scientists and the human animal

interview by jeremy stangroom in what scientists think (routledge, 2005)

In his book, Man, Beast and Zombie, Kenan Malik argues that human beings are quite unlike any other organism in the natural world. We have a dual nature. We are evolved, biological creatures, with an evolutionary past, and in this sense we are simply objects in nature. But we also have self-consciousness, agency, and the capacity for rationality, and as a result we alone in the natural world are able to transcend our evolutionary heritage and to transform ourselves and the world in which we live. Science, though, is taking its time in getting to grips with this dual nature of human beings.

'Most people will accept that human beings are animals, beings with evolved brains and minds', Malik tells me. 'Most people will also accept that humans are in a certain way distinct from all other animals. The important issue then is about how we understand the relationship between these two aspects of our humanity. Or more particularly, how we understand, on the one hand, the continuity of humanity with the rest of nature, and, on the other, the distinctive aspects of humanity. What is key is whether the distinctive aspects can be understood in the same terms, using the same tools, as we understand those aspects of our humanity which are continuous with nature.'

In getting to grips with this dual nature, Malik makes use of a distinction between human beings as objects and human beings as subjects. 'It's a critical distinction', he says. 'The questions to ask are: What kind of beings are humans? Are they the kind of beings which can be fully encompassed within the domain of natural science? The paradox of natural science is that its success and understanding of nature places constraints on its understanding of human nature. The pre-scientific world was full of magic, purpose, desire, and so on. The scientific revolution "disenchanted" this world, to use Max Weber's phrase. It expunged magic and purpose, transforming nature into an inert, mindless entity. At the heart of scientific methodology, then, is the view of nature, and of natural organisms, as machines; not because ants or apes are inanimate, or because they work like watches or TVs, but because, like all machines, they lack self-consciousness and will. It is this mechanistic view that has made science so successful over the past half millennia, enabling it both to explain and to exploit nature.

'But humans are not disenchanted creatures in this way. We possess, or at least we think we possess, purpose, agency, desire, will, and so on. Humans are biological beings under the purview of biological and physical laws. But we are also conscious, self-reflexive agents, with the capacity to bend the effects of biological and physical laws. The very development of science expresses this paradox of being human, because in order to understand nature objectively, it is necessary to make a distinction between nature which is the object being studied and humanity which is the subject doing the studying.

'When you're looking at "external nature" this distinction is relatively easy to make. But when you're studying human beings it is not so easy, because human beings are, at one and the same time, the objects of scientific study and the subjects doing the studying. In a sense, then, in order to have a scientific view of nature, we have to be outside of it, to look down upon it, because if we did not, then we would not be able to understand it objectively. So our very capacity to do science, our very capacity to study nature objectively, reveals paradoxically the sense in which we are not simply immanent in nature, but also in a certain way transcendent to it.'

According to Malik, one of the consequences of the dual nature of human beings is that the reductionist project in science - where reductionism is the idea that it is possible to explain a particular phenomenon in terms of its most fundamental constituent parts - will only result in a limited understanding of the human mind; that explanations of human behaviour and actions should not be couched solely at the level of neurons firing, and so on. What then are the limits of reductionism for understanding human beings?

'Well, it is certainly possible to have a reductionist explanation of how the mind works', Malik replies. 'And we could extend this to give say a reductionist explanation of this conversation. But, in fact, this would tell us very little about the conversation, and what we're discussing, because humans do not operate solely at the mechanistic level. In other words, reductionist explanations are perfectly possible, but in many contexts they are not very useful.

'Let me give you an illustration. Suppose one morning I run out of the house and I kill a passer-by. In a subsequent trial, I might use one of two defences. I could claim that I had been suffering from an inoperable brain tumour which had made me irrationally violent. Or I could say that the night preceding the murder I had had a conversation with a brilliant, but evil, existentialist philosopher, who had convinced me that they only way that I could express my individuality was to murder somebody. In the first case, if the story was true, most people would say that I was not guilty of murder; that I was acting in some fashion over which I had no control. In the second case, however, most people would say that I was guilty of murder. But actually, in both cases there was some cause of my action, either a brain tumour or an evil existentialist. It is just that people will normally distinguish between my acting as an object, as in the first case; and my acting as a subject, as in the second.

