Darrin M. McMahon’s new book offers a sustained reflection on the concept of equality—or, to be more precise, three sets of reflections. It provides a history of how different societies have understood equality; it advances theoretical claims about how the very concept of equality functions; and it makes a normative political plea for a more egalitarian world. The three sets of arguments—historical, theoretical, and political—are worth considering separately.

Equality succeeds as a work of history. McMahon doesn’t just recount the history of the idea of equality; he recounts the history of its practice as well. His narrative begins with the first human beings, our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Drawing on archaeology and anthropology, he follows recent scholarship in concluding that hunter-gatherers were probably fairly egalitarian and democratic. Leaders in hunter-gatherer societies were not allowed to accumulate too much power, he argues, and when upstarts tried to do so they were banished from the group or even murdered.

McMahon next explores the place of equality during the development of agriculture and the rise of the first states. He paints a bleak picture: the primordial equality of hunter-gatherer times was irretrievably lost. Early states centralized power and privilege in the hands of a tiny elite composed of priests, government officials, landowners, and merchants. These lucky few imposed slavery, toil, and subjugation on everybody else. Many early civilizations generated accounts of a golden age—examples can be found in Hesiod’s Works and Days and the Hebrew Bible—and McMahon interprets such tales of a paradise lost as a protest against civilization’s living conditions and a yearning for an idyllic hunter-gatherer lifestyle.