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