The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit


First published twenty years ago to great acclaim, The Tangled Wing soon became a must-read for anyone interested in the biological roots of human behavior and emotions. Since then however, revolutions have taken place in the biological sciences—not only in genetics but molecular biology and neuroscience as well. All of these innovations have been brought into account in this vastly expanded edition of a book originally called an "overwhelming achievement" by the Times Literary ...

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First published twenty years ago to great acclaim, The Tangled Wing soon became a must-read for anyone interested in the biological roots of human behavior and emotions. Since then however, revolutions have taken place in the biological sciences—not only in genetics but molecular biology and neuroscience as well. All of these innovations have been brought into account in this vastly expanded edition of a book originally called an "overwhelming achievement" by the Times Literary Supplement.

In a masterful synthesis of biology, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy, Konner delves unabashedly into the seat of human emotions. He shows what is "natural" and what is merely construct. His discussion and analysis are both sensitive and straightforward, ranging from such compelling topics as brain differences between the sexes to the roots of mental illness. Finally, in a stirring tribute to the human spirit, he demonstrates how our tremendous capacity for change illuminates our prospects for the future.

Notes and References

Complete notes and references for The Tangled Wing are available online in either PDF or HTML format, at

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Editorial Reviews

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This completely revised and updated edition of a classic first published in the 1980s incorporates the new research in genetics, neurology, and other fields that has served to confirm the author's original thesis -- that science does provide some fundamental understanding of human nature.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780716746027
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/17/2002
  • Edition description: REV
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 736
  • Product dimensions: 6.28 (w) x 9.64 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Melvin Konner M.D., Ph.D., is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology and an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Emory University. Trained at Harvard University, he has held NIMH and NSF research grants, and has been a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Foundations Fund for Research in Psychiatry. Konner is the author of Becoming a Doctor and Why the Reckless Survive, and Other Secrets of Human Nature. A Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the board of the Russell Sage Foundation, Konner has spent time advocating single-payer health care reform, testifying twice at U.S. Senate hearings. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Read an Excerpt

One of the most fascinating and least discussed discoveries in the study of the wild chimpanzees was described in a short paper by Harold Bauer. He was following a well-known male through the forest of the Gombe Stream Reserve in Tanzania when the animal stopped beside a waterfall. It seemed possible that he had deliberately gone to the waterfall rather than passing it incidentally, but that was not absolutely clear. In any case, it was an impressive spot: a stream of water cascading down from a twenty-five-foot height, about a mile from the lake, thundering into the pool below and casting mist for sixty or seventy feet; a stunning sight to come upon in the midst of a tropical forest.

The animal seemed lost in contemplation of it. He moved slowly closer and began to rock, while beginning to give a characteristic round of "pant-hoot" calls. He became more excited, and finally began to run back and forth while calling, to jump, to call louder, to drum with his fists on trees, to run back again. The behavior resembled that observed by Jane Goodall in groups of chimps at the start of a rainstorm--the "rain dance," as it has been called. But this was one animal alone, and not surprised as the animals are by sudden rain--even if he had not deliberately sought the waterfall out, he certainly knew where it was and when he would come upon it.

He continued this activity long enough so that it seemed to merit some explanation, and he did it again in the same place on other days. Other animals were observed to do it as well. They had no practical interest in the waterfall. The animals did not have to drink from the stream orcross it in that vicinity. To the extent that it might be dangerous, it could be easily avoided, and certainly did not interest every animal. But for these it was something they had to look at, return to, study, watch, become excited about: a thing of beauty, an object of curiosity, a challenge, a fetish, an imagined creature, a god? We will never know.

But for a very similar animal, perhaps five million years ago, in the earliest infancy of the human spirit, something in the natural world must have evoked a response like this one--a waterfall, a mountain vista, a sunset, the crater of a volcano, the edge of the sea--something that stopped it in its tracks and made it watch, and move, and watch, and turn, and watch again; something that made it return to the spot, though nothing gainful could take place there, no feeding, drinking, reproducing, sleeping, fighting, fleeing, nothing animal. In just such a response, in just such a moment, in just such an animal, we may, I think, be permitted to guess, occurred the dawn of awe, of sacred attentiveness, of wonder.

The human infant, for its first few months of life, is all eyes, in a way that no other animal infant quite is. It isn't just that its eyes are good, that it does a lot of looking; it's that it does so little else, really. It can suck, of course, and swallow, but the rest of what it does is very primitive, except for attentiveness. Even in the adult brain, a third of all incoming signals are from the eyes. In the infant, looking and seeing are way ahead of most other functions in development, with the possible exception of hearing. The infant is not a passive figure, nor an active one either, but what might be called an actively receptive one--eagerly, hungrily receptive, famished for sights and sounds, no vague, fuzzy intelligence in a blooming, buzzing confusion, but a highly ordered, if simple, mind with a fine sense of novelty, of pattern, even of beauty. The light on a leaf outside the window, the splash of red on a woman's dress, the restless shadow on the ceiling, the drubbing sound of hard rain--any of these may evoke a rapt attention not, perhaps, unlike that of the chimpanzee at the waterfall.

