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Melvin Konner: The Tangled Wing:
biological constraints on the human spirit
(W.H Freeman: 2002)

“In 1846, Gustave Flaubert wrote, in a letter to poet Louise Colet, ‘As a rule, the philosopher is a kind of mongrel being, a cross between scientist and poet, envious of both.’ It is sad to say that many behavioral and social theorists are like Flaubert’s philosophers. They are almost immune to criticism. When their facts or logic are challenged they hide behind a cloak of humanism. Yet they expect to be taken much more seriously than poets because they are not, after all, offering mere deftly worded sentiment but presume to draw on a large body of science. This is a pretty treacherous middle ground.... [For] the great literary figures, past and present, have had much more in common with the view of human nature taken by biologists than with that of human potential taken by social scientists. Thus, it is almost as amusing as it is unjust for the latter to decry biologists as technicians while they try to hide behind the cloak of humanism; for them it is a tattered cloak indeed, affording scant cover and, in the long term, no safe disguise. Despite their dim view of human nature, many - though certainly not all - [great literary figures] were critics of the societies they lived in and even of the governments that ran them. But they were skeptical of proposals for change, especially grand schemes.... [For,] unlike children, who stumble endearingly over themselves before they wreak much havoc, we do the real-world work of our besotted, arcane emotions after slower deliberation, in loftier grandeur, using subtler indirection, out of a deeper, more vengeful vein of selfishness, and with more power.”
(Konner, pp.471-5)

In 1982, a young anthropologist & poet named Melvin Konner produced the first version of The Tangled Wing. The critical consensus then acclaimed it as the best written, best argued, and most balanced survey of what Konner termed “behavioral biology” - a substantially broader and much less polemical field than E.O. Wilson’s “sociobiology” - and it remained so for many years, despite the rapidity of scientific advance. Now, twenty years later - and after a laborious process lasting several years - we have a new edition, entirely revised throughout.

And, is still by far the best book in the field. Beautifully written, exhaustively researched, and scrupulously fair to the truly enormous range of evidence relevant to the enquiry, The Tangled Wing remains the work humanists need to encounter if they wish to take the idea of human nature seriously again, as was near-universal before the last century.

Herein, in addition to a truly enormous array of research findings, the reader will find a skilled guide to this highly contested area, who refuses the usual simplifications practiced by both sides - and insists, moreover, on combining humanistic (particularly literary) perspectives with those of science. The result is an enriched, rather than impoverished, view of human nature; complex, nuanced, and the very opposite of that bland “compromise” which offends no-one. Because the questions are far too important for that...

“We need simple, clear explanations; we are busy. But the answers must also be comprehensive. Simple, clear, comprehensive explanations. We have no time for endless academic musings, or for a litany of facts. We need theories that are incisive and illuminating, that enable us to grasp the solution at once, that transcend the complexities, paring away all irrelevancies, leaving only the elegant, decisive beauty of a Euclidian proof, the first paradigm of our intellectual training. I offer no such theories. It is my belief that the failure of behavioral science up to the present day results precisely from the pursuit of them. Classical economics, Marxism, psychoanalysis, learning theory, instinct theory, cognitive theory, structuralism, artificial intelligence, neural network modeling, chaos and complexity theory, sociobiology - not a single one of them false in its essence, but each one false in its ambitions, and especially false in its condemnation of the others.... For the lay person, the difficulty of integrating this breadth of knowledge into a larger picture of ourselves is daunting.... Scientists, too, are daunted by the effort to keep up. In the old cliche, they find out more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing. But today, the problem is that we know more and more about more and more. And although we will never know everything about everything, the time will come when we know so much that no one person can hope to know all the essential facts about, say, violence or anxiety, needed to make a single wise decision.... [So,] every so often we must stop and see what we know...[and,] for those who do not share the conviction that bits of knowledge laid end to end lead to wisdom, the articulation of the bits becomes a challenge separate from that of unearthing them. When the knowledge in question is knowledge about human behavior, the emergent image must bear a human face.”
(Konner, pp.xv-xvi)

For those who still associate such work with prejudice and psuedo-science, Konner makes this counter-claim, which concisely summarizes the modern scientific consensus on race, prejudice and human universals. And it is one that cultural anthropology is, even now, starting to come around to:

