Wednesday, May 02, 2007

BOOK REVIEW - Before the Dawn

Before the Dawn
Nicholas Wade
Penguin Books, 2007
314 pages

You may have noticed that my rate of book consumption has dropped off significantly over the last few months. This is only partly true as I have been attacked by about four different books which are currently nicely stacked on my bedside table in various states of completion. Before the Dawn is only the first book completed in this read-a-palooza (my money is on Alan Furst's Night Soldiers coming in second place.) But enough of that, lets to it, shall we?

Before the Dawn, subtitled Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, is an examination of how the bleeding edge of genetics is being applied to archaeology and anthropology. Wade, who writes for the New York Times was educated at Eton and Cambridge, approaches this very complex subject in a manner which should be easy for the average reader to absorb. He begins with a general introduction to the development of the human species, spending quite a bit of time on the factors which may have caused us to take the developmental path we did, diverging from chimpanzees and Bonobos. After giving the reader a good basic understanding of where he thinks we came from he then goes on to dedicate several chapters to subjects as diverse as race, language, history, and continuing evolution.

In the chapter titled "History" Wade takes a look at some historical questions which have been answered by genetics. The most interesting of these is the ongoing debate on whether Thomas Jefferson had children with his slave, Sally Hemings. Using genetic samples from descendants of Jefferson's paternal uncle and Sally Hemings' youngest son, researchers found that the two groups shared a common Y chromosome. The Y chromosome is passed from father to son with minimal and predictable changes, which means these two groups are related. Given that there are sources from Jefferson's lifetime which make mention of this possibility, claims largely dismissed as scurrilous lies by many, it seems very likely that Sally Hemings did indeed bear Thomas Jefferson at least one child.

The book itself is written in a very clear and precise style which, as I said, makes this very complex and potentially confusing subject matter understandable to the lay-person. I highly recommend this book as it presents a fascinating way to look at who we are.

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