This book, Dawson’s first, introduces his unique ideas about the origins and developments of human civilizations. Here, he treats prehistory beginning with the earliest hominids and traces the lines of their cultural development through to the foundations of the major ancient civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and elsewhere. The result is a wonderfully insightful introduction to ourselves, a tour of the infancy of mankind.
What makes Dawson’s ideas unique is above all else his belief that it is interaction — creative cooperation — with the environment into which they were placed that is the primary determinant in the development of culture. Whereas other historians and anthropologists have tended to see geography (such as the relatively recent popular treatment by Jared Diamond), race (less popular today, though certainly during the period in which Dawson published this book the dominant theory), or economics (the Marxist and neo-Marxist theories which predominated throughout most of the 20th century) as the prime mover behind civilizations and cultures, Dawson believes that, on the contrary, the way humans respond to these environmental stimuli is the central impetus.
Dawson also departs from his peers in another, perhaps more important, point. Whereas those who hold to the various versions of geographic, racial, or economic determinism tend to see religion as a byproduct of human development, such as “the opiate of the people” or a form of superstitious primitive science, Dawson sees religion as the most fundamental aspect of culture. It is, for example, around the temples of the various nature gods that the earliest Mesopotamians built their cities, the first city-states, which, in turn, became the first political units of the Greek world, giving birth to democracy, among many other ideas.
This insightful look at the history of human civilization is what characterizes all of Dawson’s work and this, his first, is among his finest. Although this was his earliest book, I do not recommend this as an introduction to his work. His Dynamics of World History much better serves that purpose. I recommend this book for those who are already familiar with Dawson’s ideas and wish to deepen their understanding of them, and of his subject: mankind and the civilizations we build.