The holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year…) offer an annual opportunity to reflect on the very biggest questions we can find. But first we need to find those questions. So much is changing so fast in our lives, at work and in our businesses, in our science and society. It’s a struggle to recognise the most valuable questions to ask of all these changes.
One obstacle to greater insight is our own myths. Myths can bind us together, and they can blind us. They can give meaning and structure to our experiences, and they can elevate certain false beliefs so far above our conscious awareness that we don’t even realise we hold them.
Myths can bind us together, and they can blind us.
One of our biggest myths — maybe the biggest — is the story of progress. It’s difficult for us to see the full sweep of human history as anything but. “Almost anyone who wishes to tell the human story on a broad scale feels secure in their knowledge of how it should properly start and where it is leading,” remarked David Graeber, a brilliant anthropologist who died in 2020. The story goes like this: In the beginning we spent millennia living as small, separate tribes of simple hunter-gatherers during which nothing happened. Then we invented agriculture, at which moment “civilization” truly got started. Agriculture took over, farming forced people to settle together in the first cities, and ever since the size and complexity of our societies have been evolving with our production technologies all the way up to the big, “advanced” techno-states we live in today. It’s the story retold by Yuval Harari in Sapiens, by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, and in school textbooks around the world.
It’s also an oversimplification, Graeber reminds us with his co-author David Wengrow in their 2021 book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Pre-historic tribal societies were not all small; they sometimes spanned continents. The discovery of agriculture did not mark the start of civilization: many foraging societies evaluated farming, rejected it, built mega-sites without it and co-existed for thousands of years alongside other societies who practiced it. The lives of our pre-historic forebears 10,000 years ago were not “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as Thomas Hobbes claimed in his Leviathan or as Steven Pinker suggests in The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now. Rather, foragers who survived past the age of 5 lived 70 years on average, “worked” only 2-4 hours per day, suffered from fewer diseases than modern humans, and probably lived in nurturing and care-giving groups.
And they were our cognitive equals. “They were neither ignorant savages nor wise sons and daughters of nature. They were just people, like us: equally perceptive, equally confused.” But unlike us, they enjoyed the freedom to try out new forms of society — with the result that, across the planet, humanity displayed “a carnival parade of political forms.”
Recasting the story of human progress as myth is a radical act of mental freedom. It forces three big and valuable questions onto the table immediately – any one of which might help you widen the realm of possible futures in important ways.
Recasting the story of human progress as myth is a radical act of mental freedom.
How open is the future?
History has only recently become a story of progress. In Renaissance Europe of the 15th and 16th centuries, history was mainly understood as a series of disasters on the road to return to the lost wisdom and glory of the past (ancient Greece and Rome). The story of progress emerged later. Graeber and Wengrow suggest we trace its origins to the French economist A.R.J. Turgot, who in the 1750s gave the first public lectures on his theories of social evolution and world history – “theories so familiar today we rarely dwell on their origins.” Civilization, Turgo argued, is defined by stages of economic development: first hunting animals, then domesticating animals, then farming and finally contemporary complex commercial life. Within a few years, Turgot’s four-stage history was appearing in the lectures of his Scottish Enlightenment friend Adam Smith and helped justify the Industrial Revolution as the next step in the story of human progress.
Turgot’s theories did not emerge from nothing. They were a direct response to powerful critiques being levelled against European civilization by Enlightenment thinkers and by Europe’s conquest of the Americas. Across the Old World, Europe’s authorities justified their aggressive conquests by naming the people they found infidels: everyone had had the opportunity to learn the teachings of Jesus, so those who didn’t follow him had actively rejected him. That logic failed in the New World: its inhabitants had never been exposed to Christian ideas.
Making Europe’s conquest legitimate was an important intellectual and political project among Europe’s elites with enormous real-world implications. But encounters with indigenous intellectuals and ideals made the task difficult. Indigenous attitudes toward personal freedom, gender equality, sexual mores and sovereignty challenged European norms in exciting ways. Romanticized field reports by Christian missionaries of their time spent living in American societies became bestsellers across Europe. In 1642, the Jesuit missionary Le Jeune wrote this about the Montagnais-Naskapi’s relationship with authority: “They render no homage to any one whomsoever, except when they like. They have reproached me a hundred times because we fear our Captains, while they laugh at and make sport of theirs. All the authority of their chief is in his tongue…for he will not be obeyed unless his words please them.”
