VEL – The Contemporary Heretic's Reviews > Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

Straw Dogs by John N. Gray
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it was amazing

The religious impulse is as innate as the sex drive. Like the latter, when repressed it re-emerges as perversion.

Thus, the Marxist faith in our passage into communism after revolution represents a perversion of the Christian belief in our passage into heaven after death. Marxism is thus, as Edmund Wilson observed, ‘The Opium of the Intellectuals’.

The same is true, Gray argues, of what he sees as the prevailing secular religion of the modern West—humanism.

Humanism is, for Gray, a substitute religion that replaces an irrational faith in an omnipotent god with an even more irrational faith in the omnipotence of Man himself (p38).

In doing so, humanism renounces the one insight that Christianity got right—namely the notion that humans are “radically flawed” as captured by the doctrine of Original Sin (Heresies: p8).

The Myth of Progress
In ordinary usage, the term ‘humanism’ is hopelessly broad, encompassing anyone who is neither religious nor a Nazi.

For his purposes, Gray defines humanism as a “belief in progress” (p4).

More specifically, he has in mind a belief in the inevitability of social, economic and political progress.

Belief in the inevitability of progress is, he argues, a faith universal across the political spectrum—from neoconservatives who try to transform Islamic tribal theocracies and Soviet Republics into capitalist democracies, to Marxists who think Islamic tribal theocracies and liberal capitalist democracies will themselves ultimately give way to communism.

Gray, however, rejects any grand narrative arc in human history.
“Looking for meaning in history is like looking for patterns in clouds” (p48).
Scientific Progress
Although an early chapter digresses on the supposed “irrational origins” of western science, Gray does not doubt the reality of scientific progress.

What he doubts is social, moral and political progress will inevitably accompany it.

Progress in science and technology, does not always lead to social and political progress.
“Without the railways, telegraph and poison gas, there could have been no Holocaust” (p14).
Thus, scientific progress is unstoppable and self-perpetuating—“Any country that renounces technology makes itself prey to those that do not” (p178).

Yet this is not true of political, social and economic progress. A nation bound by moral constraints would be defeated by an enemy willing to cast aside morality for the sake of victory. Thus, Gray anticipates:
“Even as it enables poverty to be diminished and sickness to be alleviated, science will be used to refine tyranny and perfect the art of war” (p123)
He darkly prophesizes:
“If one thing about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on humanity by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it” (p14).
Human Nature
This is because, according to Gray, although technology progresses, human nature remains stubbornly intransigent.
“Though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive animal that is also one of the most predatory and destructive” (p4).
As a result, “The uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked as humans are themselves” (p28).

Thus, the fatal flaw in the humanist theory that political progress will inevitably accompany scientific progress is its failure to come to grips with one sphere of scientific progress – namely in our understanding of human nature.

Sociobiological theory suggests humans are innately selfish and nepotistic to an extent incompatible with the utopias envisaged by reformers and revolutionaries

Of course, cooperation is also a part of human nature, as is responsiveness to environmental factors. This has led some to argue that, if utopia is beyond our grasp, society can be improved by careful reform (see Peter Singer’s A Darwinian Left).

But the reformers are possessed of the same human nature as those whose behaviour they seek to engineer. Thus, if they do reengineer society, Gray argues, they will do so for their own ends, not for those of mankind as a whole.

While Gray doubts the inevitability of social, political and moral progress, he does not question its reality. Thus, citing improvements in sanitation and healthcare, he concludes that, although “faith in progress is a superstition”, progress itself “is a fact” (p155).

Yet every society, by definition, views its own moral values as superior. Otherwise, they would not be its own values. They thus view the changes in opinion that led to these moral values as a form of progress.

But what constitutes moral, social and political progress is wholly subjective.

The ancient Romans, transported to our times, would surely accept the superiority of our technology and, if they did not, we would out-compete them economically and militarily and hence prove it ourselves. But they would view our social, moral and political values as decadent and we would have no way of proving them wrong.

