Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book Review - Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

I highly recommend everyone to read this book. It basically is a criticism of all the philosophies that have focused entirely on man and have created this myth that somehow humans are above other animals. Gray, successfully shows how we are equal to animals, consciousness is scientifically proven to be a mere delusion and liberation and salvation will only come once we stop looking for it. He states that there are no fundamental truths in this world, and like animals we should not believe in such myths. We should instead live naturally like animals and think of this world as a series of incomprehensible images which do not possess any meaning beyond what is apparent.
 Here's a rip off of one review for this book:

It is over a hundred years since Darwin revealed to us our animal lineage, and yet the human primate is still having difficulty coming to terms with its animal origins. All bar creationists may indeed now accept that we are descended from apes, but most of us still cling to the belief that we have somehow become different to the rest of the animal kingdom. Our ability to use language and reason, to see ourselves as selves, selves that move forward in time and, with other selves, progress by building a culture based on moral rules and a technology that seems to give us ever increasing control over our environment. Surely this is enough to set us apart from the rest of nature? No. Thankfully, a British philosopher who lives and breathes today but who speaks with the depth and clarity of a modern day Schopenhauer is here to rid you of this delusion.

Human beings are still animals claims Gray, but the more profound insight that he delivers, and that his critics seem unable to grasp or admit, is that humans, and even whatever intelligence that might emerge in a 'posthuman' future, will always be inescapably rooted in the natural world as much as the lowliest of slime molds.

We believe that language and reason are what differentiates us, forgetting that we acquired these abilities through the blind mechanisms of evolution. This means that they are, as Hume, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche declared long before Darwin, mere tools in the brutish struggle for survival. These same tools enabled the human animal to create the illusions of free will, self and morality and the delusion to think that with these, man has the ability to stand apart from the animal world and choose his own fate. But the fundamental import of Darwinism is that it tells us that 'we' were 'made' for the world. The world was not made for us, nor can we ever make it, nor indeed any world, to be for us.

Some rather simple-minded criticisms of Gray's outlook are floating around the Internet, including on this page, so lest they deter you from reading this book, here are a few brief rejoinders that can be made to them.

1/ 'Gray teaches us nothing new. Postmodernism has been around for 40 years now.' Gray clearly isn't giving just another rehash of postmodernist thought. In fact his book is a savage attack on some of the postmodernist thought that has now been neatly incorporated into liberal thinking. The belief that the world is entirely a social construction, that this construction is determined by power relationships and that therefore by changing those power relationships society can mould the world into whatever form it chooses. The way that humans see the world may indeed be due to power relationships within society, but these arise because of the fact that humans are biological animals in an inherently competitive natural world. Postmodernism is, as Gray says, 'just the latest fad in anthropocentrism'.

2/ 'Gray criticises science as a faith but seems to hold Darwinism as a faith.' Gray is primarily attacking the faith that scientific progress leads to moral and social progress. If anything is right in science it is the broad theory of Darwinism. Yet people believe that science can enable man to take control of his destiny, when one of the most fundamental tenets of modern science teaches us that science and its consequences (as with any other sphere of human activity) is ultimately determined by the same laws that govern other animals' behaviour.

3/ 'No-one seriously believes in progress anymore'. Well the western world is without doubt led by two men who wholeheartedly believe in the vision of moral progress, as we are seeing with disastrous consequences in Iraq. As both have been re-elected as their heads of government, presumably a lot of the people who voted for them share that vision. The idea that western society is not still dominated by the belief in moral progress is absurd. A generation ago homosexuality was illegal and homosexuals were routinely sent to prison. Today, someone can be sent to prison for simply arguing that homosexuality is wrong. For this to be the case, society clearly has a conviction that the moral attitudes of today are without question a progression on the attitudes of yesterday. To give a different example, on the 10th of September 2001 not one person in a hundred could have believed that America would soon be holding a serious debate on whether or not to legalise torture.

It goes without saying that I found Straw Dogs to be an utterly rewarding intellectual experience. Read it and it may change the whole way you look at the world...though probably together with a feeling that, like all great writers, Gray has articulated for you something profound that you always suspected about the world.

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