New York Times science reporter Wade looks at how new knowledge derived from studying the human genome is changing the way we view our species’ past and present.
The recent deciphering of our genetic inheritance provides a valuable research tool for studying human prehistory, the long, murky millennia between the separation of humanity from its closest primate kin and the springing up of cities in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago. When data gathered in disciplines such as archaeology, linguistics and anthropology is looked at in conjunction with the genetically recorded anatomical changes that occurred in response to altering circumstances encountered by early humans, a host of notions about prehistory come into clearer focus. Since virtually none of these notions is fully provable, however, the new genetics-based data has generated a slew of disagreements in fields already rife with contention. Wade seems to know all the arguments of virtually all the players: heavyweights such as Noam Chomsky, Edward O. Wilson and Jared Diamond, as well as a host of lesser-known specialists. His fascinating, surprisingly readable text takes readers on an excursion into arcane realms where academics generally carry on their food fights out of public view. The genetics-based evidence examined here touches on contemporary hot-button issues; some seem to indicate that human evolution fostered by natural selection continues today in response to social as well as environmental pressures. Wade offers views of inherited, race-based differences that are anathema to politically correct social scientists. Nor will intelligent-design proponents appreciate his obvious admiration for the wisdom and prescience of Charles Darwin and his belief that those who challenge Darwin’s conclusions about species origins are believers of myths.
A meaty, well-written, if occasionally overenthusiastic study, filled with speculation that will leave some uncomfortable and others angry.