Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Before the Dawn : Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

I just finished this excellent book which was written by Nicholas Wade. The author is a science reporter for the New York Times. The book covers a lot but the essence of the book is how the study of the human genome is allowing scientists and historians to learn more about the early origins of humanity.

Wade's coverage includes the ancient near extinction of humanity (DNA analysis shows at one point there were only 5000 humans left after a mass die off), human migration, and intra-human relations between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. He also talks about the idea of race and the violent warmaking nature of human society.

On race, a Publisher's Weekly review noted, "And while 'race' is often a dirty word in science, one of the book's best chapters shows how racial differences can be marked genetically and why this is important, not least for the treatment of diseases."

As can be expected, those who dislike the notion of race do not like this book. One reviewer at Amazon wrote, "I hate to bad rap a book but this one seems to begin with the false premise that there is such a thing as 'race'. Geneticists, biologists and anthropologists have relegated the concept of race to the intellectual dung heap of pseudoscience." This review is of course misleading. The idea that race is not a sociological invention is still being debated. And whether you want to call it "race" or not, there are genetic differences in human populations and these can be used to trace the origins of the species, understand how mankind migrated, and help doctors treat diseases today.

Others are objecting to the emphasis on early humans as being natural born killers. An anonymous reviewer in The Week wrote, "Wade is on particularly shaky ground when he insists that the ancient past was a time of unrelenting violence." Yet, for the vast majority of human history, humans lived as primitives and existed in a violent natural world. It took a long time for humans to develop what we would regard as civilization. Are we supposed to believe that the ancient humans were pacifists? That is unlikely. Intuitively, it would make sense to argue that the early humans would be more violent than we are today to deal with a hostile natural world. Wade can not prove this but it is a sound hypothesis.

All in all, this is a good book. It is well written and thought provoking. I highly recommend it.


elementaryhistoryteacher said...

Perhaps we are not any less violent or any more violent than years past. We want to believe that we are more civilized today because of our advances in technology, our advanced knowledge about the world, etc. but we still kill each other, we steal, and maim one another. Our basic needs are the same and our choices to meet them may be different technologically but the results are the same. We attempt to get the most we can, we often beat one another to the punch, and tend to look the other way when we see wrongdoing. Gee....I sound so cynical. Didn't mean to. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. It looks interesting.

Robin said...

Of course humans are natural killers. In order to survive as a species, killing other animals was necessary for protection and sustenance. And I think it is slightly naive to think that early man didn't kill one another for the same reasons. Humans are, after all, animals. And, as the previous commenter noted, it still continues today, under the guise of "civilization".

This sounds like a fascinating read. Thanks for the tip!