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Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors Paperback – 8 Mar 2007

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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd (8 Mar. 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0715636588
  • ISBN-13: 978-0715636589
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.6 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 550,180 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Product Description


'Superb science writing' -- New Scientist

'This is science with a down-to-earth face, and very refreshing it is, too' -- Good Book Guide

`Nicholas Wade is an eloquent guide to this disturbing and
fascinating new world of ideas' -- Matt Ridley, author of Genome

About the Author

Nicholas Wade is a reporter at the New York Times. He previously worked for the leading science journals Nature and Science, and has written five previous books.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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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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66 of 66 people found the following review helpful By William Holmes on 1 May 2006
Format: Hardcover
"Before the Dawn" is a very well written survey of what genetics can teach us about the origin and evolution of the human species. Starting with the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees 5 million years ago, Wade explores the latest theories about the development of the "hominid" line and explains why homo sapiens evolved differently from our cousins, the chimpanzees and the bonobos.

Most of the books about human origins tend to focus on paleoanthropology and related disciplines. "Before the Dawn" does a great job of synthesizing the discoveries of paleoanthropolgists with the findings of geneticists--in some cases, examination of human DNA has confirmed what paleoanthropolgists have long believed, in others it has raised new and sometimes disturbing questions.

Without becoming overly technical, Wade explains how scientists use the study of DNA to determine when signficant events occurred in human evolution--for example, when humans began to use fully modern language (about 50,000 years ago), the size of the ancestral population of modern humans (as small as 150 people), or when the ancestral population left the African continent (also around 50,000 years ago).

Some of Wade's observations may surprise and trouble many people. Creationists will not be pleased with the book's basic view that Darwin's theory of natural selection is absolutely correct and that it applies to people as well as animals.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on 14 Aug. 2006
Format: Hardcover
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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By rob crawford TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 19 Sept. 2011
Format: Paperback
I was wary when I started this book, suspecting that it would elevate genetics to an extreme in an attempt to explain everything with superficial reductionism. Instead, I am delighted to report, genetics is not advanced as the principal explanation: Wade systematically goes through the twin disciplines of pre-history, archaeology and linguistics, employing genetics as a supplement to add what insights it can. In my opinion, this is exactly the way it should proceed. There are no wild speculations, such as you can find in Wired and other second-rate journalistic sources, just good, hard science.

The genetic science that Wade brings in is based on 2 principal tools: the decoding of mitochondrial DNA and the Y-chromosome. The former is passed on from the mother's cells, the latter from the father as a determinant of sex (XY as opposed to XX for females). Because these components of DNA are inherited virtually unmixed by the usual exchange of genetic material that occurs at conception, they can be used to trace dates via the constant rate of mutation that occurs as cells divide and from certain marker mutations that emerge. In many cases, the evidence corroborates what archaeologists already thought, such as the dates when homo sapiens left Africa 50,000 years ago. Of course, there are also surprises: it appears that Indo-European peoples may have left the Caspian far earlier than was believed. This is traced by tracking common mutations that followed small groups as they migrated over hundreds of years and thousands of miles. In this way, Wade goes through the entire pre-history of mankind, from the split from the great apes 5 million years ago to the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia and Europe.
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