John Gray’s Straw Dogs

John Gray is an English philosopher, and the former “School Professor of European Thought” at the London School of Economics. He came to my attention thanks to his very public spate with Steven Pinker, conducted over the course of years, and through not one but two scathing reviews of Pinker’s books, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now (Pinker’s reply can be found here). Their fundamental point of disagreement is whether or not man has made moral progress down the centuries, though Gray has also taken issue with Pinker’s numerous assertions of our material progress, as well. Straw Dogs, written in 2002, precedes these disagreements by over a decade, but puts forward an argument that put him on a collision course not only with Pinker, but with modern liberalism in toto.

Part of the project of Straw Dogs is not only laudable but necessary: to remind us of our animal origins, our animal nature. We are not semi-divine beings able to assert total control of our minds, emotions and desires, nor are we blank slates on whom our culture – and our culture alone – ascribes values. Anchored as we are to our animal natures, our potential for progress is not limitless. There are a good many people in positions of power today who urgently need to be reminded of this. But Gray’s argument goes further, and it is here that he gets into trouble, for rather than zeroing in on those people and belief systems that actively deny our biological inheritance, he attacks Christianity (whose original error, he argues, was a denial of our animal nature) and humanism (which he claims to be an outgrowth of Christian thought, and therefore susceptible to the same original error).

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.

Darwin showed that humans are like other animals, humanists claim they are not. Humanists insist that by using our knowledge we can control our environment and flourish as never before. In affirming this, they renew one of Christianity’s most dubious premises – that salvation is open to all. The humanist belief in progress is only a secular version of this Christian faith.

In the world shown us by Darwin, there is nothing that can be called progress. To anyone reared on humanist hopes this is intolerable. As a result, Darwin’s teaching has been stood on its head, and Christianity’s cardinal error – that humans are different from all other animals – has been given a new lease on life.

Where do I even begin? Gray describes as “groundless” the hope that “humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals,” but surely much depends on which “limits” he’s referring to. Animal lives are heavily circumscribed by disease, for example, and though our success in ameliorating that particular limit is far from total, our progress in that regard is undeniable: we have cured numerous diseases that once left us crippled, disfigured or dead. Is this not an instance of us “controlling our environment and flourishing like never before”? I will not quarrel with his description of us as simultaneously creative and destructive creatures, but we do not exercise our destructiveness equally at all times, and a scientific analysis of the conditions that promote violence and those that mediate against it (say, Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature) might be a useful enterprise, and help guide public policy. Gray’s inability to admit this basic point makes a mockery of his thesis, and leads him to make insupportable, often laughable claims. Consider:

We think of the Stone Age as an era of poverty and the Neolithic as a great leap forward. In fact the move from hunter-gathering to farming brought no overall gain in human well-being or freedom. It enabled larger numbers to live poorer lives. Almost certainly, Paleolithic humanity was better off.

Incredibly, this exact argument is made by the sort of people – secular humanists with an unrestrained belief in man’s potential – Gray opposes. It is true, in a limited sense: hunter-gatherer society’s were more egalitarian and almost certainly ate better food, in larger quantities, than their agrarian rivals. But hunter-gather societies were incapable of specialization: the act of gathering food was too time-consuming for their members to learn trades, study the environment or apply human ingenuity to technical problems. Agrarian societies produced food surpluses, enabling their members to find new means of employment (blacksmiths, stonemasons, and shipbuilders, for example). If we presently enjoy a material comfort unfathomable to our ancestors, it is in large part because of man’s shift from hunter-gatherer to farmer – surely Gray, a lifelong professor, earning his living with his mind rather than his hands, has special cause to cheer that development?

The book’s biggest howler comes when Gray invokes Karl Popper, the 20th century’s most famous philosopher of science, to argue against the scientific nature of Einstein and Darwin’s theories:

According to the most influential twentieth-century philosopher of science, Karl Popper, a theory is scientific only in so far as it is falsifiable, and should be given up as soon as it has been falsified. By this standard, the theories of Darwin and Einstein should never have been accepted. When they were first advanced, each of them was at odds with some available evidence; only later did evidence become available that gave them crucial support. Applying Popper’s account of scientific method would have killed these theories at birth.

Has Gray read Popper? Surely not very closely, for Popper did not argue that to make a conjecture or propose a theory – both staples of the scientific method – was unscientific. Popper was addressing himself, in particular, to the vogue for psychoanalysis, where a single theory could entail two contradictory outcomes. Amazingly, Popper invoked Einstein’s theory of relativity as an example of science done right, for Einstein included in his own conjecture about the general theory of relativity the means of falsifying it: he predicted, correctly, the solar eclipse of May 29, 1919, based on his hypothesis that the gravitational pull of the Sun could bend light.

If I have thus far been condemnatory, it is because Gray’s thesis is too broad, and his targets ill chosen. Steven Pinker, of all people, is not a denier of our animal nature (in fact, his book, The Blank Slate, has done more to convince people of our animal origins than any other contemporary work). But that hasn’t prevented Gray from being insightful, or this book from offering its share of wisdom. If there are passages that provoked my derision, still more gave me pause by their prescience. Consider:

The old industries have been exported to the developing world. At home, new occupations have evolved, replacing those of the industrial era. Many of them satisfy needs that in the past were repressed or disguised. A thriving economy of psychotherapists, designer religions and spiritual boutiques has sprung up. Beyond that, there is an enormous grey economy of illegal industries supplying drugs and sex. The function of this new economy, legal and illegal, is to entertain and distract a population which – though it is busier than ever before – secretly suspects that it is useless.

Gray understands, better than Pinker, the impetus behind the election of Donald Trump and Brexit. He has seen something of the spiritual void in which so many modern Westerners toil, disconnected from tradition, society, marriage and meaningful employment, and he had cottoned on to the disastrous split between the ruling classes, our new aristocracy, and the masses of ordinary people long before this latter group began asserting itself democratically.

In affluent, high-tech economies, the masses are superfluous – even as cannon fodder. Wars are no longer fought by conscript armies but by computers – and, in the collapsed states that litter much of the world, by the ragged irregular armies of the poor. With this mutation of war, the pressure to maintain social cohesion is relaxed. The wealthy can pass their lives without contact with the rest of society. So long as they do not pose a threat to the rich, the poor can be left to their own devices.

In what we refer to as the developed world, this split between wealthy and poor is cavernous, and can be charted on a map: the poor live in the rural areas, the wealthy in the cities and expensive suburbs, and the plight of the former is invisible to the latter. The agenda of governments and newspapers is set by the wealthy and well-educated, and those multitudes, aware of their growing inutility in an economy that has left them far behind, languish, or fall prey to the aforementioned “grey economy” that now supplies them with fentanyl in fatal amounts. Inside Straw Dogs, tucked away beneath broad accusations and insupportable claims, is a tighter, more focused thesis, and the makings of a much more interesting book.