- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Penguin (March 27, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 014303832X
- ISBN-13: 978-0143038320
- Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.7 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 271 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #81,483 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors 0th Edition
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Meaty, well-written. (Kirkus Reviews)
Impeccable, fearless, responsible and absorbing . . . Bound to be the gold standard in the field for a very long time. (Lionel Tiger, Rutgers University)
Timely and informative. (The New York Times Book Review)
By far the best book I have ever read on humanitys deep history. (E. O. Wilson)
About the Author
Nicholas Wade received a BA in natural sciences from King’s College, Cambridge. He was the deputy editor of Nature magazine in London and then became that journal’s Washington correspondent. He joined Science magazine in Washington as a reporter and later moved to The New York Times, where he has been an editorial writer, concentrating on issues of defense, space, science, medicine, technology, genetics, molecular biology, the environment, and public policy, a science reporter, and a science editor.
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The unifying themes of this book are language, genetics and physical relics as the three sources of evidence of what happened on the evolutionary path between apes and humans. The critical point in time which is central to this account is 50,000 years ago, a time at which the author claims modern language (including modern syntax) appeared, human behaviour changed from early modern human to modern human, and modern humans made their first exit out of Africa to populate the world.
The date of the advent of modern syntax in anatomically modern humans is supported by the FOXP2 gene dating (pages 47-50), which is apparently between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago. This interests me very much because I have read in earlier books that language is supposed to have arrived about 250,000 years ago. However, the author explains that there seems to have been an earlier kind of language with extremely limited syntax, which made sophisticated communication very difficult. With syntax imposed on the flow of communication, a very much more sophisticated kind of social and technical organisation became possible. This sounds very convincing, almost. I guess a very rapid spread of syntax genes throughout Africa could have happened in just a couple of thousand years before the exit from Africa if the total ancestral population was in the thousands.
The second major change-event identified by the author is at about 15,000 years ago, when humans learned to be friendly enough to settle down and live in the same place for a long while. (See Chapter 7, pages 123-138.) It isn't quite clear how this is related to genetics, but since for a long while it was only the Natufians who were settling (in the Levant), it wouldn't be too surprising if some gene changes were at work in this small local population. It's still not clear how the idea of settlement spread around the world. On the other hand, human beings generally do still have great difficulties with the idea of peaceful co-existence. So maybe the Natufians got some peaceful co-existence genes which haven't spread to the rest of humanity.
Chapter 8 on "Sociality" starts off well with some fascinating descriptions of chimpanzee and bonobo sociality. But then it goes downhill at page 158 with the section on "the evolutionary basis of social behavior", and at page 164 with the section on "the evolution of religion". These seem to be the personal biases of the author in regard to the benefits of free markets and religion, apparently without any factual basis. Then there's Chapter 9 on "Race", which is really skating on thin ice. It seems to be well based on facts, but most readers will probably feel uncomfortable about the author's conclusions. Maybe the word "Race" was a poor choice of terminology. The term "gene pools" is probably a less emotional alternative.
Chapter 11 on "History" seems to be mostly of little relevance to the book's title, which is supposedly about the time before history. However, there are some very interesting ideas here about some very sensitive emotional subjects. This, like the chapter on "Race", could also be described as "courageous".
Then finally there is Chapter 12 on "Evolution". I think the book would have been better without this final chapter. In many of the early chapters, I was pencilling in many exclamation marks in the margins. But for Chapter 12, I have added only question marks because of the dubious claims.
One of the small negatives of this book is the use of quotes from Darwin at the beginnings of chapters. These show Darwin at his most naive. Far from being an authority, Darwin got many important things wrong. So quoting him as an authority tends to weaken this book. On the other hand, the positives of this book do far outweigh the negatives.
As some other reviewers have mentioned, this book does focus at several points on race, but it cautions anyone from making value judgements based on the genetic findings. The book talks about how people of various races have a higher or lower chance of contracting a particular disease or condition because of genes that might be more common to that race than to others in the world. The races of the world are part of our evolutionary history and can not be ignored just because some people may try to use it as a way to classify people as better or worse than others.
This book appears to be geared towards a person who may be a little above what would be considered a layman understanding of science, but is not so high minded that the layman would be lost in it. The author does a very good job of explaining the terminology that is being used in his narrative and of the various experts that he quotes. I would recommend this book to someone who wants to know about the most recent findings in genetics and how it is helping us understand our ancestors a little better.
Mr. Wade structures each chapter carefully, starting with a broad painting brush of our heritage and "pre-heritage" so to speak, incrementally building up the history of our ancestors (as the subtitle so adequately states): our migratory patters out of Africa, reasons for shifting from nomadic hunter-gatherers into settled communities; the formation of our languages and benefits of communication, as well as earnest postulations on the roots of beliefs and social constructs and question as to why they have evolved as they are.
I am absolutely satisfied with this books concise treatment of the subject without being littered with "ostentatious erudition" if you will. I look forward to reading more works by this author and continuing my very early studies in this area of intellectual discourse.
Most recent customer reviews
The book is poorly written.Read more