[Paleopsych] TLS: (John Gray) David Marquand: Not for posterity

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David Marquand: Not for posterity
The Times Literary Supplement, 2.11.22

    STRAW DOGS. Thoughts on humans and other animals. John Gray. 246pp.
    Granta Books. £12.99. 1 86207 512 3.

    John Gray is the Prince Rupert of British political theory. Not for
    him the cautious qualifications, nice distinctions and pedestrian
    prose of his professional peers. He writes as he talks, with the
    exhilarating, high-risk urgency of a cavalry charge: he is apt to
    gallop so fast and so far that his followers can't keep up, but that
    is a small price to pay for his unquenchable intellectual vitality.
    His thinking has followed a remarkable trajectory, full of dazzling
    jumps and unexpected changes of direction. In the 1980s he was an
    ornament of the Thatcherite New Right, not, I suspect, because he
    agreed with its politics or economics, but because he shared its
    contempt for the old elites of Tory tradition. By the early 1990s, he
    was shifting towards a characteristically lonely and unclassifiable
    version of the social liberalism that Tony Blair tried and failed to
    incorporate in the New Labour big tent. At the end of the decade he
    published a biting, prophetic critique of the simplistic market
    fundamentalism which then seemed to be carrying all before it.

    Gray has now made a more dramatic turn. His most recent book has
    nothing to do with politics in any normal sense of the word. It is an
    anguished meditation on human nature, humanity's place in the natural
    world, the looming ecological crisis, the emptiness of the Western
    philosophical tradition and the hollowness of what our culture sees as
    progress. It mingles brilliance, perversity and throbbing pain. It
    puts forward no thesis, and makes no attempt to develop a case or to
    answer possible objections. It is a collection of terse, aphoristic
    observations, varying in length from a few sentences to a few pages,
    loosely arranged under six rather arbitrary headings. The mood and
    tone - the harsh, almost self-flagellatory language and occasional
    flashes of savage irony - are more revealing than the content.

    Despite the absence of formal structure, however, it is not difficult
    to disentangle three overarching themes. The first and most obvious is
    a mixture of revulsion and contempt for what Gray calls humanism - the
    belief, inherited from Christianity, that human beings differ
    qualitatively and radically from all other animals. From that comes
    the associated belief that we belong to the only species that can
    master its destiny: that scientific and technological progress will
    enable us to escape from the limits that constrain our animal kin and
    "to control our environment and flourish as never before". This, says
    Gray, is faith, not science. It is a distinctly moth-eaten faith. The
    truth, irrefutably demonstrated by Darwin, is that we are part of the
    animal kingdom -like other species, the adventitious result of "blind
    evolutionary drift", no more capable of mastering our destiny than
    whales or gorillas. In Darwin's time, religious fundamentalists made
    desperate attempts to deny that truth. Today's humanists do the same.
    Their faith in progress is simply the old Christian faith in salvation
    dressed up in superficially modern clothes. It is another way of
    denying our animal status and our evolutionary contingency. The same
    is true of the Green vision of an enlightened humanity living in
    harmony with nature and acting as the stewards of the earth's
    resources. That too is another, and equally deceptive, version of
    Christian millenarianism. It presupposes a qualitative gulf between
    ourselves, the prospective stewards, and other animals, the
    prospective stewarded. No such gulf exists.

    Much of this seems to me well said, but it is not as novel as Gray
    seems to think. Simplistic faith in technological progress may still
    flourish on the wilder shores of popular science, but it no longer
    runs with the grain of the times. As for our animal status, and our
    inability to step outside the limits of our genetic inheritance, these
    Darwinian legacies are rapidly becoming part of the conventional
    wisdom of the age. Gray's second theme is another matter. Straw Dogs
    is saturated with a Swiftian loathing for our species. Not only are
    human beings part of the animal kingdom, they have always been an
    exceptionally cruel, destructive and rapacious part of it: not Homo
    sapiens, but "homo rapiens". The human taste for genocide and love of
    cruelty go back to ancient times; pace humanist progressivism,
    technological advances have given them more scope. Ruthless slaughter
    of the defeated was a feature of the ancient world, but "without
    railways, the telegraph and poison gas there could have been no

    More striking than our merciless cruelty to each other is our
    murderous rapacity towards other species and the planet as a whole.
    Since the first humans arrived on the American continent 12,000 years
    ago, Gray tell us, 70 per cent of the large mammals in North America
    and 80 per cent of those in South America have been hunted to
    extinction. This is not the result of such familiar scapegoats as
    capitalism, industrialization or Western civilization; throughout
    history "human advance has coincided with ecological devastation". It
    is the result of our evolutionary success, above all of the
    remorseless growth in the human population. We are, in fact, a plague
    upon the earth. The only hope is a drastic culling of our species.
    Earth-lovers should not dream of a miraculous change in our habits but
    of "a time when human beings have ceased to matter".

    This is where the third theme comes into the story. Having mocked
    humanist progressivism as a gimcrack secular version of the Christian
    faith in salvation, Gray offers a bleak salvation of his own. Human
    beings will cease to matter. The planet will be saved after all - not
    because there is the remotest chance that Homo rapiens will change his
    ways, but because Gaia is too strong for him. Her self-regulatory
    mechanisms - plagues, pollution, global warming and wars of a far more
    destructive kind than any we have known in the past - will cut our
    numbers down to a level that Gaia can tolerate, perhaps to zero. Since
    there is no obvious reason for wishing to preserve our species, the
    prospect of our extinction should give us no qualms. "The Earth will
    forget mankind. The play of life will go on."

    This is not the Christian heaven, but it is a kind of heaven all the
    same. Though Gray would find this conclusion hateful, I think he has
    shown that the primordial Judaeo-Christian drama - Original Sin and
    ultimate redemption - has a stronger hold on our imaginations than he
    would like to believe.

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