human advancement

You Learned the Wrong Thing about Human History

The New York Times article What if Everything You Learned About Human History Is Wrong? by Jennifer Schuessler. So, this article is about a new book coming out by anthropologist David Graber and David Wengrow. The title of the book is The Dawn of Everything and is basically a reassessment of humanity’s past. And I guess it speculates on the trajectory of our future.

In the episode Ice Age of Love, Death & Robots, a young couple discovers a civilization existing in the freezer of their new apartment. The couple watches this civilization develop out of the stone age into a future far more advanced than the one they inhabit. Eventually, the tiny civilization ends up destroying themselves with their new technological power. After some time, however, life begins anew.

Similarly, in the short story I’m feeling Lucky by Leonid Kaganov a young woman has the ability to travel forward in time. Without going into details, we see a similar cyclical progression of events. People have speculated and fantasized before about there being advanced human civilizations in the past that somehow became lost with time. In the Dawn of Everything, authors David Graeber and David Windrow argue that that is somewhat the case.

Ultimately, the premise of the book is that our understanding of the human past is based on mythology. Most of believe or were at least taught that human history has been steady progression towards a more advanced civilization. We started off as wandering tribes and nomads, progressing to agrarian societies which lead to the industrial-based civilizations that we have today. This book is going to argue that there were periods of progression as well as regression. I think that’s pretty much the crux of the article.

This book could potentially be the beginning of a paradigm shift in the general public about human advancement. In The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kline, which, ironically, talks about human regression in sorts, Kline also gives several examples of times in history in which there were major paradigm shifts. These shifts were often met with resistance by the forefathers whose works led to the frame of thinking. It remains to be seen what will be the story surrounding The Dawn of Everything.  

To get a sense of the narrative that Graeber and Wengrow are arguing against, the authors cite the wildly popular and influential books, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond as well as Yuval Harari’s Sapiens. In both of these books, the authors present a version of human history that is one of steady advancement from apelike creatures to world dominators. They fail to, however, mention any declines in human advancement. Jared Diamond does have another book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, but I wonder if Graeber and Wengrow discuss societal collapses on a larger scale such as the loss of advancements that wouldn’t be reimagined until centuries later, for example. Diamond does mention one small incidence of this happening with the invention and failure to adopt the use of guns by the Chinese many years before Westerners.

In any case, I look forward to reading this one.

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