Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Before the Dawn

Before the Dawn (Nicholas Wade, 2006) is wide-ranging discussion of what genetics can tell us about human prehistory, plus a few examples of how reading DNA can illuminate history--e.g. the extreme prevalence of what appears to be Genghis Khan's Y chromosome persisting to this day across the lands the Mongols ruled, the proof that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings' children, etc.

I'm always interested by books on this and similar subjects, but I found this one occasionally depressing because Wade used so much energy on finding the survival and/or reproductive value of every single aspect of human behavior. I'm not denying that there's a biological basis for altruism or anything like that...but I also think that as a species we've managed to transcend our programming, as it were. To borrow a line from CS Lewis, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Eustace meets a sentient Narnian star, he comments that in his world, a star is a giant ball of flaming gas. The star replies, "Even in your world, that isn't what a star is, but only what it is made of." And that's how I feel about humanity. We're a product of our genes and millions of years of evolution...but that's not all we are. And I do mean that as a religious statement, but it doesn't have to be.

No comments: