Kenan Malik starts the year with a preview of FIVE BOOKS TO ARGUE WITH.

The best kind of book, to my mind, is the kind of book you can have an argument with. Not a book so wrong that I want to throw it across the room, but one that I disagree with and yet find challenging enough to force me to re-examine my own views, and often to put down my disagreements in writing to help me better to clarify them.

For me, not being much of a historian, the first, fourth, and last on Malik’s list look most interesting.

He starts with Joshua Greene’s ‘Moral Tribes:Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them’ which ties in nicely with my own interest in how we can control the dangerous effects of our tendency to form aggressively competing identity groups.
This ties in with his own forthcoming book ‘The Quest for a Moral Compass’ parts of which apparently come from a talk on ‘Science, morality and the Euthyphro dilemma’; a review of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape; and a critique of Alex Rosenberg’s moral nihilism.

Roger Scruton’s ‘The Soul of the World’,according to the blurb as excerpted by Malik, ” ‘defends the experience of the sacred against today’s fashionable forms of atheism’. For Scruton, ‘To be fully alive – and to understand what we are – is to acknowledge the reality of sacred things’. The book is not ‘an argument for the existence of God, or a defense of the truth of religion’ but ‘an extended reflection on why a sense of the sacred is essential to human life – and what the final loss of the sacred would mean’ ”
I will be curious to see how Scruton sees ‘today’s fashionable forms of atheism’ as necessarily threatening that basic ‘sense of the sacred’ – and also to see how Malik responds.

The last book on Malik’s list, Nicholas Wade’s ‘A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History’ may well be a dangerous and unnecessary exploration, but just because a concept can be misused doesn’t mean it has no meaning, and despite Malik’s reasonably thoughtful but ultimately disappointing effort at fence-sitting I don’t think (as I have previously noted here, here, and here) that we can realistically deny the possibility of defining “race” (in various ways) as a possibly useful scientific concept. Whether we should make use of it is another matter and I remain nervous about where Wade may want to go.

Re Malik on the fence:

It is always a bad sign when people throw around expressions like “85% of variation” without saying what they mean and Malik’s failure to understand the Leewontin Fallacy had to be pointed out to him in the comments by Lou Jost.

I am also inclined to expect nonsense when I read an unsupported bald pedantic claim that starts with “Any scientific classification must..” and was confirmed in that expectation by Malik’s insistence on “a classification system must be complete and able to absorb even those entities not yet identified.” But even if there were such a well-defined concept of “scientific classification” there are lots of scientific concepts which are not “classifications” in that sense (and any plausible concept of race is almost certainly one of them).

Finally, in his criticism of a 2003 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine that made the case for ‘The importance of race and ethnic background in biomedical research and clinical practice’, he makes much of the use of standard biomedical terminology on one side versus “looseness of the language” on the other. I don’t intend to check whether these authors actually provided explicit procedures for how they identified people with “racial” labels (although they certainly could and should have!), because I am more interested (here) in what is possible than what happened in this particular case. But even if it was just self-identification into clearly defined categories, if that self-identification correlates with a choice of optimal treatment that cannot be cost-effectively determined any other way then it is indeed both scientifically and practically meaningful.

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