Man, Beast and Zombie by Kenan Malik

Man, Beast and Zombie (2000) by Kenan Malik ( investigates the historical roots, philosophical assumptions and alleged methodological problems of contemporary theories of human nature, in particular evolutionary psychology and cognitive science.

Malik argues that, ‘The triumph of mechanistic explanations of human nature is as much the consequence of our culture’s loss of nerve as it is of scientific advance.’ While rejecting epistemic relativism, with its denial of an objective truth about the world, Malik insists that scientific theories of human nature are, in practice, shaped by cultural influences, as well as being responsive to data. He argues that the scientific study of human nature has been distorted by post-war cultural pessimism.

In examining evolutionary psychology and related theories, Malik distinguishes between these theories, which he sees as a form of universal Darwinism (attributing explanatory power to Darwinian theory in a wide range of domains), and the work of ‘circumspect Darwinists’ (who are cautious about its explanatory power). Though Malik does see human beings as a product of evolution, and that universal Darwinist theories have merit when applied to non-human animals — and perhaps some merit when applied to human behaviour — he is sceptical about how far they can be applied to human beings. In particular, theories of a biologically-evolved human nature cannot, alone, account for the transformations of behaviour that arose from our immersion in a symbolic world built up out of language and culturally-meaningful relationships. Thus, ‘the scientific tools with which we investigate animal behaviour are inadequate for understanding human behaviour’ .

In discussing cognitive science and philosophy of mind, Malik concludes that each human being possesses ‘an extended mind’; a brain becomes a human mind only by its immersion in social relationships together with ‘other brains linked by language and culture. ‘Human meaning derives not from nature but from the language-linked social network of which we are part.’ If we did succeed in creating a machine capable of participating in a human society like a human being, it would be human .

In the final chapter of Man, Beast and Zombie, Malik laments what he sees as an increasing reluctance to view individual people as autonomous, rational, and competent agents, and a tendency to view them as damaged, weak, incapable, and possessing limited control over their fates. All this has both encouraged and been reinforced by what Malik sees as mechanistic accounts of human nature. It has been accompanied by a shift of emphasis from negative liberty to positive liberties and paternalistic protections, and by an acceptance of limits to human possibilities and a deference to ‘nature’ — all in marked contrast to the spirit of Enlightenment humanism.

This work boasts a phenomenal bibliography which offers tantalizing leads to further reading. Mind expanding stuff indeed.

480 pages in Weidenfeld & Nicolson

First published 2000

ISBN 978-0297643050

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Kenan Malik

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