Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The Tangled Wing and Bio 202: Cause for Wonder in Understanding

Jessica Krueger's picture
I’ve always been one to judge a book by it’s cover; not necessarily to the exclusion of picking up a tomb for casual reading, but I must admit that there’s nothing quite like a pretty picture to make me want to thumb the first few pages. Such was the case, I’m ashamed to admit, which led to my perusal of Melvin Konner’s recently revised The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit (Henry Holt, NY). The yellow cover depicts da Vinci’s “Vertuvian Man” superimposed with an extended wing, an image which is also used to break up the text into sections, and at the very top a photograph of a human, male back. A tag line on the cover further declares that Konner is “the nearest thing we have to a poet laureate of behavioral biology,” and it’s true; the prose inside is clear, informative, engaging and as beautiful as its cover. Organized into five parts, the books moves through both the science and the experience of human nature. Konner reviews a wide array of biological, sociological, ethnographic, anthropological, psychological, and archaeological literature to bring together a comprehensive review of the human state as we understand it, without glossing over the confusions scientists have encountered or the current confounds we grapple with today.
    “It has been said that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. It can now also be said that nothing in human behavior makes sense except in that same light. Cast it on ourselves, and we find that human nature is real, definable, and to some extent predictable.” (pg xvii) In this manner Konner prepares the reader for what is to come; for him, humanity is not some magical manifestation of a higher will imposed on matter, nor is it so special and subject to whimsy that it cannot be defined in terms it so blithely applies to life forms around it. Part one focuses on setting the phylogenetic and cultural stage for the ascendancy of human beings, as well as reviewing the basic structures and processes, namely in the brain, which mediate human behavior. Part two, entitled “Of Human Frailty,” is a review research and theory concerning seven emotions, rage, fear, joy, lust, love, grief and gluttony, emphasizing the universality of emotional experience across cultures and biological mechanisms thought to mediate the experience of each. Learning and genes are shown to influence behavior in part three, ending with an acerbic account of how human behavior will bring our downfall if it isn’t changed. Part four concerns itself with the future and how biological sciences and the study of human behavior, not without its problematic aspects, are the best means of saving the race. Lest that which we seek to understand be torn to shreds in analysis, Konner ends with a plea to reintroduce a sense of wonder and awe, not to be mistaken with deference to religious explanations or unscientific blind faith, to the pursuit of knowledge, for it is what has driven us this far in our search to understand ourselves.
    Biology 202: Neurobiology and Behavior, a course which seeks to understand seemingly inexplicable behavior in terms of salt-water rushing into and out of channels, almost demands a text like this to accompany it. Konner immediately dismisses dualists and naysayers, bringing the supposedly mystical and ineffable human mind into a critical scientific discourse’s line of fire. Not only can we not go back to the supposedly rosy pre-scientific era, but, he argues, it is our very duty to investigate and understand the human as a biological animal. Bio 202 is somewhat limited in its consideration of behavior because it’s by definition limited to only one aspect, albeit a crucial one, to the production of behavior. Where we were often left wondering, are there significant sex differences in the architecture of brains? and how could stereotyped behaviors such as walking come to be so varied in behaviors such as running and dance? because neurology cannot address the entire human experience, The Tangled Wing expanded upon this foundation with in depth inquiry into sex differences and well thought out accounts of how culture and biology interact. In both book and course, biology always has the ultimate say; perception and reality are always mediated by brains because we can show that the part of us which experiences ourselves has been located there by process of elimination, and while culture and experience can twist orienting reflexes into complex dances and bodily expression, no amount of cultural input can override a faulty gene or physiological damage. No surprise there.
    What did pique my interest was the shared desire of professor and author to not only explain, but to instill awe. Professor Grobstein repeatedly demanded that we as students engage with the material, show initiative and curiosity, to rediscover that simple pleasure in understanding that can often get backlogged behind pressing academic concerns. While Dr. Konner does not hold sway over your GPA, he does have amazing prose organized in manner which simultaneously tells the story of an explanation while forcing the reader to acknowledge to often circuitous path science takes to get to understanding, and (presumably) twenty of your dollars. In class, the concept of yellow was challenged and fell as merely a construction of the brain based upon summed activation across neurons, in text Freud’s account of ‘the neuron doctrine’ and its incredible accuracy is introduced to students largely taught only of the Viennese neurologist’s theories on the mind; in both commonly held precepts are subjected to analysis in light of empirical and/or historical evidence. Grobstein and Konner seem to feel that analysis and understanding do not preclude wonder: just because the nervous system can complete many tasks without your explicit awareness (or permission) doesn’t make you less awesome in the traditional sense of the word. Likewise, just because someday geneticists will be able to account for much of our behaviors, feelings and experiences based on tiny bits of inherited chromosomal material doesn’t mean that the human being engaged in being human is not a thing of wonder and beauty.
    Perhaps we are reluctant to surrender the which we hold most dear about ourselves because science has a tendency to excuse things as it explains them. Science also has an extremely duplicitous moral history -- many scientific wonders have turned out to be burdens and it seems as soon as one problem is addressed, something far more dire than the initial one springs into place. Which is worse, possession by demons or intractable genetic illness? Which is better, an omniscient, sentient being looking out for you or just the simple accumulation of change over time? Which is more comfortable, genes and experience driving behavior without any input from the story teller aboard, or that some intangible essence which makes you and makes you special in that others don’t have it? Science stands at the door ready to systematically strip us of what we tell ourselves about ourselves and replace it with something lesser if it even sees the need to replace it at all. Who can blame society for doubting this salesman offering new clothes which seem insufficient to cover our nakedness?
    “Freedom does not consist in the dream of independence of natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws and in the possibility this gives us of systematically making them work towards definite ends.” explains Friedrich Engels in one of the many literary quotes used to illustrate the greater meaning of the concepts at hand in The Tangled Wing. While I can understand why people wouldn’t be willing to submit themselves and their human nature to scientific investigation, I’m inclined to agree with Konner and Engels in that it seems to be the best way to emancipate ourselves from the fate which passive acceptance dictates. In the first chapter Konner explains that not only were humans selected for adaptation, but that our environments seems to select for adaptability, that is, the only way we could survive was to manipulate ourselves and our surroundings such that we could reproduce and survive. Yes, we’ve had to surrender the comforting mysticism of shamanism and religious faith where knowledge is concerned, but we’ve gained so much so quickly its easy to forget that life even twenty years ago was more difficult than today. We perpetually reset our environment, and we must adapt to the challenge by increasing our understanding or risk being destroyed in our own wake.     Furthermore, science is in no position in its current state to advocate absolute truth or understanding, nor do I think it ever will be. In class discussions, it became readily apparent that the human as observer is fallible, constrained by the heuristics which evolved to let him interact with his environment in an adaptive manner. Science is a product of this sophisticated ape, a best fit story given the data we have right now, and as such will always be subject to error. Beyond intrinsic fallibility, no amount of hypothesizing can explain the glorious feelings evoked by viewing clouds of gas and dust superheated or cooled billions of miles away, there is no reliable test to account for the beauty we see in sunsets and red roses, and no theory can account for the awe inspired by watching a human heart resume beating after delicate cardiac surgery. If anything, science and greater understanding gives us cause to wonder and awe at how amazing things are, even when explained.


elizabeth's picture



Paul Grobstein's picture

Science and awe/wonder

Maybe there is, empirically, something beyond genes and experience? And maybe that something makes science not so much "subject to error" as able to share in creation? That would be pretty awesome.