Monday, February 25, 2013

Book Review: Straw Dogs, by John Gray

Heaven and Earth are impartial
They regard myriad things as straw dogs

The sages are impartial
They regard people as straw dogs

--Verse 5, Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu

[As Derek Lin translates, straw dogs are ceremonial figurines used by ancient Chinese and then cast away after the ritual. At once precious only to be discarded later. As Lin states, “this is a vivid imagery that compares life itself to the ancient ritual. The progression of life is like the ritual being conducted in proscribed sequence. While this is happening we are like straw dogs at the center of it all, experiencing this interesting ritual called life. Eventually, life comes to an end just as the ritual must come to an end. Our bodies can no longer contain life and are discarded.”]

This is my review of John Gray’s Straw Dogs, a book that had been recommended to me a while back and I just now read for the first time. Gray (not to be confused with the Mars/Venus guy) is  known as a Thatcher conservative in Britain who has aimed his intellect away from politics and economics and towards philosophy in recent decades.  

For some reason I had assumed this was a novel, but rather it is a short non-fiction work that gives a very cursory overview and critique of philosophy dating from the ancient Greeks to Christianity to the Enlightenment and the modern nihilists and everything in between. Gray, often called the skeptic’s skeptic, sometimes has a scolding tone directed at believers and non-believers alike, even calling atheism a belief system and an off-shoot of Christianity (referring to it as “post-Christian”).

Gray does not view humans as anything special, sees god merely as a human invention, has no place for salvation, and calls morality a disease-- so far so good-- but then he declares that evolution does not progress (who ever said it did?) and has a chapter entitled "Non-progress" which is a dissatisfying finale that fails to define "progress" and seems to miss the entire point of evolutionary science, namely, that it has no direction or purpose.

One potential value of the book is Gray's whirlwind summary of famous thinkers such as Heidegger, Kant, Plato, Descartes, Aquinas, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, among others. I’ll concede that my knowledge of these gentlemen (no women are mentioned) is limited but he seems to be fairly well-versed and the review is interesting, like a Cliff notes version of philosophical history-- and it’s not surprising that Gray  presents these views only to disregard them as incomplete and useless because they put humanity at the center of philosophy.  The nihilist’s nihilist...which makes me wonder why he bothered to write the book in the first place except to display his intellectual muscle (something a true nihilist wouldn’t bother doing.)

One issue I have regards Gray’s treatment of science and evolution and E. O. Wilson specifically.  At one point he remarks on E. O. Wilson’s quote about humans having acquired the ability to consciously alter evolution in the modern age: using reproductive technologies, choosing numbers of offspring and genders and, in the future, myriad other genetic traits. Wilson states that evolution has become ‘volitional.’ Gray has a problem with this concept and implies that Wilson has made some grand proclamation about humans controlling evolution. My understanding of Wilson’s work is that nobody is more humble about humans’ ability to control nature than he is and he eschews the anthropocentric view of creation.

Gray has a point about much of science being co-opted to benefit humanity at the expense of the rest of nature. We have torn up the planet for fossil fuels, plowed over habitat for farmland, polluted great bodies of water, melted the polar ice-caps (arguably) by liberating CO2 into the atmosphere. We have put all living things at risk of nuclear holocaust. As the number of humans grows past 9 billion the petri dish known as earth becomes more strained with the greatest species extinction since the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. Ironically, this dire Neo-Malthusian scenario was proffered by E. O. Wilson himself in Consilience long before Gray’s treatise, but while Gray’s point about Wilson’s use of the word “control” is valid it is taken out of context of Wilson's body of work and thought.

Gray sometimes seems to confuse science with the uses of science.  Pure science has no dog in the fight between nature and humanity. Real scientists are merely observing nature and describing its characteristics: fossils, DNA, antibodies, antigens, nuclear reactions, disease, electromagnetism, etc... Yes, much of science has been co-opted for the immediate perceived benefit of humanity, but that is not so much a testament on science as on the technologies that have resulted from scientific discovery and the human consumers who buy such technologies. Pfizer may call chemists who formulate drugs to lower our cholesterol “scientists” but they are really derivative technicians using the scientific observations made by purists.

I can point to scientist after scientist who slave away at discovering the chemical reactions that began life or how sea creatures become luminescent or studying the flora of a desolate island with no intention of marketing a product to humans or improving our stake at survival. Pure science has no humanist goal, although certainly a (relatively small) percentage of the vast number of scientific advances have been co-opted for human use and proponents of scientific funding often misuse human benefit as an excuse for social funding.

Gray also says that science has not benefited humanity with anything significant, stating that pre-scientific hunter-gatherers had a better quality of life, even if their lives were not as long. I suppose it depends on how one would define  “benefit” or “improve” and if someone can argue that sewers, clean water, antibiotics, vaccines and modern anesthesia have not benefited humanity, then I have nothing more to say.  Gray’s argument is that science has not conquered mortality-- we still die eventually-- and so all the advances of modern science have left us with nothing substantive. Fair enough, but that is not to say there have been no benefits or improvements at all as we generally define “benefit” and “improve.”

