Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray

John Gray is an English political philosopher. He took the title for Straw Dogs, published in 2002, from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs”.

In the first line of the book’s acknowledgments, Gray says is trying “to provide a
view of things in which humans are not central” [page ix]. He is generally thought to be an opponent of “humanism”, but he has a distinctive definition of the term:

Humanism can mean many things, but for us [?] it means belief in progress. To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive [4].

It might clarify his position by contrasting it with a description of humanism from the Humanists UK website:

Roughly speaking, the word “humanist” has come to mean someone who:

(1) trusts the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic)

(2) makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals

(3) believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.

Regarding (1), Gray is an atheist, so no difference there, but he thinks science and the scientific method are overrated. He admits science has contributed to impressive technological progress, but doesn’t think scientists are especially rational and certainly doesn’t think science can solve all of, or even most of, our problems, a view he seems to attribute to all humanists and most citizens of the modern world.

Concerning (2), Gray doesn’t think highly of ethics either. He blames Christianity for pushing the idea that there is one set of rules that everyone should follow. He says “humans thrive in conditions that morality defends” [107], “moral philosophy is very largely a branch of fiction” [109] “justice is an artifact of custom… ideas of justice are as timeless as fashions of hats” [103] and “values are only human needs, or the needs of other animals, turned into abstractions” [197]. According to Gray, being ethical is nothing more than getting along with other people, and getting along depends on their expectations, which may or may not correspond to what people in other cultures and circumstances, including religious figures or philosophers, expect.

Finally, Gray agrees with (3) that the universe has no discernible purpose. He would probably agree that seeking happiness and helping other people can give (some) people a sense of meaning, but he denies that there is any particular or any preferred way to be happy. He argues that we don’t have free will and are no more able than any other animal to control our behavior or make ourselves happy.

Gray seems very sure of his positions. He writing is like a series of pronouncements. If I had to characterize his point of view in one word, it would be “pessimism”. We are no better than other animals. In various ways, we are worse. He twice refers to our species as homo rapiens. We excel at eliminating other species. Progress, aside from scientific or technological progress, is an illusion. Overall, the hunter-gatherers who lived thousands of years ago had better lives than we do.

I really don’t know what to make of this book. Reading it is like getting a punch in the stomach. In the end, I’d say that Gray makes a convincing case that homo sapiens is an especially troublesome species. But the fact that we write and read books like Straw Dogs indicates that we have special talents that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Perhaps those special talents have allowed us and will continue to allow us to make more progress than Gray thinks.

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