- In the 1970’s, people at Harvard interested in human behavior behaved like members of rival high-school cliques. Under the banner of sociobiology were biologists Bob Trivers, a brash young genius, Ed Wilson, synthesizer and visionary, and master anthropologist Irven DeVore whose many students, such as Sarah Hardy, Steve Gaulin, John Tooby and Barbara Smuts, were beginning to carry the revolution forward. They were challenged by the vaunted leaders of neighboring fields such as geneticist Richard Lewontin and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionists who for both scholarly and political reasons were scornful of the new pronouncements about human behavior. Supported by social scientists mistrustful of biology in any form, these skeptics wore their leftwing politics on their sleeves and raked the socio-biologists with accusations of bias and incompetence.
- Anthropologist Melvin Konner found himself in this cauldron after returning from two years of living with !Kung San foragers in Botswana. The intellectual in him was quick to appreciate the merits of the newly confident natural selection theory. But he saw its faults as well. The nascent sociobiology was far too simple: it ignored the details of how the body made the mind. Konner, poet and physiologist that he was, wanted to give the emotions a fuller role partly because of their inherent importance for understanding adaptive behavior, and partly because emotions often don’t follow simple rules: they can lead people to behave in weirdly constrained or maladaptive ways.
- Any of the seven chapters on emotions – which make up the central third of the book - can illustrate how well The Tangled Wing combines big-picture questions with technical expertise. Take Fear, which like other chapters has the science framed by pages of anecdote and vision. “We have dropped into the bowels of the beast,” begins Konner, “where the snarl curls, poised to provocation.” He opens with the blood-curdling terror of a Vietnam veteran’s war memories, then asks what a caribou feels when feeding calmly on a wolf-dotted tundra. “A clench of fear that persists but is transcended? A transient fear when the wolf appears on the horizon, which subsides and is followed by calm? A continuous mild fear below the surface of the action, quickly intensified by certain of the wolf’s movements?” The questions, elegantly precise, are never answered but they lead us to the web of ethology, endocrinology and neurology that occupies the heart of the chapter. Konner deals with each freshly.
- Fear could be easily expanded to a short book. Like every chapter in The Tangled Wing, it is dauntingly rich, elegantly composed, and startlingly novel in the completeness of its synthesis. This bravura performance comes with conclusions that can be challenged, such as Konner’s conviction that xenophobia comes from irrational fear, or that “violence is what we do from our fathomless anger against death.” It also has occasional slips, often trivial but nevertheless unnerving. So it is reassuring that the facts can be checked. There are 200 pages of printable references to be found on an accompanying web-site, so that The Tangled Wing can be confidently used by professionals as an entry to a more specialized literature. The first third of the book (“Foundations of a Science of Human Nature”) has eight chapters on topics from Human Evolution (“The Crucible”) and Adaptation to Sex and Language, and these are as sound as those on emotions. Like the natural history of a well-described habitat, Konner’s science gives each chunk of knowledge its niche.
- The Tangled Wing certainly succeeds as reference, but it’s not where Konner is aiming. He wrote for generalists who cherish science and art in concert, and who want to know why biology matters. So his final chapters tackle moral philosophy and spiritual questions about who we are. Occasionally his concrete analysis gives way to optimistic vagueness, such as when he says: “We must once again experience the human soul as soul, and not just as a buzz of bioelectricity;” or “we must restore wonder;” or “we must choose, and choose soon, either for or against the further evolution of the human spirit.” But Konner’s desire to reconcile science and feeling is mostly specific and rooted, as when he discusses the ozone layer or water shortage. If his impatience sometimes emerges, it is easy to be sympathetic. Through more than 400 pages The Tangled Wing shows a man of balance juggling a love of literature with knowledge of physiology, and combining the rebel with the conventional scientist. Passion is the central topic of the book, it imbues the writing, and it is only right that Konner should end with it. Konner’s humane appeal for a workable social world that takes biology seriously is popular science at its lyrical best.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)