Enlightenment humanists need to fight the postmodern culture that views us as a mere genetically or culturally programmed zombiesby Raymond Tallis / February 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
There is no question more interesting, important and emotionally charged than what it is to be human. The unswerving commitment of many leading intellectuals over the last 100 years to promoting an utterly debased account of human nature is therefore profoundly depressing. We are told that a human being is not such a fine thing after all; that men and women are beasts (and beastly beasts at that); or that they are well-nigh unconscious automata, culturally or genetically programmed to further their own interests or those of their genes.
Vehemently anti-humanist views, once the preserve of far-right misanthropes such as Joseph de Maistre, are now commonplace. As Kenan Malik says, at the turn of the new millennium “we might think of man as weak, wretched, barbarous, savage, inhuman… But never again, it seems, as dignified and noble, or as the measure of all things.”
School children who study William Golding’s Lord of the Flies-a GCSE set text-get marks for noting how thin is “the veneer of civilisation” and how badly civilisation suits us. They will get no additional marks for wondering how, if this is the case, civilisation got going in the first place and how it seems to continue from day to day.
Anthropologists, artists, biologists, philosophers, assorted gurus and prophets are guaranteed a respectful hearing for asserting an astonishing variety of negative accounts of mankind: that we are the playthings of genetic programmes which may have adapted us to Stone Age life but not to human life as it is today; that unconscious forces rule our lives so that the humanist notion of the self is an illusion; that we are all brutalised victims and brutal victimisers of each other; and so on. If you assert, as 10,000 postmodernists and their followers have asserted, that our knowledge is subsumed entirely into abusive power, that our reason is an instrument of oppression, that disinterested enquiry is a sham, and that there is no truth available to humans outside of coercive communities of discourse, then tenure is guaranteed and international stardom not far behind. Anything, in short, that trashes the Enlightenment notion of a human being as a creature of reason, with generous as well as selfish impulses, and as a more or less free agent, will improve your career prospects.
If, on the other hand, you suggest that the true vocation of a human being is not always to be a guard in a death camp but sometimes, let us say, a committed primary school teacher; or that the Red Cross and antibiotics say as much about humanity as the Somme; or that the behaviour of ordinary people in the past century which was kind, considerate, thoughtful, ingenious, courageous, self-sacrificing, loving or even averagely decent, captures our essence as much as the set piece horrors of persecution and war; or that there are such things as objective truths and that there is something corresponding to a conscious, rational self, then you will be dismissed by the Dr Panglums as shallow and Panglossian.
The contemporary defamation of humanity is the theme of Kenan Malik’s important new book. Man, Beast and Zombie is wonderfully written (there is not a duff sentence in its 480 pages), rigorously argued, witty, knowledgeable and balanced in its judgements. In it Malik examines the reasons for the popularity of the notion that humans are either more or less evil beasts or more or less unconscious automata.
Because few of those who profess these views sincerely apply them to themselves or to people they know personally, Malik’s critique may be thought unnecessary. It is not. As Lionel Trilling said, intellectuals often assent to views they do not actually believe. Opposing these ill-argued ideas about what it is to be human is therefore important-if only because pessimism about human nature, and the connected belief that progress is not possible, may become self-fulfilling. What’s more, the views which Malik challenges steal the space which could be given to uncovering more interesting truths about the complex creatures we humans are or might become.
Underpinning Panglumian thought is a misreading of science supported by a misreading of recent history. The misreading of history is not Malik’s main theme, but it is worth noting in passing that it depends on several false assumptions: that the most ghastly events of the 20th century typified that century; that these events were unprecedented (showing that, far from advancing morally, we have gone backwards); that they were the inescapable consequences of civilisation; and that-most bitter of ironies-they were a direct consequence of the Enlightenment. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has argued that the rational world of modern civilisation made the Holocaust possible. Jared Diamond’s claim that “of all our human hallmarks-art, spoken language, drugs and others-the one that has derived most straightforwardly from animal precursors is genocide”-is based on the assumption that the worst of which we are capable reveals our true nature. But, as Malik says, it is the abnormality of genocide which makes it such a cause of horror. The history of Germany is not the history of a death camp.
