- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (October 16, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0374270937
- ISBN-13: 978-0374270933
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 90 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #44,151 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals 1st Edition
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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From Publishers Weekly
Humans think they are free, conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals, writes London University economics professor Gray (Black Mass) in a series of brief and intriguing mini-essays. His themes include the similarities between hypnotism and financial markets and uncomfortable truths behind drug use and its prohibition. In a chapter called Deception, Gray traces Humanism from Plato through Postmodernism. He critiques both science and religion: Science can advance human knowledge, it cannot make humanity cherish truth. Like the Christians of former times, scientists are caught up in the web of power; they struggle for survival and success; their view of the world is a patchwork of conventional beliefs. At a certain point, it can be difficult to see where Gray's allegiances lie. He tears down institutions, especially consciousness, self, free will and morality, and questions our ability to solve the problems of overpopulation and overconsumption: Only a breed of ex-humans can thrive in the world that unchecked human expansion has created. So what's left? Gray recommends a devaluation of progress, mastery, and immortality, and a return to contemplation and acceptance: Other animals do not need a purpose in life. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see? This comforting question punctuates an otherwise profoundly disturbing meditation on humankind's real place in the world. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In a work of thoroughgoing iconoclasm, British philosopher Gray attacks the belief that humans are different from and superior to animals. Invoking pure Darwinism, he savages every perspective from which humans appear as anything more than a genetic accident that has produced a highly destructive species (homo rapiens)--a species that exterminates other species at a phenomenal rate as our swelling numbers despoil the global environment. Gray explains the human refusal to confront the darker realities of our nature largely as the result of how we have consoled ourselves with the myths of Christianity and its secular offspring, humanism and utopianism. Human vanity, he complains, has even converted science (which should teach us of our insignificant place in nature) into an ideology of progress. But neither hope for progress nor confidence in human morality passes muster with Gray, who envisions a future in which the human population finally contracts as a world politics that grows ever more predatory and brutal shatters all such illusions. As a work of ruthless rigor, this provocative book will force readers to reexamine their own convictions. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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But reading the book once is not enough: you will have to re-read it and then, perhaps, read it one more time and check out at least some of the references and sources recommended by Prof. Gray. His philosophical analysis may be overwhelming, I am afraid, for an average reader, who most likely has never been exposed to such a vast array of names, sources, quotes, philosophical ideas in just one book.
Anybody who knows anything about human history cannot possibly disagree with Gray that we are a very violent species, although not as dangerous as the religions we have created, particularly the monotheistic religions such as Christianity. But perhaps the most destructive ideology we have developed is the idea of social progress buttressed by technological advancement, no doubt. Except that technological progress doesn't guarantee any other progress and may result in our annihilation. Those who, like the Fascists and the Communists, have tried to impose their idea of progress have left the planet devastated by mutilated lands and littered by millions of corpses. Unfortunately, the current worship of the “free market economy” and globalization may not be far off from a similar course.
Another devastating critique of our civilization is the way we have treated animals, of whom we are but one species but from whom we have usually tried to separate. The role of Christianity in this endless tragedy of torture and unspeakable murder is appalling, but the consequences are even worse. (This argument is so important in Gray’s philosophy that he discusses it in more detail in another excellent book “The Silence of Animals.”)
Overall, I felt our insignificance keenly, but I also realized the freedom of knowing that whether "people" survive or not, life WILL go on. At the end of the book I just wanted to live more and appreciate all things until I'm gone. Because we gluttonous, planet destroying humans seem less important and all-important to me at the same time. And, because I get the privilege and the distracting curse of being conscious of that.
Love John Gray writing. Let's stop pretending a lot of stuff.
Some other thoughts:
Gray demonizes humanism and the concept of progress. He also demonizes action. Why did he write the book then? Would it be "progress" if people were more contemplative? Why does it matter, ultimately?
I have an answer. Even though we do not have free will, we still are forced to make choices as we occupy human perspectives. If you are completely idle, you probably won't be happy. Generally, even without free will, with choices between being happy and unhappy, people will choose being happy. If you don't good for you, but you must understand that you are quite different if that's the case:) You need human attachments (and to a lesser extent other animal attachments may suffice). Also, as a human (an average one), you probably have a drive to survive and maintain your body by eating. Those drives actually can give plenty of purpose (depending on how purpose is defined).
Gray fails to appreciate that he occupies the human perspective. He is guilty of acting as though he is this observer outside of the human race that can judge from some standard outside of human values. Gaia values? I'd like to know what those are! I think that Gray should read the book Brain Trust by Patricia Churchland. She makes an argument that morality is largely social problem solving and it is an extension of our desire to attach to others as highly social creatures. I find that perfectly satisfying. A lot of what Gray says about progress might apply if you view morality that way. However, what Gray minimizes is something Churchland calls attention to. While there is room for pluralism and humans can adapt to many different cultures, as knowledge accumulates, certain behaviors are probably bad for human well-being. For instance, female circumcision to remove sexual pleasure from a female. It is arguably completely unnecessary and there are clearly other ways of doing things. If you effectively got rid of that practice in the world, that would probably be progress. Here's another one from Steven Pinker: We don't throw virgins in volcanoes anymore. I think that is progress.
I think Gray longs for mind-independent knowledge. When he doesn't find it, he sometimes abandons truth. Just because we're animals that are caused by the universe, that doesn't negate realism entirely. It also doesn't mean truth doesn't matter to humans. He cherry picks regarding what bits of knowledge to accept and reject... That is perhaps his biggest flaw. Just because we are embodied, natural, animals without souls doesn't mean that we don't matter. We matter to each other. Just because we only care about our own survival because of evolution doesn't mean that there is no real value in life. From my perspective as a human, I might use knowledge ultimately to serve human ends. It is good to recognize that and I agree with him on that point. However, that's not really a bad thing. It's just life. It's a bad thing from a Christian perspective or if you are for some reason judging humans by some strange cosmic standard you've dreamt up that doesn't really exist or that you probably couldn't know anyway...
He looks for mind-independent absolutes. Why? We have a will to survive and care about other humans shaped by evolution. Is that so bad? From our perspective as humans, love matters, compassion matters and yes humans matter more than other beings and the earth. That should guide our decisions. Without absolutes, we can make decisions that may not be eternally, ultimately, immutably, unmistakeably good, but they still might be better for that time and for humans. Here's a form of action that might be worth taking, spreading sex education and birth control. I agree that there are too many humans. Even if we're doomed to eventually self-destruct, buying some more time might make sense.
This book is worth reading. He seems to make some good points about implications of viewing humans as animals (really doing so, rather than only partially or not at all) However, I highly recommend Patricia Churchland's book Brain Trust for a much more accurate view of humans and how they might find purpose, ethics and progress within a naturalistic framework. She certainly doesn't suggest that we are the most peaceful creatures out there. Some of Gray's pessimism may be warranted, but your choices matter and some things are probably worth fighting for (relationships, social attachments, reducing the pain of those you care about and sometimes others). They don't matter to the universe, but they matter to you if you're a regular human (luckily there aren't many sociopaths and most people can form genuine social attachments).