Review – Before The Dawn (#evolution, #genetics, #anthropology, #history, #books)

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

by Nicholas Wade, published 2006

Evolution and history are not two distinct processes, with one following another like the change between royal dynasties. Rather, evolution and history overlap, with the historical period being overlaid on a still continuing process of evolutionary change. (pg. 272)

Something I always used to wonder about when reading history was the recurring theme of barbarian invasions of “civilized” societies striking from the frontiers. Why were there separate civilized and barbarian populations? And where did all these barbarians keep coming from, given that the explanation invariably given for their invasion was that they themselves were being invaded/pressured by other barbarians on their frontier? (Was it barbarians all the way down?) I purchased Wade’s “Before the Dawn” to try to better understand the debate about “race” — which is one chapter of twelve in the book — and ended up with a much better understanding of this perennial personal historical quandary, the book having offered a framework for understanding early human history and migration patterns and the way evolution played the keyboard simultaneously.

The most descriptive word that comes to mind when I think of this book is “sweeping”, which is both its strength and its weakness. This is very much a strategic book examining large trends that took place over vast geographic expanses and long periods of time, rather than a tactical examination of the various microphenomena involved, although there’s some of that, too. Concerning itself with the evolutionary changes which led to the splitting of the human and chimpanzee genetic lines 5 million years ago, and then the ensuing genetic changes and speciation of the pre-modern human genetic lines between 5 million and 50,000 years ago and then finally sorting out the geographic expansion and social and likely genetic transformation of modern human beings from 50,000 years ago to the present, the author surveys key findings and scientific developments since Darwin’s writings that have helped to piece together the early history of humanity. And while it’s supposed to be an introduction written for the knowledgeable layman, Wade nonetheless covers so much ground, so many academic controversies, so many studies and theories and oddly-named regions and eras and behavioral developments — the world’s scientific community seems to have an unresolved dilemma when it comes to naming things — that it is sometimes hard to keep up and remain focused on the broad narrative of which these items are a part.

The book has 12 chapters, simply named, which serve as essential themes explored:

  1. Genetics & Genesis
  2. Metamorphosis
  3. First Words
  4. Eden
  5. Exodus
  6. Stasis
  7. Settlement
  8. Sociality
  9. Race
  10. Language
  11. History
  12. Evolution

It’s a testament to either the astounding volume of detail in this book, or the limits of my own cognitive abilities, or both, that having just finished this book last night after picking it up just over a week ago, I couldn’t reliably tell you which parts of the story fit in each section, so I won’t bother trying to summarize it all here. Instead, I thought I’d mention just a few pieces that I found especially interesting.

First, the “out of Africa” moment. I didn’t realize that this was not one moment, with one group of people. It happened many times with many different groups of people who, according to the historical record, went many different ways from there, some traveling around the coasts and then into the interior of Asia (and eventually outlying islands and over the land bridge to North America and South America), others migrating through Southern and Northern Europe. Wade argues that they were strong mariners due to the navigation and spread throughout the south Pacific archipelago, but why weren’t they navigating the coasts of North Africa and the Mediterranean and transiting out of Africa directly into Southern Europe? Meanwhile, numerous other pre-modern humans such as the Neanderthals (Europe) and Homo erectus (Asia) had already left Africa thousands of years before and fully populated the regions they were migrating into. But there was little discussion or exploration of how these other human species managed this, or why they might’ve been the firsts. Geologic history plays an important role here as well, and the multiple ice ages which occurred during these migration waves not only may have been drivers of evolutionary change which then led to social and migratory change, but they also dictated where various migrations could reasonably be achieved and increased the chance of tension and conflict between previous inhabitants and new arrivals in environs experiencing increased ecological scarcity.

Another important idea in the book, which for the present appears to be a hypothesis with a disputed body of evidence behind it, is that we might be able to peer deeper and more accurately into the historical record by means of the interplay between language and genetic diversification. The idea seems to be that every time a distinct genetic population splits off from an existing group, they tend to modify their language as well. Understanding where and how various language splits occurred might allow scientists to pinpoint new genetic branch timelines and vice versa, all the way back to the “original mother tongue” of the first “out of Africans”. One extremely speculative hope is that this original human language might even be reasonably reconstructed. Proto-Esperanto?

A third item I wanted to highlight isn’t interesting so much as it is entertaining, what I consider to be a bit of comical proledom. In a discussion of the relationship between last names and shared genealogy in Britain, Wade states,

Commoners acquired surnames between AD 1250 and 1350, apparently for the convenience of feudal record keepers who needed to differentiate between tenant farmers with the same first names. The surnames were not highly original. They tended to be a person’s profession (Smith, Butcher), or a patronymic (Johnson, Peterson), or derived from some landscape feature (Hill, Bush).

