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Before The Dawn [Hardcover]

Nicholas Wade
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 25 2006
Based on a groundbreaking synthesis of recent scientific findings, an acclaimed New York Times science reporter tells a bold and provocative new story of the history of our ancient ancestors and the evolution of human nature

Just in the last three years a flood of new scientific findings-driven by revelations discovered in the human genome-has provided compelling new answers to many long-standing mysteries about our most ancient ancestors-the people who first evolved in Africa and then went on to colonize the whole world. Critically acclaimed New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade weaves this host of news-making findings together for the first time into an intriguing new history of the human story before the dawn of civilization. Sure to stimulate lively controversy, he makes the case for novel arguments about many hotly debated issues such as the evolution of language and race and the genetic roots of human nature, and reveals that human evolution has continued even to today.

In wonderfully lively and lucid prose, Wade reveals the answers that researchers have ingeniously developed to so many puzzles: When did language emerge? When and why did we start to wear clothing? How did our ancestors break out of Africa and defeat the more physically powerful Neanderthals who stood in their way? Why did the different races evolve, and why did we come to speak so many different languages? When did we learn to live with animals and where and when did we domesticate man's first animal companions, dogs? How did human nature change during the thirty-five thousand years between the emergence of fully modern humans and the first settlements?

Wade takes readers to the forefront of research in a sweeping and engrossing narrative unlike any other, the first to reveal how genetic discoveries are helping to weave together the perspectives of archaeology, paleontology, anthropology, linguistics, and many other fields. This will be the most talked about science book of the season.

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From Publishers Weekly

Scientists are using DNA analysis to understand our prehistory: the evolution of humans; their relation to the Neanderthals, who populated Europe and the Near East; and Homo erectus, who roamed the steppes of Asia. Most importantly, geneticists can trace the movements of a little band of human ancestors, numbering perhaps no more than 150, who crossed the Red Sea from east Africa about 50,000 years ago. Within a few thousand years, their descendents, Homo sapiens, became masters of all they surveyed, the other humanoid species having become extinct. According to New York Times science reporter Wade, this DNA analysis shows that evolution isn't restricted to the distant past: Iceland has been settled for only 1,000 years, but the inhabitants have already developed distinctive genetic traits. Wade expands his survey to cover the development of language and the domestication of man's best friend. 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. This is highly recommended for readers interested in how DNA analysis is rewriting the history of mankind. Maps. (Apr. 24)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Genetics has been intruding on human origins research, long the domain of archaeology and paleoanthropology. Veteran science journalist Wade applies the insights of genetics to every intriguing question about the appearance and global dispersal of our species. The result is Wade's recounting of "a new narrative," which also has elements of a turf war between geneticists and their established colleagues. He efficiently explains how an evolutionary event (e.g., hairlessness) is recorded in DNA, and how rates of mutation can set boundary dates for it. For the story, Wade opens with a geneticist's estimate that modern (distinct from "archaic") Homo sapiens arose in northeast Africa 59,000 years ago, with a tiny population of only a few thousand, and was homogenous in appearance and language. Tracking the ensuing expansion and evolutionary pressures on humans, Wade covers the genetic evidence bearing on Neanderthals, race, language, social behaviors such as male-female pair bonding, and cultural practices such as religion. Wade presents the science skillfully, with detail and complexity and without compromising clarity. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
TRAVEL BACK INTO THE HUMAN PAST, and the historical evidence is plentiful enough for the first couple of hundred years, then rapidly diminishes. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Redrawing the human image Aug. 14 2006
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Drawing on a wealth of resource material, Wade builds a comprehensive picture of who we are and where we come from. The "origins" question has been pretty well solved. Darwin's insight that Africa was humanity's home base has been verified in several ways. It is the issue of human traits, their origins and expression, that's in need of clarification. Wade has scoured the research to derive some interesting, and to some, highly disturbing, conclusions.

