Sometimes, life does get in the way of blogging. That and large doses of TV miniseries in its various seasons have kept me away from my bookshelf for quite some time. But, I’m glad to be back, dishing out more reviews for you.
After the book, “Waiting” by Frank M. Robinson, the subject of human evolution had piqued a great deal of my interest in human origins. Luckily, I had this book in my collection which has temporarily satiated my appetite on the subject.
Author : Nicholas Wade
Date of First Publication : April 20, 2006 (Hardcover)
This Edition’s Date of Publication : March 27, 2007 (Paperback)
Publisher : The Penguin Group
No. of pages : 320
What It Is About :
“Before the Dawn” is Nicholas Wade’s dissertation on human evolution. It traces our roots through the infallible footprints of our DNA, bringing us to our earliest known origins which is Africa, and to the first chromosomal Adam who supplied the definable Y chromosome that started the ancestral human population.
The treatise goes on to define how modern man evolved through genetic mutations, made prevalent by natural selection, to include large changes such as vast improvements in intelligence, capacity for language, and increasing behavioral complexity.
Wade states that human evolution is an irrefutable truth than can be proven by DNA:
“…in the past few years an extraordinary new archive has become available to those who study human evolution, human nature and history. It is the record encoded in the DNA of the human genome and in the versions of it carried by the world’s population. Geneticists have long contributed to the study of the human past but are doing so with particular success since the full sequence of DNA units in the genome was determined in 2003.” — p. 2
“As a repository of hereditary information that is in constant flux, the genome is like a document unless ceaseless revision. Its mechanism of change is such that it retains evidence about its previous drafts and these, though not easy to interpret, provide a record that stretches deep into the past. The genome can therefore be interrogated at many different time levels. It can supply answers that reach back more than 50,000 years to the genetic Adam, a man whose Y chromosome is carried by all men alive.” — p.2
“The human genome is a new source of data that enriches all the disciplines concerned with the human past. It furnishes two quite different types of information, one to do with genes, the other with genealogies. “ — p. 6
Wade lays down the main issues covered in the book:
1. There is clear evidence that the human and ape species are descended from one common ancestry.
2. In response to environmental pressures, human social relations have evolved as a survival necessity. Behavioral developments such as communication, alliances, trust, etc. have arisen as tools to ensure being one step ahead of competition.
3. Human physical form was attained first before significant changes in human behavior occurred. Bipedalism, increase in brain size, shedding of hair are examples of development toward modern human physique that did not occur simultaneously with advanced human behavior.
4. “Most of human prehistory , occurred in and was shaped by, the last ice age.”
5. In our evolution, man’s acquisition of the gene that is responsible for our language ability is one of the most important evolutionary gifts bestowed on man. Language has enabled us to form three principal social institutions that have shaped human societies : warfare, religion, and trade.
6. The ancestral people were too aggressive to live in settled communities as their lives were dominated by constant warfare. Gradually, humans had to evolve into less aggressive individuals in order to be able to live in larger societies with new structures such as social hierarchy, ownership of property, and specialization of roles.
7. Human evolution has not halted and is continuing to the present day.
8. “People probably once spoke a single language from which all contemporary languages are derived.”
9. “The human genome contains excellent records of the recent past, providing a parallel history to the written record.”
Wade does an excellent job of explaining human evolution which makes “Before The Dawn” a highly absorbing read. This book is based on various sources covering a variety of esoteric topics, such as “Ancient DNA Evidence for Old World Origin of New World Dogs”, “The Neolithic Invasion of Europe”, “Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution”, etc. from which details were culled to create a cohesive, well explained summary for the layman’s understanding of human evolution. About 367 source materials, most of which have been only recently published (1996-2006) are cited, so the information is guaranteed to be current.
A lot of fascinating facts may keep one glued to Wade. This is one of his footnotes:
“Most people in Africa and Europe have wet earwax. But dry earwax is the rule among East Asians. A team of Japanese researchers has traced the difference to a mutation in a gene called ABCCII….” —- Footnote no. 153
According to Wade, one can date the invention of clothing through the time at which the body louse evolved from the head louse. When body hair started to fall off, the louse was confined to a restricted area of hair–the head. But once man started using clothing (perhaps animal skins), the louse now had more area to live on but it just had to evolve to acquire different claws to be able to cling to clothing instead of hair. So, studies into louse DNA to discover when this evolution occured would give an answer to when men took to wearing clothing. This turned out to be 72,000 years ago, give or take several thousand years.
A very well put-together work, this is not a difficult read for the common reader as long as one does a little research on some of the jargon (i.e. paleolithic, australopithecines, mitochondria, et al.). Get past it and one should be off on a very interesting educational treat. Moreover, the explanations are clear and concise, the writing informative without being heavy. Chapters are also organized and well- laid out so it isn’t a chore to pore through this book.
To Read Or Not To Read:
Nicholas Wade certainly raises questions regarding Biblical writings, most of which center on the Genesis. It renders the literal story of the Creation and the Christian belief that we are unique and not creatures of evolution, as myths. This may be disturbing to those whose religious beliefs center on Biblical truths , as these are challenged in the light of current scientific evidence. But those who are truly interested in human history, biology, genetics, anthropology, archeology or even linguistics, or those who simply have an open mind toward the subject of human evolution, shouldn’t pass this one up. The range of topics and the fascinating informational asides do add tremendously to one’s store of knowledge while providing entertainment as well.
In A Nutshell :
Since the human genome was unraveled in 2003, this book rests on DNA as the incontrovertible evidence upon which human evolution can sit on and be proven. Our DNA suggests that not only have we evolved but that our evolution continues and will continue well into the future.
As per Publishers Weekly editorial review: “This is highly recommended for readers interested in how DNA analysis is rewriting the history of mankind. “
My Mark : Excellent