In this book, Nicholas Wade seems to be doing precisely what Edward O. Wilson recommended in his Consilience. Namely, to try to unify knowledge in a way that bridges the gaps between the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities. Wade is doing a kind of consilient history of the human species by drawing on results from a wide range of scientific disciplines including paleoanthropology, archeology, population genetics, historical linguistics, primatology, social anthropology and evolutionary psychology. There is a special emphasis on the contributions of geneticists and how recent results from genetics can fill in many gaps in our history and adjudicate several important scientific disputes in other disciplines. Somewhat surprisingly, the human genome seems to contain an excellent record of the recent past that provides an interesting parallel to the written history.
Before the Dawn is a kind of scientific book of “Genesis” that traces our ancestors all the way back to the chromosomal “Adam” and the mitochondrial “Eve” who lived in the historical garden of “Eden”. It then follows our ancestors through our “Exodus” out of Africa and onwards to every corner of the planet. Along the way, Wade compiles answers to many questions regarding what the first humans were like, how they lived, what size of groups they lived in, what kind of language they might have spoken, their degree of sociality and aggressiveness, and many others.
In some ways this book is similar to Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. Both books start at a very early stage in human history and follow our species to the present day and beyond - both books end with some empirically based speculations about the future. Both also adopt an evolutionary or “Darwinian” approach. But the two books are also very different in that Wade’s book is more purely descriptive, while Ridley is more prone to advance normative theses. Wade clearly has an agenda, but it is scientific, not political, economical, or ethical.
One central insight, though, that Wade shares with Ridley is the importance of settlement in human history. Settlement was a significant event as it made possible the division of labor and specialization of roles which led to increased productivity. Wade observes that
Productivity creates surpluses, and surpluses of one commodity can be traded for another with a neighboring group. Settlement, specialization, property, surplus, trade – these are the sinews of economic activity, setting humans at long last on a separate path from living off nature’s bounty like all other species.
From chapter eight onwards, the chronological nature of the book is somewhat sidetracked and a more thematic approach is adopted. Sociality, race and language are given chapters of their own. The chapter on sociality was of particular interest for me. Here he talks about the evolutionary basis of social behavior and violence. Echoing Steven Pinker, Wade points out that archeologists and anthropologists often have downplayed the prevalence of warfare in the past and thereby obscured the important and surprising fact that “modern societies have succeeded in greatly reducing the frequency of warfare”. He says that
The savagery of wars between modern states has produced unparalleled carnage. Yet the common impression that primitive peoples, by comparison, were peaceful and their occasional fighting of no serious consequence is incorrect. 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 people are today. In fact, over the course of the last 50.000 years, the human propensity for warfare has probably been considerably attenuated.
He also stresses the importance of reciprocity in human emotions and behavior.
Many common emotions can be understood as being built around the expectation of reciprocity and the negative reaction when it is made to fail. If we like a person, we are willing to exchange favors with them. We are angry at those who fail to return favors. We seek punishment for those who take advantage of us. We feel guilty if we fail to return a favor, and shame if publicly exposed. If we believe someone is genuinely sorry about a failure to reciprocate, we trust them. But if we detect they are simulating contrition, we mistrust them.
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.
Trade is a foundation of economic activity because it gives the parties to a transaction a strong incentive to specialize in making items that the others find 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.
I would like to read this as implying that humans are natural contractarians. Wade, a science reporter, is not interested in arguing for any specific view in ethics. But insights such as these (not in any way original) seem to support the social contract view in moral theory, or at least to support the claim that any normative ethical theory that intends to guide human social behavior that does not give a central role to reciprocity is thereby flawed or incomplete. (The utilitarian view seems to suffer from this problem, for example, as it can at best give reciprocity a subordinate role.)
As recognized by all social contract theorists, there is also a serious problem with trust. Wade observes that
Trust is an essential part of the social glue that binds people together in cooperative associations. But it increases the vulnerability to which all social groups are exposed, that of being taken advantage of by freeloaders. Freeloaders seize the benefits of social living without contributing to the costs. They are immensely threatening to a social group because they diminish the benefits of sociality for others and, if their behavior goes unpunished, they may bring about the society’s dissolution.
Wade then argues that
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 indeed very tempting to assume that he is talking about government here. Or maybe morality. But no! Wade claims it to be religion! He follows this claim by a whole section devoted to the social function of religion, but somewhat strangely he does not explicitly discuss government or morality. This, I think, constitutes a serious flaw in the book. I don’t doubt that religion has had a part to play in human social relations, but government and morality would have played their parts as well, and I am inclined to think that the latter two played much larger roles than did religion. Apparantly, Wade's latest book deals exclusively with the topic of religion and maybe he there develops this line of reasoning further? Richard Joyce’s highly engaging book The Evolution of Morality, is one example of a book that deals with the social function of morality.
Overall, Before the Dawn is an inspiring book with more to offer than I have mentioned in this brief review.