Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature by Kenan Malik - review by Bryan Appleyard

Bryan Appleyard

The Owl of Minerva Flies at Dusk

Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature

By

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 470pp £20
 

I sometimes wonder what publishers do. They certainly seem to have abandoned the editing function. This is a fine case in point - a thoughtful and important book, which, with judicious editing, could have been less than half as long and more than twice as good. It could also have been at least twice as well written. I have never met anybody who ever 'dubs' anything, but in Malik's world something is 'dubbed' by somebody on almost every page. Similarly, nobody, to Malik, is ever 'religious' or even 'interested'; they are always 'deeply religious' and ‘deeply interested'. My own name is spelt in two different ways. And, frankly, the first 300 pages are little more than an extended, rather flat prologue to an argument that has just got going when the book suddenly ends. Weidenfeld have done no favours to their author or his readers.

The problem is that the book tries too hard to be an intellectual history when it really wants to be a polemic. Malik wishes to explain evolutionary theory, brain science and the philosophy of science, to make various broad observations about the nature of contemporary society and, in the last few pages, to express a point of view that encompasses all these things. This point of view is simple and flawed, but it is also provocative and heartfelt as well as being more true and convincing than most of the ideas he successfully demolishes along the way. And it is certainly the core of the book - the rest is padding.

The argument is briefly stated: 'The triumph of mechanistic explanations of human nature is as much the consequence of our culture's loss of nerve as it is of scientific advance.' Malik's primary insight is that mankind is in the process of abandoning its sense of self, of the

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March