International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit

by Melvin Konner

Introductory Essay by William Grassie

After twenty years, Melvin Konner has revised and updated his classic text in behavioral biology. The Tangled Wing is an unmatched masterpiece in interdisciplinary scholarship and in prose eloquence. Synthesized in these pages are contemporary insights in biology, psychology, and anthropology, making it an essential introduction for any religious philosopher or theologian who wants to responsibly engage the human sciences.

Presented in five parts and nineteen chapters, The Tangled Wing begins with a review of evolution and natural selection, particularly as it applies to humans. It then shifts to a review of contemporary insights from the neurosciences. Already in the subtitle, Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit, we have a hint at Konner’s nuanced reading of the nature-nurture debates that have raged throughout the twentieth century. He writes:

"Talk of heredity and environment has transcended the ‘versus,’ passed beyond the ‘which’ and now the only slight more useful ‘how much,’ to the mature question of ‘how.’  Now we know that this is not one question but thousands… the torrent of argument between hereditarians and environmentalists, bigots of different stripes, will foolishly continue… any analysis of human nature that tends to ignore either the genes or the environment can be decisively discarded." [70]

What follows are thousands of examples of the myriad ways that nature and nurture, genes and their environment, interact to create our human nature, a nature that is also extremely plastic and blessed with the capacity for collective learning – learning which allows us to partly and progressively transcend our biological constraints. In chapter six, for instance, Konner delves into the politically-charged territory of sex differences – male, female, and several intermediates – exploring neurological, hormonal, genetic, behavioral, and culturally-influenced tendencies in the construction of sex and gender.

In part two, Konner takes on the biological basis for rage, fear, joy, lust, love, grief and gluttony. Throughout the book, biology, genetics, neurosciences, psychology, and anthropology are integrated within a global, evolutionary perspective. And throughout, the names of top research authorities, their books, and essays are cited, along with many poets and philosophers. 

In part three, Konner examines plasticity in human nature and the interplay between determinism and variability in human persons and culture. This limited ability of humans to progressively transcend their nature is a puzzle partly solved by behavioral biology. But our human nature is itself increasingly a moving target as he looks toward the future and the  promises and perils of genetic engineering.

Konner ends the book with a review of profound global issues that confronts our hunter-gatherer species at the dawn of the 21st century, including over-population, food production, environmental degradation, violent conflicts, disease, and climate change. “The Malthusian nightmare… is not about something that hasn’t happened yet. It is about what happened to the ancient civilizations and the early modern empires… Read the daily headlines, Malthus was right.” [462].

Konner tends towards a Stoic and Existentialist interpretation of evolution and the biological constraints on the human spirit, a spirit that cannot fly. He often assumes more than need be. For instance, his out-of-hand rejection of multilevel selection theory is uncharacteristically unnuanced.  With the pace of discovery intensifying, we may hope for a third edition of this invaluable guide to the sciences of human nature. In the meantime, thinking humans will be well rewarded by reading this book.