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Before The Dawn [Hardcover]

Nicholas Wade
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 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

Most helpful customer reviews
16 of 16 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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8 of 8 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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An amazing story of early human history July 2 2011
By Dr. Bojan Tunguz TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:MP3 CD
History can be a very fascinating subject, and one can easily spend a whole lifetime exploring different historical periods and events. However, the recorded history can take us back only to roughly the beginning of the fourth millennium BC. Most of human history lies well before that date, and it has long been supposed that we'll never get a complete picture of the earliest epochs of our species. That is still the case insofar as particular events and individuals are concerned, but in recent years we've been getting an increasingly detailed and fascinating picture of that "pre-historic" age. A variety of new research techniques and tools have come of age, and they are employed to shed more and more light on pre-historic events from a variety of different angles. Evolutionary psychology, DNA analysis, and linguistic analysis are some of the tools that have augmented our knowledge of the past as they have gone well beyond what we've been able to glean from just archeology. All of these tools and the remarkable discoveries that they elicited are described in "Before the Dawn." The book reads like a cross between a popular science book and a historical novel. At every turn of page there is a new twist to the story, and some of the insights are quite remarkable and unexpected. On an occasion one gets a sense that some of the tales have been oversold as compared to the available evidence, but overall the book is based on solid scholarship and multiple sources of evidence that mutually support the same conclusions. If you are interested in the early human history, I could not recommend a better book to read as an introduction to this exciting subject that promises to reveal even more surprising insights in the upcoming decades.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Important contribution to science !
Easy to read, Beautiful summery of man kinds journey so far. Incorporating current physical and evolutionary theory and fact together with histories twists and turns. Read more
Published 16 days ago by Alex Stern
4.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Rendition of Human Evolution - but already passed 7 years...
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... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Josh Gaudet
3.0 out of 5 stars interesting and informative when taken with a large grain of salt
Wade is an enthusiastic genetic determinist, but at least he almost invariably prefaces his questionable assertions with a comprehensive and interesting framing of the issue at... Read more
Published 6 months ago by ogilive
5.0 out of 5 stars A Book that changes our view of who we are
This book by Nicolas Wade opens our eyes to what we are and where we come from. It also reveals to us the common threads that bind us all together. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Larry
5.0 out of 5 stars The History of Man's Evolution Updated
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... Read more
Published on Jan. 3 2010 by Oliver
2.0 out of 5 stars Are we the best?
The book's title and the editor's presentation seemed promising. Regretfully, I found the book wanting and I quit before the end of the first section. Read more
Published on June 18 2009 by François Sablon.
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