A Flawed New Dawn

David Graeber & David Wengrow’s 2021 book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), is a heavily documented (revisionist) history of humankind, but it is also surprisingly flawed. In their earnest effort to give more credit to early hunter-gatherer societies for their political ideas, and their critiques of the Europeans, the co-authors somehow overlooked the hugely influential work of the classical Greek scholars, especially Plato, whose seminal essays, especially in The Republic and The Laws, along with Aristotle’s The Politics, still animate and shape our politics and our governments down to the present day. Here is a summary from my 2005 book, Holistic Darwinism (University of Chicago):

Social justice is a term that has invited many different definitions, but it generally refers to the distribution of substantive rewards among the members of a society.  Its origin traces back at least to Periclean Athens.   To Plato, “justice” is not primarily concerned with some higher metaphysics, or a tug-of-war over our “rights” as individuals.  It is concerned with equitable rewards for the proper exercise of our abilities and our calling, and our conduct, in a network of interdependent economic relationships. Moreover, and this point is crucial, Plato recognized that equity also has a floor -- a minimum wage so to speak. Here are Plato’s words in the Republic:

If we begin our inquiry by examining the beginning of a city, would that not aid us also in identifying the origins of justice and injustice?... A city -- or a state -- is a response to human needs.  No human being is self-sufficient, and all of us have many wants...Since each person has many wants, many partners and purveyors will be required to furnish them....  Owing to this interchange of services, a multitude of persons will gather and dwell together in what we have come to call the city or the state.... [So] let us construct a city beginning with its origins, keeping in mind that the origin of every real city is human necessity....[However], we are not all alike. There is a diversity of talents among men; consequently, one man is best suited to one particular occupation and another to another....We can conclude, then, that production in our city will be more abundant and the products more easily produced and of better quality if each does the work nature [and society] has equipped him to do, at the appropriate time, and is not required to spend time on other occupations....Where, then, do we find justice and injustice?...Perhaps they have their origins in the mutual needs of the city’s inhabitants (Book II, 369a-d, 370b,c, 372a).

Aristotle, in the Politics, supplemented his mentor’s views in some very important ways.  First, Aristotle emphasized that physical security -- both external and internal -- is also a fundamental function of the state. The polis is not exclusively an economic association.  Aristotle also stressed that human nature is not an autonomous entity; it entails a set of innate aptitudes that are uniquely fitted for society and that can only be developed in close social relationships.  Thus, social life involves more than being simply a marketplace for economic transactions.  It also involves a life in common; we are enriched by our membership in families and communities.   A hermit is not only economically deprived; he/she is not fully human and, equally important, occupies an evolutionary dead-end.

It’s well known that Plato concluded that there are three kinds of government (the “one” the “few” and the “many”), or monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and that his own stated preference, in The Republic, was for a specially trained, celibate “philosopher king” that would rule in the public interest. However, it is often overlooked that Plato came to realize that his preferred system was unrealistic and, in his last essay, The Laws, he proffered a “second-best” alternative, a “mixed government” where all the major interests are represented but all are constrained by “the rule of law.”  Does this sound familiar?  It should.

Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, also elaborated on the concept of “just deserts,” or “giving every man his due” as Plato’s character Polymarchus put it in The Republic.  There have been countless debates through the centuries over what Aristotle meant by the word “due”.  But a commonsense interpretation is that the rewards provided by society should be proportionate to a person’s contributions to society (and the same holds for crimes, and punishments).  It does not mean “equality.” Rather, it means an equitable portion in accordance with some criterion of fairness -- a fair share.  Aristotle himself used the term “proportionate equality.”

Graeber and Wengrow attribute such seminal ideas to the precolonial, non-European societies, but the fact is that the ancient Greeks got there first. 

Finally, and perhaps most important, this book is conceptually flawed. Every human society – every socially organized species – is first and foremost a “collective survival enterprise.” This is its primary purpose, its raison d’etre, and it encompasses no less than 14 distinct categories of basic biological survival needs (see my 2011 book, The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice). In fact, humankind has been hugely successful at it, having increased their numbers over the past several thousand years from perhaps a few thousand to 8 billion and still increasing. During this time, we have pursued various interdependent survival strategies, and this has profoundly shaped our politics, as Plato recognized.  It seems that Graeber and Wengrow did not. 

I should also note, however, that our species is now in serious jeopardy, potentially a victim of its own success (see my new, 2023 book for Cambridge University Press, Superorganism: A New Social Contract for Our Endangered Species).      


Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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I wrote this book review to pay tribute to David Graeber who died due to Covid-related complications in 2020, before he could see the publication of The Dawn of Everything. What a powerful legacy! I want to extend a sincere thanks to both authors David Graeber and David Wengrow for undertaking this project. I learned to think about history in way that re-imagines the possibilities for all of us and for that I am grateful.