- Paperback: 560 pages
- Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; Revised edition (February 1, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0805072799
- ISBN-13: 978-0805072792
- Product Dimensions: 7 x 1.1 x 10 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 20 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #819,311 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit Paperback – February 1, 2003
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“How wonderful to have a new Tangled Wing which incorporates the rich findings made in the last twenty years in the fields of evolutionary and behavioral biology. We find the same graceful writing as in the original classic and the same facility to clarify complex issues and to come to stimulating conclusions.” ―Ernst Mayr, Professor Emeritus, Harvard University
About the Author
Melvin Konner, M.D., Ph.D., is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology and an associate professor of neurology at Emory University. He 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, he lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
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The plan of the book is as follows:
An introduction warns the reader not to romanticize exotic cultures.
Part 1 (Ch. 1 to 8) explains clearly that at least the foundation or scaffolding of our behaviors are determined by our genes. BUT at the same time, genetically related wirings of the brain CAN be modified by the environment. In this part of the book some basic neurology related to human behavior is discussed.
Part 2 (Ch. 9 to 15) explores basic human emotions, urges and behaviors. The psychology, neurology and biochemistry are all discussed. I am a practising physician, and I am most rewarded by the chapter on "Gluttony". I now know why my patients have difficulties in losing weight. I am surprised that I was not taught about all these in medical school! These chapters can at times read tedious but as I have said they are very rewarding indeed.
Part 3 (Ch. 16 and 17) reminds the reader (even though grounds have been covered throughout the earlier chapters) that in spite of the importance of genes in influencing over behavior, NURTURE is also important. The author somehow seems to change the focus of the book and speculates upon the future of human beings and whether we are still able to save ourselves from self-destruction through follies.
Part 4 (Ch. 18) gets even further away from the earlier chapters. It is very moving. It is about social justice and the thesis is that human selfishness can be modified because of the importance of NURTURE upon our behvior.
Pert 5 (Ch. 19) is very short, only 4 pages long. To me it's about spirituality.
So what have you got here? A long book on human behavior and the author's manifesto on how to save the world. I do not necessarily agree with him, but the book does teach me a lot. Some of it may even be useful for my clinical practice. My only slight disappointment is that this book, a book on human behavior, almost leaves religion out. It only mentions it tangentially (pg 481 - 482).
Scientific authors often have to trade off between popular appeal of their books and usefulness to the academic community. Konner settled that compromise more on the academic side, but I wouldn't say this book is wholly inaccessible to those outside the academic community (my education is in engineering, but that didn't stop me from enjoying it). If you don't mind wading through a little jargon about neurotransmitters and brain regions, there are plenty of fascinating gems to be discovered. And laymen might be just as impressed by the methodology of a real scientist as they are by the discoveries garnered thereby.
There is a chapter about weight regulation titled 'Gluttony' that I found particularly interesting. This is a deceptively complex topic that is subject to much pseudoscience and uninformed opinion, so it is refreshing to see the bright light of science shone upon it. I'll summarize some of the findings:
"Between the age twenty-five and fifty-five, the average American puts on an additional twenty pounds; all this takes is an energy intake that exceeds energy output by one third of one percent. " The sensations of hunger and satiety (fullness) are regulated by a complicated system using various forms of feedback, and tiny variations can make all the difference. "40 to 70 percent of human variation in plumpness is genetic, as measured in various ways in many studies. In a classic adoption study led by Albert Stunkard, 540 adult Danish adoptees were compared with their biological and adoptive parents. The subjects ranged from thin to extremely obese, and this dimension was highly predictable from the fatness of either biological parent but not from either or both adoptive parents...the family environment had no apparent effect."
"The meal-ending signal system is framed by the long-term fat-regulation system." In other words, when you have more body fat than your "set point," you feel full after eating less food than you otherwise would, triggering a loss of weight. "Unfortunately, it works both ways. Go on a diet, reduce your fat mass, and pretty soon your meal-ending sensors don't hear so well anymore." So lose weight and it takes more food to make you feel full, stimulating weight gain. This is combined with another insidious effect: the body regulates its fat content by varying its metabolic rate, so losing weight means the body reduces its energy consumption.
"Energy output is reduced by even a small (10 percent) weight loss, deliberate or not, so a 'formerly obese person requires approximately fifteen percent fewer calories to maintain a 'normal' body weight than a person of the same body composition who has never been obese.' This is due to an 18 percent decrease in energy use at rest and a 25 percent decrease in energy use while active." So an obese person who loses weight may 1) require more food to feel full than they used to and 2) their metabolism may decrease so their body naturally burns fewer calories than it used to. It's as if the body is striving to achieve a certain amount of body fat, called the "set point," which varies from person to person. These two factors explain why weight loss is rarely achieved in the long term.
Why does the human body seem to be designed for obesity? We evolved under hunter-gatherer conditions, when periodic food deficits were the norm. Studies of modern hunter-gatherer societies show that mild to severe food deficits are common, during which times stored fat confers survival advantage. This was probably also true in our species' history. "Natural selection could not provide us with an effective mechanism for keeping our weight down in times of abundance for the simple reason that it was giving us quite the opposite, a system that piles on excess fat in times of abundance, stores to draw on during shortages. Since there was rarely continuous abundance during the whole of human evolution - and certainly not combined with physical indolence - natural selection cannot have prepared us for such conditions."