that pridefully places us as the inevitable pinnacle of civilization.

Theological undercurrents are present throughout, sometimes acknowledged. Graeber and Wengrow write on page 1 that their own new history takes up the “theological debate … are humans innately good or innately evil?” Then they write that the question “makes very little sense,” because the categories of good and evil are “concepts humans made up” (2). Chapter 1 frames this question as Hobbes versus Rousseau, then writes that both of those options “have dire political implications” (6) and are “mostly wrong” (9). The Dawn of Everything is full of things that Hobbes and Rousseau did not know, and that I did not know.

As a Christian, I’m confident that this book “restores our ancestors to full humanity.” As a scientist, I’m skeptical that this fascinating new evidence adds up to form a “new sciencer,” as the authors propose. The authors frequently present information as new when it has considerable precedent, even in scripture. They propose that predynastic states of self-rule have been ignored, but isn’t that even described in the book of Judges? (Just not positively!) I agree with them that ancient societies imagined alternate social orders, because an alternate social order was enacted in the book of Acts. The more Graeber and Wengrow present their work as new and ground-breaking, the more they sound like they are selling something rather than playfully offering alternatives.

In Chapter 2, the authors side not with Hobbes or Rousseau, but with Kandiaronk, a philosopher-statesman and indigenous critic of Enlightenment and colonial thinking, as reported in the journals of the French explorer Lahontan. In the same section they introduce the central idea of “schismogenesis.” Gregory Bateson defined schismogenesis in 1935 as “people’s tendency to define themselves against one another” (56-57). As Graeber and Wengrow write, “Bateson was interested in psychological processes within societies, but there’s every reason to believe something similar happens between societies as well” (57). This concept explains the dynamic development of diverse pairs of societies in multiple places and times.

But this hallmark idea of The Dawn of History is not itself new. In the late 20th century, Bateson’s ideas of schismogenesis and the “double bind” were applied both within and between societies by Rene Girard. Girard’s schismogenetic, mimetic theory explains societal diversity, rituals, taboos, and sacrifice as necessary constraints on violence. This mimetic violence is transferable and hidden, even from those who participate in it, so that it can be difficult to find even in well-documented histories and literature; how much harder would it be to find in societies such as those without writing?

This is the real theological question: is social violence inevitable? Are we fallen creatures or not? Where do we have freedom, and what is freedom’s inevitable price? Graeber and Wengrow emphasize freedom but neglect constraint. They provide evidence that large societies could build large cities without intensive agriculture, extensive written records, or even the wheel (285). These technological questions are interesting but secondary to the theological question. Technology is tangible, making it easy to find in the archaeological record, while Girard’s necessary violence is hidden and therefore elusive.

The blood of mass graves, worldwide, calls out from the ground, and must be accounted for. Graeber and Wengrow mention cases of violence in the societies they study, like Wendat prisoner torture, but assert that this violence is not “the necessary flipside of a non-violent community” (512). This discussion only occupies a few pages, as if it’s obvious to them that violence can be detached from society if we just imagine rightly. It’s not obvious to me, as someone who sees hidden necessities, con

Graeber and Wengrow say that the diversity of premodern, non-Western societies shows that all along “we could have been living under radically different conceptions of what human society is actually about” (524). I accept Kandiaronk’s reported “opposition to the white man’s ‘living in the way of money’” (58), because I read in scripture that the love of money is the root of all evil. But I do not accept Kandiaronk’s description of the Incarnation as a “debasement” that calls into question the omnipotence of God (535, note 36). Rather, this is the scandal and paradox of the cross, which is God’s triumph over society’s violence, hidden and overt. I believe the All-Creator has a face, and scars.

Graeber and Wengrow promote an autonomous, rational view of the individual in which we should move about without constraint and choose societal arrangements as if they were items on a menu, or sessions in a course catalog. But I think unconscious, unavoidable envy lurks in the human heart, making me doubt that violence can be so easily unbundled from society.

I hope that these historical examples can help the church imagine a radically different community. Christians can learn from communities throughout history, including their social arrangements and attitudes about money and technology. But I suspect that all human societies hide oppression and violence (just as the church has, historically and presently). For two thousand years the wheat and the tares have grown together.

Graeber and Wengrow open Chapter 1 with an epigraph by Jung that “We are living in what the Greeks called the Kairos—the right time—for a ‘metamorphosis of the gods’” (1). They refer back to this at the end of the book, encouraging the reader to rediscover “the freedom to create new and different forms of social reality” (525).

My definition of kairos overlaps with Graeber and Wengrow’s—new wine requires new wineskins—but is colored by its use in the New Testament. Jesus opens his ministry in Mark 1:15 saying that the kairos of the Kingdom of God is at hand. Our freedom to create and rearrange in a world that is part-contingent and part-inevitable is subject to this pronouncement. Any freedom we have is constrained by our limitations and ultimately Spirit-enabled. In this light, I welcome new evidence of how past societies have anticipated that Kingdom, interpreting that as the work of Christ making all things new.

Footnotes

  1. Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink, A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth (London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016). See my review in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 68 (2016): 141-142.
  2. Benjamin J. McFarland, A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Benjamin J. McFarland

Benjamin J. McFarland, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Seattle Pacific University.

One Comment

  • David Paschane says:

    It is great to read an essay that poses a Christian theological response to the authors who are cherry picking human events to forecast a self-created human trajectory. Thank you.

Leave a Reply