Book Summary: “Before the Dawn: Discovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors” by Nicholas Wade

Before the Dawn

Title: Before the Dawn: Discovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors
Author: Nicholas Wade
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Wade explores early human history and what it can tell us about ourselves.

If you would like to learn more about long-term human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • The early humans who migrated out of Africa carried only a small subset of their genetic diversity with them.
  • Genetic evolution of humans have continued and accelerated from 50,000 years ago until today.
  • Individual cultures have adapted genetically in different paths.
  • Human nature today may be very different from human nature 50,000 years ago.
  • Warfare has been endemic to humanity.
  • The male-female pair bond has enabled humans to create far more complex social organization.
  • Humans are the only species to have developed such a degree of social trust that they are willing to let vital tasks be performed by individuals who are not part of the family. This trust enables trade.
  • Human being have gradually domesticated themselves. In each society the violent and aggressive males somehow ended up with a lesser chance of breeding. This also enabled more compex social organizations.

Important Quotes from Book

“The emigration of modern humans from Africa was not only a watershed in history but also a significant demographic event. The few who left Africa carried only a small subset of the genetic diversity present in the ancestral human population”

“The smaller a population, the fewer generations it takes for a particular version of a gene to become universal. So drift would have been enhanced among the small group that left Africa and in its far-flung descendants as they spread out across the world.”

“Geography and climate decided the newly arrived occupants of Asia where to go next,” he writes. “The rules would have been simple: stay near water, and near reliable rainfall; when moving, avoid deserts and high mountains and follow the game and the rivers.”

“There was a significant difference, or the seeds of a difference, between the European and Australian antipodes of the modern human advance from Africa. The Australian and New Guinean branch soon settled into a time warp of perpetual stagnation. They were still living with Paleolithic technology when their European cousins came visiting 45,000 years later. They never broke free from the triple bonds of patrilocal society, nomadic mobility and tribal aggression. For some reason the modern people who reached Europe and the Far East were able to escape this trap and to enter on a phase of steady and continued innovation.”

“a behavioral change may have been necessary for people to abandon the nomadic life they had always known. Settlement may seem a natural choice to us, but it requires a set of wrenching adjustments for hunter-gatherers. They must learn to live with strangers. They must abandon the freedom to move away from danger or from people they don’t get along with. They must yield their firmly egalitarian way of life for a hateful social order of superior and inferior, rife with rules and priests and officials”

“Settling down, or sedentism, as archaeologists say may sound so simple and obvious, but for foragers it was not nearly so clear a choice. Sedentism tied people to a single exposed site, increasing vulnerability to raiders. Sedentism attracted noxious vermin and disease. Sedentism required new ways of thought, new social relationships and a new kind of social organization, one in which people had to trade their prized freedom and equality for hierarchy, officials and chiefs and other encumbrances.”

“Archaeologists have little hesitation in describing the transition to sedentism as a revolution, comparable to the one that defines the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic 50,000 years ago when behaviorally modern humans emerged from their anatomically modern forebears”

“With greater manpower than the usual foraging group, together with fortifications and perhaps the guard dogs that first became available 15,000 years ago, settlers would have been able to even the odds against the raiding parties after their food and women.

This new form of social organization preceded and perhaps prompted such innovations as the cultivation of wild cereals, and the penning and herding of wild animals like sheep and goats. These steps led in turn, perhaps more by accident than design, to the domestication of plants and animals and to the beginnings of agriculture. Settled life and the new hierarchical form of society paved the way for complex societies, cities, civilization and, in rudimentary form, the institutions of today’s urban life”

“ it was not agriculture that led to settlement, but rather sedentary life came first, well before the Neolithic age began, and agriculture followed in its train”

“the set of intellectual skills required for survival in the wild seem quite different from those needed to prosper in the jungle of urban life. Even if a hunter-gatherer were born with the innate intellectual ability of a Newton, Darwin or Einstein, it is difficult to see how he would profit from his gift or, in evolution’s cold calculus, be able to turn it into the reproductive advantage of raising more children. But in an urban setting, gifts of calculation or abstract thought would translate much more easily into extra children, and the genes underlying such abilities would spread.

The reason is that settled societies permit individuals to acquire extra property or status,… Property, in turn, is a way of securing survival for oneself and one’s family.”

“The phenomenon of lactose tolerance draws attention to three aspects of human evolution. First, it confirms that evolution didn’t stop 50,000 years ago, when modern humans left Africa, as is often assumed, but has continued to reshape the human genome.