“The overwhelming genetic unity of our species becomes clearer all the time. We are, every one of us, descended from a very small group of people who lived in Africa around 100,000 years ago. During almost all that time, challenges to intelligence have been remarkably similar on every continent. There has been little or no opportunity for racial separation, and the physical variety that seems so obvious to us is just an intersection of geographic trend lines known as clines, each a gradient of variation along a particular dimension, such as nose shape, height, or skin color. You can point to any spot on earth, draw a circle around it, and call it a race, but all you will have done is arbitrarily label the local intersection of several of these clines...[and] statistically, it has been repeatedly shown that the vast majority of human genetic variation occurs within, not between, ethnic groups.... Race is the least interesting and least significant of biological categories, yet it continues to compel the attention of many people. The most likely explanation for this is not the intrinsic merit of the subject. It is the desire to simplify the world, to justify unfair treatment of minorities, and to shore up a weak identity with a false sense of superiority. Human beings characteristically dichotomize the social world, and much of what is wrong with the world stems from this fact of human nature.... Behavioral biology is a strong, dangerous physic, potentially healing if used appropriately, poisonous if not. For the great questions of race and social class, it has far more relevance to the behavior of the oppressors than it does to that of the victims. It does not show that the oppressed are inferior, but it does help explain why the oppressors are selfish, greedy, and violent.”
(Konner, pp.495-6)

“Although the main subject of cultural anthropology has been cross-cultural variety, it has always had an inevitable, if tacit, complement: things about human life that vary little or not at all. But ‘universal’ has at least five different meanings. First are things like upright walking or social smiling, shown by all normal members of the species. Second are acts universal to a given age or sex - the sucking reflex in newborns, for instance, or the ejaculatory pattern in adult males. Third, some universals affect all groups but not all individuals, such as the sex difference in physical fighting. A fourth group of universals applies to culture instead of behavior, like taboos against incest and in-group homicide, or the varied but always definable bond of marriage. Last, there are things that are unusual yet are found at some low level in every population, such as homicide, suicide, depression, schizophrenia, or incest. The lists in these five classes are long, much longer than most anthropologists would have predicted...[and] although the frequency or context of most behaviors varies, the large, stable core proves that human nature is real. Universals describe our nature. Yet traditional cultural anthropologists, even when reluctantly accepting the existence of universals, show little interest in them, deeming them trivial or outside anthropology’s proper subject matter. This is like being interested in differences in diet but not in the way the gut works - fine for a chef, but not very good for a scientist.”
(Konner, p.440)

“Every genetic alteration is subject to reversal by an appropriate environmental change - one that is either known or can be found out. Nongenetic change can also mimic in various ways the effects of a bad gene. The contrary belief, which holds that genes are destiny and that proving a genetic effect is tantamount to throwing up our hands, would be silly if it were not both persistent and pernicious.... There is in each of us a residue of traits of heart and mind that we brought with us not just when we left the womb but indeed when we entered it. The denial of this, as liberal as it sounds, is really a denial of individuality, every bit as dangerous as the most rigid genetic determinism.”
(Konner, p.90)

Unfortunately, the problems which stand in the way of any serious attempt to grapple with human nature include far more than historical prejudice and postmodern relativism. As well, there is the grossly inaccurate psychic “plumbing” of the Freudians, who have managed to impose their model upon popular culture, to the detriment of genuine understanding; “Good Old-Fashioned A.I”., with its top-down symbolic processing that has nothing at all to do with human thought; far-too-narrowly modular “evolutionary” approaches, genetic determinism, and a host of other all-encompassing schemes which make a habit of dismissing most of the evidence. Luckily, neuroscience (in particular) is now beginning to expose these for what they are, and, in consequence, it will become much easier to exercise a little more discrimination in our theoretical choices.

