The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit (Second Edition, 2002) by Melvin Konner

Dr. Charles F. Urbanowicz / Professor of Anthropology
California State University, Chico / Chico, California 95929-0400
530-898-6220 [Office]; 530-898-6192 [Dept.]; 530-898-6824 [FAX]
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30 September 2002 (1)

[This page printed from]

© All rights reserved. Published in Reports Of the National Center For Science Education, Vol. 23, Number 1, Jan-Feb 2003, pages 43-44. NCSE (National Center for Science Education), 420 40th Street, Suite 2, Oakland, CA 94609-2509.

The Tangled Web: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit (Second Edition, Revised and Updated). By Melvin Konner. New York: Henry Holt and Company (A W. H. Freeman Book / Times Books), 2002. 540 pages. $35.00.

This is a wonderful book to read but a difficult book to review. With 488 pages of text and twenty-two pages of notes and references (beginning with an essay entitled "Caveat: The Dangers of Behavioral Biology") The Tangled Web is another example of "the big book season!" Others authors include the late Stephen J. Gould's 2002 The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (1433 pages), as well as Stephen Wolfram's 2002 A New Kind of Science (1260 pages). Konner's book is half the size of the others, but he has a lot to say and he writes well!

Utilizing information from anthropology, biology, philosophy, and psychology, Konner is trying to provide the "Foundations of a Science of Human Nature" which is the title of the first part of this volume; other parts are "Of Human Frailty," "The Modification of Behavior," "Human Nature and the Human Future" and, finally, "The Tangled Wing," referring to the lunar lander ("Eagle") that Armstrong took to the moon in 1969. Konner ends The Tangled Web as follows:

"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 dreadful confusion, to try to disengage the tangled wing." (Konner, 2002: 488)

Konner begins each chapter with appropriate quotes, from Darwin, Huxley, Mary Anne Evans, and Albert Einstein (just to mention a few) as he masterfully makes the case for the importance of biology in our lives. The first chapter is "The Quest for the Natural," and the volume continues through "Adaptation, The Crucible, The Fabric of Meaning, The Several Humours, The Beast With Two backs, The Well of Feeling, Logos, Rage, Fear, Joy, Lust, Love, Grief, Gluttony, Change, The Invisible Galaxy, The Prospect," and ends with "The Dawn of Wonder." Every chapter is an intricately-written and well-documented essay and to highlight a specific chapter in this review could imply that others are less valuable, and this is not the case!

Konner (with an M.D. and a Ph.D. in Anthropology) deftly weaves in comments on his own ethnographic fieldwork among the African !Kung and his "Acknowledgements" essay points out the support of many individuals, including his wife, the ethnographer Marjorie Shostak; and Konner's warmth is clearly conveyed when he writes of his parents who "overcame both physical handicap and poverty to give me the desire and the opportunity for a lifelong dedication to learning. They did not fully understand this book, but they believed in it and in me" (2002: x).

While reading Konner, Ferris's 1988 Coming of Age in the Milky Way came to mind and his words concerning Darwin's monumental 1859 publication, On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life:

"Indeed, the book was so detailed and modest that it struck many readers as self-evident. This was a source of strength, in that nothing so persuades a man [or any individual!] to accept a novel idea as the sense that he already knew it to be true. ("How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that," said Thomas Huxley, previously an evolutionary skeptic, upon reading the Origin.")" (Ferris, 1988: 243).

Konner refers to "The Dangers of Behavioral Biology," writing that "the contents of this book are known to be dangerous" (page 489), pointing out some abuses of behavioral biology, including "Social Darwinism. It is in this section that Konner has a "Note on the Notes" and he points out that if all the "Notes" were published in The Tangled Web, the reader would not have a 540-page publication, but something in excess of 746 pages (starting to come close to the two large works previously mentioned). For specific notes the reader is referred to, available in either HTML or an Adobe Acrobat PDF File: the HTML file is 2396K and the PDF file is 206 pages.

