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

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 nutshell, is...

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 A mong 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

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. However...

One Pill Makes You Larger

The Ethics of Enhancement

I n the early 1980s, a little squall blew up on the usually calm sea of pediatrics. Growth hormone had been a rare, expensive medicine, each gram extracted from thousands of pituitary glands and laboriously purified. It was far more precious than gold, and only extremely short children with a proven deficiency in their own growth hormone could hope to get it. Then, in one of the first commercial triumphs of DNA technology, bacteria were persuaded to make human growth hormone. It was purer, more natural to our species, and most important, far less expensive. It wasn't cheap, but it was suddenly accessible to many. Then the other shoe dropped. In the mid-1980s, studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine and elsewhere showed that short children with no growth hormone deficiency could be made a few centimeters taller if they were given human growth hormone. So at the dawn of the age of gene technology, we already faced a decision: Do short children (and their ever-anxious...