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The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind [Hardcover]

Melvin Konner
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 31 2010

This book is an intellectual tour de force: a comprehensive Darwinian interpretation of human development. Looking at the entire range of human evolutionary history, Melvin Konner tells the compelling and complex story of how cross-cultural and universal characteristics of our growth from infancy to adolescence became rooted in genetically inherited characteristics of the human brain.

All study of our evolution starts with one simple truth: human beings take an extraordinarily long time to grow up. What does this extended period of dependency have to do with human brain growth and social interactions? And why is play a sign of cognitive complexity, and a spur for cultural evolution? As Konner explores these questions, and topics ranging from bipedal walking to incest taboos, he firmly lays the foundations of psychology in biology.

As his book eloquently explains, human learning and the greatest human intellectual accomplishments are rooted in our inherited capacity for attachments to each other. In our love of those we learn from, we find our way as individuals and as a species. Never before has this intersection of the biology and psychology of childhood been so brilliantly described.

"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution," wrote Dobzhansky. In this remarkable book, Melvin Konner shows that nothing in childhood makes sense except in the light of evolution.


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It's been a long time coming but it was worth the wait. Mel Konner's wonderful new book shows that you simply must think about our biological past to understand our psychological present. The Evolution of Childhood offers an extraordinary new foundation for all knowledge of human development.
--Michael Ruse, co-editor of Evolution: The First Four Billion Years

Ever since his pioneering studies of infancy among Kalahari hunter-gatherers, anthropologist and physician Mel Konner has illuminated anthropology with knowledge from ethnography, sociobiology, neuroscience, and social psychology, in a search for a deep understanding of what it means to be human. This monumental book contains the best description of what play is all about that I have ever read, as well as the most comprehensive guide anywhere taking a reader through different phases of infancy, middle childhood, and adolescence. The book is the culmination of Konner's lifelong quest. It will transform the way that human development is understood and taught.
--Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, author of Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding

This monumental book--more than 900 pages long, 30 years in the making, at once grand and intricate, breathtakingly inclusive and painstakingly particular--exhaustively explores the biological evolution of human behavior and specifically the behavior of children. Melvin Konner, an anthropologist and neuroscientist at Emory, weaves a compelling web of theories and studies across a remarkable array of disciplines, from experimental genetics to ethnology...To read this book is to be in the company of a helpful and hopeful teacher who is eager to share what he's found.
--Benjamin Schwarz (The Atlantic 2010-05-01)

[Konner] covers almost every topic imaginable in anthropology, biology, and psychology that involves child development. Moreover, since the book is on evolution, there's a lot about other animals, from the platypus to the great ape...If you want to know the latest scholarly information on child development, you can buy this book for $40 or get a new scholarly encyclopedia of child development for $1500. Odds are that this one will be more thought-provoking and better written--and probably almost as extensive.
--Mary Ann Hughes (Library Journal 2010-04-15)

Why do we love watching [babies]? Perhaps because we recognize parts of ourselves in them but still find something mysterious about the behavior of those tiny human beings. The Evolution of Childhood, Melvin Konner's massive and massively researched new book, goes a long way in dispelling a lot of that mystery. Konner gives a detailed and expansive overview of what the fields of anthropology, evolutionary biology, psychology and genetics have taught us about human childhood. The book, in fairly accessible language, explains the evolutionary purpose of everything from babies' expressions (humans, apparently, are the only animal who can pull off the "relaxed friendly smile") to crying, early childhood outbursts and juvenile delinquency.
--Thomas Rogers (Salon 2010-05-31)

Magisterial.
--Rebecca Mead (New Yorker 2010-07-05)

Anthropologist-physician Melvin Konner's The Evolution of Childhood is a masterwork of scholarship. Even at over 900 pages, it should entice anyone keen for knowledge about human infancy, childhood, and adolescence and the evolution of these life stages...Konner marries biology and psychology, adds a firm grasp of our primate past, and guides our understanding of children's lives in various social contexts.
--Barbara King (Bookslut 2010-07-01)