In 1703, the French Baron de la Hontan published memoirs of his years posted in Canada as deputy to the Governor-General in Québec, titled Curious Dialogues with a Savage of Good Sense Who Has Travelled. Graeber and Wengrow speculate that the man LaHontan refers to in his title is Kandiaronk, a philosopher-statesman of the Wendat (Huron) Confederacy, whom the Governor hosted at his dinner-salons in Québec in the 1690s and who may also have visited the court of Louis XIV in France to observe French society first-hand. In the Dialogues, Kandiaronk hits Europe’s worldview head-on.
On religion: “If it were possible that God had come down to earth…He would have gone from nation to nation performing mighty miracles, thus giving everyone the same laws. Then we would all have the same religion…Instead, there are five or six hundred religions, each distinct from the other, of which according to you, the religion of the French alone is any good, sainted, or true.”
de la Hontan: “The wicked need to be punished, and the good need to be rewarded. Otherwise, murder and robbery would spread everywhere…and we would become the most miserable people upon the face of the earth.”
Kandiaronk: “I find it hard to see how you could be much more miserable than you already are. What kind of human must Europeans be, that they have to be forced to do good, and only refrain from evil because of fear of punishment?...You have observed that we lack judges. What is the reason for that? Well, we never bring lawsuits against one another…”
On property rights: “I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that’s not inhuman, and I genuinely think this can only be the case, as long as you stick to your distinctions of ‘mine’ and ‘thine’.”
These arguments were powerful and popular. (Like any good orator, Kandiaronk exaggerated his case to make his points: Wendat society also had laws and violence and inequalities.) The Dialogues remained in-print for over a century, were translated into German, English, Dutch and Italian, and every self-respecting 18th-century intellectual read them. Most major thinkers of the French Enlightenment imitated de la Hontan’s example of critiquing their own society’s faults through dialogue with some imagined outsider. Voltaire’s character in L’Ingénu was half-Wendat, half-French; Montesquieu’s character was Persian; Diderot’s a Tahitian.
Turgot’s new notions about social evolution and progress salvaged European superiority from such critiques. Those societies that Europe had encountered in the Americas with their troubling philosophies were not simply different, they were primitive. They represented the bottom of the evolutionary ladder. They were not more equal because of some moral superiority but because in simple societies everyone was equally poor. It’s only as technology advances that society evolves. Through technology, natural differences between people get amplified into complex divisions of labour, in which case some people become poor and others become rich. Poverty and property rights aren’t a failing; they are features of any complex civilization that reaches for higher levels of overall prosperity. When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 and demonstrated how well the theory of evolution explained the diversity of life on earth, it became hard for European intellectuals to look at the differences between civilizations any other way than as the same evolutionary forces at work.
And it’s still hard for us today. “We find it so difficult to organize history in a way which does not imply that current arrangements were somehow inevitable,” Graeber and Wengrow observe. If history is not a story of progress, then it makes no sense at all to talk about present-day civilization as advanced and past civilizations as primitive, simply by virtue of our relative places on the timeline. If time does not move us forward, is the present still the pinnacle?
If time does not move us forward, is the present still the pinnacle?
How optional is new technology?
If we set aside the notion that the grand sweep of human history is the story of our evolution from foraging to farming to industry, whole millennia during which “nothing happened” need to be explored with fresh eyes to find the meaningful achievements that got dropped from the story. We also need to re-examine these times of technological transition. They definitely did happen. Few humans live as foragers today, but at one time we all did. How else can we understand this difference, if not as progress? When facts are no longer forced to fit the grand narrative, what is the fuller story?
When facts are no longer forced to fit the grand narrative, what is the fuller story?
Without the myth of progress to cherry-pick details, the Agricultural Revolution (the prehistoric transition from foraging to farming that took place in the Fertile Crescent of modern-day Middle East) happened very differently from how it’s commonly taught. The common version describes humanity’s planting of the first wheat seed as a point of no return – a fateful moment akin to Adam’s biting of the apple in the Garden of Eden, forever stealing humanity’s innocence.
