Sunday 1 July 2001 What is it to be human? What science can and cannot tell us
Kenan Malik , author of The Meaning of Race (1996) and Man, Beast and Zombie (2000), challenges naturalistic explanations of human behaviour.
AUTHOR: Kenan Malik
‘The pessimism of contemporary culture has cleared a space for a more naturalistic vision of humanity, a vision that seeks to erase the distinctions between humanity and nature and to deny the special, exceptional qualities of being human.’
Advances in genetics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, psychology and artificial intelligence have transformed the old nature-nurture debate, and established new ways of thinking about human nature. But in attempting to understand humans in the same language as it understands the rest of nature, Malik believes much contemporary science ignores human subjectivity.
‘Today, the idea of humans as exceptional beings is regarded as both scientifically false and politically dangerous. I want to argue that the retreat from human exceptionalism makes for both bad science and bad politics.’
Malik’s essay is followed by responses from Maggie Gee (novelist), Matt Ridley (science writer), Kiernan Ryan (Shakespeare scholar), Norman Levitt (mathematician), Kevin Warwick (cyberneticist) and Anthony O’Hear (philosopher). Finally Malik replies to his critics.
More quotes from What is it to be human?
‘If you look under our clothes and possessions, however, things are rather different. A visitor from outer space who watched human beings being born, having sex, eating, shitting or dying, would have no doubt that we were animals.’
‘Malik’s purpose is a noble one. He dreads the vulgarization and flattening of our discourse about ourselves, the pruning of the lexicon of human self-description to the point that terms like “noble” will be banished. This is an understandable fear. Yet I think Malik is reacting inappropriately to the new “human sciences,” misreading promise for danger.’
Professor Norman Levitt
‘Scientific explanations of our existence will always leave something crucial out, for they will show us only how we have come to have certain beliefs and dispositions. They will not themselves test those beliefs and dispositions for truth and validity.’
Professor Anthony O’Hear
‘For 500 years, as Malik says, we assumed that humans were exceptional and their behaviour was entirely the consequence of culture and free will. Then along came the evolutionary psychologists and said, why should we make that assumption? Let us test it. They did so, and came up with some fascinating and subtle results.’
‘The innate disposition to produce art and the innate appetite for art is not only a distinctive attribute of the human species - it’s also one of the principal means by which we keep trying to answer the fundamental question that Malik invites us to face up to afresh: what does it mean to be human?’
Professor Kiernan Ryan
‘As it stands, humans face the distinct possibility of being superseded by highly intelligent machines. Machines with an intelligence that cannot be matched by the way humans think. To ask how a human would cope with such machines is like asking a cow how it copes with humans.’
Professor Kevin Warwick
This book is out of print.