The front cover of New York Times-reporter Nicholas Wade’s new book, Before the Dawn, contains a quote by E.O. Wilson: “By far the best book I have ever read on humanity’s deep history.” I couldn’t agree more. Before the Dawn is more informative than Nature via Nurture, more readable than The Blank Slate, and proves (contra The Emperor’s New Clothes) that popularizations of population genetics don’t have to be deceitful and revolting.
Before the Dawn dwells on several major events in the human story: separation from chimpanzee-ancestors, the end of seperate sex hierarchies with the introduction of pair bonding, physically modern human, behaviorally modern human, and socially modern humans. From a founder population of 150, the first behaviorally modern human beings who left Africa at the Gate of Grief would conquer three other human species (Neanderthals, Erecti, and Hobbits) and within fifty thousand years spread an African species all over the face of the world.
Every chapter in Before the Dawn is worth reading, but several stand out as some of the best in the history of scientific nonfiction: “Genetics & Genesis” outlines the author’s plan of attack, “Genesis” describes mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosome Adam, “Exodus” tells of the seafaring conquest of the Coasts in the face of Erecti resistance to Australia, the second truly human continent, “Race” addresses the major family groupings of man, “Language” applies genetic technology to recovering the time and place for the first human tongue, and “Evolution” recaps the book and looks forward to the next human species.
Nick Wade is a science columnist for the New York Times, and his journalist touch is fully worked. I learned more about the Thomas Jefferson- Sally Hemmings twist than I did before, including that Sally his the half-sister of Tom’s first wife. The unique haplotypes of Icelanders and Jews are discussed. and the interesting that the current races appear not to have existed 15,000 years ago give one much to chew on.
Before the Dawn is very up to date, and includes fair criticism of Evolutionary Psychology that comes from our increased understanding of genetics. When John Tooby and Leda Cosmides founded EP, it was reasonable to presuppose that substantive human evolution had ended by the late stone age. That assumption is no longer tenable. We are not modern humans with stone-aged minds. We are modern humans with modern minds.