Based on the groundbreaking synthesis of recent scientific findings, Wade recounts a bold and provocative story of the history of humanity's ancient ancestors and the evolution of human nature. In wonderfully lively and lucid prose, Wade reveals the answers to many questions: When did language emerge? When and why did humans start wearing clothing? Why did the different races evolve? Wade takes readers to the forefront of research in a sweeping and engrossing narrative and weaves together the disparate perspectives of palaeontology, linguistics and anthology.
Reviewers have generally praised the first half of the book - the portion that lays out the descent of humans from the point, roughly 5 million years ago, when our line branched off from the ancestral line of the chimpanzees. Reactions are more mixed on the second half, from 20,000 years ago through current times, but I found them equally interesting, with a few caveats:
* It seems nearly impossible for a popular science writer discussing natural selection and human evolution to keep from implying that the highest end of human life is to produce the most descendants. Nicholas Wade tries. He explicitly notes that natural selection is 'blind', that evolution isn't teleological (aimed at any specific end). And yet, particularly when his story reaches into historic times (Genghis Khan, Thomas Jefferson), sentences slip into structures that imply success is to be measured by genetic fitness. It's particularly problematic in the passages that hint that sexual selection may be responsible for major decisions in history, in the sense that leaders may make the decisions they do (to go to war; to make peace) because of the opportunities their decisions afford for procreation. There is a way to express the thought behind that hint: selection may favor traits that manifest themselves in leaders who are genetically inclined to be aggressive. But this is far from obvious, and anything more direct is both silly and inaccurate.
* Wade notes the difference between genotype (the genetic information carried by an animal) and phenotype (the traits manifested by that animal), but doesn't carry this further to discuss the critical role of environmental influences. Much research in the last six years has highlighted the interplay of genes and environment, and perhaps this was much less in the forefront in 2006. But it means that when Wade wanders in to the territory of religious belief and political behavior, the theories he shares become painfully simplistic - or example, that religion affords a selection advantage because it binds communities together in larger networks that kinship ties can. The capacity for language or religion may be favored, but whether any given religion or language develops depends on more that the capacity.
* Presumably, it also depends on the specific details of the faith or language. Wade never mentions 'memes', or cultural selection among values, concepts, or ways of looking the world. And yet, in a human society, this seems critical. One can think of a number of historical figures who did not leave behind abundant descendents, but who dramatically shaped later history by launching ideas or value systems that won converts and shaped lives for centuries. Wade spends significant pages describing how analytical techniques borrowed from genetics have revolutionized linguistics; it's not clear why he doesn't discuss the selection of memes that then mediate between genetic capacity and expression.
* Analysis of the signs of natural selection in our genes offers a powerful tool for reconstructing human prehistory and history. Yet, it's far from clear that many traits expressed today are 'fit'. Natural selection works best as an explanatory tool when it can take advantage of long hindsight. The problem with using it to explain current human behaviors is that we don't really know what current behaviors are actually being favored by selection. Wade touches on this, asking whether it is more fit to have lots of kids starting at a young age (as is demographically more common among less well off Americans) or to invest more resources in the social status and education of one or two children (common but obviously not universal among more affluent families). But he doesn't answer the question, because, well, you can't (yet).
Overall, the sociobiological chapters invite skepticism. Still, Wade does a good job of summarizing research and explaining context, making Before the Dawn an excellent overview.
The tone of the book is relentlessly objective but still, several controversial subjects are addressed with conclusions that are perhaps surprising. For example, academics have refused for reasons of political correctness, to consider whether some human groups may be more intelligent than others, as a result of evolutionary processes. Read the book to learn an intriguing hypothesis. Another example: until recently respected historians denied that Thomas Jefferson had a second family with the slave Sally Hemmings; genetic analysis has shown there is a high probability that he did. And don't overlook the comment that another ice age is sure to follow (global warming notwithstanding?). We are presented other examples of cherished beliefs that fail to hold up in light of genetic analysis; and don't we all love it when the Emperor is shown to have no clothes?
