Scary monsters

Man, Beast and Zombie: what science can and cannot tell us about human nature

Kenan Malik <em>Weid

The subtitle is a bit of a come-on. This is really a work of opinion: Kenan Malik does review a good deal of scientific literature, but most of it is speculative and so are his own counter-propositions. Essentially, Malik argues for the humanistic view - man as "Man", a wholly exceptional being with unique attributes of language, culture, consciousness and free will. He opposes the naturalistic view - man as "Beast", an animal like any other - and the mechanistic one - man as "Zombie", a bit of jargon meaning an entity that appears conscious, but is really an automaton.

Humanism was a product of the 18th-century Enlightenment; it struggled to cope with Darwinism, and it died horribly in the Holocaust, which "stripped Man of his dignity". Since 1945, the Beast and Zombie models have dominated scientific thinking. James Watson, of DNA fame, has said: "There is only one science: physics. Everything else is social work."

In other words, the mind is merely what the brain does. It has no existence at the molecular level, and therefore no real existence at all. Malik does not hold to this. He believes the natural science of genes and molecules is the wrong tool for studying the mind, and anyone who tries it is like the drunk searching for his keys under a streetlamp, 50 yards from where he dropped them, just because "that's where the light is".

Malik does not dispute the selfish-gene theory, but, he maintains, "we are not solely evolved beings". He thinks the prehistoric development of language produced a phenomenon that natural selection alone cannot account for - "because language allows us to participate in a community, to communicate and to relate our minds to those of others, it makes consciousness possible . . . It is language and culture that turn brain into mind."

By contrast, he says, his cat is no more conscious than his laptop. Animals, contrary to fashionable thinking, are neither truly individual nor truly social because they do not "transcend" their biology, whereas apparently we do. A zebra herd is not a society, nor is a tribe of chimps: the animals just do what their genes tell them and do not forge their own progress. Malik compares this unfavourably with the spectacle of "a nation struggling against political tyranny, or a youth culture spontaneously adopting a particular fashion".

You might think he shoots himself in the foot with that last example, one of the most mindless aspects of human behaviour and one of the most obviously gene-driven: imitative courtship display. Malik does rather better when talking about Nato. "There are no social atoms or molecules of mind," he admits, but social and mental phenomena are real just the same. Nato, a mere concept, a set of relationships, can blow things up. By a process unknown to James Watson's philosophy, "social work" gets physical.

As for the Holocaust, Malik ascribes it to "specific social and historical conditions", not to something nasty in the genetic woodshed. However, he believes that free will overrides cultural as well as biological forces: "You are a bit of both, but you are also your ability to transcend both."

Which seems like common sense, but then common sense says that the sun goes round the earth. And if free will rules, then the Holocaust was not caused by impersonal "conditions", but by a large representative sample of humans deliberately choosing evil. So perhaps we should fear what lies behind that woodshed door, after all. Malik is committed to optimism, though, and defies the "Lara Croft theory of history", which, he claims, science is imposing on us. You may need to have played Tomb Raider on your computer to grasp this fully. The formidable heroine of the game, Lara, can do all sorts of amazing things. "But she cannot escape the narrative that has already been chosen for her." Not so, Malik insists, with real people.

As computer power increases, the fixed linear storyline may no longer apply to games either. But Malik is not unduly impressed by computers; he doubts, for instance, that they will ever become conscious. The cerebral cortex has 20 billion times more wiring connections than the most powerful computers yet devised. And even if machines were to wake up and smell the coffee one day, Malik contends that this would not make them human; nor would it mean that we are really just machines. Although his logic is not always irresistible, the case he makes for human exceptionalism is a serious one.

Hugo Barnacle is a novelist and critic

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Brown should hold his nerve

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis