Kenan Malik


What science can and cannot tell us about human nature

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2000).

There have been several books published in the last few years which have sought to diminish the importance of science; see, for example, Brian Appleyard's Understanding the Present. The first thing to say about Malik's book is that it is at a considerably higher level than many of these. It is closely argued (and quite a demanding read) and gives the ideas and authors it criticizes a fair hearing. It was reassuring to find, at the beginning of the book, a rejection of the 'social construction' view of science as simply creating a picture of the world rather than discovering what is actually there. Nevertheless, Malik finds an important difference between science as it applies to cosmology, physics, and chemistry and as it applies to human beings and society. "When it comes to the science of Man… matters are different." The analysis of this difference is really what his book is about.

Two scientific disciplines in particular attract Malik's attention: evolutionary psychology and cognitive science. Both, he believes, have seriously distorted the way we think about ourselves. Darwinism and artificial intelligence seem to many to have jointly solved the problem of how we should understand our position in a material universe, but Malik's view is that this is "an illusion fostered by the abandonment of any attachment to a humanistic vision". It is also, he holds, the result of a collective loss of nerve. Most of the book is made up of a large body of evidence to support these opinions, including scientific arguments about human nature, the impact of cultural and intellectual changes on scientific views of human beings, and the philosophical framework within which our modern view of ourself resides.

Malik presents a detailed account of the arguments that took place in the twentieth century among advocates of the application of genetics and Darwinism to human nature. He sees all these often disparate groups as reacting against what he terms Unesco Man. This was an idealized figure, created, according to Malik, by the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization after the Second World War as a reaction to Nazi racism; Unesco Man had a rather simple and very plastic mind, to emphasize the absence of inbuilt barriers between different cultures. E.O. Wilson's sociobiology was a reaction against this, since it revived the idea of an inbuilt human nature.

Other views of how genetics and Darwinism influence human culture followed. However, any simple description of these developments is prevented by the complicated in-fighting that has gone on within science itself; for example, between supporters and opponents of reductionism. Here Malik, who has a weakness for jokey labels, identifies the Fab Four of 1960s evolutionary biology (Williams, Hamilton, Trivers, and Maynard Smith) in contrast to the Furious Five (Gould, Eldredge, Lewontin, Leon Kamin, and Steven Rose), who challenged many accepted Darwinian tenets. Malik concludes that the 'reductionist' transformation of Darwinian theory has proved to be broadly right, but that the attempt to apply these methods to human affairs has been a failure.

Animal behaviour, Malik insists, does not illuminate human behaviour. He illustrates this with a fairly detailed discussion of Jared Diamond's claim that genocide is a hangover from our evolutionary past. This can only be maintained, Malik says, by using the term so loosely that it becomes almost meaningless. He also does not accept that we can draw conclusions about stone age man from how modern hunter gatherer societies are organized.

The concluding chapters of the book look at the mind-body problem in relation to artificial intelligence, which is where the "zombie" of the title comes in. Malik has a fair amount of sympathy with Daniel Dennett's views but does not think that Dennett has solved the problem of subjectivity. His own position is that it is quite possible to be a materialist, in the sense of rejecting divine explanations and accepting that the only stuff that exists is physical, without believing that mental and social phenomena can be explained purely mechanistically. If we try to offer materialistic explanations for everything we end by viewing human beings more as objects than as subjects, more as victims than as agents. This, he says, is precisely what has happened. We have reached a position where ridiculous deterministic explanations for behaviour are proffered quite seriously, even in courts of law. We are supposed to be constrained in what we can and cannot do by our evolutionary heritage, but by defining what is politically possible in evolutionary terms, we limit our available options unnecessarily.

It's at this section that the book may become vulnerable to criticism, or at least to misunderstanding. Malik would presumably admit that the human body has been produced by evolution; human society, and consequently the human mind, are supposed to be different. This implies a form of dualism, which, as Malik acknowledges, is an unfashionable notion. Dualism, as he says, can be interpreted in different ways, but in even mentioning the term he risks opening the door to mysticism. This is something that he is anxious to avoid. On his final page he censures Appleyard (rightly, I think) for doing this (see Understanding the Present). Mysticism, he insists, offers no alternative to mechanistic theories of our nature.

"To challenge mechanism we need not to retreat from reason, but to embrace it, for mysticism and mechanism are both irrational accounts of human nature. It would be inhuman to give up on the quest to understand humanness." These are important caveats, but I suspect that some readers, at least, will disregard them, and will quote the book as support for their view that science itself is irrelevant. This would be a pity, for what it is saying is important even if not welcome to everyone. I found that it challenged ideas that I had more or less accepted as true for a number of years, and it will probably take one or two more readings before I can decide how far I need to revise my thinking. I suspect I will continue to find more evidence for the importance of our evolutionary past in shaping our present than Malik allows, but he is certainly right to make us think, and think again, about the ideas that many of us have adopted.

%T Man, Beast and Zombie
%S What science can and cannot tell us about human nature
%A Kenan Malik
%I Weidenfeld and Nicolsom
%C London
%D 2000
%G ISBN 0-297-64305-3
%P x + 470 pp
%K Philosophy
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