Review: Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors
Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

High 4.

One nice thing about journalists who write science books? The books are generally well-written. On the other hand, I’ve more than a couple popular science books written by scientists that needed a bit more editting. (I’m looking at you, Chris Stringer, who’s The Origin of Our Species I read right before this.)

Another nice thing is that, not being scientists, they have less of a horse in the race, so they tend to write more to inform and are willing to discuss some of the less accepted theories. Mr. Wade does a great job on both fronts.

The first half and change of this book discusses human evolution and what happened when geneticists entered the fray. The application of genetics to the field has been revolutionary to say the least. The revolution is not limited to the biological side of things either. The techniques of genetics are being applied to the origins and evolution of language as well.

In many cases the results butt up against long-held positions in the field. The results are predictable: some embrace the new, others dig their heels in and cling to the old. Wade does a good job of discussing this in both the biological realm and the linguistic. This, in particular the development of language and modernity occupy the next quarter or so of the book.

In the last quarter he moves past the dawn to address the issues of our continuing evolution and applications of techniques developed to historical situations: genetic studies of disease in isolated or insular populations – e.g. Icelanders and Jews – and the progeny of Genghis Kahn and Thomas Jefferson. This is definitely fascinating stuff, but I think would be better off in a separate book where it could be covered more fully.

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