The story goes like this: Before that first seed got planted, humans lived a comfortable life, subsisting on Nature’s bounty. But then, lured by the prospect of a still easier life, we tampered with that harmonious state of nature and unwittingly turned ourselves into its slaves. Yuval Harari writes within this myth in his book Sapiens, when he describes humanity’s fall from grace and enslavement to the demands of grain production. “This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat…” Harari writes. He invites us to “think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint of wheat,” and he describes how wheat manipulated homo sapiens to conquer the earth. We became dependent on wheat for food, so whatever wheat wanted (fertilizer, sunshine, water) it got. It’s a familiar story of our inevitable dependence on technology, and we’ve been trained over centuries to accept it.
But that’s not how it happened, Graeber and Wengrow argue. The record shows humans had far more agency in adopting agriculture. To domesticate wheat, people need to breed wild wheat selectively so that, instead of the seeds falling to the ground to reproduce or rot, they stay attached to their stalk until the farmer deems them ripe for harvest. Experiments have shown that this mutation would have been harnessed by humans in as little as 20 years, or at most 200 years, using prehistoric methods. So why did people who demonstrably knew how to do it take as much as 3,000 years to complete the transition? If wheat had been setting the pace, our fate would have been sealed within a few human generations. Instead, the “Revolution” happened over the same timescale that divides our present day from the days of the biblical King David and the dawn of the Iron Age.
Part of the reason our ancestors took their time was that the benefits of this technological advance were mixed at best, all costs considered. Serious farming was serious work: soil maintenance, weed clearance, harvesting and threshing. And people’s lives, like lives today, were already full: with hunting, foraging, craft-making, ceremonies and celebrations, storytelling, gambling, and traveling. The first farmers were reluctant farmers who balanced the costs and benefits of the new technology by finding the least disruptive ways to make use of it, what Graeber and Wengrow term “play-farming”. One example was flood-retreat farming – planting seeds in the mud left behind after the seasonal flooding of a lake or river. With flood-retreat farming, Nature prepared and replenished the soil for free.
Agriculture didn’t turn roaming foragers into settled farmers. For millennia, human societies moved in and out of farming – often seasonally. They farmed without becoming farmers. They raised crops and animals without surrendering too much of their existence to the rigours of agriculture, and without becoming so dependent on grain for food that crop failures could become life-threatening events. They experimented with how to integrate play-farming into their settlements, which they had already settled for other reasons: hunting, foraging, fishing, trading and more. Some societies, for example in California, defined their identity in part by their decision to reject an agricultural way of life, despite living on the right kind of soil, in the right kind of climate for it, and with plenty of nearby maize-farmers to learn from.
Was technology adoption ever a choice?
Were these long millennia of play-farming and cultural choice-making merely a prelude to the inevitable march of progress, or are they evidence that there was nothing inevitable about the direction we took? Improvements in the archaeological record suggest that the development of our dependence on agriculture had as much to do with the cultural and political choices societies made as it did with farming’s inherent potential for large-scale food production. Early farming often had a ritualistic component that went beyond calorie consumption. It was a repetitive, labour-intensive, communal task, which is partly why the resulting foods (like bread and beer) had important ceremonial meanings and uses. Wheat farming got serious in ancient Egypt around 3500 BCE – partly because in the same place at that same time, the idea became entrenched that the dead get hungry too, and the living had an obligation to satisfy their ancestors’ appetite for ceremonial foods. More and more people had to work larger and larger fields to meet this growing demand, until working the fields became the primary job for a whole class of people. In ancient Peru, a diverse diet from diverse sources was displaced by domesticated maize in part because the latter was the food and drink of the gods. Royal mummies dined on it, armies marched on it and ancestors demanded it of the living.
Many of today’s technology-driven visions of progress are rooted, explicitly or implicitly, in the belief that technology has driven change since the time of the Agricultural Revolution. This notion has been wrong from the beginning, yet it’s very hard for us today to understand technological change as anything but the inevitable march of progress. We may call out its evils where we find them (Big Tech), but we still look to new technologies as one-way tickets to move us permanently past the problems we’re stuck in now (climate change; pandemics) and into a future with different challenges – the same way agriculture once freed foragers from one misery and forced them to grapple with the new consequences of urban agricultural life.
Only it didn’t happen that way. Are things different now? In a massive, globe-spanning, tech-enabled economy and society like ours, is every new technology-apple a bite that we must take? Is every bite now genuinely a point of no return? Or can we still “play” with new technologies as our ancestors did, farming without becoming farmers, as we experiment with how to integrate them into diverse visions of the society we want to live in?
