Before the Dawn -- human prehistory

As a follow-up to the two engaging books that Brian Sykes wrote about how we can trace our ancestors through DNA, I recently finished reading Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade. The book is a survey of the current research into humanity’s prehistoric (up to 50,000 years ago!) lives and cultures through DNA analysis, anthropology, and archaeology. The writing is refreshingly un-PC—in fact, the author gets pretty far along before even acknowledging the social discomforts that some might feel learning the results of this research. The fundamental point of the book is that evolution has not stopped for man, but rather it has been powerfully shaped by the environments that he has created for himself.

Among the many, many interesting things I learned from reading the book is that primitive man was a far more violent creature than we thought. The idyllic peaceful Eden is an unfounded myth. Mankind lived in bands of 50–150 people that hunted and foraged over territory whose borders were defined by constant conflict with neighboring bands. Wade estimates that nearly one in three men died in this incessant warfare and that nearly all men were engaged in combat many times throughout their lives. The social structure was likely very egalitarian until people began building permanent settlements and developing social hierarchies some 10,000 years ago. It’s clear how so much of the basic nature of man that was selected for and shaped by this environment is in conflict with the settled, domesticated lives that we lead today.

The author argues that even today we are undergoing further natural selection towards a more domesticated society that is better able to trust strangers (e.g., non-kin). One of the pieces of physical evidence that supports this argument is the fact that human skulls have gotten progressively thinner over the last few thousand years. What's amazing is not that the Vikings raped and pillaged a thousand years ago, but that their progeny have such a peaceful culture.

But is this domestication really for the best? Sure, it may be the most profitable way to seed the gene pool but I rebel against the idea that we should turn into a bunch of sheep. Heinlein wrote about people self-domesticating in Beyond The Horizon. In the end, the society was destroyed by a small group of people who refused to undergo gene therapy to remove the violence from their nature. They just herded up the sheep and ate the whole flock. That would be my progeny, too.


Wendy said...

"a small group of people who refused to undergo gene therapy to remove the violence from their nature" Reminds me a bit of the situation on the planet Miranda in the movie Serenity. The Alliance introduces a chemical into the air supply that's supposed to weed out aggression and make the population more peaceful. Most of the people on the planet eventually just stop living and let themselves die. A small percentage of the population have the opposite reaction. They become extremely aggressive; they cut and disfigure themselves then rape, skin, and eat humans.

mathle said...

Glad you liked it. I lost the book you gave me to read.