In the end the book is one of synthesis, not an original scientific work. The great value added to our understanding by this author is a clear, unbiased view of what is known, what may be surmised and what is false, in the light of modern scientific discoveries. We are provided the tools necessary to bring Darwin up to date. Like it or not it is clear that we are human animals, subject to all the same influences as the other beasts. Grant that we accept things we cannot change and change what we can improve.
The largest lacunae are in the sections on the dawn of civilization (summarized on page 265), which are stated to be the innovation of pair-bonding (practiced only by humans, not chimps); the emergence of language (also unique to humans); the role of religion (useful only for material gain and subjugation of inferiors, according to the author); and the role of sedentism (creation of fixed settlements). Lots of hand-waving and post hoc ergo prompter hoc reasoning here.
Style: As is common with "popular science", the material is not laid out in a fashion that actually presents evidence to persuade the reader, as opposed to blanket assertions (from the foot-noted sources), standard assumptions conducive to circularity (since the only machine of change allowed is evolution, the cause for everything is deduced to be evolution), and the conclusions drawn by the author.
There's a lot of ground to cover, and this is a survey, not a textbook. It's very well-referenced, but in some cases he's relying on cutting edge research that, inevitably, will not all hold up. He also ventures into some touchy areas that not all readers will be comfortable or happy with. Nevertheless, it's an excellent, informative, and thought-provoking book that is well worth reading.
One of the topics covered here is the often-surprising path of human migration and expansion out of Africa. Just one major human lineage, L3, left Africa, and it's from that lineage that all the sub-lineages that populate the rest of the globe are descended. Human migration went eastward and along the coastlines, to India, southeast Asia, and Australia before going northward and westward. He repeatedly emphasizes that dates derived from genetic mutation rates are approximate and need to be evaluated in conjunction with archaeological evidence. That said, he gives us a fascinating picture of how archaeological, linguistic, and genetic evidence interact to give us a much fuller, richer, more complete picture of human evolution.
Among the conventional assumptions overturned by the growing body of evidence is the notion of early human hunter-gatherer bands as peaceful people, living in harmony with other humans they encountered, with war as an invention of sedentary societies after the invention of agriculture. In fact the evidence points the other way: hunter-gatherer bands, even today, are very violent societies, frequently raiding their neighbors and as much as 30% of the population dying by violence. Our nearest relatives, the common chimpanzees, are even more violent, not only raiding other troops and killing any member of another troop found alone, but also handling most internal disputes including leadership disputes by violence. Permanent settlements, with higher population density and less ability to move away from neighboring individuals or groups you didn't get along with, required an increase in human sociability, and willingness and ability to cooperate even with unrelated individuals, in order to work. And the archaeological evidence shows that agriculture came after that point, a result rather than a cause.
Humans have been domesticating each other, along with domesticating other species, and the typical experience of violence in settled, developed societies is much, much less and decreasing compared to "more natural" hunter-gatherer societies. The human ability to cooperate with unrelated strangers, routinely and on a large scale, is simply unknown in other species. Some readers will be disturbed by that argument. Others will be disturbed by the case that Wade makes that one of our evolved mechanisms for making this cooperation possible is religion.
I'm not going to go on, touching on every issue Wade discusses. This is an excellent, highly readable book, laying out all we've learned about our past in recent years, due to the advance of genetics. Because he does rely on research that, in 2006, was very new and cutting-edge, some of what he says will prove to be wrong--but there's still a lot to learn here, and well worth your time.
I borrowed this book from a friend.
The explanation power of this book is amazing. It seems like what I've read in this book applies to so many different fields. Hardly a week goes by where I don't read something, and realize I already have an insight into that topic from reading this book.
What seems to be different about Wade’s account of prehistory is his pervasive use of genetic research as the final arbiter when there is a conflict among scientific disciplines. The conclusions drawn by paleo-anthropologists and historical linguists are either confirmed by a genetic line of reasoning, or called into question. As a result, Wade flirts with controversy by suggesting that the emergence of art in the caves of France and Spain, some 32,000 years ago, was probably the result of genetic influences, implying that distinct human characteristics, such as art and cognitive capacities, have evolved in distinct population regions. This is the kind of reasoning that “Guns, Germs and Steel” was trying to remedy. However, Wade offers the qualification that, although distinctly human qualities may have developed in one population at an earlier date, these characteristics, which truly are universal, have evolved convergently. This is a common idea in evolution, one good example being the wing. Insects, birds, pterosaurs, and bats have all received the anatomy of the wing through 4 distinct lineages. In other words, evolution has hit upon the idea of wings four different, independent times. Humans, according to Wade’s line of reasoning, may have evolved the capacity for art and culture through selective pressures at the local level, when anatomically modern humans had already left Africa and occupied the Eurasian and Australian continents.
