Of lice and men

Meet the Professor of European Thought who thinks humans are a plague on the planet.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Books

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  • Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, by John Gray, Granta, August 2002.

According to Granta’s publicity material, Straw Dogs by John Gray is ‘a demolition of two and a half thousand years of thought’.

Apparently, from Plato to Christianity, from the Enlightenment to Marx, the Western tradition has been based on ‘arrogant and erroneous beliefs about human beings and their place in the world’.

Conservative thinker Bryan Appleyard praises Straw Dogs’ ‘hallucinatory power’, which ‘leaves all conventional wisdom in ruins’. ‘After Straw Dogs we must think again’, he says. I think not.

Gray argues that the battle today is ‘between humanists and the few who understand that humans can no more be masters of their destiny than any other animal’. He claims that the ‘human animal’ is ‘one of the most predatory and destructive’ species on Earth.

But there isn’t a single substantial argument in his book that will convince anybody – except those looking for evidence to back up their misanthropic worldviews. Gray has simply drawn together a diverse collection of anti-humanist ideas, and as he himself admits, has made a ‘rather extensive use of quotations’.

Take the meandering of James Lovelock, author of the ‘Gaia hypothesis’, which views the Earth as a self-evolving and self-regulating living organism:

‘Humans on Earth behave in some ways like a pathogenic organism, or like the cells of a tumour or neoplasm. We have grown in numbers and disturbance to Gaia, to the point where our presence is perceptibly disturbing….the human species is now so numerous as to constitute a serious planetary malady. Gaia is suffering from Disseminated Primatemaia, a plague of people.’

Worse still, we are subjected endlessly to inane statements from Gray himself – the kind of thing you would hear from a drunken and smug smart alec at a dinner party:

  • ‘Genocide is as human as art or prayer’
  • ‘Progress and mass murder run in tandem’
  • ‘Cities are no more artificial than the hives of bees’
  • ‘The internet is as natural as a spider’s web’
  • ‘Looking for meaning in history is like looking for patterns in clouds.’

At times the book is breathtaking in its stupidity. According to Gray, ‘knowledge does not need minds, or even nervous systems. It is found in all living things’. Apparently bacteria act on ‘knowledge’ of their environment – by sensing chemical differences, and swimming towards sugar and away from acid – in much the same way as humans do.

It is hard to believe that a Professor of European Thought and author of numerous books really thinks there is no meaningful distinction between the knowledge of humans and that of bacteria.

The only exceptional thing about Straw Dogs is that it is a sustained and explicit attack on humanism.

Even the great Enlightenment debunkers – Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger – are criticised by Gray for believing in human exceptionalism and for being too optimistic about man’s fate.

According to Gray, we shouldn’t be too concerned about whether humans have a future on Earth – it is the balance of the world’s ecosystem that we should really be worried about: ‘Homo rapiens [what a clever play on words] is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone the Earth will recover.’ Charming….

But before we disappear forever, Gray argues (with no lamentation) that we will face serious decimation: ‘Climate change may be a mechanism through which the planet eases its human burden.’ And if climate change doesn’t get us, ‘new patterns of disease, the side effects of war, a downward spiral in the birth rate, or a mix of these and other, unknown factors’ will.

The collapse may not take much more than 100 years, says Gray – ‘and by the year 2150 the biosphere should be safely back to its pre-plague population of Homo Sapiens – somewhere between 0.5 and 1 billion’.

I have never subscribed to a psychological view of politics, but you have to wonder what life experiences could lead to such a misanthropic view of the world. Yet people who have met Gray tell me he is perfectly affable and pleasant, if a bit miserable.

It is easier to understand how the nineteenth-century philosopher Schopenhauer – who put forward ‘the first and still unsurpassed critique of humanism’, according to Gray – arrived at his hostile and antisocial worldview. Schopenhauer was a deeply conservative social recluse, whose life was dominated by compulsive behaviour: he followed an unvarying daily routine for nearly 30 years.

It is little wonder that Schopenhauer believed there was no such thing as ‘free will’ and that he viewed the revolutionary movements of his day with a mixture of horror and contempt. But why Gray has such a depressing view of the world is more difficult to understand.

For Gray, the rot began with the birth of agriculture. Perhaps he would be happier if we were still wandering around in bands, scraping a livelihood out of whatever food sources we could find.

But Gray does admit that ‘the freedom of hunter-gatherers was bounded by restraint. Infanticide, geronticide and sexual abstinence limited their numbers. …[T]hese practices can be seen as consequences of their poverty; but they are just as well viewed as ways of maintaining their freedom’.

Far from lamenting the passing of hunter-gatherer societies, we should celebrate the birth of agriculture 10,000 years ago for marking the start of human civilisation. The development of agriculture allowed for our increasing mastery over nature.

Yet according to Gray: ‘Most people today think they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny. This is faith, not science.’

Drawing on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Gray insists that humans are not unique but are like other animals – claiming that ‘a little observation of our lives soon leads to the same conclusion’. Really? Again, you can only wonder what kind of circles Gray hangs out in.

There is, of course, an element of truth behind his argument. Homo sapiens arrived at this stage of history as a result of evolution – but Gray is wrong to believe that this is the whole story.

In the six million years since the human and ape lines first diverged, the behaviour and lifestyles of apes have hardly changed. Human behaviour, thought, knowledge and culture clearly have – mainly as a result of social and cultural evolution.

Today, our genetic make-up, the human genome, is almost identical to our ancestors’ 50,000 or 100,000 years ago. So the dramatic changes in our behaviour over this period cannot be explained in terms of genetic evolution.

The fact is, we are unique, in being able to build upon the achievements of previous generations. Through constant innovation human beings have brought improvements to our lives, including better health, longer life expectancy, higher living standards and greater opportunities.

No doubt Gray would retort that this is all an illusion. In that case, it’s one illusion that I and most others are happy to live with.

Buy Straw Dogs from Amazon (UK)

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