Malik’s main theme, however, is the misuse of science in creating libellous notions of what it is to be human. For this scientists themselves must take some but not all of the blame. Although scientists sometimes contribute to the dehumanised portrait of what it is to be a man, “it is the political retreat from Enlightenment rationalism, from a belief in human agency, from the idea of moral progress, that has opened up the space for a mechanistic view of the world.” Much of his book is taken up with this interaction between science, politics and culture. Malik, however, does not fall into the trap of sociologising all scientific truths.
Sociologists of knowledge, jealous of the prestige and effectiveness of science, tend to over-emphasise the external influences on it and dismiss histories which account for its progress in its own terms. They try to persuade us that science gives us no access to the truth about nature as it is in itself. Prize chumps like Richard Rorty go further, denying, for example, that physics is any “more independent of our human peculiarities than astrology or literary criticism.” Paradoxically, in order to carry this argument, Rorty and others accept without question the objective truth of certain bits of quasi-science: for example, they accept uncritically the Darwinian notion that human minds are not basically different from animal minds and that our apparently increasingly firm grasp of the truth is simply an expression of “increasingly adaptive behaviour” seen throughout the living world. This denial of objective truth, on the grounds of a presumed-to-be objectively true Darwinism, exemplifies what Malik calls “a bizarre love-in between the mechanists and the postmodernists.” They are in contradiction, of course: mechanists take the truths of science literally and postmodernists deny any kind of objective truth.
while he does not fall into this trap of being relativist about science as a whole, Malik points out that, to a greater degree than the natural sciences, the sciences of human nature really are especially open to cultural and political influence, that the inquirer and the object of the inquiry are one and the same. In consequence, the science invoked to help us understand ourselves is itself shaped by preconceptions about that nature. This is especially evident in addressing questions such as whether there is a single, biologically determined, human nature, or whether that nature is infinitely plastic.
Some of Malik’s conclusions seem surprising, even counter-intuitive, but the story he tells of scientific thinking about human nature over the centuries is persuasive. An important part of this story begins with the Enlightenment and the doctrine that human beings are part of nature and so like other parts of nature, amenable to being understood in scientific terms. For the philosophes manwas an animal; but he was a very special one because he was endowed with reason. Reason was one of the “constant and universal principles of human nature” that David Hume discerned in history. According to Wilhelm von Humboldt, these universal characteristics justified our treating “all mankind without reference to religion, nation or colour, as one fraternity, one great community.” But the notion that there was a single human essence also opened up the possibility that full humanity might be achieved to different degrees by different peoples. Racial difference and inequality, Malik argues, “can have meaning only in a world that has accepted the possibility of social equality and of a common humanity.” Universalism paved the way for the idea that there were superior and inferior peoples.
The hierarchical conception of human beings-which received powerful support from Spencer and Darwin-was very convenient. It was necessary both to sustain order in society in the face of the anarchic effects of change and to justify the dirty work necessary for industrialists and empire builders to realise their dreams. Spencerian evolutionary theory saw the sufferings of the lesser breeds as a necessary accompaniment of progress. One did not have to travel abroad to encounter inferior humans. The Bethnal Green poor, Thomas Huxley said, are “a race apart.” Combining this hierarchical view that there were greater and lesser breeds with a naturalistic outlook which denied man’s exceptional nature (man was an animal, though a superior one, with white European man most superior of all ) made it easier to justify treating some humans in inhuman ways.
Science itself was not racist: it could lend itself- and its special authority-to either a racist or an anti-racist interpretation of human nature. For example, it was not new findings which discredited racial science in the middle of the last century, but the social and political consequences of racial theory-the death camps. So when Unesco cited the authority of science for its 1950 declaration that “for all practical purposes ‘race’ is not so much a biological phenomenon but a social myth,” many scientists still felt uncomfortable. Science no more supported the “ethic of universal brotherhood” than it supported the superiority of the white race. In each case, its prestige was mobilised to underpin views of human nature arrived at for other reasons.
The Unesco declaration that all humans were descended from the same stock, that the human mind was infinitely plastic, with culture the main determinant of differences, and that genes were unimportant as sources of differences, was greatly influenced by the anthropologist Franz Boas. Boas more than anyone is behind contemporary multiculturalism and the emphasis on respect for other cultures. His work, however, presupposed that there was no biologically constant human nature, that it was “culture all the way down.” Like Unesco, he asserted that cultures were incommensurable: each was a closed system complete in itself and not susceptible to judgement from the standpoint of any other culture. From this it followed that no culture was superior or inferior to any other. There were no primitive cultures. But this foundation of modern bien pensant thought was not entirely benign. Although Boas-inspired anthropology helped to create a non-racist view of human nature, it was almost as dispiriting, making individuals prisoners of circumstance, drowned in the collective unconsciousness of unchallengeable habits, tradition and ways of thought.
For a while, thanks to the Unesco consensus, no talk of biologically-defined races was permitted. Carleton Coon’s 1962 book The Origin of Races, which argued that Homo sapiens had evolved five different times in different continents, was buried not because it was proved wrong, but because its ideological implications made scientists uncomfortable. In contrast, the “out of Africa” hypothesis published in the 1970s, which claimed that Homo sapiens had evolved just once, from an archaic sapiens population, was accepted at once on the basis of weak evidence.
thirty years after the second world war and in the wake of the so-called modern synthesis of evolutionary theory and genetics, it seemed safe again to talk of man in biological terms. Sociobiology entered the scene. After an initially bumpy ride-EO Wilson, its founding father, was accused by colleagues in a letter to the New York Review of Books of promoting ideas which “led to the… gas chambers”-it established itself as the received wisdom. Wilson, who was more at home studying ants than humans, did not claim that there were different human races and that some were superior to others, only that human behaviour was genetically determined. “Behaviour and social structure,” he declared, “like all other biological phenomena, can be studied as ‘organs,’ extensions of the genes that exist because of their superior adaptive value.” Describing social structures as “biological phenomena” loaded the dice somewhat but this went unnoticed in the furore. Although sociobiology was not racist-indeed, it was egalitarian, if only inasmuch as it misunderstood all humans equally-its emphasis on genetic rather than cultural determinants of behaviour, supported the status quo. Instruments such as education and legislation could not change genes, even those which made men suitable for top jobs and women unsuitable.
Sociobiology developed a symbiotic relationship with what Malik calls “gene-eyed” evolutionary biology, famously associated with Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene.” According to Dawkins and a large school of evolutionary theorists, natural selection operates not at the level of the species or organism, but at the level of the gene. Organisms are devices used by genes to create more of themselves. Genes which survive to replicate are those that help to create the kinds of organisms which will survive to reproduce. Gene-eyed sociobiology looked for universals in support of its faith in the genetic determination of behaviour. But it also played down cultural determinants of behaviour and the possibility of change. The depressing implications of this became clear in a further synthesis between gene-eyed sociobiology and cognitive psychology that created evolutionary psychology.
Cognitive psychology arose out of a reaction to behaviourisim. Behaviourists had reduced mind and learning to a set of relations between stimuli and responses. Cognitive psychologists argued that behaviour was not something which was shaped entirely by simple mechanisms such as the laws of association. Chomsky’s famous attack on Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour focused on the ludicrous inadequacy of stimulus-response pairing and operant conditioning as explanations of the learning of adult skills. The amazingly rapid acquisition by infants of the complex rules of grammar indicated that there was more to intellectual development than exposure of a passive mind to a steady downpour of unstructured experiences. Cognitive psychologists believe that the mind is innately pre-structured to enable it to make the most of the data it is given. These innate structures or modules, which are universal to mankind, are analogous to organs or tools with different functions-the so-called “Swiss army knife” theory of the mind.
The triumph of cognitive psychology over behaviourism was followed by bitter arguments over how many of these cognitive organs there were. Was there a general “find-a-mate” module or was there a whole cluster of task-specific modules, such as a “go-to-a-disco” module? There were disagreements, too, over how much of mental activity was mediated by task-specific modules and how much was given over to undifferentiated central processing in the brain. What cognitive psychologists did not argue about was that these mental organs were as universal as other organs and genetically determined.
The universals of human nature were extraordinarily stable over time. Steven Pinker, a leading evolutionary psychologist, has described the mind as “a system of organs of computation designed by natural selection to solve the problems faced by our evolutionary ancestors.” According to John Tooby, “our modern skulls house Stone Age minds” which are ill prepared for the world in which we now live. Thus the grand synthesis of genetics, evolutionary theory, cognitive science, and anthropology supported a pessimistic, biologically determinist account of human nature: you can’t reason with genes, even if the behaviour they instruct is 100,000 years out of date.
Scientific evidence for the large claims of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology is rather limited. But a little evidence was made to go a long way, not only because the ideas fitted so well with preconceptions, but also because they answered the need for biologists to retain their self-respect in the face of the scornful triumphalism of molecular biologists. When EO Wilson’s colleague at Harvard, James (“double helix”) Watson, declared “There is only one science, physics: everything else is social work,” the pressure to be reductionist grew. So it was a smart move to link the lowly preoccupations of traditional biology-observing the behaviour of organisms-with molecular biology, via the human genome.
The startling notion that we are maladapted to civilisation because we are adapted to Stone Age life was also easily accepted because the way for it had been prepared by numerous anthropologists, psychologists (Freud pre-eminent among them), ethologists and the like. In the 1960s, Konrad Lorenz had been much listened to for his notion that civilisation was degrading to man. Such was the intuitive appeal of his ideas that the lack of data in support of them, their circularity and the purpose they served in supporting his Nazi philosophy, could be overlooked.
The anthropologist David Pilbeam’s observation that “virtually all our theories about human origins are relatively unconstrained by fossil data… They have often said more about the theorists than about what actually happened,” could be applied to ideas about the origin of our human minds and the implications of those ideas for our understanding of human nature. If we were serious about the notion that our minds are adaptive for Stone Age life, we might reasonably be expected to specify the elements of that life. In the absence of much direct evidence, we have to seek indirect evidence.
One ploy has been to examine contemporary, “primitive” tribes which are described as living in the Stone Age and may be treated as “living fossils.” The tribe chosen to model Stone Age man-the !Kung San bushmen from a remote area of the Namibia-Botswana border-are hunter-gatherers. Work on the !Kung led to one of the seminal gatherings of postwar anthropology: the “Man the Hunter” conference held in Chicago in 1966. This promoted the notion-still influential-that hunting shaped the psychology, the inter-group relations and the social institutions of early man, and still shapes our lives today. To found a theory of human nature on the basis of one set of data is foolhardy. And as it happens there is no reason to assume that the !Kung are pristine humans and that they have not evolved culturally (as humans do) over the last 10,000 or even 40,000 years. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that they adopted the hunter-gatherer life style only as a result of being squeezed off the grazing grounds by Bantu pastoralists. The idea that contemporary hunter-gatherers are a window on our Stone Age past-which itself covered a huge time-span and was not a single entity-is na?ve.
But no idea, it seems, is dubious enough to be overlooked in the attempt to disprove that contemporary civilised human beings are civilised humans rather than beastly beasts, or uncivilised, unhappy Stone Agers, or even machines. At the bottom of reductive biologism is a materialism which can allow humans purposes only as machines have them.
The “universal acid” of Darwinism, which sees us as comprehensible entirely in terms of the mindless mechanisms which produce us (as if a tree can be understood only in terms of its roots and not in terms of its leaves), leads naturally to a view of humans as amoral zombies. This is best exemplified by the claims of the neuro-philosophers who believe that the mind is a cluster of computational machines, and that brain and mind are, respectively, the hardware and software of the cerebral computer.
But there are many phenomena which such a model of the mind cannot accommodate: for example, the actual contents of consciousness such as sensations, memories and feelings; intentionality; our sense of self, of the first person me-here-now; and voluntary activity. Nor are computational theories very good at dealing with the fundamental sociability of human consciousness.
Cognitive psychologists and other neuro-philosophers dispose of these difficulties in different ways. One ploy is simply to deny that they exist and to dismiss our stubborn belief that they do exist as a relic of the “folk psychology” which a true science of human nature will transcend. Another is to redescribe these phenomena in behaviourist terms, reducing a sensation to a disposition which links a certain type of physical input to a certain type of physical output. Where these ploys fail, it is possible to make the computational model of the mind and the zombie model of consciousness work, by imputing mentality to material things such as brain-parts. Machines and minds, for example, are both “information processors,” so there is no fundamental difference between them.
The desparateness of these ploys is testament to the intensity of commitment to the view that the human mind doesn’t exist, or at any rate, is not anything special. Neuro-philosophers are not alone in finding the notion of the empty subject attractive. Postmodernists of various stripes have placed a variety of unconscious mechanisms at the heart of human consciousness. The neo-Marxist historical unconscious, the L?vi-Straussian mythical unconscious, the post-Saussurean linguistic unconscious, and the Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalytical unconscious have all run their stakes through the human subject and the deliberate, rational, human agent.
Malik is less at home with the neuro-philosophical literature than with the biology of race, but he still makes a good job of demolishing Daniel Dennett and his ilk. Even so, I finished reading his book with mixed feelings. My delight at his clear thinking was combined with sadness that a writer of his calibre should have had to devote so much excellent prose to defending the self-evident fact that humans are neither beasts nor zombies. If I feel this sadness particularly strongly, it is because I have myself, over the last dozen years, covered much the same territory as Malik. My book The Explicit Animal attacked biological, evolutionary and computational models of the human mind. In Enemies of Hope I disposed of the notion that we are displaced Stone Age hunters and criticised those who invoked various modes of unconsciousness to marginalise the human subject. I dealt with the linguistically inspired attacks of post-structuralists and others on the humanist notion of the individual self in Not Saussure and In Defence of Realism. In On the Edge of Certainty I focused on reinstating the centrality of the self and criticised anti-scientific relativist notions of truth. None of these books-amounting to 2,000 pages of detailed argument-has ever been answered. Evolutionary psychology and postmodernist “thought” have gone from strength to strength: the band plays on more loudly. My own mission has coincided with Malik’s: to clear away the rubbish which lies in the way of a true understanding of what it is to be human. There is even more rubbish to be cleared away now than there was ten years ago.
Malik’s commitment to humanism recognises the fact that while humans are part of nature, they are animals-they are unique animals. They are animals which, unlike any other creature, reflect on nature, have theories about themselves, practise science and create art, speak in sentences and deal in abstract possibilities. Once this is acknowledged, we can start the real business of “trying to reconcile a vision of man as a natural being with an understanding of him as a conscious agent.”
If one of the most urgent tasks for thinkers of the 21st century is to develop a clearer idea of our own nature, then Malik’s contribution to rescuing man’s image from the anti-humanists is of great importance. I wish him better luck with this brilliant book than I have had with my own books. I wish, above all, that he receives as much airtime and column inches as the over-rated calumniators of humanity who have enjoyed such prominence for so long. n