Magazine article The Spectator

Losing Both Soul and Self

Magazine article The Spectator

Losing Both Soul and Self

Article excerpt


Weidenfeld, 20, pp. 470

So rapid is the exponential growth which the human sciences are currently undergoing, in terms both of the sheer weight and range of the evidence and of the diversity of new disciplines and methodologies with which such evidence can be broached, that it is becoming harder and harder for any single scholar to attempt to offer a satisfactory overall survey. An extraordinarily wide range of skills and competencies is required to be able to handle a subject which is evolving, it seems, almost by the week and which habitually throws up issues which challenge familiar and accepted conceptual frameworks. It is just such a survey that Kenan Malik attempts to provide in Man, Beast and Zombie, and, as surveys go, he makes a very creditable stab at it, although his reading is more conspicuous for its breadth than for its depth. He is certainly an intelligent and acute commentator on as much of the scene as can be clearly discerned through the swirling dust, and it is therefore slightly depressing that so well-rounded and even-handed a study should reach such a perversely unsatisfactory conclusion.

The thesis around which Malik structures the book may be summarised as follows. The philosopher of the Enlightenment, whose heritage all parties are jealous to claim for themselves, did away with the outdated metaphysics of mind which lingered from the Middle Ages into the early modern era and pioneered the vision that human nature, being always and everywhere the same, could be the beneficiary of the same degree of elevation and enrichment in any context and in any culture. This admirable universalism became corrupted in the 19th century when, under the immediate and undigested impact of Darwinism, the key to the manifest disparity of human levels of well-being appeared to lie in the ignis fatuus of race. The racial era of human science came to its disastrous conclusion in the middle of the 20th century and provoked a sharp reaction in academic and official thinking towards a new cultural determinism: By the beginning of the last quarter of the century, however, in the wake of new breakthroughs in genetics and the integration of the legacies of Mendel and Darwin, the naturalist science of man, as a being determined by inbuilt propensities and not simply by the play of cultural factors, staged a major revival which has continued explosively up to the present. The developments in genetics and evolutionary biology have been matched and bolstered by similarly groundbreaking progress in artificial intelligence and the new cognitive science, which displaced the faceless dogma of behaviourism as the paradigm of psychology.

The common feature of evolutionary psychology and artificial intelligence, the plaint continues, is that they seek to offer an exhaustive explanation of all things human, an explanation which dispenses with the conventional notion of the autonomy of the rational self in anything other than a vestigial form. In that respect, these two currently prestigious disciplines have an outcome very similar to that of the postmodernist anti-science to which they are officially so bitterly opposed. Both postmodernism and the new Darwinism reflect a pessimistic conception of the human condition, mirrored in the current political quietism of the West, and only too readily to be explained by the catalogue of catastrophes of the 'civilised' world in the 20th century. These studies are the scientific equivalent of that abnegation of humane aspiration which is so perfectly symbolised in the visual arts by Tracey Emin's soiled bed. The only remedy lies in a robust defence of a conservative and traditional conception of the self and the insistence that all accounts of our condition which dispense with it are flawed before they start.

Many of those innocent and not so innocent of psychology will find this message congenial, and Malik's advocacy is of a sufficient quality to make it worthwhile to expose the misconceptions and ellipses on which the shaky structure of his argument rests. …

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