Straw Dogs by John Gray

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Subtitle: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

I have confessed in other postings that my background in philosophy is far from profound. However, it is a subject (in a very broad definition) that is calling out to me with greater regularity. I have read few of the great works and each attempt to do so thus far has been a struggle. On the other hand, I am always in search of modern day thinkers from whatever academic discipline who are writing about society in a more robust, and shall we say, philosophical context. It is very difficult to do so without tying in the arguments of some of history's great minds and therefore provides me a way to slowly develop a better understanding of some of their principle theses. Wrapped in the discussion of modern society makes it a much less abrupt approach.

One of my favorite current writers is Nassim Taleb, renown author of Fooled By Randomness and later The Black Swan. In an interview I saw of him he recommended two modern scholars - Karen Armstrong and John Gray - for their intellectual excellence in their respective fields. Gray is the former professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and author of several books. He has written on globalization, religion and philosophy. As is often the case, shorty after being introduced to him and his works, I came across several articles reviewing a recently published book of his.

Straw Dogs was published in 2002. It is a collection of musings stitched together by Gray's underlying belief that humans, in their rather modern distortion of humanist thought, have essentially created a new faith but fails to recognize it as such. This form of humanity, grounded in its roots of Christianity, is based on progress and mankind's ability through such progress to create a better world. Gray argues that "to believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given to us by growing scientific knowledge humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals."T his humanistic vision of progress, outside of science, is a myth fabricated only recently in Western society. It was not long ago when humans thought of themselves as equal to other animals. In many cultures they were even worshiped by humans.

Gray recognizes that humans are a highly developed, and incredibly destructive species. Since our arrival in the New World 12,000 years ago, approximately 70% of the world's species have been eliminated which is quickly approaching the same number caused by whatever event, most likely a meteor, wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

At the same time, our destructive species is raging on in fierce debate about how - through science - we can save the earth from the overheating caused by greenhouse gases. Perhaps it is Earth's means of ridding itself us?

Ironic to me is how many of the central responses to climate change revolve around the use of elaborately developed technological tools to save us from such overheating. Humans have never been farther removed from nature as they are now. It is through the abandonment of certain forms of technology that we will make the easiest and fastest gains in this battle. Changing the way we eat based on a diet of local vegetables and occasional meat consumption and distancing ourselves from the meat industry would make enormous gains. Walking or bicycling as opposed to the frequent use of the automobile is a very simple concept that proves incredibly difficult to grasp. In a later chapter Gray reminds us that the average American puts in 1600 hours in the car to get 7500 miles: less than five miles per hour. Not much more than what someone would walk in the same time. It is obvious the automobile represents more to us than a form of transportation.

Straw Dogs is not a book on environmentalism, however the example demonstrates a certain fallacy in human thought based on scientific progress. Many other such anecdotes make up the remainder of the book though I found they begin to stray more and more from his central thesis along the way. Nonetheless, they are fascinating and provocative. It is a book that does not need to be read from start to end but can be "dipped into at will" as well. Either way, it will get you thinking.


Fred January 23, 2010 at 5:02 PM  

I haven't read anything by Nassim Taleb or John Gray, although your review suggests that I should rectify that omission.

I have read some of Armstrong's works and agree with Taleb's comments about her. She is impressive.
I'm curious about Gray's assertion that progress and humanism are "recent." I suppose the question is what "recent" means to him.

TBlaze January 25, 2010 at 10:51 PM  

Dear Fred,

The point Gray is making, which I perhaps was unsuccessful in explaining, is that humanism is not recent and dates back to the founder of European thought, Socrates. What is recent in humanism is the belief that "through science mankind can known the truth - and be set free". Even Socrates is said to have heard an inner voice and had some type of connection to the mystical powers of the world.

The recentness to which Gray refers is when modern, secular, humanism disassociated itself from its Christian origins when in reality it itself is a religion and not a science.

Fred January 26, 2010 at 5:23 PM  


OK, I missed that point. However, I don't see secular humanism as a religion or a science either, and I don't think I've ever heard a secular humanist claim it's a science.

I'm not certain what box people put me in, possibly secular humanism, but I don't see it as a religion, but more of an ethical/philosophical system.

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