Is every bite at a new technology a point of no return? Or can we still “play” with new technologies as our ancestors did?
How likely are new forms of organization and society?
We have a hard time imagining that large-scale populations could function in any way other than today’s nation-states. Ancient foragers didn’t need states because they existed as tiny groups, but “large populations can’t function without leaders who make the decisions, executives who carry out the decisions, and bureaucrats who administer the decisions and laws.” If you want to live in a society without such things, “you’ll have to find some tiny band or tribe willing to accept you…” writes Jared Diamond in The World Until Yesterday.
Is Diamond right, or is his argument based on a mythic view of pre-historic smallness and simplicity? “Foragers may sometimes exist in small groups, but they do not – and probably have not ever – lived in small-scale societies,” Graeber and Wengrow argue. Our cognitive peers in pre-history, just like us today, could build imaginary connections with people they had never met. Graeber and Wengrow describe the Hopewell Integration Sphere, a pan-North American network of communities who, between roughly 100 BC and 500 AD, regularly came together all along the Mississippi valley on specific ritual occasions to create a shared virtual world. It was a complex feat of coordination and navigation. People sometimes travelled hundreds of miles to converge on-site on-time for gatherings lasting less than a week each year.
A lot still isn’t known about why they spent so many resources to gather and build elaborate ceremonial structures together, but surviving Hopewall art suggests one purpose was to celebrate difference: in the artworks, people are painstakingly depicted with high degrees of individuality. Another purpose may have been to establish shared norms across North America (i.e., Turtle Island) for how to interact with strangers and how to set up your clan structures. How was it possible that a traveller hailing from the Bear, or Wolf, or Hawk clan could walk from Ontario to Arizona and in every village along the way find some clan obliged to host them, despite the vast breadth of the continent and the hundreds of different language zones they passed through along the way? One possible explanation is interaction sites like Hopewell – which might also explain why the site eventually fell into disuse. Eventually, the work of connecting diverse people across the continent into a shared diplomatic framework was done.
How should history look back at this large-scale, multi-century social endeavour? Was it a random bump in the inexorable road to states and empires, or was it a road not taken?
Wider futures, more mental freedom
In his book Civilized to Death, Christopher Ryan argues that today’s narrow notion of progress has blinded us to the many prices we’ve paid to achieve a civilization that we deem “advanced.” In his view, we should bring hunter-gatherer attitudes back into our modern lives. Anthropologists like Graeber and Wengrow would probably say that Ryan romanticizes the past – he replaces the myth that things get better as we go forward with the myth that things get better as we go backward, and that Life was a Garden before Adam bit that apple.
Was pre-historic life better? Who is to say? It had its atrocities, too. But instead of debating better vs worse, what if we focus on the open/closed dimension? Pre-historic people did seem open to more possible futures than we deem possible today. As Yuval Harari writes in Sapiens, “There is no way out of the imagined order…When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.”
Is he right? Holidays are a chance to challenge such sweeping conclusions and widen the window of future possibilities.
Holidays are a chance to challenge sweeping conclusions and widen the window of future possibilities.
Today, almost the whole world’s population finds itself in the same basic social reality. The primordial freedom that pre-historic people enjoyed to create new and different forms of society no longer exists, except in small groups or at desert festivals. The notion of attempting anything beyond that can feel naïve. We can easily believe that we will colonise the moon and mars. We will explore the stars. We will walk alongside robots. Some of us will integrate computers into our brains and live to 150. The only question is when. What we struggle to believe is that we might harness time or technology to take ourselves anywhere else – unless our present trajectory is utterly interrupted by alien encounters or a planetary apocalypse. (A global pandemic is just a bump in the road.)
How did we get so stuck? This is the question that Graeber and Wengrow ask directly, and it betrays Graeber’s personal perspective as one of the world’s most famous anarchists. We don’t need to accept his political views to appreciate the complications he offers into our own thinking. If we are indeed “stuck”, part of the reason why is that we view history, technological change, and the scaling up of humanity through too narrow a lens – a lens that makes everything that has happened seem more inevitable than it really was.
As you reflect on these myths within your own mental latticework, what new futures do you begin to see?