Yes, We Do Know Everything – by Tony C. Brown

Between the title (“The Dawn of Everything”) and the subtitle (“A New History of Humanity”) we have, perhaps, the book in nuce: a big headline claim (everything!) announcing what seems a more limited offering (of humanity), itself presented in familiar fashion (it is a history), though, like all good commodities, promising something novel we didn’t know we needed (a new one). If we could imagine a Scale of Uncharitable Readings, the foregoing would fit, no doubt, at the pre-epiphanic-Scrooge end of the spectrum. Yet it is not entirely off the mark. Now, I’m not suggesting the book is simply rubbish. In fact, given that I, myself, have long been saying more or less the same thing as our authors do about the Enlightenment, I’m in agreement with a great deal of what they argue. That much of what we call the Enlightenment might well be, in no small part, a defensive “backlash” against a threat posed by what our authors call “Indigenous critique,” with its articulation of alternate ways of living without domination and exploitation, is, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much right (5, 27–77, 473, 480-81, 491).[1] All this is, I would say, valuable and suggestive and makes the book worth reading.

But when a U.S. anthropologist and a British archaeologist (David Graeber and David Wengrow, respectively) propose to tell us, straight-faced, exactly “What Being Sapiens Really Means” (118), I find problems—familiar problems—amounting to more than trade-press oversell. Among other things, in our authors’ bid to be new and grand and knowing, we might recognize a backlash of sorts too, an attempt to nullify a threat or challenge. It turns out that in the move from “everything” to “of humanity,” our authors see no diminution in scope. In the Dawn of Everything, “everything” and “humanity” prove fully coextensive: everything that is or that matters is necessarily either human or for human beings. So what exactly would they be nullifying with such a stunning exercise in human narcissism? Well, let’s see.

In the book itself, our authors say they are giving us “the human story” (442). However much less than everything that may be, it sounds a whole lot more “Ken Burns presents” than our authors seem to believe. If at one point they admit that one of their twelve chapters “is not truly radical” (“for the most part, [in that chapter] we are telling the same old story” [382]), they do seem to think the other eleven might be. We are told throughout how “most people” are beholden to a vision of history that is at once dull and wrong, whereas the history on offer here is right, interesting, and, indeed, radically new. Their “human story” is right because it incorporates the facts gleaned by archaeological research over the last thirty years—facts that, unlike those gained previously, are themselves right. And their account is interesting because in it they return the human in its unique humanness to history. Such a return is needed since “most people” who have written grand historical narratives (think Francis Fukuyama, Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, and Yuval Noah Harari) have, by their dullness, obscured our truly human humanity—our ability to respond creatively to life, making our own history through self-creating activities and by simply being, by nature it seems, “self-conscious political actors” (8–9, 24, 86–87, 93–96). Finally, their “story” is new because it shows that human history does not follow an inevitable, one-way evolutionary path from small bands to complex states, from equality to inequality, from freedom to state-based subjection. Rather, the following is right:

(1) Humans did not form or develop states once upon a time and then remain stuck in them forever. Some states have been seasonal, in operation for one part of the year and abandoned for the remainder of the year, while others were ultimately temporary, lasting for some time (even several hundred years) and then being abandoned, with everyone returning to non-state life (110-12, 481, 491).

(2) There is no simple correlation between societal scale and a need for “structures of domination” such that once a society reaches a certain threshold in size and complexity it will, by necessity, adopt a hierarchical form. There can be hierarchy and domination in small societies, just as they can be absent in large societies (515).

While our contemporary exemplars of dullness (Fukuyama et al.) remain stuck with the old facts of one-way progress and complexity-requires-hierarchy (4–5, 9–11, 13–14, 419, 504), our authors offer readers “a new history of humankind . . . one that restores our ancestors to their full humanity” (24). On the path to restoring our ancestors’ lost humanity, Graeber and Wengrow return to where everything went wrong: when some people read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discours sur l’inégalité, and were stupid enough to believe it. The notions of progress and inevitable subjection originate, apparently, with Rousseau and the broader Enlightenment, where they developed as a backlash to the Indigenous critique.

I would suggest the Indigenous critique went further than our authors allow: it went so far as to question European claims to know what a human being is or should be. Moreover, a significant part of the conservative backlash, then and now, involved the aggressive assertion of “what being sapiens really means.” In the Enlightenment, that assertion centered on (a) the insistent separation of human and animal, a separation that shored up, over and against the animal, the human’s essential nature; and (b) the aligning of contemporary stateless groups (“savages”) with earlier, less human and more animal, stages of human existence.[2] Each (“a” and “b”) informed the other, combining to underwrite those narratives of progress [does this clear it up?] our authors abjure. And yet our authors maintain “a” as stridently as any philosophe; and, even as they object to aligning ethnographic or historical human groups with animals, they don’t quite get rid of “b.” That the human is only ever itself, that it has never been anything other than itself—all this is beyond doubt for Graeber and Wengrow, and all this (ironically enough) puts them at odds with the last thirty years of research questioning such well-worn (and dull?) essentialisms as anthropocentrism, speciesism, and a certain humanism. Graeber and Wengrow’s separation of human and animal is close to absolute (86, 91–93, 118, 128). Anything that might question the human’s exceptional status, everything that might cast doubt on the alignment of “everything” with “humanity,” is (mostly) ignored or (when mentioned) mocked (230). As for what it means to be human and human alone, here our authors would be well at home in the Enlightenment. The human is a social, rational and political animal, which is to say, no animal at all, possessing, unlike all the animals, certain qualities and capacities centered on freedom, reason and self-consciousness (8–9, 86–87, 91–96, 115, 117, 118-19, 128).

The human’s eternal and accessible sameness allows our authors to claim, in discussing Iron Age Europe, that when our dullards assume that complexity-requires-hierarchy, in addition to being contradicted by the new archaeological facts, they are clearly wrong because “such views lack a sound basis in human psychology” (516). That is, wherever and whenever there is a human being, we can know what they would think and what they would do because we know human psychology, and human psychology has, apparently, always been the same. This isn’t all that unEnlightenmenty.[3] When we ask what evidence our authors have for such eternal psychology, for knowing what the human is and always has been, the answer is quite familiar. While they note that “the twentieth-century Nambikwara, Winnebago or Nuer cannot provide us with direct windows on the past” (102), these famous objects of famous ethnographers nonetheless afford a view on that past that, in our authors’ hands, passes for pretty direct (104, 121–22, 124, 361, 403). The “ethnographic record” our authors draw on covers, they say, “roughly the last 200 years” (220), comprising, then, that immense body of writing produced by (mostly) Western anthropologists about those people without writing and so many other things, the savages and the primitives. This is the research that enables us non-primitives to know those earlier and otherwise inaccessible forms of human existence—in this case, the beliefs and practices in line with our eternal human psychology and therefore able to explain what people must have done and thought in Iron Age Europe, for example.

Here, in the aligning of those objects of the “ethnographic record” with the disclosure of our own past (and not at all the disclosure of those objects’ own past), we start to see a break in our authors’ human-always-human, a break that might further signal a conservative backlash at the heart the Dawn of Everything. If we have already noted above our authors’ commitment to what we called “a” (the strict separation of human and animal), we now find them embracing a version of “b”: while the primitives can give us glimpses of our own otherwise inaccessible past, we ourselves cannot. They, then, are not the same as us. We must remember too that it is not so much a question of their social forms presenting our past to us, but rather that the ethnographers writing on them provide us with access to the truth of an eternal human psychology—the one that would have been operative in the otherwise inaccessible past. But why is that truth secured by the “ethnographic record”? If the human is indeed always just itself, if all humans actualized the same humanness, there would be no need to search in the ethnographic record for our own past to disclose any psychological truth. We could just look to the Mall of America. What we have, I would suggest, is one more long-familiar attempt to nullify the possibility of being and thinking otherwise—of not being the human of human exceptionalism, of not being caught in and measured by certain criteria of humanness, of not being the past of the civilized, enstated “sapiens,” and of not being, finally, just there for those who really know “What Being Sapiens Really Means.”

Tony C. Brown is Associate Professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, MN

[1] See, for example, my The Primitive, the Aesthetic and the Savage: An Enlightenment Problematic (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

[2] For a full elaboration of the backlash in question, see my Statelessness: On Almost not Existing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022).

[3] Thomas Hobbes, whose Leviathan our authors call “the founding text of modern political theory” (2), and who our authors reject along with Rousseau (2-3), himself thought that human beings would act in known and predictable ways, driven by certain essential principles we might call psychological. After all, human beings form states because, he says, humans, by their nature, will always and necessarily choose a lesser over a greater evil, and so, given the opportunity, they will covenant each one with each other to form a state.

Cite this note as: Tony C. Brown, “Yes, We Do Know EverythingJournal18 (July 2023),

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