Before the Dawn

I have a strong interest in prehistory. Part of that is simple curiosity, but another part is a quest for the origins of religion. So, on a recommendation (that I’ve forgotten who or where it came from), I read Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade on our recent trip.

Wade is a science writer for the New York Times, and it shows. He writes better than most scientists, and he isn’t writing to make a name for himself in academic circles. That leaves him free to argue both sides of unsettled issues, and to engage in speculation where the evidence is inconclusive. That is both the strength and weakness of this book.

Before the Dawn is primarily concerned with the determinations and implications of genetic research. From mitochondrial DNA analysis, it can be shown that Europeans, Asians, Micronesians and Native Americans (that is, everyone except for Sub-Saharan Africans) are descended from one group of about 150 people who left Africa about 50,000 years ago. Other analysis shows that the human gene line split from the chimpanzee line about 5 million years ago (chimps, along with bonobos, are our closest relatives). Wade does a good job of explaining the likely factors that caused natural selection to favor various mutations in our evolution.

But Wade seems virtually certain that humans gained the genes for speech at 50,000 years ago. Back in February I blogged about The First Word by Christine Kenneally, who is Ph.D linguist. Kenneally is far less certain, pointing out that humans had evolved into more or less the form we have now 200,000 years ago – part of that last big evolutionary leap may have been the capacity for language.

And Wade’s observations on religion were disappointing, to put it mildly. His theory boils down to a belief that evolving language gave humans the capacity to lie, so they developed religion to serve as a counterbalance. This is an extremely simplistic view of religion that completely ignores religious experience and the strong evidence we have for religious behavior in our pre-homo sapiens ancestors who almost certainly could not speak.

Where Wade sticks to reporting genetic research, though, the book is informative. Most encouraging is the strong indication that human evolution hasn’t stopped. He cites genetic changes that gave some Africans resistance to malaria (at the cost of increased vulnerability to sickle cell anemia) and other changes that gave Europeans the ability to digest lactose into adulthood as evidence.

The bottom line on Before the Dawn? It’s interesting reading on human evolution and the migrations of early modern humans. But for getting a glimpse of the origins of religion, it’s not helpful at all.

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