This book is not a weekend read...If you plan to read this book through, take a little each day and savor the delights it bestows. Well worth the read.
--D. Wayne Dworsky (San Francisco Book Review 2010-09-23)

This book is undeniably a tour de force. Indeed, Konner is perhaps the only scholar who is as comfortable describing cultural change, or evolution in its broad quasi-philosophical outlines, as he is defining the complex biochemical and statistical correlates of behavior. One of his writerly charms is that he is ever seer and scientist. He marvels as he describes. He also renders the boundaries among disciplines porous. He scurries from one to another, insisting on their enmeshment, whether it be ethology, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary or developmental psychology, endocrinology, or cultural anthropology. He draws on all these fields to address the story of our inordinately long, and, compared to those of other species, "strangely-shaped" childhoods, and to discover how our childhood evolved to make us what we are.
--Michele Pridmore-Brown (Times Literary Supplement 2010-10-01)

Konner places childhood firmly within an evolutionary framework in his magisterial book...Konner is an excellent tour guide to the sacred lands of childhood. He has produced a scholarly, detailed and beautifully written study...The Evolution of Childhood shows that the pleasures of life are linked to the evolutionary imperatives of reproduction and survival, and that we are starting to understand their underlying neural mechanisms.
--Morten Kringelbach (Nature 2010-10-21)

The Evolution of Childhood is one of the most remarkable books I have read. Melvin Konner is a neuroscientist and anthropologist who shows how human childhood evolved over the last 200,000 years to make us what we are...Konner re-enchants child's play, for instance, by explaining its molecular and evolutionary backstory. That he is able to do this in a lively, accessible manner is no mean feat. Along the way, he makes a compelling case for how humans came to acquire complex culture.
--Michele Pridmore-Brown (Times Literary Supplement 2010-12-03)

[Konner's] goal is...ambitious: to synthesize all the literature bearing on the evolutionary emergence of our species, and especially on the ways in which humans came to raise their children. The breadth of vision he displays is extraordinary. Konner summarizes a considerable body of research on human evolution, beginning with paleontological and archaeological work on the emergence of life-forms and continuing through evidence regarding the emergence of mammals, primates, hominids and early humans, until finally Homo sapiens enters the scene. The volume is a singular achievement, not least because it encompasses, and describes accessibly and eloquently, many fields of endeavor and scholarship, ranging from molecular biology and interpretation of the geological record, to the interpretation of bone fragments found in archaeological sites, to observational research on the behavior of contemporary humans in a wide variety of ecological niches. Furthermore, Konner does not limit himself to secondary sources, as many might do when attempting to place their own research in broader context. Instead, he lucidly discusses a vast range of primary sources. The book's 753 pages of text are accompanied by 159 pages of references. The goal may be extraordinarily ambitious, but the exercise must be deemed a remarkable success. Konner achieves a readable and persuasive synthesis more inclusive than anything ever before attempted. His account of human evolution, and especially of the evolution of childhood, is coherent and compelling...This magisterial book is assuredly the most important analysis of the evolution of childhood yet attempted. It summarizes 40 years of observation, analysis and synthesis by one of the most profound thinkers of our generation. Whoever follows intellectually will necessarily build on this magnificently eloquent and integrative edifice.
--Michael E. Lamb (American Scientist 2011-01-01)

About the Author

Melvin Konner is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University, and author of Becoming A Doctor, and The Evolution of Childhood (Harvard).

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Customer Reviews

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5.0 out of 5 stars Very detailed book on childhood Sept. 14 2010
By A. Volk #1 REVIEWER #1 HALL OF FAME
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book appears to represent the culmination of thirty years spent studying children from a biological perspective. Konner made his name studying the !Kung bushmen in southern Africa in the 70's, but since then he has branched out to many different areas of research, including children. Konner takes a firmly evolutionary approach to studying children, believing (correctly) that "nothing in biology [including children] makes sense except in the light of evolution". This book is easily the most detailed evolutionary approach to studying children that I've ever read.

