Graeber and Wengrow’s book The Dawn of Everything keeps coming up in my life—especially as I dip an amateur toe into trying to understand human prehistory—so I thought I had better take a look. The title sounded promising, and I had heard that the book offers many pieces of interpreted evidence from humanity’s distant past. I like data.
I elected to “preview” the book as an audiobook borrowed from the library, jotting 32 pages of notes as I went along. 24 audio-hours later, I am ready to report. A key point from the authors is: it didn’t have to be this way. To which I say: but it is. Making a convincing case that it could have gone much differently is a tall order given a single—seemingly conclusive—global experimental run. But we’ll get to all that.
I will say up front that I am unqualified to supply a scholarly critique of the book. I can’t argue about any of the archeological evidence, but do find that I have a few bones to pick when it comes to logic and interpretation.
Before I got very far into the book, I wrote down some things I wanted to learn from it.
- Is my basic understanding correct: that agriculture leads straight to modernity, in time?
- Will the book provide insight into the emergence of human supremacy—a false sense of separateness or transcendence above nature that drives much of modernity?
- Does the book talk about animist belief systems and how languages embodied different ways of thinking?
- Does the book present our history in the context of one-time inheritance spending of, e.g., fossil fuels and ecological health?
- Is the “Everything” in the title broader than an anthropocentric focus on the last 10,000 years as civilizations arose?
I can say that the answer to all these questions is, disappointingly, no. But I’ll be a bit slippery on the first point, in due time.
To many, the name Ishmael brings to mind the narrator of the classic novel Moby Dick. To others, Ishmael is the eldest son of Abraham—of biblical fame—cast aside for the favored son Isaac. To me and to a cadre of others, Ishmael is a wise teacher in the form of a gorilla.
A 1992 novel by Daniel Quinn, titled Ishmael, burst out of the gate already graced with a half-million-dollar prize. A few friends over the years recommended the book to me, but not having much bandwidth for books at the time, the recommendations failed to percolate up the priority list for a while.
I finally read the book last summer (2022), and…wow; yeah. What he said… I think I was particularly struck by the resonance with many of the conclusions I had reached on my own, as was sketched in the last post. But the novel framed these realizations in an elegant way that I never could have done, added a healthy dose of ideas I had not considered, and on the whole brought me to a state of newfound clarity.
In this post, I synthesize a set of ten principles that capture my current thinking, unambiguously fortified and sharpened by the teachings in Ishmael. I want to encourage others to read the book, so will only relay a sense of the content here. My best recommendation is to set this post aside until you’ve had a chance to read it yourself. Perhaps the quickest route runs through your library, rather then FedEx.
Image by G.C. from Pixabay
I intend to resume semi-regular postings in the near term, and am sitting on a couple dozen post ideas in various stages of development. In puzzling out what order I should put them in, I decided to start with something of a meta-post that lays some groundwork for a number of the future entries.
What I have in mind is to recapture my own journey over the last couple of years, which has resulted in an unexpected shift in my emphasis and awareness. By sharing key elements of my own journey, perhaps you can experience something similar. In any case, you might treat it as a belated (bloated?) summer reading list.
Let’s start just by capturing the chronological list, and then I’ll say a few things about the significance of each item.
- Energy and Human Ambitions textbook; especially Epilogue; Appendix D.5 and D.6
- Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari
- Human Exceptionalism (Do the Math post)
- Daniel Schmachtenberger on The Great Simplification
- Daniel Quinn’s books: Ishmael; The Story of B; My Ishmael; Beyond Civilization
- Post-Ishmael Do the Math posts (Sticks; Love; Cults and a Story)
- An Inconvenient Apocalypse, by Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen
- We Are the Middle of Forever by Dahr Jamail and Stan Rushworth
- Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- The Myth of Human Supremacy by Derrick Jensen
- Bitter Harvest by Lisi Krall
- Hospicing Modernity by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira