‘Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals’, by John Gray, Granta Books, 2003.
The religious impulse, John Gray argues in a later work elaborating on the themes first set out in ‘Straw Dogs’, is as universal as the sex drive. Like the latter, when repressed, it re-emerges in the form of perversion.
Thus, the Marxist faith in our passage into communism after the revolution represents a perversion of the Christian belief in our passage into heaven after death or Armageddon – the former, communism (i.e. heaven on earth), being quite as unrealistic as the otherworldly, celestial paradise envisaged by Christians, if not more so.
What is true of Marxism is also, for Gray, equally true of what he regards as the predominant secular religion of the contemporary West – namely humanism.
Its secular self-image notwithstanding, 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).
Yet, in doing so, Gray concludes, humanism renounces the one insight that Christianity actually got right – namely the notion that humans are “radically flawed” as captured by the doctrine of original sin.
‘Progress and Other Delusions’
Of course, in its ordinary usage, the term ‘humanism’ is hopelessly broad, pretty much encompassing anyone who is neither, on the one hand, religious nor, on the other, a Nazi.
For his purposes, Gray defines humanism more narrowly, namely as a “belief in progress” (p4).
More specifically, however, he seems to have in mind a belief in the inevitability of social, economic, moral and political progress.
Belief in the inevitability of progress is, he contends, a faith universal across the political spectrum – from neoconservatives who think they can transform Islamic tribal theocracies and Soviet Republics into liberal capitalist democracies, to Marxists who think Islamic tribal theocracies and liberal capitalist democracies alike will themselves ultimately give way to communism.
Gray, however, rejects the notion of any grand narrative arc in human history.
“Looking for meaning in history is like looking for patterns in clouds” (p48).
Scientific Progress and Social Progress
Although in an early chapter he digresses on the supposed “irrational origins” of western science, Gray does not question the reality of scientific progress.
Instead, what Gray questions is the assumption that social, moral and political progress will inevitably accompany scientific progress.
Progress in science and technology, does not invariably lead to social, moral and political progress. On the contrary, new technologies can readily be enlisted in the service of governmental repression and tyranny. Thus, Gray observes:
“Without the railways, telegraph and poison gas, there could have been no Holocaust” (p14).
Thus, by Gray’s reckoning, “Death camps are as modern as laser surgery” (p173).
Scientific progress is, he observes, unstoppable and self-perpetuating. Thus, if any nation unilaterally renounces modern technology, it will be economically outcompeted, or even militarily conquered, by other nations who harness modern technologies in the service of their economy and military:
“Any country that renounces technology makes itself prey to those that do not. At best it will fail to achieve the self-sufficiency at which it aims – at worst it will suffer the fate of the Tasmanians” (p178).
However, the same is not true of political, social and moral progress. On the contrary, a nation excessively preoccupied with moral considerations would surely be defeated in war or indeed in economic competition by an enemy willing to cast aside morality for the sake of success.
Thus, Gray concludes:
“Technology is not something that humankind can control. It is an event that has befallen the world” (p14).
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).
This leads him to predict:
“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).
This is because, according to Gray, although technology progresses, human nature itself 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, ironically, its failure to come to grips with one particular sphere of scientific progress – namely progress in the scientific understanding of human nature itself.
Sociobiological theory suggests humans are innately selfish and nepotistic to an extent incompatible with the utopias envisaged by reformers and revolutionaries.
Evolutionary psychologists like to emphasize how natural selection has paradoxically led to the evolution of cooperation and altruism. They are also at pains to point out that innate psychological mechanisms are responsive to environmental variables and hence amenable to manipulation.
This has led some thinkers to suggest that, even if utopia is forever beyond our grasp, nevertheless society can be improved by social engineering and well-meaning reform (see Peter Singer’s A Darwinian Left: which I have reviewed here, here and here).
However, this ignores the fact that the social engineers themselves (e.g. politicians, civil servants) are possessed of the same essentially selfish and nepotistic nature as those whose behaviour they are seeking to guide and manipulate. Therefore, even if they were able to successfully reengineer society, they would do so for their own ends, not those of society or humankind as a whole.
Of course, human nature itself could itself be altered through genetic engineering or eugenics. However, once again, those charged with doing the work (scientists) and those from whom they take their orders (government, big business) will, at the time their work is undertaken, be possessed of the same nature that it is their intention to improve upon.
Therefore, Gray concludes, if human nature itself is remodelled:
“It will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organized crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control” (p6).
It will hence reflect the interests, not of humankind as a whole, but of rather those responsible for undertaking the project.
In contrast to the optimistic vision of such luminaries as Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now and Matt Ridley in his book The Rational Optimist (which I have reviewed here), Gray’s vision of the future is positively dystopian. He foresees a return of resource wars and “wars of scarcity… waged against the world’s modern states by the stateless armies of the militant poor” (p181-2).
This is an inevitable result of a Malthusian trap.
“So long as population grows, progress will consist in labouring to keep up with it. There is only one way that humanity can limit its labours, and that is by limiting its numbers. But limiting human numbers clashes with powerful human needs” (p184).
These “powerful human needs” include, not just the sociobiological imperative to reproduce, but also the interests of various ethnic groups in ensuring their survival and increasing their military and electoral strength (Ibid.).
“Zero population growth could be enforced only by a global authority with draconian powers and unwavering determination” (p185).
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your perspective), he concludes:
“There has never been such a power and never will be” (Ibid.).
Thus, Gray compares the rise in human populations to the temporary “spikes that occur in the numbers of rabbits, house mice and plague rats” (p10). Thus, he concludes:
“Humans… like any other plague animal…cannot destroy the earth, but… can easily wreck the environment that sustains them” (p12).
Thus, Gray darkly prophesizes, “We may well look back on the twentieth century as a time of peace” (p182).
As Gray points out in his follow-up book:
“War or revolution… may seem apocalyptic possibilities, but they are only history carrying on as it has always done. What is truly apocalyptic is the belief [of Marx and Fukuyama] that history will come to a stop” (Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions: p67).
While Gray doubts the inevitability of social, political and moral progress, he perhaps does not question sufficiently its reality.
For example, 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 and political values as superior to those of other societies. Otherwise, they would not be its own values. They therefore view the recent changes in moral and political values that led to their own moral and political values as a form of moral progress.
However, what constitutes moral, social and political progress is entirely a subjective assessment.
For example, the ancient Romans, transported to our times, would surely accept the superiority of our science and technology and, if they did not, we would outcompete them both economically and militarily and thereby prove it ourselves.
However, they would view our social, moral and political values as decadent, immoral and misguided and we would have no way of proving them wrong.
In other words, while scientific and technological progress can be proven objectively, what constitutes moral and political progress is a mere matter of opinion.
Gray occasionally hints in this direction (namely, moral relativism), declaring in one of his many countless quotable aphorisms
“Ideas of justice are as timeless as fashions in hats” (p103).
He even flirts with outright moral nihilism, describing “values” as “only human needs and the needs of other animals turned into abstractions” (p197), and even venturing, “the idea of morality” may be nothing more than “an ugly superstition” (p90).
However, Gray remains somewhat confused on this point. For example, among his arguments against morality is that observation that:
“Morality has hardly made us better people” (p104).
However, the very meaning of “better people” is itself dependent on a moral judgement. If we reject morality, then there are no grounds for determining if some people are “better” than others and therefore this can hardly be a ground for rejecting morality.
“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).
Thus, he observes, “Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams then the enactments of conscious selves” (p38) and “Our actual experience is not of freely choosing the way we live but of being driven along by our bodily needs – by fear, hunger and, above all, sex” (p43).
Rejection of free will is, moreover, yet a further reason to reject morality.
Whether one behaves morally or not, and what one regards as the moral way to behave, is, Gray contends, entirely a matter of the circumstances of one’s upbringing (p107-8). Thus, according to Gray “being good is good luck” and not something for which one deserves credit or blame (p104).
Gray therefore concludes:
“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, far from truly free, Gray contends:
“We spend our lives coping with what comes along” (p70).
However, 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).
For Gray, then, what separates us from the remainder of the animal kingdom is not then free will, or even consciousness, but rather merely self-awareness.
Yet this, for Gray, is a mixed blessing at best.
After all, it has long been known that musicians and sportsmen often perform best, not when consciously thinking about, or even aware of, the movements and reactions of their hands and bodies, but rather when acting ‘on instinct’ and momentarily lost in what positive psychologists call ‘flow’ or being in ‘the zone’ (p61).
This is a theme Gray returns to in ‘The Soul of the Marionette’, where he argues that, in some sense, the puppet is freer, and more unrestrained in his actions, than the puppet-master.
