‘Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals’ by John Gray; Granta, 2002. 246pp
Reviewed by Martin Earnshaw | 1 December 2003
For anyone who believes that humans have the potential to make the world a better place, John Gray’s book Straw Dogs is a depressing read. Humans, he says, are a plague on the planet, are comparable with slime mould, and can expect their numbers to be culled within the next hundred years. It is these anti-human sentiments that hit the reader hardest on first contact with this work.
Why then does J.G Ballard call the book ‘exhilarating’ and Brian Appleyard state ‘Read properly this book will give you peace’? It is unlikely that it was the prospect of human extinction that these writers found so exciting. The misanthropic excesses of Straw Dogs are really an attack on progress. Belief in human betterment is the product of hubris that we can overcome the limits of nature. Gray’s fatalism is interwoven with an appeal to slow down and stop worrying. This has a resonance today when progress appears to many to have gone too far.
Rather than give us peace, however, Straw Dogs can only increase our sense of powerlessness. It is only social progress that Gray repudiates. The advance of scientific knowledge is inevitable. The growth of knowledge does not result in a better society, however, because humans are locked into Malthusian conflict, using knowledge for their own shifting ends. Technology is out of humanity’s control. While Gray is dismissive of calls to limit scientific enquiry, his argument can only add to the current paralysing anxiety about science.
Straw Dogs is presented as a work that challenges all conventional assumptions. In reality, it is a synthesis of fashionable arguments. It is the way that these arguments are bolted together that gives the book a semblance of a critique of humanism.
For example, Gray asserts that human exceptionalism, free-will, and reason are at odds with scientific knowledge. He then draws upon the writings of Paul Feyerabend to claim that science cannot serve the purposes of seeking truth. Gray repeatedly quotes the findings of neuroscientists to show that the world humans are programmed to perceive is an illusion.
Gray’s willingness to contradict himself in this way along with his tendency to assert controversial positions as though they were fact have exasperated critics. But Gray knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows that the consequences of denying human reason are to undermine the exceptional status of science itself. And he has no problem with this. ‘If Darwin’s discovery had been made in a Taoist, Shinto, Hindu or animist culture it would…have become just one more strand in its intertwining mythologies.’
By rejecting truth and embracing myth, Gray is at one with the spirit of our times. Attacks on the authority of knowledge are often egalitarian in intent, but Gray knows that rejecting knowledge reduces humanity to ‘coping with tragic contingencies’.
Straw Dogs is a manifesto for a new dark age. It councils us to accept our place and by happy in our ignorance. In fact this would make us even more fearful of a world we should be shaping in our image.