“The humours metaphor of the Elizabethans is closer to the truth than is the drive metaphor. The brain is not a hydraulic system. No fluids in it build up under pressure, urging us to do this or that action, relenting after we ‘let off steam.’... Rather than building up pressure until release occurs, action tendencies rise and fall with internal and external causes, often without deprivation or release. The terms we use [today] to describe them are nonmetaphoric and epistemologically cautious, merely describing what can be seen and measured. But they have one great advantage: a plausible relationship to what goes on in brain and body.”
(Konner, p.89)

“Artificial-intelligence experts trying to model the brain as a general-purpose computer should, in the early twenty-first century - be feeling very uncomfortable.... [But] if you insist upon the computer model, think, then, of a late-1970s Tandy desktop computer somehow hopelessly yoked to a Cray supercomputer, an early Macintosh, a Pentium multimedia-based system, an old mechanical calculator, an abacus, and a vast array of Webservers and software. DOS, MacOS, Windows, Linux, Java, Bluetooth, and various WAP enablers have no choice but to coexist, not just on a network but on every single machine. Parts of this system would do well to bypass the others, but they cannot. Aging, rusted, even broken components stay and play their roles. Now add all the things machines don’t have to contend with: ongoing responsiveness to temperature, humidity, time of day, the ebb and flow of various chemicals, and, alas, parasites that constantly change the responsiveness of some parts of the circuitry. Let the system learn, but not through programming; experience modifies software and hardware alike. Finally, make the system especially impressionable for certain kinds of experience, corresponding to love, lust, grief, fear, rage, disgust, resentment, jealousy, and pain. This is the spit-and-chewing-gum evolutionary mess that is the human brain, not a well-made computer solving problems by iterating neat little algorithms. And this mess is uniquely human. Future computers may well think, but until they feel like bodies they will not think like brains.”
(Konner, pp.142-3)

“Mental and behavioral phenomena must find their brain location, not in a static geography of locations, but a dynamic commerce of circuits.”
(Konner, p.127)

“Steroid hormones...may not interfere with the machinery of heredity, but the do regulate its expression, in the most intimate example of gene-environment interaction. Here are genes whose effect on the organism - on the very cell they inhabit - is so far from fixed that it is vulnerable to the merest winds of blood-borne humoral factors. That means that anything in the environment that can influence, say, testosterone - diet, stress, temperature, seduction, even fantasy - can potentially toss a molecular wrench among the delicate cogs of the gene machinery. So much for the fixed effects of genes.”
(Konner, p.98)

The strong evidence makes nonsense of any simple model. Genes are too few to dictate, environmental influences start at fertilization, and the old guesses - particuarly the rhetorically dominant ones - are looking more foolish by the minute:

“At least twice the number of embryonic neurons are born than are needed, and the half that die do not die at random. Recall Changeux’s paradox. [Thirty] thousand genes create a hundred billion neurons with a hundred trillion connections. It can’t be done from within, by a push-pull, click-click  sort of genetic control. Some of the early cells make connections, and these connections supply nutrients that help keep the cells alive while others die. Then synapses, too, stabilize selectively. Most connections are pruned, and the ones that persist are the most active - functional synapses have an edge in the cellular struggle for survival. Embryos are active very early, reacting to noise, flexing their limbs, and sucking their thumbs; this activity shapes brain circuits. Third, beyond cell death and pruning, Gerald Edelman’s model of neural group selection holds that functioning groups of nerve cells - local circuits - form initially under genetic control, with little need of experience. These are fairly fixed, adaptive modules for perception and action. But during growth these preadapted neuronal groups compete, so that experience shapes the brain by selecting among innate microcircuits.... Finally, chaos and complexity models help explain brain growth in at least two ways. First, sensitivity to initial conditions can multiply small differences exponentially,...[but] chaotic unpredictability does not fan out indefinitely. Patterns emerge, as chaos in the developing brain resolves of its own accord. This is order, to be sure, but it is not genetically determined order. Still, many patterns are genetically coded. Chaotic and emergent effects, like activity-dependent ones, occur throughout development but are constantly pushed, pulled, shaped, and molded by the genes.”
(Konner, p.424)

“The fact is that no simple construct will ever explain how the disparate tasks of brain building are shared between genes and enironment. Talk of heredity and environment has transcended the ‘versus,’ passed beyond the ‘which’ and the only slightly more useful ‘how much,’ to the mature question of ‘how.’ Now we know that this is not one question, but thousands. For each system at each moment in development, we may have on our hands a different balance, a different division of labor, a different integration of genes and the world. People being what they are, the torrent of argument between hereditarians and environmentalists, bigots of different stripes, will foolishly continue. For the unsuspecting listener, it will obscure subtle issues and sabotage understanding. Meanwhile...things have come far enough, though, to say that any analysis of human nature that tends to ignore either the genes or the environment can be be decisively discarded.”
(Konner, p.70)

