In the final chapter of Man, Beast and Zombie, Malik laments what he sees as an increasing reluctance to view individual people as autonomous, rational, and competent agents, and a tendency to view them as damaged, weak, incapable, and possessing limited control over their fates. All this has both encouraged and been reinforced by what Malik sees as mechanistic accounts of human nature. It has been accompanied by a shift of emphasis from negative liberty to positive liberties and paternalistic protections, and by an acceptance of limits to human possibilities and a deference to "nature" – all in marked contrast to the spirit of Enlightenment humanism.
I want to insist, however, that what is distinctive about humans is that it is we who often set our goals. We are, in the words of the psychologist Annette Karmiloff-Smith, not just problem solvers but also problem generators. Another way of putting it is this: Humans are, as many have observed in recent years, shaped by both nature and nurture. But humans are also defined by our ability to transcend both. Unlike any other creature, humans have developed the capacity to overcome the constraints imposed both by our genetic and our cultural heritage.
This bizarre love-in between the naturalists and postmodernists is a bit like discovering that Osama Bin Ladin agrees with Salman Rushdie that magical realism is an appropriate literary form through which to debate the merits of Islam. Naturalism and postmodernism are like the two heads of a pushme-pullyou, constantly tugging at each, determined to travel in different directions, never realising that they are stitched together at the waist. And the twine that makes the stitching is the common distrust of human subjectivity, a view of human beings not as subjects capable of acting autonomously but as objects who are simply acted upon, whether by nature or by culture.
There can be no academic life without a notion of objective truth. And there can be no objective truth without a subject to embody such a truth. Nor can there be a political life either. Politics, and the belief in social change, requires belief both in the capacity of humans to transcend their both their evolutionary and cultural heritage, and in the transformative character of human rationality. Indeed, the degradation of politics we have witnessed in recent years is the direct consequence of the degradation of the idea of human subjectivity. If we wish to defend both political freedom and the scientific process, then we need to make a stand in defence of humans not just as flexible in an animal sense, but also as possessors of agency in a uniquely human sense.