Fwd: BOOK REVIEW- Man, Beast and Zombie

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    Man, Beast and Zombie
    What Science Can and Cannot Tell about Human Nature
    by Kenan Malik

    Reviewed by Marcin Szwed

    Rutgers University Press, 2002
    Posted February 1, 2002 · Issue 119

    Simply asking the question "Is God dead?" once made sales of
    Time magazine skyrocket. The issue was even broached in Roman
    Polanski's popular, modern film classic Rosemary's Baby. But, in
    the end, raising the provocative question hardly changed
    anyone's views on the matter. These days, most people who want
    to know about human nature do not turn to Time, or the Book of
    Genesis or the Ramayana. They tend to satisfy their existential
    hunger by reading "Science and Health" columns and by
    contemplating descriptions of the skulls of hominid ancestors
    toasted in the African sun, topped with assorted genes.

    We now try to explain ourselves by announcing the discovery of
    new genes, such as one for shyness ("was hard to clone, hid
    behind other genes," researcher says), and by developing
    respectable but often incomprehensible philosophies of mind. How
    do we appear in this picture? Kenan Malik considers the answer
    in his book Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot
    Tell about Human Nature.

    On page 22 of his 600-page book, Malik asks "What data have
    scientists produced about human origins, human behavior, the
    human mind, and so on? What is . . . being said through
    particular interpretations of this data?" He then proceeds to
    examine the scientific arguments, their philosophical
    background, and how they were influenced by past cultural and
    intellectual changes. His effort is both scholarly and well
    written. And it's the best of all attempts to see what science
    has had to say on this broad subject.

    Later, he introduces the Beast and the Zombie. The Beast
    embodies the vision of humans proposed by sociobiology and
    evolutionary psychology - disciplines that look at man from the
    perspective of evolution. Man the animal, not "created in the
    likeness of God," but spawned by the Grim Reaper of natural
    selection and "Nature, red in tooth and claw." Since Darwin's
    Origin of Species, the gap between humanity and animals has
    shrunk enormously. With toolmaking chimps and intelligent
    shrimps on one side and selfish genes on the other, science made
    beasts more humane, and humans more beastly.

    How beastly exactly? For a long time after World War II, nobody
    dared to ask the question, out of fear of awakening the ghost of
    Fascists, who perverted Darwinian ideas and used them to justify
    their atrocities. The taboo was strengthened by feelings of
    guilt. Social Darwinism, with its racist and chauvinist
    overtones, was popular not only in Germany, but all across the
    United States and Europe. My own Eastern European country,
    Poland, had followers of this heinous abuse of Darwin's work.

    When the question of the Beast in humankind was raised again in
    1975 by E. O. Wilson in his book Sociobiology: The New
    Synthesis, it provoked some of the harshest and most uncivilized
    quarrels in academia. Disputes involved branding opponents as
    "Nazi reactionaries" (pro-sociobiology) or "Commie ideologists"
    (anti-sociobiology). Man, Beast and Zombie, What Science Can and
    Cannot Tell about Human Nature provides a colorful description
    of these unseemly arguments. We see Wilson assaulted by leftist
    students. And we hear about George Price, the scientist who
    helped to coin the "selfish gene" equation. Price was horrified
    by its implications and he eventually killed himself with a pair
    of scissors.

    Remarkably though, Malik is not a partisan of any of the warring
    factions. Instead, he carefully scrutinizes the three main
    approaches used by sociobiologists: making inferences from
    pressures imposed on our cave-dwelling ancestors by natural
    selection, comparing humans to "other monkeys," and looking for
    common denominators across different human cultures, especially
    the so-called "primitive" ones.

    While applying scientific rigor to a discipline renowned for
    making far-fetched claims may provide some progress, upon
    scrutiny, it turns out that the evolutionary approach
    nevertheless is ridden with difficulties. For example,
    contemporary hunter-gatherers such as the !Kung of the Kalahari
    Desert are not primordial cavemen. They have been "spoiled" by
    past interactions with farmer societies. The whole idea of a
    single "primordial human," Malik points out, is, by itself,
    dubious. Extrapolation from animal to human behavior, is also a
    slippery business, as one has to compare chimpanzee fights with
    a baffling range of human behaviors, from playground bullying to
    the Holocaust.

    Yet the criticism is tempered, and Evolutionary Psychology gets
    praise when it is deserved. Let's hope that with time, this
    carrot-and-stick approach will make the Beast a respectable
    academic subject. The field is still young, and all we need, as
    the primatologist Frans de Waal said "is a more enlightened type
    of Darwinism that integrates the effects of learning and the
    environment. It's not as though natural selection dictates
    specific behavior under all circumstances, it rather induces

    Because we have minds as well as instincts, cognitive science is
    the second major topic of the book. Here we meet the Zombies,
    Gimboes and Qualia. These creatures represent a thought
    experiment designed to solve the problem of subjective states of
    mind. Just try to imagine if, one day, your friend told you she
    is not conscious at all. Would you believe her? And please do
    not get paranoid that "even your closest ones could be zombies!"
    as the philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote in a tongue-in-cheek
    critique of "zombiologists."

    This and other thought experiments are supposed to help us
    grapple with problems of consciousness, subjectivity, and
    artificial intelligence, and Malik weaves them into a
    fascinating story. He also challenges the popular view that the
    mind can be fully explained only by what goes on inside the
    brain. "The world is made meaningful not just by what goes on in
    your head, but also by what goes on outside it. . . . It is
    language and culture that turn brain into mind." The mind, Malik
    argues, is an "extended mind."

    Man, Beast and Zombie is long and not an overnight read. But
    readers who choose to skip the stage-setting chapters two to
    five, before the Beast and the Zombie are introduced, will miss
    some delightful stories. For example, the 19th century physicist
    Auguste Comte believed so much in the power of science to
    explain everything that he set up a "Positivist" religion with
    clergy, catechism, calendar, holidays, and chapels! And the
    philosophical and historical perspective is very useful. Science
    responds to the spirit of the times, and "theories of human
    nature never die. They just go in and out of fashion," as John
    Horgan has put it.

    Is it possible that old theories come back in new clothes
    because none of them are ultimately satisfying? Science is the
    very flower of human reason, a clear sign of its strength. Yet
    according to some, our reason is weak, and we're just ordinary
    animals. There's something paradoxical here that researchers
    can't grasp. Science cannot give us the full story. If you want
    to know what it can offer, check out this masterfully written

    Marcin Szwed is a Ph.D. student in the Department of
    Neuroscience of the Weizmann Institute in Israel.

    An appeal to human nature, like an appeal to God, is to invoke a
    seemingly independent arbiter to sort out our affairs. Humans no
    longer have to take the responsibility; God or Nature will.
    Nature is, in fact, far more effective than God in acting as an
    external arbiter. Whereas a religious claim necessarily rests on
    faith, summoning up human nature seems to be summoning up the
    powers of science.

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