Agonising nature of humans

Man, Beast and Zombie
March 23, 2001

There is a battle royal going on between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. I consider myself to be one of the former, so I cannot hide my bias in agreeing with Kenan Malik that the arguments in favour of evolutionary psychology are truisms at best and vacuous at worst. However, given the massive literature in circulation on evolutionary psychology, not a lot of people know that. As the philosopher of biology David Hull has complained in Nature : "For all their crudity and lack of sophistication, evolutionary psychologists keep churning out book after book, paper after paper, both popular and technical." The simplicity and directness of the argument that human nature is divisible into "modules", each of which was fashioned by selection to perform a particular trick in our evolutionary past, has meant an easy entry, ever since the barmy days of selfish-genery and sociobiology, into the popular culture.

The counter-culture, however, is beginning to take shape in a handful of recent books by Hilary and Steven Rose (eds), Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin, Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould, and myself - to which we can welcome Man, Beast and Zombie . It takes Malik some 470 pages to disabuse readers of any lingering adherence they may have to evolutionary psychology and to present his alternative view; that the evolution of human self-awareness and its behavioural consequences is as much a product of social interactions, mediated by language, as it is of past biological necessities. The mind is not a Swiss-army knife of preformed, naturally shaped modules.

To develop his thesis, Malik tackles the twin peaks of the materialist view of mind: man as beast and man as zombie. If humans are evolved creatures, as they surely are, then all aspects of human nature are to be found in beastly animals. Hence, the claim that genocide, rape and suicide, at one extreme, and language, sociability and aesthetics at the other are trans-specific in their distribution, is at the heart of the larger claim that human nature is governed by fixed biological universals. Similarly, there is nothing mysterious about human self-consciousness, which cannot be mimicked by judiciously organised circuit boards and algorithms giving rise to a thinking zombie.

Malik's claim is that there are attributes that uniquely define the human species, in particular our capacity for rational thought and language that evolved through a combination of forces. "History as well as nature creates the world in our heads." Malik's project is to return humanism to centre stage, in that both mind and meaning are social processes. For Malik, humanism is rooted in the concept of humanness: that unique set of features by which we self-consciously define ourselves. Man as beast is untenable and Malik exposes the circularity of the arguments that assume animal behaviour is the forerunner of human nature. He gently mocks: "If something is contentful, it must be biological. If it is biological, it must be evolved. If it is evolved, it must be modular. And since it is modular, it must be both innate and evolved." Ergo, all human behaviour "is innate, evolved and modular - (which) far from being the critical, empirical discovery of evolutionary psychology, is something imposed a priori by assumptions incapable of finding anything else". If we are to resolve the man as beast controversy, the $64,000 question is "what is mind?" And to answer this we need to entertain the thoughts of John Searle and Daniel Dennett, the two most prominent, contemporary head-bangers over the concept of mind.

Malik offers a magnificent tour of the landscape of mind and rejects the attempts of both philosophers to locate the mind inside our heads, whether as hardware (Searle) or as software (Dennett). As the wise rabbi said: "My son, when faced with two extremes, always pick a third." For Malik, mind is not a "thing" as such, it is an "interaction" born of a mixture of biological, social and historical forces. It is not reducible to units of behaviour in the brain; nevertheless, it defines our unique humanness.

If there is something unique about human biology, it is our ability to transcend what Gerald Edelman has called the "eternal present" - a time zone inhabited only by non-human animals; whereas humans suffer the agonies of awareness of past and future. Does an ape, watching the sunset after a successful day's foraging and sex, think, "that was a good day, the evening is beautiful and may tomorrow be the same"? Probably not; and the animal has no concept of "I" or "self" existing in time.

Searle's insistence on the subjective qualities of individual self-awareness, in contrast to the evolved universalism of Dennett, reaches the core issue: what is an individual? The answer from contemporary genetics should give heart to Malik's argument. The individual is nothing more, or nothing less, than the product of a bewildering number of interactions of multi-purpose genes with genes, all of which is influenced by the environment. Syntax and semantics are one and the same thing in biology. Hence, the key issue is not the extent to which the form and behaviour of an individual are reducible to molecules (they surely are) but whether an individual's unique form or behaviour is predictable. Given that each individual carries a unique combination of genes that have never before co-existed and that embark on a complex and unique set of interactions, then the outcome cannot be predicted. On average, each human fertilised egg will develop into a human but there are no generalised, universal rules by which the all-important unique features of an individual's body and mind can be prejudged. Individuality is uncapturable.

Malik is right to emphasise "interactionism", for it exists down among the molecules as well as in our societies. The tiers of interactive influences are unique for each individual. Individualism not universalism is the name of the game - for good genetic and historical reasons. If we grasp and tolerate this feature of humanness, especially with regard to the subjective qualities of mind, then we could forge a link between biology and the political construct of humanism.

Gabriel Dover is professor of evolutionary genetics, University of Leicester.

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

Author - Kenan Malik
ISBN - 0 297 64305 3
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 470

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