Review of "Before the Dawn" by Nicholas Wade

The front cover of New York Times-reporter Nicholas Wade’s new book, Before the Dawn, contains a quote by E.O. Wilson: “By far the best book I have ever read on humanity’s deep history.” I couldn’t agree more. Before the Dawn is more informative than Nature via Nurture, more readable than The Blank Slate, and proves (contra The Emperor’s New Clothes) that popularizations of population genetics don’t have to be deceitful and revolting.


The Lost History of Our Ancestors

Before the Dawn dwells on several major events in the human story: separation from chimpanzee-ancestors, the end of seperate sex hierarchies with the introduction of pair bonding, physically modern human, behaviorally modern human, and socially modern humans. From a founder population fo 150, the first behaviorally modern human beings who left Africa at the Gate of Grief would conquer three other human species (Neanderthals, Erecti, and Hobbits) and within fifty thousand years spread an African species all over the face of the world.

Every chapter in Before the Dawn is worth reading, but several stand out as some of the best in the history of scientific nonfiction: “Genetics & Genesis” outlines the author’s plan of attack, “Genesis” describes mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosome Adam, “Exodus” tells of the seafaring conquest of the Coasts in the face of Erecti resistance to Australia, the second truly human continent, “Race” addresses the major family groupings of man, “Language” applies genetic technology to recovering the time and place for the first human tongue, and “Evolution” recaps the book and looks forward to the next human species.

Nick Wade is a science columnist for the New York Times, and his journalist touch is fully worked. I learned more about the Thomas Jefferson- Sally Hemmings twist than I did before, including that Sally his the half-sister of Tom’s first wife. The unique haplotypes of Icelanders and Jews are discussed. and the interesting that the current races appear not to have existed 15,000 years ago give one much to chew on.

Before the Dawn is very up to date, and includes fair criticism of Evolutionary Psychology that comes from our increased understanding of genetics. When John Tooby and Leda Cosmides founded EP, it was reasonable to presuppose that substantive human evolution had ended by the late stone age. That assumption is no longer tenable. We are not modern humans with stone-aged minds. We are modern humans with modern minds.

This great book has already made a buzz. John Derbyshire of The National Review loves it, while Nature hates it.

Before the Dawn is available for $15.72 from Amazon.com, and for $19.96 from Barnes & Noble.

09-f9-11-02-9d-74-e3-5b-d8-41-56-c5-63-56-88-c0, Swarms, Outrage, and the socialbookmarkosphere

Two front-page stories on Slashdot (Censoring a number and Digg.com attempts to suppress HD-DVD revolt), on six front-page stories on reddit (Digg exiles! Welcome to Reddit!, Digg is on a campaign of widespread user and story censorship, Digg founders took HD DVD Sponsorship — Digg fighting user revolt over HD-DVD code ban, Digg shuts down story submissions, Digg users are showing the true power of users on user run sites, Wikipedia bans HD DVD code and related discussion pages)

The swarm has worked, at least partially. Digg founder Kevin Rose wrote on the company blog:

Digg This: 09-f9-11-02-9d-74-e3-5b-d8-41-56-c5-63-56-88-c0

Today was an insane day. And as the founder of Digg, I just wanted to post my thoughts…

In building and shaping the site I’ve always tried to stay as hands on as possible. We’ve always given site moderation (digging/burying) power to the community. Occasionally we step in to remove stories that violate our terms of use (eg. linking to pornography, illegal downloads, racial hate sites, etc.). So today was a difficult day for us. We had to decide whether to remove stories containing a single code based on a cease and desist declaration. We had to make a call, and in our desire to avoid a scenario where Digg would be interrupted or shut down, we decided to comply and remove the stories with the code.

But now, after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you’ve made it clear. You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be.

If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying.

What is the long number in the title? And why is this on tdaxp Read below the fold to find out…


The number is actually a key to allow people to use HD DVD disks they may buy. Historically, large media companies try to limit the usefulness of new technology, because technology is inherently disruptive and posses a risk to them. So, for instance, the Motion Picture Association of America thought that VHS was a terrible idea and should be criminalized. Fortunately, Congress and the Courts were on the side of the consumers on that issue. More recently, the MPAA opposed allowing people to record DVDs in the same manner that we can record TV with VHS. Again, the Courts agreed with consumers and disagreed with the studios.

Unable to criminalize consumers actually using the movies they buy, the studios resort to technical tricks which just make it hard to use the movies. Because of the computer code surrounding HD DVDs, typing in the number 09-f9-11-02-9d-74-e3-5b-d8-41-56-c5-63-56-88-c0 allows users to get around the troublesome software and record their own movies.

Eventually, some stories mentioning the number made it on digg, a popular social bookmark site (thanks for the list, Jayson!).

I’m less interested in the number (not having an HD DVD player) than I am with the reaction. Blogs were “outraged” by this, just as they were by the JL Kirk, NationMaster, and Wiley Interscience affairs. However, because HD DVDs effect even more people than negative reviews of Tennessee job placement agencies, negative reviews of online databases, or critical interpretation of journal articles, the swarms’ reaction is even bigger. The reason is that while censoring of blogs outrages bloggers (a vocal but small minority of internet users), censoring online bookmark sites outrages even more people. The group of bloggers is maybe 5% of the internet population, but the group of social bookmarks is huge. Indeed, with social bookmark integration with popular webbrowsers (see Delicious for Firefox, Digg for Firefox, Reddit for Firefox, etc) it is possible within a few years a majority of internet users will also be social bookmark users.

Outrage is not a rational reaction, but whether a consequence of perceiving two things: that your own group is weak and that another group is attacking it. By successfully (for a while) forcing Digg to censor its own users, the MPAA convinced social bookmarkers that they were weak and being attaked. They became outraged. And now a number that I did not care about for quite a while — 09-f9-11-02-9d-74-e3-5b-d8-41-56-c5-63-56-88-c0 — is all over the news.

JL Kirk eventually was mentioned by Instapundit, and John Wiley & Sons met The Volokh Conspiracy. Now the MPAA, and 09-f9-11-02-9d-74-e3-5b-d8-41-56-c5-63-56-88-c0, know reddit and digg.