I'm reading this book right now, and while I find some of Malik's critique
muddled or too easy, much is challenging and useful. The book is
impressively researched in sevral disciplines, grounded in the history of
humanism, and deserves to be read by anyone who thinks THE ADAPTED MIND and
the collected works of Dennett and Pinker are the last word on the topics.
Here are two reviews from British journals:
Man, Beast and Zombie: what science can and cannot tell us
about human nature by Kenan Malik (Weidenfeld & Nicolson,
By Jonathan Rée
16 December 2000
It is exactly 25 years since Edward O Wilson published his
Sociobiology: a new synthesis. With its blend of new research and
vivid popularisation, the book changed the course of intellectual
history. The tedious charades of space exploration became a
sideshow, and the unimaginable formalisms of relativity and quantum
mechanics were sent back to the specialists. Evolutionary biology
became the public's favourite science and has remained so.
Wilson's synthesis promised to explain the whole of human existence
- mind and consciousness as well as body and instinct - in terms of
evolution; but its basic principles were not novel. The general idea that
populations tend, over the generations, to become better adapted to
their circumstances went back to Charles Darwin's The Origin of
Species. The same applies to the notion that biological progress
comes about not through will or purpose but as an automatic outcome
of blind natural selection. Wilson's elaboration of the mathematics of
evolution had long roots, too, and he was far from the first to suggest
that biological explanations could be extended into human
self-knowledge, reducing such conceited disciplines as literature, art,
philosophy and the social sciences to "branches of biology".
The success of Sociobiology was due in part to Wilson's mastery of
the art of making enemies. As Kenan Malik explains in Man, Beast and
Zombie, there was soon an organised opposition called the
Sociobiology Study Group, which included Wilson's Harvard
colleagues Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould. In a letter to the
New York Review of Books, the group denounced sociobiology as a
right-wing conspiracy, an attempt to "provide a genetic justification of
the status quo" that had affinities with "the eugenic policies which led
to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany".
A little later, a band of demonstrators interrupted a public lecture by
Wilson, pouring water over him and yelling, "Wilson, you're all wet
now!" It was not a very strong argument, and Wilson now likes to
recall his triumphs over "the last of the Marxist intellectuals".
The hullabaloo marked the end of a century-long friendship between
Darwinism and those who liked to consider themselves progressive.
The Darwinist notion of the mutability of species had hitherto seemed
to rhyme with the leftist idea that nothing lasts for ever. And the
doctrine of evolution seemed to suggest that the human race was
riding on a biological escalator to ever-higher levels of intelligence,
health and happiness. It had always seemed as if Darwin and Marx
During the seventies, as Malik shows, all the ideological furniture was
rearranged. Leftists began to prefer sociology and anthropology to the
natural sciences, and it became an article of faith that changes in the
human world must be a matter of cultural choice rather than natural
selection. The new progressive conscience concerned itself less with
improving the wealth of the masses than with protecting individual
rights. In that context, the inoffensive truism that our capacities
depend on genetic inheritance began to seem like an excuse for racial
prejudice rather than an argument for equality. Wilson fired his
opening shot, and the science wars began.
Malik provides lucid and readable explanations of Wilson's
neo-Darwinism and traces its ramifications in modular psychology and
artificial intelligence. He also pays his respects to the opposition,
noting that on points of science they sometimes got the better of
Wilson. (They were right to insist that biological structures that now
serve one purpose might originally have developed because they
served another.) But in the end Malik cuts both sides down to size by
setting them in a vast historical landscape as participants in the
dispute between "human exceptionalism" and "scientific reductionism"
that has raged since the Renaissance.
Malik's governing argument is that science and humanism are not
really alternatives. Scientific reasoning itself points to the conclusion
that humans are exceptional, and explanations of human behaviour
will remain scientifically incomplete as long as "objective causes" are
not supplemented by "subjective reasons". As Malik demonstrates
with force and eloquence, the idea of irreducibly subjective reasons
contains nothing that need offend even the most puritanical
naturalists: it does not rest on anything more mysterious than
networks of social relationships developed through history and
mediated by language.
Malik's attempt to broker a theoretical peace between hard-headed
Darwinists and tender-minded humanists has obvious appeal. But the
problem is a matter of points of view rather than theories, and it is
hard to believe that the settlement will last. Wilson once said that
sociobiologists try to explain human behaviour impartially, as if they
were "zoologists from another planet". Malik operates from the same
perspective, though unlike Wilson he thinks that his extra-terrestrial
colleagues would have to take account of subjective historical causes
as well as objective natural ones.
But it is not so easy to shuffle off our earthly shells, and even Wilson
and Malik never come close to managing it. The paradoxical splendour
of the kind of popular science-writing in which they both excel is that
it consists not in science but in history. Sociobiology itself began and
ended with passages comparing Darwinism with the existentialism of
Albert Camus - themes that no amount of effort could reduce to the
principles of biological explanation. Wilson even allowed himself to
expound a "vision of the future of behavioural biology", and his
prophecies for the year 2000 turn out to have been close to the mark.
But he reached them by reasoning as a historian, not a naturalist. As
the philosopher R G Collingwood said more than half a century ago,
the science of the mind may be far less arcane than natural scientists
would have us believe. Its proper name, according to him, is "history".
Jonathan Rée's book 'I See a Voice' is published by HarperCollins
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 Man, 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
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.
I approve of Campbell's openness to persuasion. Malik, BTW, is a
neuroscientist and psychologist, and a notable scientific critic of racism.
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