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

4.5 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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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: 476,948 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.

Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
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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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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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Format: Paperback
I thought the first part of the book which was actually about the prehistory as newly discovered through DNA analysis was very interesting. I was less thrilled with the chapters on Race, Language and History. The wrap up chapter on Evolution was good, if a bit repetitious.

Wade writes extremely well and does a good job of summarizing the latest (circa 2005) research, much of which has come from analyses of the descent of the Y chromosome (from men) and mitochondrial DNA handed down through the female line. The question of our relationship with the Neanderthal--long a thorny question--is more or less resolved with DNA extracted from Neanderthal fossil bones that has been compared to the sequences of human DNA. The conclusion is that H. neanderthalensis came from H. ergaster through H. heidelbergensis as H. sapiens did, and then broke off on its own. Furthermore there is no genetic evidence that human and Neanderthal produced viable offspring. The earlier idea than the Neanderthal was a modification of the very successful H. erectus has been discredited.

As to the question of our origins, northeast sub-Saharan Africa is further confirmed as the site. Wade has humans becoming behavioral human around 50,000 years ago after becoming anatomically human as early as perhaps 200,000 years ago. The great leap forward occurring 50,000 years ago is attributed to the acquisition of symbolic, syntactic language. This was also the time when humans made the exodus out of Africa and began to colonize the world. They went east across the Red Sea at the Gate of Grief during a glacial period when the sea level was two hundred feet lower than it is today. They followed the coast line of the present Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea to India and eventually to Australia.
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