'However, it would actually be quite possible to couch the evil existentialist explanation in mechanistic terms; that is, to treat my actions as if I was just an object. I could say that the reason that I committed the murder was because certain neurons fired, in a particular order, in the brain. This is a perfectly valid explanation, in the sense that had those neurons not fired, then I would not have committed the murder. However, in this context, such an explanation is not very useful, since it fails to recognise that humans also act because of conscious reasons, and not simply because of physical causes. Reductionist explanations by and large suffice for non-human animals, but for humans, they do not.

'I'm not suggesting that reductionist explanations are invalid or don't work or don't help elucidate important aspects of the workings of the human mind', Malik says. 'All I'm suggesting is that they are insufficient as explanations for how humans work. It's worth adding, I think, that in criticising a mechanistic view of human beings, I am not reaching for some kind of supernatural explanation. The distinction I am drawing is between a mechanistic, a mysterian and a materialist view of the world. A mechanistic view sees human beings largely as objects through which nature acts. A mysterian view suggests that there are aspects of human existence not knowable to mere mortals. A materialist view, on the other hand, understands human beings without resort to mystical explanations. But it also sees humans as exceptional because humans, unlike any other beings, possess consciousness and agency. And understanding human consciousness and agency requires us to understand humans not just as natural, but also as historical and social, beings.'

The claim here then is that it is only human beings who have the capacity for self-consciousness, agency, and so on; that humans act for reasons, but non-human animals do not. It is fairly uncontentious to claim that a stag-beetle doesn’t have these capacities, but it isn't so clear that our close relatives in the animal kingdom do not. So, for example, there is an argument about whether or not the great apes are self aware, have a moral sense, and so on. Is Malik's view that even our closest relatives in the natural world are completely lacking in these kinds of characteristics?

'There is considerable debate about whether our closest relatives have the capacity for language, morality, culture, tool-making, and so on', he replies. 'I think a useful way of approaching this debate is to examine what we mean by culture when we talk about it in relation to chimps, and what we mean by it when we talk about it in relation to humans, because I think, in fact, we are talking about different phenomena.

'Most primatologists would say that culture is about the acquisition of habits, and you find that there are groups of chimps who are able to perform actions which other groups of chimps are not - for example, some are able to crack open palm nuts using two stones as a hammer and anvil, which is an acquired habit. By this definition, chimps have culture, and there are forty odd different habits which have been observed in the wild in different groups of chimps.

'But when you talk about human culture you're not simply talking about the acquisition of habits from others. You're talking about our capacity to transform ourselves and our world through a process we call history. It is about six million years since the evolutionary lines of chimps and humans diverged. In that time, both chimps and humans have evolved. But, in a broad sense, give or take the capacity to crack open a few palm nuts or to hunt termites with a stick, the behaviour and lifestyles of chimps are more or less the same as they were six million years ago. This is clearly not the case with humans. Over the last sixty or seventy thousand years humans have become a very different kind of being. Humans have discovered how to learn from previous generations, to improve upon our work, and to establish a momentum to human life and culture that has taken us from cave art to quantum physics and the conquest of space. It is this capacity for constant innovation that distinguishes humans from all other animals. There is a fundamental distinction between a process by which certain chimpanzees have learnt to crack open palm-nuts using two stones as hammer and anvil, and a process through which humans have created the industrial revolution, unravelled the secrets of their own genome, developed the concept of universal rights - and come to debate the distinction between humans and other animals.

'All animals have an evolutionary past. Only humans make history. This distinction is critical. So when we talk about non-human animals possessing culture or morality or language capacity, we need to define what we mean by these - and not to assume that we mean the same thing when we talk about chimp culture as when we talk about human culture.'

According to Malik, language plays a crucial role in facilitating the self-consciousness, rationality and agency of human beings. Indeed, he makes use of a Wittgenstein-inspired argument in order to show that these kinds of things are, in a certain sense, dependent upon language, and also to argue that they have social and public aspects.