For most of us, that sense of wonder diminishes as we grow, becoming at best peripheral to the business of everyday life. For a few it becomes the central fact of existence. These follow two separate paths: either the sense of wonder leads them to analysis, or it leads them to simple contemplation. Either way the sense of wonder is the first fact of life, but the paths are different in most other ways. The analyst, or scientist, moved to reveal by explaining, breaks apart the image, and the sense of wonder, focusing sequentially on the pieces. The contemplator, or artist, moved to reveal by simply looking, keeps the image and the sense of wonder whole. The artist contrives to keep the attention riveted without fragmentation, by means of high trickery. This trickery involves transmuting the image into human speech---whether a literary, plastic or musical form of speech---forever fixing in place the sense of wonder.

There is a photograph that has by now been seen by most people living ln civilized countries. It was taken from an ingenious if crude vehicle traveling thousands of miles per hour, across a vast expanse of space empty of air, by men who had devoted their lives, courageously and at personal cost, to the mastery of nature through machinery. This photograph cost a billion dollars, and it is worth every penny.

It shows an almost spherical object poised against a backdrop of black. The object is partly colored a deep, warm, pretty blue, with many broken, off-white swirls drawn across it. It looks at first like a mandala, a strange symbol woven on black cloth. It looks whole, somehow, and rather small. But as we study it (it draws us in mysteriously) some red-brown shapes obscured among the swirls of white take on before our eyes the unmistakable images we first saw and memorized as children, encountering the geography of the continents. If the space program accomplished nothing else, we must be grateful to it for producing that photograph.

"Got the earth right out our front window," said Buzz Aldrin. A medium-size mammal from a middling planet of a middle-aged star in the arm of an average galary, gazing at home. There was no excess of poetry on that mission. There was, of course, the stark poetry of aeronautics gob-bledygook, and the arch, well-prepared, historic mot of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Sea of Tranquility, but "Beautiful, beautiful," "Magnificent sight out here," and "Got the earth right out our front window," was about the level at which these unique first views of the natural world were transmuted to human speech. This was no fault of Armstrong and Aldrin; they were chosen for other talents, which they had in full measure. But it is intriguing that such spontaneous poetry as there was was evoked by the machinery. "The Eagle has wings," one of them said as the lunar landing vehicle sep after some difficulty, from the orbiting command station. The eagle, bold symbol of human hope on the North American continent and, beyond that, of the hope of humanity in the mission, has wings, has the means to transcend technical difficulty and emerge, having mastered natural law.

But this stepping off the earth is an illusion. The mastery of natural law has proceeded no farther than the grasp of some elementary laws of physics. Compared with the uncharted, infinitely more intricate laws of biology and behavior that govern the human spirit and the planet earth's future, this mastery is trivial, a mere conjurer's trick. The mastery of physical law can no longer save us while we are grounded in a tangle of ignorance of the natural laws that govern our behavior. In this sense, the eagle does not have wings.

When I was a young man in college a professor took me to the American Museum of Natural History, not to the exhibits, which I had often seen, but into the bowels of the place, among the labyrinths of storage cabinets of bones and skins and rocks and impossibly ancient fossils. I was very much impressed by this chance to see the museum the way insiders saw it.

There I met a man who had devoted most of his life to the study of the skeletal remains of Archaeopteryx, the earliest tetrapod with feathered wings--as we now know, a descendant of nonflying dinosaurs feathered for warmth. I saw him as he stood over the bent, vaguely birdlike shape, embedded in a 150 million-year-old Mesozoic rock. I was introduced to him, awed by him, impressed with his intelligence and wisdom. It was obvious that he wanted to impart to me some piece of useful knowledge gained from countless hours of squinting over that crushed tangle of bone and stone.

What he finally said was that he thought Archaeopteryx was very much like people. This of course puzzled me, as it was calculated to do, and when I pressed him, he said, "Well, you know, it's such a transitional creature. It's a piss-poor reptile, and it's not very much of a bird." Apart from the shock of hearing strong language in those relatively hallowed halls, there was an intellectual shock to my young mind that filed those phrases in it permanently.

The dinosaurs ruled this planet for over a hundred million years, at least a hundred times longer than the brief, awkward tenure of human creatures, and they are gone almost without a trace, leaving nothing but crushed bone as a memento. We can do the same more easily and in an ecological sense we would be missed even less. So what? seems an inevitable question, and the best answer I can think of is that we know, we are capable of seeing what is happening. We are the only creatures that understand evolution, that, conceivably, can alter its course. We see the possibility of self-extinction, and are probably capable of averting it. It would be too base of us to relinquish this possibility.

