Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

By Nicholas Wade

This book is the selection for the second month of the International League of Skeptical Readers, and I hope you are inspired enough to join us for the discussion at the International League of Skeptics website. If that invitation isn’t radiating enough warmth and enthusiasm for your liking, perhaps you’ll warm up to the Littlest Skeptical Readers, Fella and Filly, who both already know their letters. In English, but hey–one language at a time.

Long Story Short: This book relies heavily on scientific findings from genetic research into the human genome (and the genomes of other species) to offer insight about how the human species Homo sapiens (us) beat out its Homo cousins and took over the world. It is very strong when it sticks to the science and very iffy when the author starts speculating about why things came to pass.

Why I Chose This Book: I learned about this book on the “Are We Alone?” podcast put out by SETI; the author had been a guest on a show called “Driving Evolution.” The story of the body lice I think is what really caught my attention, and it seemed like a topic that would interest most of us but likely make some claims worth analyzing.

The Book’s Strengths: First of all, I thought the book read really well. There was quite a bit of science to get through, but it was presented in a straightforward way without any dumbing down. The lists of genetic sequences were hard to keep straight, but they’d be confined to one paragraph and did not bog down the rest of the text. I particularly enjoyed the multidisciplinary approach of the book, tackling the question of how human beings arrived at their evolutionary and geographical positions when there are no explicit answers. It was interesting, too, to see the time span of the book’s event, starting with what information can be gleaned about the common primate ancestor to why Jews these days are so smart. A main argument of the book was that biological and cultural evolution influence each other (like a macroversion of the contents of the book Nature Via Nurture by Matt Ridley, who examined an individual person’s genes), and the author pretty much hit all the main topics of culture, from language to cooperation to agriculture to the next big thing.

I practically read this book straight through, it was that entertaining. The chapters at the beginning, from “Metamorphosis” to “Exodus” brought together information that people mostly sorta already know with discoveries specific to those fields and discoveries from other fields that add depth to the knowledge of how our species evolved, how it left Africa, and why it spread across the continents on the time schedule that it did. I also thought the sociological chapters, like “Settlement” through “Language,” were equally well-composed. It was easy to identify the point of each chapter, it was easy to see what evidence the author provided to support his points, and it was easy to see how they tied into the book. Personally, my favorite parts were the stuff about language and the domestication of animals, and how this seemingly ancillary information could inform biologists and anthropologists on human development and movement.

The Book’s Weaknesses: What Wade did not seem so good at was transitions. Not transitions between chapters or topics—I thought the book held together well and read smoothly—but between evolutionary states. “Stasis” was a particularly problematic chapter for me. It is undoubtedly difficult to determine how humans went from their stone-age selves all over the world to profound artists in Europe only, but the guessing was too blatant for my liking. It’s a subject that needs to be addressed, of course, but an entire chapter almost on pure conjecture was annoying. Maybe it’s just annoying to have this problem in our understanding of humankind. Maybe I was shocked and impressed that he was actually taking on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel thesis about how Europe and Asia got so far ahead of the rest of the world because of natural resources (an argument that Wade explains later in the book)—that Wade ACTUALLY SAID that perhaps the European crowd was just smarter and then so disappointed that he backpedaled from it. It was natural aptitude that put the smarter Europeans into civilization and cave painting and metallurgy at first, but then everyone convergent evolutioned so that we’re all equally smart now. (Except for the Jews, who will one day rule us all.) The backpedalling annoyed the crap out of me… especially when so much is made of the extravagant possibilities of genetic drift elsewhere in the book. It was a very bold move to pose the idea that some people as a group just were smarter. You know everyone has thought it, and it is possible that genetic drift made this crowd a little savvier (and then culture took on its own development), or even just a few bright individuals (there are geniuses in every generation), but it seemed a little silly to invoke convergent evolution afterward, to insist later in the chapter that of course all people are equally smart now (except for the Jews) and no one should be offended. It’s wishy washy.

The book suffered further once we took on eras covered by recorded history. The book strays from its central premise to make gee-whiz observations and play more what-if games. The Genghis Khan story was definitely food for thought, but it doesn’t really add anything to our understanding of human ancestry. I mean, OK… it’s a nice example of how quickly one man’s genes can spread through a population. It would have been a great anecdote for the parts about Mitochondrial Eve and Y-Chromosome Adam. The Thomas Jefferson stuff was completely unnecessary. The examination of how evolution is still in action would have been a better epilogue than a chapter, and the stuff about the Jews was just comical. I was seriously laughing. I know that intellect is to a great degree inherited, and that culture can influence heredity (like the lactose tolerance stuff) but IQ tests do not great evolutionary arguments make. I don’t care how many Jewish doctors and rabbis there are in a population… or how many Chinese people are willing to go along with Asian Culture Conformity… or how little is known about how genes influence behavior… it’s one thing to talk about how stumbling onto language as a communication tool that enhances survival might direct what kinds of aptitudes/people survive to the next generation, and another to say that because medieval anti-Semitism squeezed Jewish people into financial occupations that genetics is why they are so smart today. Or that a few thousand years of Chinese insularity made Chinese people suited for conformity. Perhaps it’s the arrogance of my ignorance showing, but I cannot believe that nature and nurture are working so closely together at the population. In the Ridley book Nature Via Nurture he refers to how you can be born with the “schizophrenia gene” but never experience an environmental even that “turns it on.” I buy that. It’s a gene, it’s a person, it’s a specific ailment. What happens to you externally affects what that gene is going to do. But all these little baby Chinese girls being adopted by Americans aren’t genetically inclined toward conformity. They grow up to be the same headstrong individuals that their abrasive American native peers turn out to be. I suppose this is where someone else takes the idea of cultural memes on its logical tangent.

What Should Have Happened: My biggest complaint about the book is its lack of diagrams. For example, it wasn’t that helpful to read some paragraphs about the subtle differences between the skull shapes of different Homo ancestors. It was difficult to keep track of the long trains of DNA mutations and sequences, and there could have been a few more maps. Considering that nearly two pages were given over to Thomas Jefferson’s lineage, these omissions are almost inexcusable.

Short Story Shorter: I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in human origins—even to people with limited scientific knowledge.

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