'Very simply put, my claim is that meaning is social', he tells me. 'If you are a solitary creature, you might experience redness or pain or a whole host of other things, but attributing meaning to all those things only comes about through our existence as social beings, because meaning derives from social existence. The contents of my inner world mean something to me, in part at least, insofar as they mean something to others. I can make sense of my self only insofar as I live in, and relate to, a community of thinking, feeling, talking beings. Language is critical to this, in part because it underpins our capacity to be social, and therefore it plays a role in allowing us to attribute meaning to our inner feelings or thoughts.'

The argument that the meanings which one might attribute to something like one's own pain are mediated by language and its attendant public and social aspects is relatively uncontentious. What seems less certain is that the actual experience of pain might be transformed in the same kind of way. Is this what Malik thinks occurs?

'There are instances of children who from birth have been deprived of social contact and language, and the way that they understand the world, the concepts they form about the world are very different from those of other children their age', he replies. 'Concepts of time, place and space, for example, are either absent or highly impoverished in their view of the world. So yes, I do think that social interaction and language play a very important part in mediating our experiences - and in allowing us to make sense of our experiences.'

But there is a difference between arguing that culture and language are integral to the way in which one might understand something like time, for example, and arguing that they are central to how one might experience pain or the flight-or-fight mechanism. If one reflects upon pain or the fear we might feel when confronted by a threatening situation, then, of course, language and culture have an impact, but in terms of how the experience actually feels, it isn't as clear that they do.

'Well, nobody really knows how language affects experience at that level', Malik replies, when I put this point to him. 'But I think that what one can say is that without language, one cannot experience these kinds of things in the context of social meaning. In humans, our existence as symbolic, social beings seems to transform even such a basic physiological response as pain. One does not have to be a Baron Masoch to recognise that the experience of pain can sometimes be pleasurable, that sometimes we may seek pain as part of sexual or other forms of gratification. In other words, even a response such as pain can be mediated through language, culture and social conventions, such that the human response to pain becomes different from that of other animals. The ways in which we reflect upon our experiences are clearly mediated through language and culture. But the experience itself - how it feels - should not be seen simply as a natural, unmediated physiological response. Experiences too are socially mediated.'

'Descartes argued that knowledge of one's mind is the starting point for knowledge of other minds. I'd suggest that without knowledge of other minds, it is impossible to have knowledge of our own. Far from inferring other humans' experiences from our own, we can only truly know what goes on inside our heads by relating to other humans. It is only because we live not as individuals, but within a social community, and moreover within a community bound together by language, that we can make sense of our inner thoughts or feelings.'

Part of the significance of this argument has to do with whether non-human animals, which do not have language, have the same kinds of experiences that we have. Does Malik think that primates, for example, experience pain?

'From a scientific perspective, there is no way we can answer this question one way or other', he replies. 'Most of the claims about animal experience come from the animal welfare movement, and it has popularised concepts such as "animal suffering" and "animal pain". Most of us, if we see an animal, or at least a vertebrate, that is injured, or placed in what seems to be an unpleasant situation like a small cage, assume that it is suffering or in pain. The feeling is spontaneous, instinctive. Anthropomorphism seems to be part of our nature. We appear to be designed to read other people’s minds - and to assume that other animals have minds as we do.

'But there is no scientific evidence that they do. Even Marian Stamp Dawkins, the zoologist who has made a case for the idea of animal suffering, accepts that "no amount of measurements can tell us what animals are experiencing". She argues that the conclusion that animals experience suffering in ways similar to ourselves has to be based on an analogy from our own feelings. Animals writhe, cry out, seem distressed, as humans do when we are in pain. So, it seems reasonable to assume that animals can also feel pain.

‘However, animals do many things similar to humans but not necessarily for the same reason. Ants "enslave" other ants, ducks "rape", and so on. But there is nothing reasonable about drawing analogies between slavery in ants and human slavery, or duck rape and human rape. Animal behaviour, in other words, does not always provide a good analogy for human behaviour. In any case, behaviour is not necessarily a good indicator of sensations, even in humans. One study has revealed that among patients admitted to hospital with severe injuries, forty per cent noticed no pain at the time of the injury of which they were fully aware, forty per cent had more pain than expected, and only twenty per cent reported the expected pain. Another demonstrated that people given anaesthetic while a tooth is extracted, may writhe, jump and cry out as if in pain, yet are so unaware that a tooth has been extracted that they frequently ask when it's going to happen even after the tooth has come out.