Writing to his defined audience, Wade’s use of Biblical metaphor touches a nerve. It’s a useful technique as he opens with “Genetics & Genesis”. There’s no doubt in the reader’s mind that “genetics” will be the guiding theme as this book progresses. Genetics and DNA analysis have “enriched our view of the past”, he notes. He assures us, as well, that the processes they depict are still working to guide us into the future. He lists some of the insights these tools have given us. The clear continuity between “the ape world of 5 million years ago and the human world that emerged from it” opens the inventory, which includes cultural input and various social factors, why our global dispersal was so rapid, and how language impinged on our development as a species.

Among the more captivating aspects of our evolutionary track is the number alternative paths we might have followed. Wade explains how ape diversity has made discernment of our lineage an onerous task. An indication of what’s to follow emerges in a section on why we became “naked”. The loss of fur meant that exposed skin required protection from the African sun. All humanity’s skin cells contain melanin, with variations determined by geographic location. The human diaspora out of Africa led to many variations in our make-up.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why do Dogs Bark? Feb. 16 2009
Nicholas Wade has written a really interesting book. He is a journalist for the New York Times who has assimilated the most recent research into the prehistory of our species. He brings to life the excitement that specialists in this field must feel by explaining how the science of genetics has led to deep new insights into our human journey out of Africa some 50,000 years ago.

Apparently, we non-Africans descend from a single group of perhaps no more than 150 hunter-gatherers who left Africa across the southern end of the Red Sea and over the next several thousand years spread across the rest of the globe. Wade describes these ancestors of ours, who were most probably clothed (the genetics of human lice apparently tells us this) and may have spoken the founding language of the species. He shows us how we spread across the continents; explains the impact of the various most recent glacial periods and much more. He's particularly good on the evolutionary basis for warfare, religion and trade.

There is a great section where he speculates on where, when and how we domesticated the dog, or perhaps as he explains, how wolves domesticated themselves into dogs. But wolves don't bark. Is this a crucial behavioral adaptation which attached dogs to our species? Did dogs in turn introduce to humans the idea of private ownership (because dogs attach themselves to an individual, not a group) and did they make the first settlements practical (because they bark at intruders)?

This is also an optimistic book because Wade explains how humans have chosen to balance their instinct for aggression with another instinct for reciprocity which suggests that we are in fact, not doomed after all.

I strongly recommend the book to readers who are interested in history, prehistory, genealogy and new developments in sciences.

The Rideau Reader
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The History of Man's Evolution Updated Jan. 3 2010
By Oliver TOP 500 REVIEWER
Charles Darwin first told the story of human evolution back in 1871 in the Descent of Man. That was more than 50 years before the discovery of DNA, and although Darwin made numerous insightful observations and educated guesses about our past, there was much he did not know. Over the 100-plus years since Darwin's death, we have learned more and more about our own past. I think Charles Darwin would love this book.

Before the Dawn tells the story of our own evolution, as best we know it today. Wade considers and discusses the evidence from language, culture and especially the newest form of information -- genetics. Much of the story is the same. As Darwin conjectured, humans originally evolved in Africa. But the story is now far more detailed. It now appears that we are all the ancestors of a small group of people who left Africa at about the same time, and gradually replaced the "archaic" humans, e.g., the Neanderthals, who had left Africa before us.

Before the Dawn is very readable, but at the same time is not condescending. Moreover, Wade does not shy away from controversial topics; he does his best to tell it like it is. This is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it.
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An excellent, if not the most elegant, multi-disciplinary presentation on human evolution. It might not be a be-all end-all in understanding human evolution, no single book could accomplish that, but it comes close given what we know...

That being said, one huge caveat to emphasize: THIS WAS PUBLISHED IN 2006/07... For example, in one section the author pretty much rejects that Neanderthals and Modern Humans ever interbred, citing the prevailing proof of the time from a 1997 study and then taking some literary freedom to discount that hypothesis... However, with more data analysis capabilities, that same 1997 research team proved that there was indeed admixture between both and so overturned their previous conclusions. Indeed most humans possess some Neanderthal DNA (~ 2%) acquired through interbreeding. In the author's defense, I'll say that the updated research was released around the time the book was published and so that is probably the reason why it was not taken into account...

Therefore, as is the case with most scientific books, a revised edition would be appreciated... although 95% of the content is probably still current and very very informative for most readers...
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