By careful attention to the best empirical work - and to its inevitable weaknesses and lacunae - Konner manages the extremely difficult task of straddling the sciences and the humanities with grace, albeit with little patience for those whose ideologies obstruct their understandings. In consequence, this is a synthesis with the sharp edges left in, as in this incisive dissection of the complex causation of behavior, adapted from Tinbergen:

1. What events in the environment immediately triggered the behavior, releasing stimuli that may be learned or unlearned?

2. What are the immediate physiological causes, the neural circuits and neurotransmitters, that produced the behavioral output?

3. How have slower-acting physiological events, such as hormone levels or disease processes, set the tone of neural circuits?

4. What routine outside events, such as reinforcement, modeling, or stress, though not the immediate precipitating factors, may have altered the organism’s response tendencies?

5. Were remote environmental causes at play, such as the special effects of experience, nutrition, or insults during sensitive periods in early life, including life before birth?

6. What events of embryonic development and their postnatal equivalents have shaped the relevant circuits and their hormonal context?

7. What genes directed the wiring-up of the circuits and coded the precursors, enzymes, and receptors for the needed hormones and neurotransmitters?

8. What adaptive function does the behavior serve? Or, what process of natural selection favored it in the natural environment. In effect, what caused the gene code?

9. What is the animal’s broad heritage? The wings of flies come from thorax; of birds, from forelimbs; of bats, from fingers, and of human beings, from airplane factories. Each species solves this problem differently, as phylogenetic history constrains the response to the same environmental challenge....

“It can be said that all behavior consists of responses to the environment at various levels of causality, beginning with natural selection. [And] only in this framework can we give more than a partial account of what causes aggression, or any other behavior.”
(Konner, p.183)

Perhaps the main problem reviewing a work of this nature, is in giving the correct impression of its scope. I have - deliberately - chosen here to concentrate upon the programmatic level of the work, as I am sure that a mere sampling of empirical sections would not do justice to it. Yet this runs the risk of failing to suggest the sheer variety of points Konner makes, many of them in beautifully phrased asides which will likely stay in the mind long after much factual detail has faded...

“Although it has been argued otherwise, there is undoubtedly life, including intelligent life, elsewhere in the universe. By ‘undoubtedly’ I mean not with absolute certainty, of course - only what I might mean by ‘The sun will undoubtedly rise tomorrow morning.’ I mean with the strange and wise combination of common sense, science, and metaphor that is the closest we get to certainty from where we sit on this awkward, lonely planet. We may never find the intelligent life - it is probably too far away - but it is there.”
(Konner, p.43)

When Sarah B. Hrdy reviewed The Tangled Wing recently, she explicitly contrasted it with those superficially similar works which remain “the moral equivalent of fast food”. One of the key reasons for this is that Konner is explicit about the difficulties involved in studying human behavioral biology, and severely critical of work which does not come up to his (very high) standard. Rather than gloss over such faults, he is explicit in naming and detailing them. This is yet another reason why he remains the best guide in this area.

“Studies of heritability often make assumptions that apply to animals but certainly do not apply to humans, yet these procedures have been relied upon as if they did. For example, in mouse studies animals are randomly assigned to different environments that have no relations to their genes, whereas in humans environments are almost always correlated with genes, making it much harder to separate the two. Not surprisingly conventional estimates of IQ heritability, for instance, ranged from about 45 to about 80 percent, which leaves a lot of room for error. These estimates are also based on the assumption that two given genetic endowments - say, extroversion and introversion - can be compared in a consistent way regardless of the environment - an assumption now known to be false. In reality, simple linear predictions may turn out to be quite wrong, because the rank order of genotypes can change in different environments.”
(Konner, pp.81-2)

“What, then of those famous genes, and the countless studies that prove their power? Even the good studies need more thought. One of the major sources of error in some behavior-genetic research (and of genetic studies in general) is the strange statistical specter called an interaction effect. [Unfortunately,] much of behavioral genetics, especially the genetics of intelligence, has discounted such interaction effects or, in some cases, invented them.... [Furthermore,] since the calculations of heritability in even the best studies never include [genuinely] dramatic cultural variety, there is a real, statistical sense in which they always and inevitably overstate the power of genes.”
(Konner, pp.426-39)

