Reading List Roundup: “Man, Beast, and Zombie”

Our age has seen the Enlightenment fascination with mechanism come seemingly closer than ever to outright triumph over the human sphere. The 21st century citizen is more closely analyzed, more surveilled, more transposable, more meticulously quantified and modeled, than even in the most dehumanizing depths of the Industrial Revolution or the dreams of behaviorism.

Legions of algorithms and psychological studies now seek to pry into our behavior and reduce it to feedbacks and natural laws; economics aspires to, and has nearly achieved in some places, the total reduction of individuals to interchangeable tokens in a vast, global, labor-vending market; while neuroscience, behavioral genetics and philosophy of mind now commonly claim to have “disproved” such old humanistic concepts as free will altogether, reducing them to genetic interactions, evolutionary imperatives or fleeting patterns of cortical activation.

Is the most just and enlightened possible future for humanity really one in which reduction and mechanism have drilled their way clear into our most personal deeds and our innermost thoughts, reducing us to evolutionarily-determined “moist robots”? If not, how do we find an escape from the present mania for mechanism?

Kenan Malik, in his hefty 2000 opus Man, Beast, and Zombie (“MBZ”, for brevity) proposes to get at the roots of these questions, and just maybe manage such an escape. The current conception of human beings as mechanisms, in an unholy alliance with postmodernism’s rejection of objective truths, has led to an insidious passivity and pessimism in civilization, says Malik. The way forward must involve a realignment towards a more active, affirmative conception of human nature.

No doubt this is an incredibly ambitious project, one in which even partial success could offer important contributions to our understanding. Unfortunately, even so, MBZ is weighed down by major flaws of both conception and execution, which make reading it far more frustrating than enlightening.

A lot of the problem has to do with the book’s greatest area of strength, which is in scientific exposition and history. In this mode, Malik offers some fascinating, detailed excursions, particularly where he outlines the way that social-scientific schools of thought have changed places over time.

For example, in the first half MBZ delves into the intellectual roots of scientific racism and biological determinism, making for engrossing reading that would stand well as its own book. Malik skillfully describes how the pendulum of scientific opinion slowly swung first towards the widespread acceptance of scientific racism, then in the post-Holocaust era back to total rejection of any biologically determined behaviors at all (“Unesco Man”), and once again forward to the adoption of determinism in the present day under the guise of genetics and Darwinism.

I was also surprised to learn that the now-ubiquitous “Out of Africa” theory of human origins has been on top only a rather short time, edging out the competing “multiregional” idea that humanity rather mysteriously emerged from many separate locales at once. (Multiregionalism, despite possible unappealing racial implications, still has legs to this day.)

Still, even these strong points are spread unevenly, and gradually succumb to an irritating tendency towards stenography and rehash. (A long section monotonously recounting the ideas of Herbert Spencer makes for especially awful reading.) Put more simply, Mr. Malik is desperately in need of a good editor, as his flair for exposition tends to get in the way of his actual points. Hence, while it might have come off decently as a history of anthropology and racism, as either a scientific polemic or philosophical discussion MBZ is downright infuriating.

Firstly, even though domination and mechanism are the very things Malik sees so sapping the human spirit, his goal seems to be just to replace one kind of materialistic domination with another slightly modified one, where materialism and domination are perfectly good as long as they’re not applied towards humans. The real problem with today’s dehumanizing determinist science, we are told, is that it has given up on the idea that humans are special, limitless, and destined to ascend to complete dominion over nature.

As one might guess then, Malik’s general outlook is incredibly speciesist, with the last 90 pages especially revealing a startling contempt towards nature and non-human life. Lacking language and particularly Reason, non-human living things are self-evidently “objects”, the “B” in MBZ. Only humans, “alone among terrestrial matter”, and for reasons that Malik never goes into, are “both subject and object” (339). He is such a purist in his dualism, with such total certitude about the phenomenology of other living things, that he even describes an infant as “simply an object” (366)—not to mention his cat (363)!

Even granting that human beings have a distinctive linguistic and cultural faculty, and without taking any unusual position on animal rights and suffering, it’s hard to look at Malik’s certainties about both non-human nullity and human perfectibility/supremacy as misplaced, if not potentially monstrous. There is, after all, a reason that the sciences have come to acknowledge certain kinds of human limitation and fallibility: the evidence, and history itself, often points that way. We are not angels, as Chomsky sometimes says.

All in all, Malik is just calling for a return to Cartesianism, with its stark division between thinking subject and extended object, plus an extra dose of contempt for and dominion over nature and animals. This is strange, since for all that he seems to worry about our reducing human beings to mere objects, machinery or data for manipulation—a stance Heidegger called “over-againstness”—he seems to have chosen to deal with it by calling for even more of it… just so long as it’s over-against anything but us. Surely, that could never backfire(?).

Also, despite the vast importance he assigns to “Reason” as the defining characteristic of Man’s specialness, there are a lot of irrational habits in Malik’s style. You’ll look mostly in vain for actual arguments, for instance. In their place you often find, at the end of some dreary chain of stenographic quotations, a pronouncement with no justification given, of the form “X is right” (p. 336, 345, 348, 364, etc.). Issuing edicts like this is an obnoxious authorial tic, but it also does nothing to answer the important questions he has set himself. There are also many contradictions, sometimes in the very same sentence or page, like “determinism is necessary for freedom” (364); these, too, are stated in the same dogmatic/oracular manner.

Most disappointing, however, is Malik’s obliviousness to the striking tension in his own positions: on the one side, we have his full-throttle admiration of the Enlightenment project of rational, reductionist, mechanistic inquiry, which forms the core of all science. Science, in turn, is “the crowning achievement of humanism” (388). On the other side, we have his deep misgivings about the dehumanizing, “pessimistic” vision of human nature that actual scientific fields such as behavioral genetics have adopted and now champion. So, if the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment project ends up undermining the original project, doesn’t this imply that there is a flaw in the project itself, possibly something that seeks to objectify, to render passive and mechanistic?

Astonishingly, this issue never seems to cross Malik’s mind until the second-to-last page, where he pretty much just waves it away, intoning that science only does bad things when it’s not working in service to humanity. Never mind that there have been plenty of “enlightened and humanistic” individuals who ended up doing horrible dehumanizing things, like Robespierre or Fritz Haber—these are cases which Malik, like any faithful dogmatist, conveniently ignores.

All in all then, MBZ is really neither a piercing critical examination of timely issues nor a daring vision of a way forward, but an assertion of Malik’s personal (and kind of poorly thought-out) humanist faith. If you must crack open this meandering, high-handed tome, stick to the first half with the interesting exposition writing and skip the rest.


Postscript— I just came across this article on the Frankfurt School of philosophy. It’s highly apropos to the points above, especially when it comes to Malik’s strangely unquestioning and objectifying embrace of “reason” as cure-all for our mechanistic malaise. Here’s an excerpt:

The Frankfurt School theorists argued that universal rationality had been raised to the status of an idol. At the heart of this was what they called ‘instrumental reason’, the mechanism by which everything in human affairs was ground up.

“When reason enabled human beings to interpret the natural world around them in ways that ceased to frighten them, it was a liberating faculty of the mind. However, in the Frankfurt account, its fatal flaw was that it depended on domination” (emphasis mine).

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