He goes on to give an example where it turned out that two Brits with the same last name, one a CEO and one an academic, actually did have a shared lineage originating to a common ancestor in a particular region of Northern England/Southern Scotland of whose geography the surname was descriptive, and who lived in that area according to official records. I got a chortle out of the way the elites of yore chose to humanize and differentiate amongst their tax cattle simply to aid their own tax farming, and that they didn’t bother to come up with anything more illustrious than tacking on terminology for slight changes in elevation on the land the peasants originated from, etc. It’s also interesting to think of how many people today have “commoner” last names (which group of ancestors, then, was reproductively more successful, the commoner or the elite?!) and how the market economy has allowed the sons of so many peasants to accumulate so much wealth!

A fourth item worth mentioning is the issue of “race”. It appears from this reading that “race” is a real and scientific phenomenon, though the implications of race are not well-know and are likely far different from what both “supporters” and “critics” of the concept currently think they can extrapolate from it. I’d like to learn more about race, and I think there will be more race-related scientific discoveries in the near future as this area of genetics is more thoroughly explored, but I would say I have less confidence in current race debates and their conclusions than I might have going into this book.

I’ll probably keep this one on the shelf and come back to some of the questions raised as I explore more books on the subject of genetics and evolution, pre-modern history, archaeology, economic history, etc. But I was less engaged with this book than I had hoped to be and I do hope there is a better organized, updated treatment of the subject I can read and discuss with my children in the future.


Taormina, Part II (Sicily)

On our second day in Taormina, we went to climb Mt Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in the world!…

Mt Etna was another one of those sights that I didn’t really care for until I got there. It’s difficult to marvel at nature when you’ve only seen it through the computer or TV screen! We learned from our tour guide from the day before, Marcello, that the Taormimians are actually waiting for Mt Eta to erupt and hoping that it’ll do so soon in order to boost the tourism economy of Taormina. The lava that flows from Etna tends to be very slow-moving, so tourists are actually able to get within a couple feet of the flow to observe it live. I also just learned from Wikipedia that footage of Etna’s 2003 eruption and flow was recorded and used in Revenge of the Sith! Cool 4-minute video of Etna eruption.

We decided to climb some of the craters around Mt Etna despite our poor choice of footwear of TOMS and Rainbow flip-flops. Our driver/tour guide of the day, Antonio, told us a story of an elderly English couple who he had taken to Etna and who climbed the craters, took a fall and tumbled down, and came back to the car badly bruised and battered and bloody… We took the longer but less steep route up.

I took a quick nap to avoid carsickness as we left Etna and drove over to a winery, Vini Gambino. They served us with delicious food: a multitude of cheeses, cured meats, olives, roasted red peppers, eggplant, and of course, bread and wine. I didn’t have any of the wine, but the Lion gave high accolades to their wines. The grapes that are grown here are unique because of the volcanic soil and the particular climate, where temperatures drop down to the mid-50s in the evening which allows for “aromatic ripening” of the grapes and wine.

During our walk through the Public Gardens (Giardino Pubblico), Marcello told us that the etymology of “carat,” the unit for measuring gemstones, came from a Greek word meaning ‘carob seed.’ Marcello said that the reason for this was because every carob seed has exactly the same weight and was therefore a reliable unit of measurement. Wikipedia claims that there isn’t a definitive answer on whether there is high or low variability of carob seed weights, and the skeptical scientific researcher in me also believes this is more likely (zero variability is highly improbable). Regardless, I hadn’t known or considered the etymology of “carat” before, so this was a new and interesting fact!

I had noticed that a lot of the souvenir shops sold these ceramic pine cone-looking items. Additionally, a lot of apartment buildings and balconies had these displayed outside on their patio or their gates. I asked Marcello about this, and he told us that for the Sicilians, the pine cone represents family/hospitality, fertility/abundance/wealth, and immortality (basically, all the good stuffs). The Lion and I were really interested in getting one to keep in our home, but we put it off because we didn’t want to carry it around with us and ended up never getting one 🙁

I also thought that Marcello had told us that the artichoke represents the mafia, but I have been unable to find that link elsewhere on the internet (or maybe I misunderstood Marcello). But I did find that there was indeed a mafia member, Ciro Terranova, who was nicknamed the “Artichoke King” because he purchased all the artichokes going from California to New York, started a produce company, and re-sold them making a 30-40% profit. Apparently, he terrorized distributors and merchants and attacked artichoke fields with machetes (why would he want to terrorize his own money-making field?). Naturally, the government stepped in, and the Mayor of NY declared an “artichoke war,” making artichokes illegal in New York…for a week. The mayor was too big a fan of those tasty arties and lifted the ban. Thank goodness rules are so flexible and can come and go!
Our last day in Taormina before heading over to Cefalu’ was spent lounging around the pool, playing video games, walking the main streets