Melvin Konner

Melvin Konner

Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Elected member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Research interests


I am interested in the deep evolutionary background and broad cross-cultural context for child development and the family, including fatherhood. I have been deeply impressed in my life and my research by the variety of arrangements that are compatible with healthy development, but also with the many arrangements that are not.

The three great experiences of my life relevant to fatherhood were my two years with the Kalahari San (Bushmen) when they were still hunting and gathering; my clinical years in medical school; and my own four decades as a father. In the Kalahari I was struck with the greater involvement of fathers in infant and child care (compared to the West), and yet my data ultimately showed an overwhelming predominance of women, mainly mothers. Since the San were hunter-gatherers—and thus one possible model for our ancestral condition—I became interested in whether other hunter-gatherer groups were similar. They are. Even the Aka fathers studied by my friend Barry Hewlett, widely seen as the most involved fathers in any culture on record, have a heavy predominance of mothers.

In medical school I delivered 36 babies—about as close as a man can get to this experience; I also watched the deliveries of my three children and two grandchildren. I was awe-struck by this cataclysmically intimate human experience, and I could not fail to recognize the potential for fathers (including me) to be peripheralized, especially when you add breast feeding. In my clinical rotations in pediatrics and psychiatry, I saw much more evidence for the conditions that promote healthy development. I also saw how development can go wrong, including the results of widespread, shocking, abuse. Before and since medical school I have been impressed with the major roles fathers can play, but I have always been led to ask: Are they essential?

I continued asking this throughout my life. As great as the two adventures described above were, my greatest adventure has been fatherhood. I was a very involved dad from the outset but when my first wife struggled unsuccessfully for eight years with cancer, my role changed. The kids were 18, 14, and 9 when she died, and, with help, I have been a single father since. I think I was essential to them during her illness and after her death.

But broad research still leads me to ask: Is it father-ness, or male-ness, that is essential? Or does it just take more than one parent to raise a child? The anthropological record shows the importance of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and older siblings in situations where fathers may be unreliable. The multigeneration matrilineal family is crucial in some cultures. Gay and lesbian parents raise children with good results. On the other hand, we are seeing more families where the father is the primary caregiver. I am still asking not just how much fathers matter, but how they can matter when they really do.

For more on my views and a very extensive summary of research, please see my book, The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind (Harvard University Press, 2010).