But the best example of Konner’s care in balancing all these different kinds of influences, at least to my mind, is his simple statement “But all else is never equal” (Konner, p.276)...a genuinely true observation that we should all remind ourselves of - next time we are tempted to engage in a “nothing but” argument. In a similar spirit, he also offers us this sobering assessment of the Human Genome Project, deeply contrary to the bombastic puffery proffered by the mass media:

“To get an idea of where we really are, consider this analogy. You have just been handed a shiny new phone book for a small city. Here, you are told, are the names, addresses, and phone numbers of most of the 50,000 residents. Your task: explain the city. The directory is  90 percent accurate, and you see the gaps and errors, but that is not the problem. The problem is that the list tells you nothing about the city. You do see  few annotations...[but] that’s about it. That’sall you know. Now try to reconstruct the city....It’s just a matter of figuring out which ones are which, what they all exactly do, and why they don’t always cooperate. Don’t laugh, because it’s roughly where we are in the genome.”
(Konner, p.453)

And, finally, despite his belief in the importance of behavioral biology, Konner is blunt about the appalling political history associated with it. But, as he also points out, the same can be said about the “blank slate” ideology, although this is far too often forgotten. We should exert care, true, but this should not restrain us from seeking out the truth of our nature - for that may offer our best chance for crafting institutions which can help make the best of it.

“Human behavioral genetics is the most controversial of all pursuits in behavioral biology, as it should be. It was only yesterday that an explicitly genetic theory of human behavior resulted in, or at least strongly supported, the ghettoization, deportation, concentration, enslavement, and mass extermination of millions of helpless victims guilty of absolutely nothing.... [But, unfortunately,] rejection of genetic theories has been no guard against the terrors of authoritarian violence. Deportation, imprisonment, virtual enslavement, and direct or indirect slaughter of as many as 20,000,000 innocent Soviet citizens was based on an ideology rejecting the stable effects of genes.... The ‘Jew-Free Europe’ and ‘The New Soviet Man’ were approached through partly similar means, despite stemming from irreconcilable theories.... So there is no morally save haven in ideology, culture, or history, unless it is an ideology of decency, a culture of respect, and a slowly, painstakingly earned history of fair play.... [And] only a serious study of our nature, in the context of the rest of the natural world, will allow us to protect ourselves at this precarious evolutionary juncture. In the meantime, if you ask me how to set your sail in the storm of claim and counterclaim, of fact and lie and theory, of warning, prophesy, judgement and exhortation, I do have a bit of advice that I earnestly believe in. It can be summarized in the one-word injunction: Doubt.”
(Konner, pp.476-9)

“Contrary to the predictions of the Social Darvinists, current conditions do not result in the survival of the fittest - or rather, they do, but only if we mean fittest for war, dictatorship, racism, genocide, famine, disease, inequality and poverty. If we want, instead, those people who are fittest for peace, democracy, justice, health, equality, productivity, creativity and prosperity, then somehow we must begin to create those conditions first.”
(Konner, p.455)

Melvin Konner’s The Tangled Wing makes the best possible case for the compatibility of behavioral biology with the humanistic insights of literature. Konner’s beautiful prose, his care in assessing evidence, and his refusal to discard the insights of humane learning combine triumphantly in a compelling  synthesis which easily outclasses its “competitors” from both ideological extremes of the ill-considered “nature versus nurture” debate. This is no small achievement, and all those who are genuine in wishing to learn about humanity should investigate it forthwith...

“We must choose, and choose soon, either for or against the further evolution of the human spirit. It is for us, in the generation that turned the corner of the millennium, to apply whatever knowledge we have, in all humility, but with all due speed, and to try to learn more as quickly as possible. It is for us, much more than for any previous generation, to become serious about the human future and to make choices that will be weighed not in a decade or a century but in the balances of geological time. It is for us, with all our stumbling, and in the midst of our terrible confusion, to try to disengage the tangled wing.”
(Konner, p.488)

John Henry Calvinist