'The scientific problem of understanding animal experience is made worse by the fact that concepts such as "sentience", "consciousness" and "self-consciousness" are bandied around without much thought to their meaning. What is the distinction between sentience and consciousness? Is it possible to be conscious without being self-conscious? If not, what does this say about the experiences of non-human animals? Such questions are all too rarely asked.'

Malik's arguments are predicated on a thorough going humanism. One of the criticisms made of humanists is that they can adopt an unwarranted, purely instrumental stance towards the world; that is, that they see the world, and all that is in it, as being there to be transformed according to the will of human beings. Is this a legitimate worry? For example, if we accept the argument that non-human animals lack any real sense of their selves does this mean that there is no reason to accord them the kinds of rights that arguably seem to depend upon self-consciousness and agency?

'Obviously, we're quite capable of treating our natural environment instrumentally, and transforming it, and I don't see anything wrong with this', Malik responds. 'Indeed, the whole process of human development has been about transforming the environment for our benefit. If you think that this is a problem, then you're going to have a problem with agriculture - and indeed, with just about everything else we have done in the last twenty to thirty thousand years.

'Do I think animals should have rights? No, I don't. Rights are an expression of our existence as conscious agents, capable of taking responsibility for our actions. Just as we don't put chimps on trial for murder, nor do we accord them rights. It would be absurd to accord them rights, and anyway in a sense we would not be according them rights at all - in order to have a right, you must be able to assert that right, but chimps cannot do so. You might say that they have rights, but in fact their rights must be invested in human beings who in effect act on their behalf. So even if we wished to give rights to apes it would not be possible without distorting the very meaning of "rights".

'Do I think animal experimentation is wrong? No, I don't. I think that the well-being of human beings who benefit from all kinds of medical and scientific advances that are the outcome of medical research is far more important than the welfare of the animals upon which experiments are performed. It seems to me that those people who argue against animal experimentation have a deeply anti-humanist view in that they do not recognise the importance or the usefulness of the kinds of medical advances that do come from animal experimentation.'

If animals are just zombies, then this view is perfectly understandable. Would it be different, I wonder, if Malik had a different view about the levels of self-consciousness in non-human animals? It is possible that there might be a worry with primates, for example. Even accepting arguments about the importance of language for the development of a sense of self and in mediating experience, it does seem that there is the possibility that primates have sufficiently developed brains that even if they don’t have our kinds of self-consciousness and experiences, they are nevertheless self-conscious in some kind of way - and that this renders experimentation on primates morally problematic.

'I'm not sure what "self-consciousness in some kind of way" means', he replies. 'The main evidence that non-human animals possess self-awareness comes from the mirror experiment. A mark is made on a chimp’s face while it is anaesthetised. When it subsequently sees itself – and the mark - in a mirror, it recognises that the mark is on its face. Monkeys, on the other hand don't recognise that the mark is on them. Gordon Gallup, who first demonstrated this, argues that this shows that chimps possess self-awareness.

'But our conscious selves are not in our bodies. We do not see our conscious selves in the mirror. Autistic children, who are unable to attribute mental states to others or to think of how they appear to others, are able to use a mirror to inspect their own bodies at the same age as normal children. Many animals, from baboons to elephants, are able to use mirrors or close-circuit television to guide their hand or limb - or in the case of the elephant, trunk - movement. Self-recognition, therefore, is not the same as self-awareness. There are many other explanations for the chimp behaviour apart from self-awareness. For instance, Julian Jaynes suggested that the chimp, unlike the monkey, may have learnt a point-to-point relation between the mirror image and its own body, and hence is able to use the mirror as an optical tool for manipulating its body. The mirror test may indicate bodily awareness or representation rather than the conceptualisation of a self.

