The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind

Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, May 2010

Five Best Books of 2010 – The Atlantic

Top Ten Science Books of 2010 –

A TLS (Times Literary Supplement) Book of the Year

On The Evolution of Childhood…

“…a magisterial new work…” Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker

“This monumental book…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…weaves a compelling web of theories and studies across a remarkable array of disciplines…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, May 2010

Evolution of Childhood cover“Konner places childhood firmly within an evolutionary framework in his magisterial book. Synthesizing research across many disciplines, it highlights evidence for interactions between genes and the environment…Konner is an excellent tour guide to the sacred lands of childhood. He has produced a scholarly, detailed, and beautifully written study.” Morten Kringelbach, Nature, October 21, 2010

“The book is breathtakingly ambitious…Yet it is undeniably a tour de force. Konner is perhaps the only scholar who is as comfortable describing cultural change, or evolution…as he is defining the complex biochemical and statistical correlates of behavior. One of his writerly charms is that he is ever the seer and scientist. He marvels at what he describes… Konner is a compassionate Darwinist. He insists on understanding rather than judgment…Of course, toppling disciplinary boundaries can be a high-risk enterprise. In this sense, Konner is himself like the adolescent Icarus…But the likely result of his work is that disciplines will have to fraternize…And the rest of us may well look with renewed wonderment (and respect) at the playing of children small and large.” Michele Pridmore-Brown, The Times Literary Supplement, October 1, 2010

“The volume is a singular achievement, not least because it encompasses, and describes accessibly and eloquently, many fields of endeavor and scholarship…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…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 Lamb (see also below), American Scientist

“The breadth of this synthesis is extraordinary…but Konner accomplishes it with visionary and integrative aplomb, and the resulting account…is coherent and compelling…nothing short of magisterial…Sure to have an enduring impact on the way we think about and study human development, this treatise confirms Konner’s status alongside John Bowlby and Sarah Hrdy in the pantheon of ‘game-changing’ scholars whose attempts to understand the defining features of our species and its origins have fundamentally transformed the ways we think. If you have time to read only one book this year, it really should be The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind. Michael Lamb (again), The Association for Psychological Science Observer

“This is a rich book that can be opened to most any page or section and be quite richly rewarding…even without the grand scheme of the whole. Of course, given the remarkable scope and breadth of the book, there will be a lot of disagreements, debates, and arguments…But, the major contribution of the book is its remarkable breadth and openness…Konner is relentlessly interdisciplinary: he crosses levels of analysis and is open to all methods in search of description and explanation for every feature of development. The experience…is that of participating in a rich conversation…with researchers from many disciplines in and out of anthropology with varied theories and data, sitting around a table, who all care about understanding mind, emotion, and relationships. The Evolution of Childhood is a terrific, major contribution to this ongoing conversation about human development in anthropology.” Thomas S. Weisner, Current Anthropology

“We are fortunate to now have Melvin Konner’s ambitious book…Konner reviews and integrates both classic and the latest research from a broad range of fields…Being a scientific generalist in these days of specialists is not easily done, but it is exactly what is needed…My bias may be showing here, but I see the most important take-home message being ‘development matters,’ a point that this book makes loud and clear.” David F. Bjorklund, Human Biology.

“This is a big book, in all senses. It’s big in length and requires some big thinking. Big ideas do. It’s also big in the sense of great…Great too is Konner’s art. His prose is not just clear but engaging. He develops his…argument like a mystery…It also develops like a musical score…a pleasing arrangement of ideas as themes and variations, rhythms, transitions, and interludes…I recommend this book to anyone interested in how we evolved the life cycles that enable so many of us, in so many…environments, to mature into ‘deeply loving’ and ‘wisely caring’ parents. This should include all parents and everyone else with a scientific, therapeutic, or emotional interest in ‘relationships, emotion, and mind’…” James Chisholm, Ethos: Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology

“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, author of Evolution: The First Four Billion Years

“Ever since his pioneering studies of infancy among Kalahari hunter-gatherers…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 Mother Nature and Mothers and Others

“[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

“Konner has produced a work of great breadth that will draw interest widely across disciplines. The emphasis on childhood as the product of evolution and the thorough deemphasis of the nature-versus-nurture construct advances our understanding of childhood as an adaptation. The wide-ranging review of the literature from animal behavior, psychology, and anthropology as well as the cross-species, cross-cultural comparisons add richness to Konner’s discussions. There is no doubt that those interested in any aspect of childhood, including play, will find rewarding reading.” John Bock, American Journal of Play

“Why do we love watching [babies]?…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,

(Read an interview with Konner about the book at

“…a truly monumental work…” Harvard Magazine, July-August 2010

“Being a scientific generalist in these days of specialists is not easily done, but it is exactly what is needed to acquire a proper picture of childhood…[an] ambitious and well written book.” David F. Bjorklund, American Journal of Human Biology, 2010

“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.” Barbara J. King,

“This book is incredibly well researched with 159 pages of references and an index of 22 pages. 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

“This exquisite book cannot be summarized in a few lines…Childhood is the central theme but Konner reaches back to the beginning of the species…Konner compares hunter-gatherer groups to families in industrialized societies with respect to childcare, coming of age, mating, and socialization…Children are resilient but this is not something that should be tested too often. These topics are but the tip of the iceberg. The title of this book might well be ‘Why we are us.’ Every chapter contains ideas that ignite curiosity and speculation in the reader.” SciTech Book News, September 2010.

“Konner’s monumental achievement in producing what I consider to be a proper handbook on childhood evolution is not to be underestimated. While reading the text, I was amazed at how much information was being presented, yet Konner’s tone and approach…yielded a manuscript that was readable and entertaining…His sensible consideration of cross-cultural findings from an array of cultural groups sets this text apart from similar contributions. As a student of cognition and culture, I would recommend this book to individuals interested in human biology, evolution, culture, or development.” Natalie A. Emmons, Metapsychology Online Reviews


  1. Albert Solis says:

    I’ve been thinking about Walter Mischel’s marshmallow test. You know, maybe marshmallows and satisfying sugar cravings aren’t the most sought after rewards during this age range of human childhood development. I wonder how the dynamics of this test could extend to include other cravings/needs of a child; attachment relationships, objects, toys, play-time etc; what the outcomes would be in terms of gratification postponement and how kids react differently depending on whether what’s at stake is something that matters more to them.

    • Mel says:

      Albert, sorry for the delay. I take your point and many different versions of the experiment could be done, but the fact is the marshmallow test with marshmallows (or cookies, candy) discriminates among children and predicts a surprising amount. Mel

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