The Gaia Cult
Given the many merits of his book, it is regrettable that Gray has an unfortunate tendency to pontificate about all manner of subjects, many of them far outside his own field of expertise. As a result, almost inevitably, he sometimes gets it completely wrong on certain specific subjects.
A case in point is environmentalist James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia theory’, which Gray champions throughout his book.
According to ‘Gaia Theory’, the planet is analogous to a harmonious self-regulating organism – in danger of being disrupted only by environmental damage wrought by man.
Given his cynical outlook, not to mention his penchant for sociobiology, Gray’s enthusiasm for Gaia is curious.
As Richard Dawkins explains in Unweaving the Rainbow, the adaptation of organisms to their environment, which consists largely of other organisms, may give the superficial appearance of eco-systems as harmonious wholes, as some organisms exploit and hence come to rely on the presence of other organisms in order to survive (Unweaving the Rainbow: p221).
However, a Darwinian perspective suggests that, far from existing in benign harmony, organisms are in a state of continuous competition and conflict. Indeed, it is paradoxically precisely their exploitation of one another that gives the superficial appearance of harmony.
In other words, as Dawkins concludes:
“Individuals work for Gaia only when it suits them to do so – so why bother to bring Gaia into the discussion” (Unweaving the Rainbow: p225).
Yet, for many of its adherents, Gaia is not so much a testable, falsifiable scientific theory as it is a kind of substitute religion. Thus, Dawkins describes ‘Gaia theory’ as “a cult, almost a religion” (Ibid: p223).
It is therefore better viewed, within Gray’s own theoretical framework, as yet another secular perversion of humanity’s innate religious impulse.
Perhaps, then, Gray’s own curious enthusiasm for this particular pseudo-scientific cult suggests that Gray is himself no more immune from the religious impulse than those whom he attacks. If so, this, paradoxically, only strengthens his case that the religious impulse is indeed universal and innate.
The Purpose of Philosophy
Gray is himself a philosopher by background. However, he is contemptuous of most of the philosophical tradition that has preceded him.
Thus, he contends:
“As commonly practised, philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs” (p37).
In former centuries such conventional beliefs were largely religious dogma. Yet, from the nineteenth century on, they increasing became political creeds emphasizing human progress, such as Whig historiography, and the theories of Marx and Hegel.
Thus, Gray writes:
“In the Middle Ages, philosophy gave intellectual scaffolding to the Church; in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it served a myth of progress” (p82).
Today, however, despite the continuing faith in progress that Gray so ably dissects, philosophy has ceased to fulfil even this function and hence abandoned even these dubious raisons d’être.
The result, according to Gray, is that:
“Serving neither religion nor a political faith, philosophy is a subject without a subject-matter; scholasticism without the charm of dogma” (p82).
Yet Gray reserves particular scorn for moral philosophy, which is, according to him, “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, he ventures, likely explains why “a philosopher has yet to write a great novel” (p109).
In other words, compared with outright fiction, moral philosophy is simply less realistic.
Although, at the time ‘Straw Dogs’ was first published, Gray held the title ‘Professor of European Thought’ at the London School of Economics, he is particularly scathing in his comments regarding Western philosophy.
Thus, like Schopenhauer, his pessimist precursor, (who is, along with Hume, one of the few Western philosophers whom he mentions without also disparaging), Gray purports to prefer Eastern philosophical traditions.
These and other non-Western religious and philosophical traditions are, he claims, unpolluted by the influence of Christianity and hence view humans as merely another animal, no different from the rest.
I do not have sufficient familiarity with Eastern philosophical traditions to assess this claim. However, I suspect that anthropocentrism and the concomitant belief that humans are somehow special, unique and different from all other organisms is a universal and indeed innate human delusion.
Indeed, paradoxically, it may not even be limited to humans.
Thus, I suspect that, to the extent they were, or are, capable of conceptualizing 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.
Death or Nirvanva?
Ultimately, however, Gray rejects eastern philosophical and religious traditions too – including Buddhism.
There is no need, he contends, to spend lifetimes striving to achieve nirvāna and the cessation of suffering as the Buddha proposed. On the contrary, he observes, there is no need for any such effort, since:
All one needs to do, therefore, is to let nature take its course, or, if one is especially impatient, perhaps hurry things along by suicide or an unhealthy lifestyle.
