fortune or its reverse the seldom-updated lackaff.net blog

10Jul/060

Recent read: Before the Dawn


I was pleasantly surprised by a recent visit to my local (suburban Buffalo) library. The new nonfiction shelf was stacked with books from my reading list. Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade is one of the latest in the steady stream of popular science writing on human origins.

Before the Dawn is an engaging, enthusiastic presentation of some of the latest thoughts in anthropology, medicine, genetics, and several other sciences with an interest in ancient human history. In coherent, logical chapters, Wade weaves recent developments in the physical and social sciences into a fascinating overview our earliest beginnings. Part of what makes this area of research (and this particular book) so interesting is that certain debates remain feirce, and scientists from many disciplines are applying their expertise to the same questions. For example, when did humans develop language, and how did it develop? While traditional linguistic approaches have relied on comparisons of historical languages, genetic testing methods have provided insights into how the dispersion of early humans across the globe correlates with the development of language families, as well as approximate inception dates. Wade also addresses topics such as sexual behavior and mate selection, race, cultural change, cannibalism, and the domestication of plants, animals, and humans themselves.

Although Before the Dawn is popular science, it is firmly grounded in real research. Wade is astute enough to recognize meaningful debates in a range of scientific fields, and an effective writer who can present these complex topics to an interested nonspecialist audience. One minor quibble is that while Wade takes pains to discourage the "progress" metaphor for biological evolution ("humans were the ultimate, inevitable result of evolution"), he takes a strangely parochial view of "primitive" cultures and cultural evolution -- "Why haven't some Amazonian and Polynesian tribes evolved from Stone Age societies until present times?" His argument that genetic propensities are a stronger influence than, say, accidents of geography and history (as Jared Diamond argues) seems like a reach.

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