Superiority Essay



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. . . And Other Secrets of Human Nature.

By Melvin Konner.

306 pp. New York: Viking. $18.95.

When all is said and done, we humans are a curious species - an ill-assorted mixture of inherited instincts and socially contrived behavior patterns that are both our great glory and our downfall. Through our extraordinary ability to question, learn and, above all, cooperate with one another, we have built the remarkable edifice of modern science, which has allowed us to place members of our species on the moon. Yet we are at times both exasperatingly unable to behave rationally and abjectly powerless to solve some of our most pressing medical and social problems. We have learned to prevent childbed fever, yet are no closer to alleviating the terrifying symptoms of schizophrenia. And we continue to murder our kind and our environment with barely concealed enthusiasm.

In this book of previously published essays, Melvin Konner, the author of ''The Tangled Wing'' and ''Becoming a Doctor'' and a professor of anthropology and psychiatry at Emory University, offers us a series of thoughtful and occasionally provocative vignettes about some of the more puzzling aspects of human nature and our attempts to understand them. For instance, in the title essay, ''Why the Reckless Survive,'' he addresses the question of how evolution, ''with its supposedly relentless winnowing out of error,'' has somehow managed to preserve a ''bewildering array of dangerous habits,'' a real disregard for the laws of risk. (Recklessness, Dr. Konner speculates, may be left over from a time when most humans died from disease by the age of 30: ''The failure of such people to plan for the future is not irrational - they live for the day because they know that they have no future.'') Many of the essays in this collection draw on Dr. Konner's own experiences, both as a medical intern and as an anthropologist studying the !Kung San Bushmen in southern Africa. His sensitive portraits of the !Kung San, recounting the timeless wisdom of life on the cutting edge of survival, are examples of descriptive writing at its best. But Dr. Konner is primarily a speculative thinker. He ruminates on Japanese geisha culture, the merits of natural childbirth and, on a more shocking note, the reasons why infanticide has been not only surprisingly widespread in both contemporary and past societies but tolerated in a way that other forms of homicide are not.

Dr. Konner is particularly fascinated by our predilection for seeing the world the way we want to see it. Why is it, he asks, that we are so determined to impose our own constructions on nature? Not least of these, he writes, is a tendency to view primitive peoples as ''noble savages'' locked into some kind of mystical union with the natural world, unsullied by the nastier habits that come with civilization and the concrete jungle. In an essay titled ''Cuisine Sauvage,'' Dr. Konner admits that he himself was guilty of projecting ''human ideals onto our evolutionary past'' when he found ''that the diet and exercise pattern of hunter-gatherers, whether recent or ancient, was qualitatively better than the average American's.''

These essays are not, of course, serious scientific documents, nor are they meant to be. They are Dr. Konner's personal musings on topics that have attracted him over the years, essays intended to shake our preconceptions and stimulate our curiosity. And there are substantive issues to grapple with here. I suspect that Dr. Konner and I differ, for instance, on the extent to which genes directly determine human behavior. We have, it is true, made remarkable progress in pinpointing the genetic bases of many physical and psychological conditions, and, as Dr. Konner shows, some of the carefully controlled studies of twins in the 1980's suggest a surprisingly high genetic component to personality. Yet I find the genetic underpinnings of behavior significantly less interesting than the ways in which human beings and animals learn to exploit their inherited and acquired abilities.

Even so, Dr. Konner is always both informative and challenging. His willingness to consider interesting new ideas, whether or not they mesh with his own views, distinguishes his scientific stance from the emotional shrillness of most debates on human nature. Nothing exemplifies this as clearly as the essay titled ''Love Among the Robots,'' which explores our defensive reactions to the suggestion that humans are animals or that computers might eventually become conscious. Over and over again, we set ourselves apart as better than the brute beasts and better than computers. Why is it, Dr. Konner asks, that we are so defensive of the pinnacle on which we place ourselves? ''The process of definition-by-exclusion,'' he answers, ''would seem to have left us sorted to a pulp.''

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