There are other problems, too: Gray contends that Darwinism and Einsteinian relativity are not falsifiable and therefore not “science” according to Karl Popper’s definition. Huh? Methinks Gray does not really understand science. These theories have withstood the test of falsification via untold numbers of trials and observations.  If any single observations has ever been inconsistent with, say, speciation by natural selection then all of Darwin's opus would be tossed in the trash heap. Nothing of the sort has ever happened. Test after test, observation after observation, in fields as disparate as chemistry, ecology, ethology and genetics have proven over and over that Darwin was spot on.

In general, Gray’s demeanor is condescending, chiding straw-man scientists for not being scientific, scolding humanists for ignoring the consequences of their actions as if he has calculated all the  permutations of outcomes and discerned that humanism is misguided. Gray sounds like an asshole, and while I can appreciate his pessimism, Gray comes across as a pedantic holier-than-thou dick. (Maybe I do too, but this isn't about me.)

Here’s my take: Years ago I read a book by Derrick Jensen called A Language Older than Words which I remember as an emotional paean to nature and a lamentation regarding humanity’s destruction of the planet.  Jensen compared humanity’s treatment of earth with the sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his father.  We are conveniently blind to or quickly forget the anguish we cause for various reasons related to preservation of self or species.  If we were to feel the requisite sorrow we cause other humans or animals or the planet in general the pain would be too much to bear.  I cannot do justice to Jensen’s heartfelt book-length disgorgement in this paragraph, but suffice to say that he does a better job than Gray does at portraying humans as cosmically inconsequential and on-balance harmful to the rest of planetary life.  

John Gray’s Straw Dogs is a hyper-intellectual castigation of the human species.  He is judgemental. Derrick Jensen, likewise, is judgemental towards humanity. I guess I don’t get why these writers are so hard on Homo sapiens, after all we are just playing out our evolutionary-determined hand, preserving our species in the immediate future, prolonging our lives, adding offspring to the subsequent generation. That’s what our DNA is programmed to do.  Sure, maybe we are making the planet uninhabitable for our and other species in the distant (40 years? 1000 years?) future, but who really knows? Evolution has not programmed us to worry about what will happen beyond the next generation, has it?

E. O. Wilson famously backtracked on the  pessimism in Consilience to consider that humans may eventually use their powerful collective intellect to figure out how to save the planet from destruction and prolong the Homo sapiens existence. Cynics and fellow scientists disregarded this later work as a bone thrown to the readers, a sell-out to optimists in order to move more books and remain popular. So be it, the world needs booksellers too.

Regardless how thoughtful and responsible we are,  Homo sapiens will be gone someday and we may take most of the currently known species with us. But the earth will be populated with other species evolved to the changed humanless habitat, that is what evolution dictates. Even the worst human-caused potential scenarios-- global climate change run amok or nuclear holocaust-- would most likely bring about changes in the habitat that would benefit some other species: maybe an organism that thrives in a low level radioactive environment.  Or maybe the earth will be just a hulking lifeless rock. Oh well, the universe needs hulking lifeless rocks too. With 7 billion other galaxies I’m reasonably sure the legacy of life will continue somewhere.

Acolytes of Al Gore can call for some dramatic change in human understanding about the use of fossil fuels, but don’t expect anyone anywhere to voluntarily reduce their standard of living for a perceived threat to the planet in the distant (40 years? 1000 years?) future. The Atlantic Ocean could be lapping at the 10 th floor of the Empire State building but Iowans will still want to drive tractors, eat hamburgers and make more babies that do the same.

Gray, with all his nihilistic intellectualization, is a show-off. And being a show-off is a form of what Buddhists call attachment, which leads to suffering, yada yada yada. (Hey, I’m not above it; all beings suffer,  as writing-- and certainly reading-- this review is sure to prove.)  A good friend (House) serendipitously recommended reading the Tao Te Ching with interpretation by Derek Lin about the time I was finishing Gray’s Straw Dogs, and it dovetails quite nicely with the thesis.  

I may write a longer review of Lin’s outstanding work later, but pertinence to the current discussion has to do with what the Tao means. Usually translated as “The Way”, Lin points out that, more accurately, it means “The Way Things Are”, i.e., the essence. My interpretation is that when Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching it was a premonition of Walter Cronkite’s catchphrase: "And that's the way it is", just a humble attempt to present reality in an understandable form. No judgment, no remorse.

While the Buddha later incorporated the grim recognition about suffering, Lao Tzu’s treatise is really a more uplifting statement about what little control (free will) humans have and we are best served by relaxing into the palm of the universe.

We can intellectualize all we want, we can try to predict and ruminate about what it all means and find blame and cast aspersions, but at the end of the day we have no idea what it all means.  I’m re-reading Jensen’s Language Older Than Words and I’m also halfway through Lin’s Tao Te Ching. My gut tells me that they will be more satisfying than John Gray’s book, and I intend to give some updates.

I’ll finish with a further quote from Lin’s interpretation of Verse 5 regarding straw dogs:

“The Tao does not play favorites. The rain waters the weeds and orchids equally; the sun shines on everyone with the same brightness and warmth despite variations in individual merits. The sage, emulating the Tao, also regards everyone in the same egalitarian light-- none higher and none lower.”

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