In short, while scientific and technological progress can be proven objectively, moral and political progress is a mere matter of opinion.

Gray occasionally hints in this direction, declaring in one of his many quotable aphorisms:
“Ideas of justice are as timeless as fashions in hats” (p103).
He even flirts with moral nihilism, describing “values” as “only human needs and the needs of other animals turned into abstractions” (p197), and venturing, “the idea of morality” may be no more than “an ugly superstition” (p90).

Yet Gray remains confused. For example, he protests that “Morality has hardly made us better people” (p104).

But the meaning of “better people” itself requires a moral judgement. If we reject morality, then there can be no grounds for determining if some people are “better” and thus this can hardly be a ground for rejecting morality.

Free Will
Relying on the work of neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, Gray rejects the notion of free will:
“In nearly all our life willing decides nothing – we cannot wake up or fall asleep, remember or forget our dream, summon or banish our thoughts, by deciding to do so… We just act and there is no actor standing behind what we do” (p69).

“Our actual experience is not of freely choosing the way we live but of being driven along by our bodily needs – by fear, hunger… sex” (p43).
Thus, far from truly free, “We spend our lives coping with what comes along” (p70).

What separates us from other animals is not free will, nor even consciousness, but mere self-awareness.

But this is a mixed blessing.

Thus, musicians and sportsmen perform best, not when consciously thinking of their movements, but rather when momentarily lost in what positive psychologists call ‘Flow’ or ‘The Zone’ (p61).

Rejection of free will is another reason to reject morality.

Whether one behaves morally or not, and what one regards as the moral, is, Gray argues, entirely a matter of one’s upbringing (p107-8). Thus, “being good is good luck” and not something for which one deserves credit or blame (p104).
“The fact that we are not autonomous subjects deals a death blow to morality—but it is the only possible ground of ethics” (p112).
Yet, in expecting humankind to take charge of its own destiny
“We insist that mankind can achieve what we cannot: conscious control of its existence” (p38).
The Gaia Cult
Gray has an unfortunate tendency to pontificate about topics beyond his own expertise. Thus, he gets it completely wrong on certain issues.

A case in point is Lovelock’s Gaia theory, according to which the planet is analogous to a harmonious self-regulating organism, disrupted only by human activity.

Given his cynical outlook and penchant for sociobiology, Gray’s enthusiasm for Gaia is curious. As Dawkins explains, the adaptation of organisms to their environment, which consists largely of other organisms, may give the appearance of eco-systems as harmonious wholes, as some organisms exploit and come to rely on the presence of other organisms for their survival and sustenance (Unweaving the Rainbow: p221).

Yet, far from existing in benign harmony, organisms are in a state of continuous competition and conflict. Indeed, it is precisely this mutual exploitation that gives the superficial appearance of harmony. Thus, Dawkins concludes:
“Individuals work for Gaia only when it suits them to do so—so why bother to bring Gaia into the discussion” (Ibid: p225).
Thus, Dawkins concludes, far from science, Gaia is “a cult, almost a religion” (Ibid: p223).

It is thus better viewed, within Gray’s own framework, as another secular perversion of humanity's religious impulse.

Gray’s own enthusiasm for this cult suggests that he himself is no more immune from the religious impulse than those he attacks. Thus, it only strengthens his case that the religious impulse is universal and innate.

Other Philosophers
Gray is contemptuous of most other philosophy.
“As commonly practised, philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs” (p37).
Thus, “In the Middle Ages, philosophy gave intellectual scaffolding to the Church; in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it served a myth of progress” (p82).

He reserves particular scorn for moral philosophy, which is, for Gray, “an exercise in make-believe” (p89) and “very largely a branch of fiction” (p109), albeit one “less realistic in its picture of human life than the average bourgeois novel” (p89), which explains why “a philosopher has yet to write a great novel” (p109).

