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Keywords: Evolutionary theory, Darwinism, determinism, genetics, science

Title: Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature

Author: Kenan Malik

Publisher: Phoenix Press/Rutgers University Press

ISBN: 0753812959/0813531225

 

What is human nature? Does science have anything to tell is about what it is to be human? What is the relationship between biology and culture? In this hugely engaging work Kenan Malik explores these questions against a contemporary context of cultural pessimism and a loss of faith in the power of reason. In particular, he tackles the arguments of genetic determinists, socio-biologists and others who posit an essentially fixed human nature, and whose ideas have become part of the mainstream of popular culture.

Taking a broadly historical approach, Malik contrasts the changing fortunes of the idea of human nature, from its religious origins right through to the humanistic and rationalist ideas of the French philosophes down to contemporary theories which stress biology, genetics and to different ideas of the natural.

The writing is concise, interesting and peppered with allusions to popular cultures, literature and the arts. Malik writes not for the specialist but for the general reader, though there is nothing condescending in his tone. This really is a book that grips and that pace of argument and discussion doesn't sag. This is popular science, (and philosophical polemic, come to that), at its best.

In contrast to the prevailing anti-scientific and anti-rationalist mood, Malik makes a very strong argument in favour both of science and of rationality. He also shows, convincingly in my opinion, that human nature has a social and cultural dimension that is at least as important as the biological dimension.

Human nature is as much a product of our historical and cultural development as it is of our biological heritage?Through history, human nature has become less natural

Like Merlin Donald's A Mind So Rare, this book also stresses the central role of society and culture. This is important because there is a powerful strain in popular culture that increasingly stresses the personal, the individual (primarily as consumer), the self against the social, the community, the larger 'self'. This is of course a deeply unfashionable, indeed an old-fashioned point of view, even amongst many who are nominally on the left. Even more old-fashioned is the idea that we can think about things, that we can make conscious decisions, that there is a political sphere which we can take part in as fully conscious beings. There was a time when an argument could be resolved with an appeal to reason, these days we try to convince by an appeal to genetics, to nature or to some vaguely defined deity (whether it's God or the spirit of Gaia).

In evolutionary terms, the social sphere is where ideas, techniques, culture also adapt and evolve through everyday interactions. Malik points out, (quoting Dennet), that what some take as evidence of for genetic causes can be explained as easily and more simply as the result of social evolution. We do things not necessarily because that is how we are genetically programmed, but because that is how we've been taught, because we are constrained by our cultures to live, work and think in certain ways.

Why is any of this of more than academic interest? Malik answers the question with a question:
Questions about rights, responsibilities, agency and freedom are political questions, not simply philosophical or scientific ones … What happens, then, if we do see ourselves as having no self, as zombies who must allow decisions to take care of themselves? How will such a view of humanity affect our political and moral lives?

The answer to these questions, in Malik's view, lie not in less science, less rationality, not in more of a retreat from humanity. What we need is to restore faith in ourselves, to accept that we are conscious, rational and intelligent beings. Science and politics need to be reclaimed.

Contents © London Book Review 2006. Published May 17 2006