Second, it shows the human genome is likely to have responded independently in different populations to the same stimulus, a process known as convergent evolution.”

“Third, the lactose tolerance phenomenon establishes that genes respond to cultural changes.”

“Human nature, in other words, has probably changed significantly in the last 50,000 years”

“The templates for chimp and human social behavior are very similar in a central feature, that of territorial defense and the willingness to solve the problem of a hostile neighboring society by seeking its extermination. But they differ in other critical aspects. Humans have evolved a different relationship between the sexes, based on family units instead of separate male and female hierarchies. These family units require a considerably higher level of trust among males,”

“Second, all human societies support institutions not found in the chimp repertoire. These include property rights, a propensity for ceremony, ritual and religion, and elaborate systems of trade and exchange, based on a universal expectation of reciprocity”

“Besides being well adapted or designed for their environments, chimp and human societies possess another salient feature in common, that of a strong propensity to kill their own kind. A willingness to kill members of one’s own species is apparently correlated with high intelligence. It may be that chimps and people are the only species able to figure out that the extra effort required to exterminate an opponent will bring about a more permanent solution than letting him live to fight another day.”

“Warfare is a bond that separates humans and chimps from all other species”

“Warfare between pre-state societies was incessant, merciless, and conducted with the general purpose, often achieved, of annihilating the opponent. As far as human nature is concerned, people of early societies seem to have been considerably more warlike than are people today. In fact, over the course of the last 50,000 years, the human propensity for warfare has probably been considerably attenuated.”

“Warfare is a dramatic and distinctive feature of history, and it thoroughly overshadows an even more remarkable feature of human societies. This feature, the polar opposite of war, is the unique human ability to cooperate with others, and specifically with unrelated individuals.”

“humans have extended sociality far beyond the extended family or tribe and have developed ways for many unrelated individuals to cooperate in large, complex, cohesive societies”

“The uniquely human blend of sociality was not easily attained. Its various elements evolved over many years. The most fundamental, a major shift from the ape brand of sociality, was the human nuclear family, which gave all males a chance at procreation along with incentives to cooperate with others in foraging and defense. A second element, developed from an instinct shared with other primates, was a sense of fairness and reciprocity, extended in human societies to a propensity for exchange and trade with other groups. A third element was language. And the fourth, a defense against the snares of language, was religion. All these behaviors are built on the basic calculus of social animals, that cooperation holds more advantages than competition”

“The instinct for reciprocity, and the cheater-detection apparatus that accompanies it, seem to be the basis for a fundamental human practice, that of trade with neighboring groups. Long distance trade is one of the characteristic behaviors of the human societies that emerged in the Upper Paleolithic age starting some 50,000 years ago.”

“Trade is a foundation of economic activity because it gives the parties to a transaction a strong incentive to specialize in making the items that the other finds valuable. But trade depends on trust, on the decision to treat a total stranger as if he were a member of the family. Humans are the only species to have developed such a degree of social trust that they are willing to let vital tasks be performed by individuals who are not part of the family. This set of behaviors, built around reciprocity, fair exchange and the detection of cheaters, has provided the foundation for the most sophisticated urban civilizations, including those of the present day.”

“Without this innate willingness to trust strangers, human societies would still consist of family units a few score strong, and cities and great economies would have had no foundation for existence.”

“Human societies long ago devised an antidote to the freeloader problem. This freeloader defense system, a major organizing principle of every society, has assumed so many other duties that its original role has been lost sight of. It is religion”

“Religion, language and reciprocity are three comparatively recent elements of the glue that holds human societies together. All seem to have emerged some 50,000 years ago. But a far more ancient adaptation for social cohesiveness, one that set human societies on a decisively different path from those of apes, was the formation of the pair bond. Much of human nature consists of the behaviors necessary to support the male-female bond and a man’s willingness to protect his family in return for a woman’s willingness to bear only his children”

“people were domesticating themselves. In each society the violent and aggressive males somehow ended up with a lesser chance of breeding.”

“With tamer people, the path was now set for larger and more complex societies, ones that would transcend the limited horizons of the hunter-gatherer band.”

“These instances of recent evolutionary change are probably just the first of many that remain to be discovered. Since all occurred after the dispersal from Africa, the alleles that cause them are present to a different extent in different populations. Human diversity therefore cannot be a purely cultural phenomenon, as many social scientists sometimes seem to believe. It has a genetic component too. The component remains to be defined and quantified, but it could prove to be substantial”

If you would like to learn more about long-term human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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