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Malik’s “Genes, culture and human freedom” and then discuss the tension between human culture and nature.

When a beaver builds a dam, it doesn't ask itself why it does so, or whether there is a better way of doing it. When a swallow flies south, it doesn't wonder why it is hotter in Africa or what would happen if it flew still further south. Humans do ask themselves these and many other kinds of questions – questions that have no relevance, indeed make little sense, in the context of evolved needs and goals.

What marks out humans is our capacity to go beyond our naturally defined goals – such as the need to find food, shelter or a mate – and to establish human-created goals. Our evolutionary heritage certainly shapes the way that humans approach the world. But it does not limit it.

Similarly, our cultural heritage influences the ways in which we think about the world and the kinds of questions we ask of it, but it does not imprison them. If membership of a particular culture absolutely shaped our worldview, then historical change would never be possible.

If the people of medieval Europe had been totally determined by the worldview sustained by medieval European culture, it would not have been possible for that society to have become anything different. It would not have been possible, for instance, to have developed new ideas about individualism and materialism, or to have created new forms of technology and new political institutions.

Human beings are not automata who simply respond blindly to whatever culture in which they find themselves, any more than they are automata that blindly respond to their evolutionary heritage. There is a tension between the way a culture shapes individuals within its purview and the way that those individuals respond to that culture, just as there is a tension between the way natural selection shapes the way that humans think about the world and the way that humans respond to our natural heritage. This tension allows people to think critically and imaginatively, and to look beyond a particular culture's horizons.

In the six million years since the human and chimpanzee lines first diverged on either side of Africa's Great Rift Valley, the behaviour and lifestyles of chimpanzees have barely changed. Human behaviour and lifestyles clearly have. Humans have learned to learn from previous generations, to improve upon their work, and to establish a momentum to human life and culture that has taken us from cave art to quantum physics – and to the unravelling of the genome. It is this capacity for constant innovation that distinguishes humans from all other animals.

All animals have an evolutionary past. Only humans make history. The historical, transformative quality of being human is why the so-called nature-nurture debate, while creating considerable friction, has thrown little light on what it means to be human. To understand human freedom we need to understand not so much whether we are creatures of nature or nurture, but how, despite being shaped by both nature and nurture, we are also able to transcend both.

(Kenan Malik is author of Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can and

Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature, Weidenfield and Nicolson, 2000.)

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