'Some argue that since we cannot be sure whether or not animals, particularly primates, possess self-awareness, so the morally correct policy is to assume that they do. I disagree. If as scientists we assume that primates have self-awareness even though we have no real evidence that they do, this can do great harm to science. And what is moral about banning animal experiments that might save, or improve, the lives of thousands, perhaps millions of human beings, on the grounds that primates may possess self-awareness? As it happens, even if the Great Apes possess the degree of self-awareness that some believe they do, I would have no problem with experimentation that is important for medical or scientific advances.'

It seems then that Malik's argument is predicated on a fairly straightforward claim about what it takes for something to be a moral subject - it requires things like sentience, rationality, self-consciousness, and he doesn't think that non-human animals have these to any significant degree.

'Yes', he agrees. 'Moral rights are a product of our existence as subjects. Non-human animals are not subjects.'

Perhaps the central theme running through all these arguments is the notion that human beings are in some sense able to transcend their character as natural, biological organisms, and that it is this ability which marks them out as an animal apart from all others. But there is, of course, research which seems to show that we are thoroughly enmeshed in the physical world, and indeed which suggests that things like agency and consciousness might, in some senses at least, be illusory. Benjamin Libet's work, in the 1960s, on readiness potential is a case in point.

A readiness potential is an electrical change in the brain that precedes a conscious human act - such as waggling a finger. Libet found that if volunteers are asked to waggle their finger within a 30 second time-frame, the RP that accompanies the waggling begins some 300 to 400 milliseconds before the human subject reports that they have become aware of their intention to waggle the finger. This is disturbing, because, as Libet put it, the 'initiation of the freely voluntary act appears to begin in the brain unconsciously, well before the person consciously knows he wants to act!' The threat to Malik's argument here is clear. If our conscious acts are unconsciously initiated, then what of free-will and agency? Perhaps we are just sophisticated machines after all.

'Actually, I think Libet's work, though interesting, is probably irrelevant to the debate about human agency', says Malik. 'If you're a materialist, then you're going to accept that behaviour, at one level, is caused by the brain. Therefore, there is nothing startling that Libet shows. Unless you want to believe that behaviour happens without causation, and that free will can only exist in an undetermined universe, then I don't think, in terms of this debate, Libet's results undermine the arguments for agency.

'I agree with Dan Dennett that free will and agency can only exist in a determined universe, because in an undetermined universe what you have is not freedom, but randomness. The problem is simply that we don't yet have a conceptual framework which allows us to think about human beings as both determined and free at the same time. The real task is to create the framework which will allow us to view ourselves in both these ways simultaneously'

But if one accepts the radical conclusion of Libet's work, that somehow consciousness surfs the wave of our brain’s physiology, it does seem that reductionist, causal explanations of behaviour - that is, mechanistic explanations - are perfectly valid. It seems that what actually drives our behaviour is just the unfolding of a causal process which occurs at levels below things like intentions, motives and meaning.

'Certainly, there are people who will argue this position, who want to see us simply as biological objects', agrees Malik. 'The problem with such arguments is that, by their own criteria, they provide us with no reason for believing in them. If "intentions, motives and meaning" are merely epiphenomena, so too is truth. That's because "truth" has no meaning in a world composed simply of objects. As the anti-humanist philosopher John Gray has put it, "in the struggle for life, a taste for truth is a luxury", even a "disability". From an evolutionary point of view, truth is contingent. Darwinian processes are driven by the need, not to ascertain truth, but to survive and reproduce. Indeed, the argument that consciousness and agency are illusions designed by natural selection relies on the idea that evolution can select for untruths about the world because such untruths aid survival. So, if we were simply biological objects, not just consciousness and agency, but truth and reason would disappear, too. In which case we couldn't place any trust in the claim that we were just biological objects. Far from science revealing humans to be beings without consciousness and agency, we are able to do science only because of our ability to act as subjects, rather than just as objects.

'Certainly we need a materialist account of our existence, but a materialist account that doesn't make consciousness and agency disappear in a puff of mechanistic smoke. The problem in trying to understand humans both as biological beings and as agents with a certain degree of freedom is that currently we have no conceptual framework to reconcile these two views of ourselves within a materialist world view. I have no idea how to solve this conundrum, but I don't think that anyone else does either. However, unless we start asking the right questions about these issues, then we're never going to get to the right answers.'