I generally dislike books written in the sort of pretentious aphoristic style that Gray adopts. In my experience, they generally replace the argumentation necessary to support their conclusions with bad poetry.
Indeed, sometimes the poetic style is so obscurantist that it is difficult even to discern what these conclusions are in the first place.
However, in ‘Straw Dogs’, the aphoristic style seems for once appropriate. This is because Gray’s arguments, though controversial, are straightforward and not requiring of additional explication.
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’?
Unlike other works dealing with political themes, Gray does not conclude with a chapter proposing solutions to the problems identified in previous chapters. Instead, his conclusion is as bleak as the pages that precede it.
“At its worst, human life is not tragic, but unmeaning… the soul is broken but life lingers on… what remains is only suffering” (p101).
Personally, however, I found it refreshing that, unlike other self-important, self-appointed saviours of humanity, Gray does not attempt to portray himself as some kind of saviour of mankind. On the contrary, his ambitions are altogether more modest.
Moreover, he does not hold our saviours in particularly high esteem but rather seems to regard them as very much part of the problem.
He does therefore consider briefly what he refers to as the Buddhist notion that we actually require “A Saviour to Save Us From Saviours”.
Eventually, however, Gray 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).
Gray thus reduces our self-important, self-appointed saviours – be they philosophers, religious leaders, self-help gurus or political leaders – to no more than glorified competitors in the entertainment industry.
Distraction as Salvation?
Indeed, for Gray, it is not only saviours who function as a form of distraction for the masses. On the contrary, for Gray, ‘distraction’ is now central to life in the affluent West.
Thus, in the West today, standards of living have improved to such an extent that obesity is now a far greater health problem than starvation, even among the so-called ‘poor’ (indeed, one suspects, especially among the so-called ‘poor’!).
Yet clinical depression is now rapidly expanding into 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, to acquiesce in their own subjugation, the common people required only ‘bread and circuses’, today they seem to demand cake, ice cream, alcohol, soap operas, Playstations, Premiership football and reality TV!
Indeed, Gray views most modern human activity as little more than distraction and 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, for Gray, even meditation is reduced to a form of escapism:
“The meditative states that have long been cultivated in Eastern traditions are often described as techniques for heightening consciousness. In fact they are ways of by-passing self-awareness” (p62).
Yet Gray does not disparage escapism as a superficial diversion from serious and worthy matters.
On the contrary, he views distraction, or even escapism, as the key to, if not happiness, then at least to the closest we can ever approach to this elusive but chimeric state.
Moreover, the great mass of mankind instinctively recognizes as much:
“Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks pleasure” (p142).
Thus, in a passage which is perhaps the closest Gray comes to self-help advice, he concludes:
“Fulfilment is found, not in daily life, but in escaping from it” (p141-2).
Perhaps then, escapism is not such a bad thing, and 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.
By this standard, 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 surely be no higher praise!
 John Gray, ‘Straw Dogs’: p20-23.
 Of course, the assumption that human population will continue to grow contradicts the demographic transition model, whereby it is assumed that a decline in fertility inevitably accompanies economic development. However, while it is true that declining fertility has accompanied increasing prosperity in many parts of the world, it is not at all clear why this has occurred. Indeed, from a sociobiological perspective, increases in wealth should lead to an increased reproductive rate, as organisms channel their greater material resources into increased reproductive success, the ultimate currency of natural selection. It is therefore questionable how much faith we should place in the universality of a process the causes of which are so little understood. Moreover, the assumption that improved living-standards in the so-called ‘developing world’ will inevitably lead to reductions in fertility obviously presupposes that the so-called ‘developing world’ will indeed ‘develop’ and that living standards will indeed improve, a obviously questionable assumption. Ultimately, the very term ‘developing world’ may turn out to represent a classic case of wishful thinking.
 Thus, of the bizarre pseudoscience of cryonics, whereby individuals pay private companies for the service of freezing their brains or whole bodies after death, in the hope that, with future advances in technology, they can later be resurrected, he notes that the ostensible immortality promised by such a procedure is itself dependent on the very immortality of the private companies offering the service, and of the very economic and legal system (including contractual obligations) within which such companies operate.
“If the companies that store the waiting cadavers do not go under in stock market crashes, they will be swept away by war or revolutions” (Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions: p67).