'Before the Dawn'

By Richard Cohen Published:

By Richard Cohen

The Washington Post has been diligently tracking the progeny of Donor 401, a man of German extraction who tans well and whose sperm is in great demand. The number of 401s children is at least 14, an impressive number had I not just completed Nicholas Wades book Before the Dawn and learned that the late Genghis Khan had about 500 wives and concubines, producing enough children so that now, if you do the math, they have generated 16 million males alone -- or about 0.5 percent of the worlds total. Donor 401, you have a ways to go.

But on account of Wades book, I strongly suspect that Donor 401 and Genghis Khan operated out of the same imperative -- to pass on their genes to the next generation. This, after all, is our genetic obligation and in Wades view -- or at least in his observation -- it is why some men go into politics. He quotes former French President Francois Mitterand, who said, I dont know of a single head of state who hasnt yielded to some kind of carnal temptation, small or large. That in itself is a reason to govern. Better than narrowing the deficit, I would volunteer.

In fact, from what Wade suggests, Donor 401 is a sly fellow, pulling off what in evolution is the ultimate triumph: getting others, particularly men, to raise his progeny. Those who have no biological children of their own are evolutions total losers. Their genes end with them and that, as we all know, is just a pity -- a fate truly worse than death: extinction.

For some time now, I have been excitedly inflicting this book on my friends. It is rich in scientific cynicism, the unsparing pragmatism of our cold and calculating genes. For instance, they have insured that newborns in general are not only cute, but look alike -- so the charmed, but possibly cuckolded male will accept them as his own. It traces the history of mankind from the time, around 50,000 years go, when human beings left Africa and started to spread throughout the world.

This is our prehistory. It lacks archeological or written records, but much of what happened can be discerned from our DNA. This is all relatively new to us, but by peering into our most basic living material, snoopy scientists are beginning to see how we evolved -- and why. For instance, the gene that permits us to digest lactose as adults is a relatively new development -- linked, no doubt, to the advent of agriculture. Genetically speaking, we are still on the move.

Wade, a science writer for The New York Times, is a robust and refreshing critic of scientific political correctness. There is nothing in the scientific record, he points out, to validate the romantic notion that primitive man was essentially peaceful. On the contrary, our ancestors made war incessantly -- just as primitive societies did in the modern era until the authorities told them to cut it out. Similarly, he chides PC-addled scientists who insist there is no such thing as race when, just for starters, certain medicines work differently on whites than blacks. As with the noble savage, the raceless world is a myth.

Another myth concerns those cute chimps, one of whom, J. Fred Muggs, once co-hosted the Today show. They have 99 percent of a human beings DNA sequence, which might explain why humans and chimps are the only creatures to make war. (Their cousins, the bonobos, make love -- incessantly.) Still, there is hope. Evolution is making us less aggressive and smarter since, clearly, brains are better than brawn in the modern world. (Jews from Europe, their ancestors compelled by discrimination into certain cerebral professions, have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group, despite Howard Stern.)

Maybe the best news in the book is the finding that dogs were essential to the creation of modern civilization. If human beings were to cease being nomads, they had to be secure when they settled down. (After all, enemies would always know where to find them.) Dogs became trusty sentinels, which is why they, and not the wolves from which they descended, bark. It was a trait early man valued and, probably, selected for. The question remains, though: Did man domesticate the dog or did dogs figure out what man wanted and do the job themselves? Anyone who has ever owned a dog instinctively knows the answer.

Wade begins each chapter with a quote from Charles Darwin. It is an odd paradox of our times that as science relentlessly validates Darwins genius, American social conservatives push back with idiocies like intelligent design. They should read this book -- it even explains the evolutionary basis of religion -- to appreciate what will happen to them. God willing, theyll evolve.

(c) 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.