It includes tons of neurological details, cross-cultural comparisons (lots of hunter-gatherer info), psychology, genetics, cross-species comparisons, and evolutionary theory. Simply put, it is the best current resource on childhood from an evolutionary perspective. But Konner isn't simply a biological determinist. Like virtually all evolutionary developmental scientists Konner is a firm interactionist. Nature works with nurture, and nurture with nature. The second half of the book is largely devoted to discussions of the environment and culture, and how they work with, are affected by, and evolve with children's biology.

The book is split into four main sections: Phylogenetic Origins of Childhood (i.e., the historical evolution of childhood), Anatomical Bases of Psychosocial Growth (i.e., the neuroscience of childhood and the general biology of childhood), The Evolving Social Context of Ontogeny (i.e., the fit between a child and their environment), and The Transmission and Evolution of Culture (i.e., how culture changes and is changed by, childhood). At close to 1,000 pages, this book is indepth and broad at the same time.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Brain Theory for Beginners Sept. 2 2010
Format:Hardcover
A great reference. Very readable and easy to understand. Some vocabulary to look-up but worth it as this is a useful text that can be used by parents and teachers as we try to better understand our kids. A long but well-written synthesis of decades of research. Reminds me of E.O. Wilson. Great to also see his call for more cooperation and dialogue among and between all the relevant disciplines as for far too long science has created self-imposed and self-interested islands who all inhabit the same ocean. Konner has helped me develop my own brain theory thus providing a more solid foundation of what I believe and know about children. This influences for the better what I do as a Dad and a teacher. Immensely helpful and worth the effort. At last we see a way to justify slowing down the scripted life of children in favor of free play.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Groundbreaking Standard Work June 15 2010
By Hans-Martin Hueppi - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Melvin Konner's "The Evolution of Childhood" is a comprehensive research report in the field of evolutionary oriented developmental psychology, biology, anthropology and neurobiology. It is a groundbreaking book and will establish itself as a standard work. Clear, concise and exciting, even for non specialized readers (the reviewer is a German speaking psycholinguist and had his professional training in the sixties.) Thanks to its excellent apparatus, it provides insight into many areas, e.g. psycholinguistics, sexual development (including homosexuality), or the issues of adoption and many more.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth the effort Aug. 15 2010
By Vernon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Having no formal science background, this book was quite a challenge but well worth the effort. I've read many books on brain science, psychology and human development since my wife was pregnant with our first child. This is one of very few that has no ax to grind. It is a detailed accounting of the major research in human development which has left me humbled by the precariousness of human life and thankful for the luxury of raising children in the twenty first century. I highly recommend.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The definitive work on infant and childhood development. Aug. 13 2010
By J. Hunt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Emory professor/researcher Melvin Konner, who holds an M.D. and a Ph.D., took 30 years to prepare this comprehensive overview of infancy and childhood - and it shows. Extraordinarily thorough and engagingly written, The Evolution of Childhood is the definitive work on this critically important subject. It is sure to be an immensely useful resource for professionals as well as a fascinating read for the general public.

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Difficult read but lots of great information Feb. 18 2011
By Adam D. Shomsky - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The Evolution of Childhood is a difficult read for the non-professional (like myself) but there is plenty of great information inside. I continue to be impressed by Konner's encyclopedic knowledge of his subjects and amazed by the sheer volume and quality of research cited. For instance, research is cited which gives the percentage of time infants in various hunter-gatherer groups spend with their mothers, fathers, siblings, other children, other adults, etc. It specifies these percentages at different ages ranging from just after birth until several years of age so that quantitative analysis is possible showing how the child's social interactions change over time, and these measures can be directly compared to other cultures. This kind of analysis seems to overcome what must be a difficult challenge of anthropology - objective description with minimal influence of cultural or personal expectations.