In other words, compared with outright fiction, moral philosophy is less realistic.

Like Schopenhauer, his pessimist precursor, and one of the few Western philosophers whom he mentions without disparaging, Gray purports to prefer Eastern philosophical traditions. These and other non-Western religious and philosophical traditions are, he claims, unpolluted by Christianity and hence view humans as just another animal, no different from the rest.

I do not have sufficient familiarity with Eastern philosophy to assess this claim, but I suspect that the belief that humans are somehow special and different from all other organisms is universal and innate.

Indeed, it may not even be limited to humans.

Thus, I suspect that, to the extent they were or are capable of conceptualising such a thought, earthworms and rabbits would also conceive of themselves as special and unique over and above all other species in just the same way we do.

Yet, ultimately, Gray ultimately rejects eastern philosophical and religious traditions too. There is no need to spend lifetimes striving to achieve nirvana:
“Death brings to everyone the peace Buddha promised only after lifetimes of striving” (p129).
b>Aphoristic Style
I generally dislike books written in an aphoristic style.

They usually replace the arguments necessary to support their conclusions with bad poetry. Moreover, sometimes the poetry is such that it is difficult to discern what these conclusions are in the first place.

However, in ‘Straw Dogs’, for once, the aphoristic style is appropriate—since Gray's arguments, though provocative, are straightforward.

Indeed, one suspects the inability of earlier thinkers to reach the same conclusions reflects a failure of ‘The Will’ rather than ‘The Intellect’—an unwillingness to face up to and come to terms with the reality of the human condition.

‘A Saviour to Save us from Saviours’?
‘Straw Dogs’ contains no surprise ‘Hollywood Ending’. Unlike other works dealing with political themes, Gray does not conclude with a chapter proposing solutions to the problems identified in previous chapters. His conclusion is as bleak as the pages that precede it.

I found it refreshing that, unlike other self-important self-appointed saviours of humanity, Gray does not portray himself as the saviour of Man.

He does discuss the Buddhist notion that we require “A Saviour to Save Us From Saviours”—but eventually renounces even this role.
“Humanity takes its saviours too lightly to need saving from them… When it looks to deliverers it is for distraction, not salvation” (p121).
Thus, Gray reduces philosophers, religious leaders, self-help gurus and political leaders to no more than glorified competitors in the entertainment industry.

Distraction as Salvation?
It is not only saviours who function as distraction for the masses. For Gray, ‘distraction’ is now central to life in the West.

Thus, in the affluent West, standards of living have improved to such an extent that obesity is now a much greater health problem than starvation, even among the poor, but clinical depression is fast becoming the greatest health problem of all.

Thus, Gray concludes:
“Economic life is no longer geared chiefly to production… [but rather] to distraction” (p162).
In other words, where once the common people required only Bread and Circuses, now they demand cake, ice cream, alcohol, soap operas, Playstations, Premiership football and reality TV.

Gray views most human activity as mere escapism.
“It is not the idle dreamer who escapes from reality. It is practical men and women who turn to a life of action as a refuge from insignificance” (194).
Indeed, even “the meditative states… cultivated in Eastern traditions”, though “often described as techniques for heightening consciousness”, are “in fact… ways of by-passing self-awareness” (p62).

Yet Gray does not disparage escapism as a mere superficial diversion.

Rather, he views distraction, or even escapism, as the key to, if not happiness, then at least to the closest we can come to this elusive state.
“Fulfilment is found, not in daily life, but in escaping from it” (p141-2).
Perhaps then there is something is to be said for sitting around watching TV all day after all.

By his own thesis then, it is perhaps as a form of ‘Distraction’ that Gray’s own book ought ultimately to be judged.

I can only say that, with its unrelenting cynicism and pessimism, ‘Straw Dogs’ distracted me immensely—and, according to the precepts of Gray’s own philosophy, there can be no higher praise.
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November 5, 2018 – Shelved

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