Another point of divergence between Wade and Diamond is the issue of human settlement. Diamond’s book tells the very interesting story of the first domestication of grain in the Near East, which consequently lead to a settled way of life. Evidence now suggests that humans began sedentary village life as long as 18,000 years ago, much earlier than the first era of agriculture and stock rearing in the ninth and eighth millennia BC. Not surprisingly, Wade offers a genetic explanation for the origin of settlement. Apparently, it is commonly held that behaviorally modern people have existed for about 45,000 years, meaning that they displayed the basics of human behavior, art, religion, and presumably language, and have not evolved significantly since. Wade, on the other hand, espouses the opinions of biologists who think humans have continued to evolve in the past 45,000 years, and human settlement may therefore have been the result of some particular evolutionary adaptation.
Wade goes on to offer a genetic explanation for racial development, a tack that has been highly criticized since mid-20th century, for good reason. Scientists do not currently study race as a biological phenomenon, but Wade cites recent medical studies that point to a biological basis for understanding the races.
This book is sure to draw criticism simply because of its controversial content, but is a fascinating read for anyone interested in human evolution.
First published in 2007, the work is already somewhat older, especially as in recent years many new discoveries in the field of human descent have been made, but the book is still very useful. Not a scientist himself, Wade is not hindered by hobby-horses or the need to graft his own experience on a certain muster. His research is thorough and to the point. The scope of the book is remarkably wide, including a number of very interesting issues, such as the origin of language, race, and the extension of humanity to apes.
Before the dawn. Recovering the lost history of our ancestors describes the origins of humanity and its spread over the world, through the trasnsition from hunter-gatherer to the sedentary agricultural cultures. Unlike Guns, germs and steel. The fates of human societies, the book is never populist, and much more focussed, supported by much more findings. There is some over-reliance on the evidence of DNA; some reference to DNA appears on almost every page.
Before the dawn. Recovering the lost history of our ancestors is a very satisfactory book, describing humanity's pre-history not merely from a single perspective, but from a milti-faceted angle, involving biology, archaeology, and anthropology. Speculation is limited and within apparently very reasonable confines.
Before the dawn. Recovering the lost history of our ancestors is one of the best books in this field that I have read.
He also mistakes the idea that evolution acts by favoring those genes of those individuals who have the most surviving offspring with the idea that people therefore must have an explicit drive for having as many offspring as possible. In fact we aren't the slaves of evolution and we can choose to not have children and many do.
But by about page 200 I just ground to a halt. The fun of the first part of the book was that he explained why/how biologists, paleontologists, anthropologists, reached their conclusions about early hominids - what the lice did, or why the shape of the stone ax mattered. But as he got into the sections on race and language, he stopped really explaining findings or the reasoning based on those findings. Instead we are just told - for example - that linguists used a computer program (which he doesn't describe) to compute probablities based on certain assumptions (which he doesn't explain) to produce some results which some linguists accept and some do not.
Maybe the author brought a habit from writing for the newspaper of skimming over anything that can't be explained in a couple of paragraphs. Because its true I probably wouldn't read lengthy explanations in a newspaper article. Maybe the linguists computer stuff was just so abstruse that he couldn't really explain to anyone who wasn't an expert, but that's where he lost me. Just telling me one group thinks a and one group thinks b, based on different setups of their initial program, that doesn't really engage my interest. I want to be able to understand the issue well enough to at least try to judge between the two points of view, but without more detail I can't.
So my mind started to wander and I forced myself onward ho to the end, but can't honestly tell you much about the book after page 200 because none of it stuck with me. But the first part was great fun and well worth reading.