Straw Dogs by John Gray (2002)

straw dwagsOur essence lies in what is most accidental about us—the time and place of our birth, our habits of speech and movement, the flaws and quirks of our bodies. 144

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Gray argues that moral or ethical progress is an illusion. Modern liberals and humanists may confuse social, scientific, and technological progress with moral improvement, but these developments have not—and cannot—emancipate us from our human predicament.

Western belief in ethical progress, Gray argues, is a legacy of Christianity and its promises of salvation; it is another manifestation of the same religious impulse in a secular disguise. Human nature hasn’t changed; we have evolved to remain perpetually unsatisfied, and technological progress cannot change this brute fact. Both Abrahamic religions and modern humanism elevate humans by separating us from the natural world, either through creation myths or by awarding us unique human rights. Though we may build and discover, we are part of nature—we are inescapably animals.

The book is dense with thought-provoking arguments and ideas. In some ways Gray’s conclusions are horrifying, in other ways liberating. While reading, I found myself in the rare position of happily changing my views after hearing a good argument, instead of the normal defensiveness or quick dismissal (justified or otherwise) of a conflicting perspective; a bit like unexpectedly learning that you were overcharged for an excellent meal.

The writing is poetic, and if an idea can be expressed in a single paragraph, Gray doesn’t spend two more repeating himself. And while various sections may feel slightly disconnected, there is a common thread to be followed through the book.

Ideas per page1: 9/10 (high)

Related books: The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, The Moral Animal by Robert Wright

Recommend to others: Strongly recommended

Reread personally: Yes, but read more of his other books first


“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 promises—that salvation is open to all. The humanist belief in progress is only a secular version of this Christian faith.                In the world shown to us by Darwin, there is nothing that can be called progress. To anyone reared on humanist hopes this is intolerable.” 4

“‘Humanity’ does not exist. There are only humans, driven by conflicting needs and illusions, and subject to every kind of infirmity of will and judgement.” 12

“Cities are no more artificial than the hives of bees. The Internet is as natural as a spider’s web. … If we are replaced by machines, it will be in an evolutionary shift no different from that when bacteria combined to create our earliest ancestors.”   16

“We cannot believe as we please; our beliefs are traces left by our unchosen lives.” 18

“Human knowledge is one thing, human wellbeing is another.” 25

“Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth—and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.” 26

“Postmodernists parade their relativism as a superior kind of humility—the modest acceptance that we cannot claim to have the truth. In fact, the postmodern denial of truth is the worst kind of arrogance. In denying that the natural world exists independently of our beliefs about it, postmodernists are implicitly rejecting any limit on human ambitions. By making the human beliefs the final arbiter of reality, they are effectively claiming that nothing exists unless it appears in human consciousness.” 54-5

“But the idea that we can rid ourselves of animal illusion is the greatest illusion of all. Meditation may give us a fresher view of things, but it cannot uncover them as they are in themselves. The lesson of evolutionary psychology and cognitive science is that we are descendants of a long lineage, only a fraction of which is human. We are far more than the traces that other humans have left in us. Our brains and spinal cords are encrypted with traces of far older worlds.                                                                                  Even the deepest contemplation only recalls us to our unreality. Seeing that the self we take ourselves to be is illusory does not mean seeing through it to something else. It is more like surrendering to a dream. To see our selves as figments is to awake, no to reality, but to a lucid dream, a false awakening that has no end.” 79

“Once upon a time, I, Chuang-Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, flitting around and enjoying myself. I had no idea I was Chuang-Tzu. Then suddenly I woke up and was Chuang-Tzu again. But I could not tell, had I been Chuang-Tzu dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that I was Chuang-Tzu? However, there must be some sort of difference between Chuang-Tzu and a butterfly! We call this the transformation of things.” 80

“Hegel wrote that tragedy is the collision of right with right.” 97

“A sense of guilt may add spice to otherwise unremarkable vices. There are undoubtedly those who have converted to Christianity because they seek an excitement that mere pleasure can no longer supply. Think of Graham Greene, who used the sense of sin he acquired through converting to Catholicism as an aphrodisiac. Morality has hardly made us better people; but it certainly has enriched our vices.” 104

“Outside the Western tradition, the Taoists of ancient China saw no gap between is and ought. Right action was whatever comes from a clear view of the situation. …   Everything we do can be done more or less well; but if we act well it is not because we translate our intentions into deeds. It is because we deal skillfully with whatever needs to be done. The ethical life means living according to our natures and circumstances.” 112-3

“For those who know themselves to be mortals, what the Buddha sought is always near at hand.” 129-130

“Some truths cannot be told except as fiction.” 131

“Drug use is a tacit admission. For most people happiness is beyond reach. Fulfilment is found not in daily life but in escaping from it. Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks pleasure.” 141-2

“Science enables humans to satisfy their needs. It does nothing to change them. They are no different today from what they have always been. There is progress in knowledge, but not in ethics. This is the verdict of both science and history, and the view of every one of the world’s religions.” 155

“Action preserves a sense of self-identity that reflection dispels. When we are at work in the world we have a seeming solidity. Action gives us consolation for our inexistence. It is not the idle dreamer who escapes from reality. It is practical men and women, who turn to a life of action as a refuge from insignificance.” 194

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.


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