Thursday, March 10, 2011


Scientists' Nightstand: Melvin Konner
Greg Ross

Melvin Konner is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University. His most recent book is The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I'm a biological anthropologist who did almost two years of field work among the !Kung San (Bushmen), hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari in Botswana, in the 1960s and 1970s, plus a brief visit in 2005. These experiences shaped my life. So did medical school, which I attended after being an anthropology professor for five years. My research has been on infant behavior, growth and development; the hormonal basis of lactational subfertility; universals of psychological development as (largely) determined by brain development; and the implications of hunter-gatherer diet and lifestyle for the chronic and degenerative "diseases of civilization." I have written 10 books, which, for better or for worse, comprise my main contribution.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

I am always reading more than one for pleasure, so I can match my reading to my mood. I recently finished rereading Pride and Prejudice (because one of my daughters was reading it—this happens to me a lot), then felt an ongoing need for Jane Austen and moved on to second readings of Sense and Sensibility and (starting last night) Persuasion. I love Austen for bedtime or in the middle of the night; she is predictable, insightful, restful and, in her inimitable quiet way, very funny.  In other moods lately I'm reading my friend Charles McNair's not-yet-published novel Pickett's Charge (his first book, Land O'Goshen [St. Martin's Press, 1994], was nominated for a Pulitzer) and Classic Yiddish Stories of S. Y. Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz (Syracuse University Press, 2004), beautifully translated by Ken Frieden and others. Charles, my wife Ann Kruger and I have a biweekly telephone class with a literature professor of mine from college (Herb Perluck of Brooklyn College, now 86); over the past year we've read Moby-Dick, King Lear, and stories by Hawthorne and Poe.

For work this summer, I read two superb new books about hunter-gatherers, which I was reviewing for American Scientist: Frank Marlowe's The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania (University of California Press, 2010) and Nancy Howell's Life Histories of the Dobe !Kung (University of California Press, 2010).

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

Before sleep, in bed; during middle-of-the-night awakenings, on a couch downstairs in our living room (my dear wife does have a right to sleep, even when I can't). For work: at my desk during the day or any other time or place that isn't dangerous.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

Sorry to be obvious, but Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Yeats are my favorites in fiction, drama and poetry, respectively. I love some of George Eliot, especially Middlemarch; Gustave Flaubert; Henry James; Anton Chekhov; and, in poetry, Emily Dickinson; as well as (from the 20th century) some Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth is perfect), James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Marguerite Duras, E. M. Forster, Tennessee Williams, Robert Lowell, I. B. Singer, Abraham Sutzkever (a great and hugely underappreciated Yiddish poet), Anna Akhmatova, Yehuda Amichai, Philip Roth (American Pastoral [Vintage Books, 1998] and The Human Stain [Houghton Mifflin, 2000]), John Updike and August Wilson; and from the 21st century, Jhumpa Lahiri and Zoë Heller in fiction, Lynn Nottage in drama (Intimate Apparel [2003], Ruined [2008]) and Louise Glück in poetry. All have in common an exquisite command of language and (at least at their best) an approach to human character and situations that is so profound as to rival or supplant the achievements of the great religious texts. My favorite poems, by something like the same logic, are Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning" and Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach."

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

Are you kidding with this question? Well, if you put a gun to my head: The King James Bible, excluding most of the laws and the begats; War and Peace; and King Lear (it has to be seen—Ian McKellen is my favorite—but it also has to be read). For me, great literature provides heroic but flawed and believable characters who stride and stumble through the dark and bright landscapes of life; well-crafted stories that are uplifting even when most tragic; and the equivalent in language of Bach or Mozart. These three books not only achieve all that, but they do it on a scale that encompasses almost the whole of life.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

The Origin of Species (1859). Even before I read it, it had (through teachers and other books) set me on a path that contextualized all human nature and experience, not to mention the rest of life, in a scientific, ultimate-cause process; in other words, it supplied a worldview to a passionate and thoughtful young man who had lost his religious faith, and almost half a century later it continues to do so.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) (because I so loved her Unaccustomed Earth [A.A. Knopf, 2008]); Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Algonquin Books, 2003); and Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness (Harcourt, 2004).

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

All the books and authors I've loved most, including all the ones mentioned in this interview. Specifically, it depends how young and who the young person is. I recently gave Pride and Prejudice to my 11-year-old niece (who has an old soul and is an avid reader) for her birthday, and that worked. One of our grown daughters has set herself the task of reading Time magazine's 100 best novels since 1923; not my ideal list, but choosing my favorites from it I've given her or recommended Toni Morrison's Beloved (Random House, 1987), Walker Percy's The Moviegoer (Knopf, 1961), Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, among others. In nonfiction I would recommend Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays, books by Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer, and Marjorie Shostak's Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman (Harvard University Press, 1981), in addition to the science books mentioned below.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Robert Sapolsky's Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (W. H. Freeman, 1994) is one of my favorites. So are Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error (Putnam, 1994) and Lewis Wolpert's The Triumph of the Embryo (Oxford University Press, 1991). I still recommend Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976), despite the fact that I consider his recent attacks on religion to be ill-informed and juvenile. Also, the brilliantly funny but scientifically sound Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, by Olivia Judson (Metropolitan Books, 2002); The Wisdom of Whores, Elizabeth Pisani's expert but irreverent account of global AIDS (W.W. Norton, 2008); the iconoclastic but persuasive Mothers and Others, by Sarah Hrdy (Belknap, 2009); and William Calvin's A Brief History of the Mind (Oxford University Press, 2004). Finally, these classics: Erwin Schrödinger's What Is Life? (1944); Samuel Florman's The Existential Pleasures of Engineering (St. Martin's Press, 1976); and David Ruelle's Chance and Chaos (Princeton University Press, 1991).

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

Very difficult, but I guess it would be What Evolution Is (Basic Books, 2001), by the late, great Ernst Mayr. There is no more authoritative, more literate or more convenient way to grasp the subject than to read this brief, graceful, grand overview.

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