It seems at times that we are losing the sense of wonder, the hallmark of our species and the central feature of the human spirit. Perhaps this is due to the depredations of science and technology against the arts and the humanities, but I doubt it--although this is certainly something to be concerned about. I suspect it is simply that the human spirit is insufficiently developed at this moment in evolution, much like the wing of Archaeopteryx. Whether we can free for further evolution will depend, in part, on the full reinstatement of the sense of wonder. It must be reinstated not only in relation to the natural world but to the human world as well. We must once again experience the human soul as soul, and not just as a buzz of bioelectricity; the human will as will, and not just a surge of hormones; the human heart not as a fibrous, sticky pump, but as the metaphoric organ of understanding. We need not believe in them as metaphysical entities--they are as real as the flesh and blood they are made of. But we must believe in them as entities; not as analyzed fragments, but as wholes made real by our contemplation of them, by the words we use to talk of them, by the way we have transmuted them to speech. We must stand in awe of them as unassailable, even though they are dissected before our eyes.

As for the natural world, we must restore wonder there too. We could start with that photograph of the earth. It may be our last chance. Even now it is being used in geography lessons, taken for granted by small children. We are the first generation to have seen it, the last generation not to take it for granted. Will we remember what it meant to us? How fine the earth looked, dangled in space? How pretty against the endless black? How round? How very breakable? How small? It's up to us to try to experience a sense of wonder about it that will save it before it is too late. If we cannot, we may do the final damage in our lifetimes. If we can, we may change the course of history and, consequently, the course of evo-lution, setting the human lineage on a path toward a new evolutionary plateau.

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 turns the corner of the millenium, 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.
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Table of Contents

A Prefatory Inquiry

Part One: Foundations of a Science of Human Nature
Chapter 1: Adaptation, An Introduction
Chapter 2: The Quest for the Natural
Chapter 3: The Crucible
Chapter 4: The Fabric of Meaning
Chapter 5: The Several Humours
Chapter 6: The Beast with Two Backs
Chapter 7: The Well of Feeling
Chapter 8: Logos

Part Two: Of Human Frailty
Chapter 9: Rage
Chapter 10: Fear
Chapter 11: Joy
Chapter 12: Lust
Chapter 13: Love
Chapter 14: Grief
Chapter 15: Gluttony

Part Three: The Modification of Behavior
Chapter 16: Change
Chapter 17: The Invisible Galaxy

Part Four: Human Nature and the Human Future

Conclusion: The Tangled Wing
Chapter 19: The Dawn of Wonder

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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
Some boys are fascinated by nature, but for me it was human nature. In high school I loved biology and wanted to become a doctor, but I was also obsessed with world history. It seemed so, well, irrational -- war after senseless war, needless starvation and disease, brutal kings and dictators, unbridled greed and lust, and a steep uphill fight to do any lasting good. I knew that the historians had their own explanations, but they didn't help. Sure, you could always explain each disaster according to the specific circumstances, but why did they happen over and over again everywhere on the planet? This question had to be answered through psychology, evolution, the brain. Human nature was real, and it was biological. In a burst of boyish enthusiasm I decided to learn more about it than anyone had ever known. (I now suspect that one of my goals was to learn as much as possible about lust.)

So began an entertaining, lifelong adventure watching human antics and foibles, but also heroism and strength. Ignoring academic boundaries, I tried to learn as much as possible about anthropology, psychology, evolution, genetics, and brain science. As a pre-med I was so drawn to anthropology that I put medical school aside and went on to do field research among the Bushmen, one of the last hunter-gatherer groups and possibly the most interesting people on earth. I had always loved the saying, Nothing human is alien to me. Well, some of the things I saw among the Bushmen were pretty close to alien. But those two years changed my life, and ever since, the Bushmen have been my mental testing ground for any theory or generalization about human nature. When, in the back of my mind, one of my African friends finds a theory hilarious, that's usually a good sign it's a bad theory.

After five years teaching at Harvard -- also a pretty exotic environment -- I went to medical school. Once again I wanted to prove -- to myself, not anyone else -- that nothing human was alien, and the sight of people under the hammer of serious illness was as revealing as it was inspiring. I learned more science, and diseases of the mind and brain were especially revealing. But even patterns like puberty, childbirth, and aging filled in the sketch of human nature I had made as an anthropologist. Then illness struck close to home, claiming the lives of my parents and my wife and teaching me much more about the human spirit.

I wrote the first The Tangled Wing before the blizzard of medical school, and before the great revolutions in genetics and brain science of the last 20 years. These, together with the new experiences of my life -- my wife's long battle with cancer, my role as a single parent, my success in overcoming depression and loss -- convinced me that I needed to The Tangled Wing all over again. So much in it is new that my editor John Michel and I considered for a long time giving it a new title. But in the end we decided that those who had read the first version would want to see its transformation into something wonderfully new, yet retaining the basic character of the original. It's for everyone who shares my fascination with human nature. (Melvin Konner)

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