Kenan Malik: Why a man is not just another animal

From a talk given by the writer for the launch of the Institute of Ideas' series Conversations in Print, at the Royal Institution
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I want to make a case for the exceptional character of human beings. Not simply unique in the sense that every species is unique, but exceptional in that humans cannot be understood solely as natural beings. Like every other organism, humans are biological beings, and under the purview of biological and physical laws. But unlike any other organism, humans are also conscious beings with purpose and agency, traits the possession of which allow us to design ways of breaking the constraints of biological and physical laws. To understand what it is to be human is to understand human beings not just as objects of nature but also as subjects that can, partly at least, determine our history and our fate.

Most scientists and philosophers of the past half millennia years would have been astonished that we need to have a debate on this point, for they would have taken for granted the idea that human beings, while an inherent part of nature and subjects to its laws, nevertheless have an exceptional status in nature by virtue of our possession of consciousness and language, reason and morality.

But no longer do we think this way. Today, the idea of humans as exceptional is seen as both scientifically false and politically dangerous. For most scientists, exceptionalism smacks of mysticism. And politically, there is an increasing tendency to see human hubris as the root of most of the ills of the world, from global warming and species depletion to ethnic cleansing.

I want to argue that this retreat from human exceptionalism makes for both bad science and bad politics. It makes for bad science because the attempt to understand humans in the same language as the rest of nature ignores an essential quality of humaness – our subjectivity. And it makes for bad politics because once we accept human reason is a force for destruction rather than betterment, we lose the only means we possess for human advancement, whether social, moral or technological.

A paradox of science is that its success in understanding nature has created problems for its understanding of human nature. The success of science derives from the way that it has "disenchanted" the natural world. Whereas the pre-scientific world viewed the universe as full of purpose and desire, the scientific revolution transformed nature into an inert, mindless entity.

From the viewpoint of a disenchanted universe, natural organisms are like machines; not because animals are inanimate but because, like all machines, animals lack agency and will. Animals are objects of natural forces, not potential subjects of their own destiny. They act out a drama, not create one. Humans, however, are not disenchanted creatures. We possess purpose and agency, consciousness and will, qualities that science has expunged from the rest of nature. Uniquely among organisms, human beings are both objects of nature and subjects that can shape our own fate.

I am not arguing that humans cannot be understood, nor that they cannot be understood by science. Rather I am arguing that current scientific consensus about how humans can be understood is ill-conceived, because the mechanistic view of humaness – the belief that, to put it crudely, humans can be understood as if we were simply sophisticated animals, or sophisticated machines – ignores the subjective aspects of human existence.

Why have mechanistic views of humaness become fashionable? Because they chime with the dominant cultural view of what it is to be human. Not just in science but in politics and culture too we have moved away from viewing humans as subjects, away from a faith in human-directed change. A century of unparalleled bloodshed and destruction has created a deep scepticism about human capacities. As we have become more pessimistic about the human condition, so the idea that humans are just animals or machines has appeared both scientifically plausible and culturally acceptable.