Before the Dawn

Whenever someone denigrates evolutionary psychology, what they
really mean is "I thought the whole point of evolution was just to deny
God. I didn’t think it was actually supposed to
tell us anything."


So I recently finished Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn. If you’re not familiar with Wade’s front-line dispatches as the New York Times’ star genetics reporter, this book will bring you up to speed; it’s  a tough and dense — but laudably accessible — pop-synthesis of the converging revolutions in genetics and linguistics that are only beginning to reshape our conventional understanding of human evolution, and it easily stands alongside Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Judith Rich Harris’s The Nurture Assumption as one of the most important popular accounts of human nature to be published in the last ten years. 

But whereas Jared Diamond’s latest just-so palliative is assured coddling reception among the peddlers of soft Darwinism who still retain tenuous guard over the public discussion of these matters, Wade’s admirably apolitical explication — which serves in many respects as a corrective to Diamond’s question begging MO — has been accorded little mainstream attention to date. Yet while no Book-of-the-Month offers or front-page reviews seem to be in the offing for this unpopular messenger, the more conspicuous turn may be noted in the lack of any concerted effort to refute or otherwise criticize Wade’s central arguments, which invariably stem from an understanding of evolution as a recent and active force in the course of human affairs.  It seems the days of hysterical Bell Curve backlash have been displaced with an uneasy calm.

Before the Dawn is presented as a kind of palimpsest to Darwin’s Descent of Man, with lengthy excerpts of that seminal work buttressing each chapter.  Whether Wade is discussing genomic analyses of the African exodus, or  the discomfitingly recent selective pressures accounting for populational — i.e., ahem, racial — disparities in a plethora of metabolic and immunological predispositions (the cases of malaria resistance and lactose tolerance are given careful attention), or, more controversially, the increasingly plausible theory that Ashkenazi Jews owe their marked intellectual gifts to culturally bound natural selection, the emergent picture is one eternally more consistent with Darwin’s true legacy.  And the talking heads have a lot of catching up to do.

For the time being, they’re waiting in the wings, clinging to the dim hope that some properly accredited voice will yet descend upon this politically inconvenient new paradigm to dispel all the messy implications and restore the long guarded order that permits comfortable disparagement of intelligent design flummery without contemplation of the specter of difference. But Stephen Jay Gould is, in every sense, dead and buried.  And as each of Jared Diamond’s socioecological red herrings are shown to reveal another layer of grist for the mill of human evolution, the hope wanes further.

So get on with the fascination, kids.  Your gods are in critical condition, and I smell a barbecue. 

UPDATE: looks like I may have spoke too soon.