So near and Yet So Far

By Small, Meredith F. | Natural History, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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So near and Yet So Far


Small, Meredith F., Natural History


REVIEW

Yes, we're primates. But how much does that tell us about our behavior?

Philosophers have always been engaged in trying to understand how much of human behavior is innate-biologically determined-and how much is molded by life experience. This so-called nature/nurture debate has been transformed in recent years by an explosion of research on the human genome, behavioral genetics, and molecular biology. The answer to the philosophers' question seems to be that the behavior of all animals, including humans, reflects a dynamic interplay of genes and environment. Yet, as demonstrated by the two books reviewed here, the controversy over the influence of each force still rages.

Melvin Konner and Jonathan Marks are both anthropologists in the grand tradition, at ease discussing the complexities of biology as well as culture. Both men draw not only from their own disciplines but from their knowledge of history, sociology, and literature. But they differ dramatically in their estimate of science's ability to explain who we are. In The Tangled Wing, Konner celebrates science, while in What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee, Marks deplores some of the misdeeds performed in the name of this discipline, suggesting that science has been misused to support shaky social agendas. Read together, the two books provide a good recipe for human nature, seasoned with a cautionary note.

The original edition of The Tangled Wing, published more than two decades ago, was one of the firstand surely one of the most exhaustive-books on human behavior to hit the shelves during the heyday of sociobiology. Konner's medical training (he teaches psychiatry and neurology as well as anthropology at Emory University), combined with his anthropological fieldwork with a !Kung San population of huntergatherers in Botswana, provide a strong foundation for integrating the mountain of research on genetics, hormones, behavioral genetics, psychology, and ethnography and also for finding ways to explain why we are the way we are. In this extensively updated and rewritten second edition, Konner moves easily from chapters on such general topics as human sociality, adaptation, ingenuity, brain development, genes, and culture to those focused on particular aspects of human emotion and desire.

In his chapter on rage, for example, Konner describes two, almost identical murders-young men killing their girlfriends-in two very different cultures and shows how the justice system in each culture viewed the man's deed. In the United States, the act was seen as a lover's quarrel; in China, as a political act against the state. Both of the killers were overcome with jealous rage-surely a biopsychological state-yet each culture viewed the act through a different lens. Konner then looks at the brain chemistry of aggression, citing studies of rats, monkeys, and people, and suggests that changes in the level of hormones such as serotonin are clearly involved in impulses toward suicide, violence, and negativity. At the same time, anger can be molded or learned as a response to the environment and can thus play a role in altering hormone balances. Over and over, Konner depicts human nature as a complex meshing and overlapping of biology and culture. "Our species is at a crux in its earthly history, aggressively mastering techniques that will let us guide and change our own nature," he writes. "The biological genieswhether medicines, hormones, recreational drugs, brain cells, neural circuits, clones, or genes themselvescannot be put back into the bottle." We are responsible for "seeing to it that these new genies are servants to, not masters of, our destiny.

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