I had previously read Konner's The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit and found this book to be of a similar style, which in my experience is the upper echelon of professional scientific writing. Some areas were far more accessible than others. The book is broken up into five parts; part two covers the maturation of the neural and endocrine systems, and that's where the reading gets really dense. I made no attempt to keep straight the dozens (hundreds?) of brain regions mentioned, remember what their significance is, etc. Sentences such as this mean little to me: "In approximate order of development, these are the cingulum bundle (linking the frontal and cingulated cortex to the hippocampus); the stria terminalis (amygdala to the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis [BNST] in the hypothalamus); the mammillothalamic tract (hypothalamus to anterior nucleus of the thalamus); and the fornix (hippocampus to septal area, ventral striatum, and hypothalamus, especially the mammillary bodies)." The extra explanations in parentheses are just as incomprehensible to me as the phrases they were meant to explain. Some sections were heavy with this type of language and were not particularly informative or interesting to me, although they may be to a neurologist. But I figure such content such is to be expected when I'm reading a book aimed at professionals.

Despite these difficulties, I found plenty of interesting information. I'll summarize a few random points here that I found interesting:
"there is no human society in which males have primary or even equal responsibility for the care of offspring" [p 470] (remember not to make the naturalistic fallacy and derive "ought" from "is.")

"The overwhelmingly important predictor of interpersonal violence is training boys for aggression in later childhood." [p 472]

"Testosterone (T) administered to various mammalian females reduces their nurturing behavior...male Mongolian gerbils' parenting of neonates is inversely related to T levels." "But physiological differences go deeper than current hormone levels, owing to fetal brain androgenization...female rates androgenzied at four postnatal days show less nurturing behavior, approaching normal male levels."

"In many societies around the world children and parents sleep in the same room, and children have numerous opportunities to observe their parents having sexual intercourse...In fact, the most common sequel of such an observation, so common in these societies, is that children play at sex, amid many giggles." [p 480]

Hunter-gatherer groups (who are discussed extensively because their lifestyle is the best approximation we have of the lifestyle of our ancestors during most of human evolution) wean their children between the ages of two and three and a half years of age. Substantially lower weaning ages in western cultures is probably a recent development.

In a study of ninety cultures, "mother and infant slept in the same bed in forty-one, in the same room with bed unspecified in thirty...in none of the ninety did mother and infant sleep in separate rooms, a pattern that probably did not precede the industrial state." [p 409]

"The sclera, or whites of the eyes, have tripled in size since our ape ancestors just as brain size has, making human gaze direction much easier to determine and follow." [p 506]

In a study of 141 societies, "premarital sex was rated as 'expected, approved; virginity has no value' in 24.1 percent; 'tolerated; accepted if discreet' in 20.6 percent; and 'mildly disapproved; pressure towards chastity but transgressions are not punished and nonvirginity [is] ignored' in 17.0 percent." [p 525] However, it seems that fertility comes at a much later age in traditional cultures than in the West. "Despite nonrestrictive rules and apparent high levels of adolescent sexual activity, early pregnancy and childbearing were uncommon."

"We now know that about half the normal variation in personality is due to genetic variance with stability across the lifespan, especially in adulthood, and that child-rearing patterns have limited effects." [p 611] For a book-length argument to that effect, I recommend Judith Rich Harris' The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Revised and Updated.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wow. Excellent information - I wish I had a better vocabulary! Jan. 10 2011
By pjean - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I read a lot and work in early childhood education. The book is a very good read - but tough for someone that is not familiar with the vocabulary of a researcher. That being said, it is still worth the commitment to get through the book because it provides a wealth of information based on years of research from a diverse set of researchers. However,this book is not for the faint of heart or those who want to breeze through a book and not really have to pay attention.
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