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This review of Man, Beast and Zombie by Keith Harris first appeared on Metapsychology Online, May 2003.

To buy Man, Beast and Zombie, click on the book cover. For other reviews see the books page.





review of man, beast and zombie
keith harris in metapsychology online

Would the first fully conscious humans have perceived themselves as categorically different from the other creatures that inhabited their world? If, let's say, they came across a wildebeest (or Neanderthal) down at the community watering hole, would they have understood that their own type of consciousness - their self-consciousness - was of a completely different sort from that of the other creatures they encountered? And if so, as the only self-aware creatures they knew of, did they ask those most archetypal of questions - how they came to be here, where they came from, and ultimately, what it means to be human?

At least as far back as we have literature and art, we know that our species has asked what it means to be human. Now that science has largely displaced the formerly satisfying religious answers to this question, the issue has taken on an even more compelling urgency. Malik believes the way we answer this question has implications in all areas of our lives.

The breadth of Kenan Malik's background is evident in this complex and well-written book. He was trained first in neurobiology and later in the history and philosophy of science. In between these two academic pursuits, he worked as a research psychologist, and since 1990 has focused exclusively on writing, lecturing and thinking.

Malik explains the purpose of the book thus: 'Are humans just animals? Are minds just machines? And what does it say about our age that such ideas appear both scientifically plausible and culturally acceptable? These are the issues at the heart of Man, Beast and Zombie.'

It is important that we get a proper understanding of human nature, Malik explains, because 'The debate about the science of Man is... not simply an academic discussion.  It is about how we see ourselves - and how we wish to see ourselves - and the world in which we live... It has become commonplace to think of humans as simply beasts or zombies.' (pp. 24-25).

Malik's decision to use the term beast in this book is a jibe at those who would suggest humans are simply well-adapted animals, not qualitatively different than other creatures; and the term zombie refers to the concept that living among us are apparently animate but actually mindless beings.  '[A] zombie is a human being who seems perfectly natural, normal and alert but is in reality not conscious at all, but is rather some sort of automaton' (pp.219-220).  Malik claims that while modern philosophy and science see us as one or the other, we are in fact neither.

So far, Malik asserts, attempts to define human nature have produced results that are neither helpful norconvincing. According to Malik, 'The understanding of humans as simply animals or machines... is an illusion fostered by a culture that is deeply pessimistic in its view of human beings.' This pessimism is so pervasive and ubiquitous that we don't even notice it, and yet its tangible products cannot be ignored. To be happy, to achieve fulfilling, creative, productive and harmonious lives, to create social systems that foster cooperation and tolerance, all of these worthy endeavors are far more difficult and tenuous in times of global pessimism.

It should be emphasized here that while he is concerned that human nature isn't currently getting its proper recognition and appropriate interpretation, Malik is not at all antagonistic to the intent or methods of the scientific enterprise; those who would look to his work for an ally in their battle against science will be disappointed. Nor does he offer support for the post-modern notion of a subjective reality, and radical constructivism would find no support in Malik's work.

What Malik does claim is that the scientific approaches used in the physical sciences and in the study of non-human animals, cannot be used 'as is' in the study of humans. Any scientific approach to human nature, he emphasizes, cannot be understood apart from the culture in which that science is generated. (However, readers will keep in mind the perils of a post-modern position that in its most extreme form becomes surreal.)

And as an example of how zeitgeist affects the scientific perception of human nature, Malik notes that 'Whereas nineteenth-century Darwinists saw evolution as the story of the ascent of Man from his brutish origins, today's Darwinists want rather to tell the tale of the Fall of Man back into beastliness' (p. 22).

Malik disputes many fundamental positions of current evolutionists, including Dawkins' suggestion that organisms are the agents by which genes replicate themselves. Although he distinguishes sociobiology from evolutionary psychology, Malik disagrees with both camps:

Sociobiology was a misguided attempt to apply Darwinian theory to human behaviour because human activity cannot be understood simply as a means of maximising reproductive fitness.  Yet sociobiology possessed one priceless advantage: its claims were about contemporary behaviour. Evolutionary psychology, on the other hand, is a claim about the past. It argues that the mechanisms that give rise to human behaviour were designed to increase fitness, not in today's environment, but that of fifty or a hundred thousand years ago. (p. 195). 

The core of Malik's disagreement with these understandings of human nature is that both seem to place limits on human agency. If, for example, we're pre-programmed to respond to certain stimuli in specific ways, what is there to say about free will? And without true choice, how can we be held responsible for our actions? 

Perhaps one of Malik's most compelling arguments rests on the differences between reasons and causes as these relate to human decision-making and behavior. Animal behavior may be seen as caused by instinct, but human behavior has reasons - it involves choices. Without that element of choice, we can condone even the worst behavior by reference to nature. 'If we accept scientific knowledge about the workings of the human mind as an excuse for a person's action, it is only because we have chosen to view human beings in a particular way - as objects rather than as subjects, as an animal or machine, rather than as a human' (p. 383).

Most of us who subscribe to the principles of evolutionary psychology would disagree that it curtails human agency in any arena of life that matters. However, we have not done an especially good job yet of explaining how it is that, if evolutionary forces have shaped our cognitive and emotional processes, we are yet able to freely choose and freely direct our behaviors. Malik demonstrates this dilemma with a reference to Richard Dawkins' claim that we are the only species that can 'rebel against the tyranny' of our genes. Malik notes that, 'In his everyday life, Dawkins..believes in the importance of human beings as conscious, rational agents. Yet his desire for a naturalistic explanation of the world leads to a science that denies him the resources to understand humans in this way' (p. 356).

The issues of free will and determinism must be successfully resolved in any meaningful understanding of human nature; Malik agrees with Dennett's ironic observation that without determinism, there can be no free will. (Although Dennett had not yet published Freedom Evolves at the time Man Beast, and Zombie appeared, Malik has since written his own very interesting review.)

Malik's book presents the careful reader with a mental feast with many courses - the history of science and philosophy as regards human nature, a summary of the positions of important current thinkers, and a helpful challenge to those tenets of evolutionary psychology that would benefit from more work. As the public becomes ever more excited by the prospects of a genetic explanation for every aspect of human nature, Malik asks the reader to consider the implications of this approach, and to keep in mind the uniqueness of our species.