New Papers, and a Legacy

It’s been a long time since my last posting, which was still about the pandemic, my main topic for the previous two years. COVID-19 remains the third leading cause of US deaths (after Heart Disease and Cancer), with over 1,000 deaths a week. Accidental deaths, the fourth leading cause, log in at around 600 a week. Long COVID is common and a likely permanent burden. Late May was when I finally got COVID for the first time; I had been vaccinated five times and started on Paxlovid the first day I had symptoms. My case was blessedly mild and short, with no sign of long COVID so far.

But all told, people are tired of hearing about COVID-19, and it’s sort of, “sorry about those who still die, and sorry about the long COVID too, but it’s time to move on.” So I’ve stopped writing bulletins about it. Instead, in the past two years I’ve written what are probably career-capping review papers on topics that have interested me all my life. Here are the first three to be published.

Hunter-Gatherer Diets and Activity as a Model for Health Promotion:  Challenges, Responses, and Confirmations

Melvin Konner and S. Boyd Eaton, Evolutionary Anthropology 2022, 1-17.

This paper brings up to date the paradigm that Boyd Eaton (first author) and I tentatively fielded in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1985. Here we try to describe the science behind the internet “Paleo diet” hype, and answer our critics over four decades, conceding some challenges, rebutting others, and offering a modified version consistent with current knowledge. Simply stated, even a wide range of ancestral environments reveals a mismatch with our current ones, and since our genes evolved mainly in those environments, this discordance helps explain the chronic diseases that plague modern civilizations.

Is History the Same as Evolution? No. Is It Independent of Evolution? Certainly Not.

Melvin Konner, Evolutionary Psychology 20(1), 1-18, 2022.

The teacher who influenced me most in high school was Dora Venit, with whom I took two years of World History. She taught that a durable human nature could be inferred from what James Joyce called the “nightmare” of history. I believed that humans could be anything we want them to be. She was right. The sixty years of intervening research and theory in evolution, genes, brain, and mind—not to mention ongoing history— have proved that human nature is real, that it has a dark side, and that we may one day control it but it cannot be wished away. This paper shows why.

Nine Levels of Explanation: A Proposed Expansion of Tinbergen’s Four-Level Framework for Understanding the Causes of Behavior

Melvin Konner, Human Nature 32, 748-793, 2021.

This is the most technical of the three papers. It stems from a model I have taught with for half a century. The great animal behaviorist Niko Tinbergen famously outlined four levels of explanation: evolution,  development, physiology, and environmental triggers. I broke evolution into phylogeny and natural selection; development into genetics, maturation, early environment effects, and general environmental shaping; physiology into slow processes like hormones and metabolism and fast ones like neural circuits; and the immediate triggers, for a total of nine levels of explanation. This paper sets out the model and gives examples.

These three papers may not be my last word on these subjects, but nobody lives forever, and I wouldn’t mind if these statements stood as my intellectual legacy. Given time enough and mind, I might like to add two more, one on the mechanisms of cultural transmission and one on hunter-gatherer childhood in the context of human evolution. We will see.


One comment

Leave a Reply