1. Kenan Malik, Man, Beast and Zombie - What science can and cannot tell us about human nature, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2000.
2. Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Caspar Hewett teaches evolutionary theory and philosophy of science at Newcastle University's Centre for Lifelong Learning, and chairs The Great Debate.
Man, Beast and Zombie
How much can science tell us about human nature, and why is the significance, or even the existence of human subjectivity so frequently denied? For Kenan Malik the pessimism of contemporary culture has cleared a space for a more naturalistic vision of humanity. One that seeks to erase distinctions between humanity and nature, denying the exceptional qualities of being human. Man, Beast and Zombie is reviewed here by Caspar Hewett.
In recent years there has been an explosion of theories which make claims about human nature from areas as diverse as evolutionary theory, genetics, the science of the brain and artificial intelligence. Reading any one of the many popular texts on the human mind and behaviour, one could be forgiven for thinking that many questions about ourselves now have definitive answers.
Kenan Malik, in his book Man, Beast and Zombie,(1) demonstrates that this is far from the case, highlighting the fact that, while the great majority of theorists today accept that combinations of genetic and environmental factors determine what we are, few agree on the level of determination and on what general conclusions can be drawn about ourselves.
Malik explains the histories and underpinning philosophies of disciplines such as evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence, and this provides the background for his analysis of modern theories of human nature. He investigates some fundamental questions about human uniqueness, our relationship to the natural world and the human mind, tracing how ideas on these questions have developed over the centuries.
Along the way, Malik considers Sociobiology, an approach to the study of humanity developed in the 1970s, which attempted to explain modern human behaviour as adaptive. He moves on to consider its modern cousin, Evolutionary Psychology, which argues that the human mind evolved to suit our environment of evolutionary adaptedness and that human mental attributes can be explained in terms of the advantages they conferred on our ancestors of 100,000 years ago. Malik points to the methodological flaws of both approaches. He looks at how Sociobiology was treated with suspicion because of its apparent similarity to Social Darwinism while Evolutionary Psychology has been able to capture the popular imagination, partly because of changes in the way we view our nature which have taken place in the past three decades.
Malik also interrogates the claims of some that the mind and brain are one, and that neurobiology and artificial intelligence can reveal the nature of the human mind. He discusses theorists such as Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine,(2) who argues that, while we are able to exceed our genetic programming, our minds are defined by memes infesting our brains.
Throughout Man, Beast and Zombie, Malik searches for the common threads running through these modern theories in an attempt to answer his own question of what science can and cannot tell us about human nature. He draws attention to some general trends that reveal much about the way human beings are viewed in the current climate. In particular, he investigates the degraded view of human subjectivity, influenced by postmodern thought, which leads many theorists to reach highly fatalistic visions of the human condition.
For Malik, what makes humans unique is that we are both subject and object.
It is in this arena that Malik really stands out in contrast to most modern thought, for his view is that of a humanist. He argues that, while humans are biological beings subject to natural laws, they are also rational beings capable of controlling, or at the very least influencing, their own destiny. Thus, for Malik, what makes humans unique is that they are both subject and object. This argument is highly plausible and is made all the more convincing by Malik's rigorous approach.
Impressive in its scope, Man, Beast and Zombie manages to be both broad and accessible. Malik has produced an exciting contribution to the discussion of how we view ourselves, which, with its humanistic core, provides a refreshing change to much current literature. The question of what science can and cannot tell us about human nature is closer to being understood thanks to this excellent book. Caspar Hewett
Kenan Malik further discusses the question What can science tell us about human nature?, and Caspar Hewett provides a glossary of terms used by theoreticians on www.thegreatdebate.org.uk
Kenan Malik's excellent website is on www.kenanmalik.com
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