Melvin Konner

Melvin Konner, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology and associate professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at Emory University, is the author of The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit.

Recent Articles

The Evolutionary Roots of Altruism

Do altruistic groups always beat selfish groups? A new book claims they do. 

Ciju Cherian / Solent News / Rex Features
Ciju Cherian / Solent News / Rex Features With a little teamwork, these ants turn themselves into a bridge for their friends to walk over in Kerala, India. Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others By David Sloan Wilson 192 pp. Yale University/Templeton Press $27.50 David Sloan Wilson opens his new book, Does Altruism Exist? , with an old conundrum that has animated many late-night dormitory debates: If helping someone gives you pleasure, gains you points for an afterlife, and enhances your reputation, is it really altruism? Wilson wisely decides to put acts before motives: “When Ted benefits Martha at a cost to himself, that’s altruistic, regardless of how he thinks or feels about it.” Great. But what does “cost” mean in that sentence? Does it mean “cost” after considering all those benefits, or not? Wilson believes that to answer this question, we must turn to evolutionary theory, and especially to a theory known as...

Our Bodies, Our Choices

The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering by Michael J. Sandel (Belknap Press, 162 pages, $18.95) Most religious traditions today not only accept advances in medical science but regard them in some sense as a moral imperative. Christians say, "God helps those who help themselves," Jews are urged to "repair the world" (and even to complete the work of creation), and the Dalai Lama famously reveres science and expresses doubts about elements in his own great religious tradition when they seem to conflict with science's findings. This was not always the case. Medieval Catholic clerics warned that medical treatment betrayed a lack of faith and deemed it incompatible with holy orders. Edward Jenner's invention of inoculation, in the 1790s, met with wide religious condemnation on both sides of the Atlantic on the grounds that inoculation usurped God's power over life and death, and that only hypocrites could accept it and still pray. The 19th-century Scottish...

The Fat and the Fire

Generation Extra Large: Rescuing Our Children from the Epidemic of Obesity by Lisa Tartamella, Elaine Herscher, and Chris Woolston ( Basic Books, 272 pages, $25.00 ) Our Overweight Children: What Parents, Schools, and Communities Can Do to Control the Fatness Epidemic by Sharron Dalton ( University of California Press, 292 pages, $24.95 ) Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood by Susan Linn ( New Press, 256 pages, $24.95 ) Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health by Marion Nestle ( University of California Press, 469 pages, $29.95 ) The Weight Of It: A Story of Two Sisters by Amy Wilensky ( Henry Holt, 203 pages, $23.00 ) A human disaster is unfolding in front of our eyes: American kids and adults are relentlessly growing fatter and, consequently, sicker. But the disaster is not just the product of individual appetites; powerful institutions, private and public, have been complicit in creating and exacerbating the problem. That, in a...

Books in Review

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature By Steven Pinker. Viking Press, 509 pages, $27.95 Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom By Paul H. Rubin. Rutgers University Press, 256 pages, $25.00 Among the calamities of the 20th century were vast social experiments that tried to transform humanity with disastrous consequences. The Nazi experiment, based on the notion that evil is inborn in certain races, rejected education as a means of correction and instead pursued the extermination of millions of alleged incorrigibles. It drew upon a then-legitimate scientific tradition that had been widely accepted in Western countries for half a century. The Khmer Rouge experiment, based on the contrasting notion that complete "re-education" is possible, attempted to change the behavior of millions of Cambodians and killed them if they resisted change. Presumably their deaths would serve as salutary examples for survivors. Both these vicious programs, if they did not derive...

Darwin's Truth, Jefferson's Vision

When scientists on the left began attacking sociobiology, liberals nodded their heads. But take another look. The supposed contradiction between Darwinian reasoning and liberal political philosophy was based on a misunderstanding of both.

As the new field of sociobiology has emerged during the past quarter century, it has met with firm and unrelenting opposition from prominent liberal critics. Sociobiology—also known as evolutionary psychology or neo-Darwinian theory—holds that many patterns of human behavior have a basis in evolution. Because this approach often suggests biological explanations of gender roles, it affronts many feminists. It has also drawn opposition from a group of biologists on the left who have raised general scientific and philosophical objections and have had great influence in shaping liberal opinion. The scientific critics have included highly respected figures in biology: Ruth Hubbard, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, and Jonathan Beckwith, among others. None in this group had done direct research on human behavior when sociobiology first emerged in the 1970s. Nonetheless, they immediately perceived a grave threat to liberal values, and their opposition has persisted ever since...