Konner has references for each chapter and current "Recommended Readings" (113) but how many people are going to make the time to read The Tangled Web next to their computer to check on notes or print out the files? With separate reference sources, will the technology be available to each reader and will the web site be available when the reader wishes it? (Is this the developing trend or an attempt by publishers to save money?) It is comforting that Konner does write that "to those inconvenienced [by this system of notes on the web], please accept my apologies" (2002: 497) but I believe that because of this separation that the current Tangled Web will be of more value to the well-read non-scientist and not necessarily the science professional (or university student). The well-read individual may think, as Huxley did, that Konner's argument sounds very reasonable and compelling and why do any additional research? The science professional, or university student who might use this as a jumping-off text for further research, will have to go through that extra step of checking on the specific references and may not do it.

Konner's first edition of 1982 (with 436 pages of text and 84 reference pages) did include information for all of the citations and it is unfortunate that the 2002 volume did not do that. In 2000 Ehrlich published his monumental view on human nature, entitled Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. With 331 pages of text and 100 pages of 1,901 numbered footnotes (and 2,574 references) Ehrlich makes it easier for research than Konner. If another Tangled Web is anticipated, the publisher should see that all notes are included (since other important monumental tomes include them).

With all of the above, it is possible to summarize The Tangle Web when Konner writes that "Human nature exists" and

"Fewer than one in ten Americans accept evolution as a process that goes on without divine intervention. This book not only endorses the last view, it also claims that every aspect of the human spirit--mind, thought, feeling, love, dreams, hope, admiration, decency, faith, and in general everything that the religious person takes as evidence for the soul--came from that same natural process, without need of divine assistance." (Konner, 2002: xiii)

It should be noted, however, that although Konner began "Foundations of a Science of Human Nature" by invoking Charles Darwin's 1859 Origin, "Thus, from the war of nature....(page 1)," Konner fails to point out that in his lifetime Darwin published six editions of On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life and every-single-edition is different. Beginning with the second, 1860 edition, Darwin included the term "Creator" (as indicated below), alluding to "divine assistance" which Konner finds no need for. Darwin wrote

"Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object of which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of higher animals directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved [stress added]." (Darwin, 1872: 669-670)

Konner is not alone in failing to point out the changes in Darwin's Origin (Gould left out the term "Creator" in writing about Darwin when using this particular phrase) but "change" was natural for Darwin. Darwin cut, re-wrote, and edited sentences for all editions of Origin published in his lifetime and every edition of Origin is different! This is an extremely important for an appreciation of Darwin's intellectual development and consideration of the development of human nature.

My modest comments aside, obtain the book and read it, study it, and think about it carefully. Konner has numerous excellent thoughts and he has the writing skill to eloquently convey his ideas and information. The Tangled Web: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit is thought-provoking and while Konner may not present us with a final answer concerning "divine assistance" and "human nature" (if ever there shall be one), he makes us think! Readers will have to weigh the evidence (and compare it with their own body of knowledge and personal philosophy) and decide accordingly.  

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Darwin, Charles. On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (London: John Murray), 1872 edition [1900 reprint].

Ehrlich, Paul. Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Covelo/Washington, D.C.; Island Press, 2000.

Ferris, Timothy. Coming of Age in the Milky Way. New York; Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1988.

Gould, Stephen J. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Harvard University Press), 2002.

Wolfram, Stephen. A New Kind of Science (Champaign, Illinois: Wolfram Media Inc.), 2002.

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NOTE: these web references were not submitted with the original review but are obviously included on this web page: [Apollo 11] [Stephen Wolfram} Official Web Site] [Stephen J. Gould Archives] [Interview with Timothy J. Ferris] [Paul R. Ehrlich] [Darwin's Origin of Species} First Edition] [Darwin's Origin of Species} Not the first edition]

[1] © All rights reserved. Published in Reports Of the National Center For Science Education, Vol. 23, Number 1, Jan-Feb 2003, pages 43-44. NCSE (National Center for Science Education), 420 40th Street, Suite 2, Oakland, CA 94609-2509. To return to the beginning of this page, please click here.

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