Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, by Nicholas Wade (author), Alan Sklar (narrator)

Tantor Media, ISBN 9781400152322, May 2006

Nicholas Wade discusses how the growing science of genetics expands and deepens our understanding of human evolution, our relationship to our closest relatives, and how we became the species we are--and what we might become in the future.

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.

Highly recommended.

I borrowed this book from a friend.

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