Straw Dogs by John Gray, 2002 (Third Review)

There is progress in knowledge, but not in ethics. This is the verdict both of science and history, and the view of every one of the world’s religions.

Amazon Link

Gray argues that we should not mistake scientific and technological progress for ethical or political progress.  Human technology has changed, but human nature hasn’t.  The desirable traits we can find in modern society can easily disappear, as countless atrocities across time attest.  The gains from technology are balanced by the dangers they pose.

I’m a big fan of this book.  This is the third or fourth time I’ve read it.  I’ve also listened to numerous interviews and lectures with Gray on this and other related works.  As he’s described, this book is meant for people who’ve grown up with the background assumption that ethical and political progress are inevitable and teleological; it wouldn’t make sense to write this book for other people in other times.  And, at least for me, this books has made me question some of my own ill-informed and naïve beliefs I may have absorbed without noticing it.

The book also touches on other themes; the illusion of the self, the illusion of free will,  ethical striving, the burden of consciousness, the place of humans among all other species.

I last read the book 15 months ago, and I’m shocked and disturbed by how much I’d forgotten.  I recognized the ideas presented quickly and feel that I had a better understanding than on the previous reading, but I would not have been able to remember the secondary arguments in the book without looking at notes/quotes.

Ideas per Page:1 6/10 (medium)

Related Books: Other books by John Gray; Waking Up by Sam Harris; Incognito by David Eagleman

Recommend to Others: Yes, widely recommend

Reread Personally: Yes, maybe next year or two years from now


Note: the kindle did not provide page numbers for these quotes

‘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.

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.

We cannot believe as we please; our beliefs are traces left by our unchosen lives. A view of the world is not something that can be conjured up as and when we please. Once gone, traditional ways of life cannot be retrieved.

Science gives us a sense of progress that ethical and political life cannot.

Darwin’s theory shows the truth of naturalism: we are animals like any other; our fate and that of the rest of life on Earth are the same. Yet, in an irony all the more exquisite because no one has noticed it, Darwinism is now the central prop of the humanist faith that we can transcend our animal natures and rule the Earth.

In ancient Chinese rituals, straw dogs were used as offerings to the gods. During the ritual they were treated with the utmost reverence. When it was over and they were no longer needed they were trampled on and tossed aside: ‘Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.’ If humans disturb the balance of the Earth they will be trampled on and tossed aside. Critics of Gaia theory say they reject it because it is unscientific. The truth is that they fear and hate it because it means that humans can never be other than straw dogs.

As commonly practiced, philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs.

Sex, as Schopenhauer wrote in one of the many inimitably vivid passages that enliven his works, ‘is the ultimate goal of nearly all human effort.… It knows how to slip its love notes and ringlets into ministerial portfolios and philosophical manuscripts’.

Our intellects are not impartial observers of the world but active participants in it. They shape a view of it that helps us in our struggles.

Neither in the ancient pagan world nor in any other culture has human history ever been thought to have an overarching significance. In Greece and Rome, it was a series of natural cycles of growth and decline. In India, it was a collective dream, endlessly repeated. The idea that history must make sense is just a Christian prejudice.

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 human beliefs the final arbiter of reality, they are effectively claiming that nothing exists unless it appears in human consciousness.

Self-awareness is as much a disability as a power.

Our perceptions are fragments, picked out from an unfathomable richness – but there is no one doing the selecting.

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, not to reality, but to a lucid dream, a false awakening that has no end.

When the last indigenous Tasmanian male, William Lanner, died in 1869, his grave was opened by a member of the Royal Society of Tasmania, Dr George Stokell, who made a tobacco pouch from his skin.

Since 1950 there have been nearly twenty genocides; at least three of them had over a million victims (in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Rwanda).

Hegel wrote that tragedy is the collision of right with right.

the delicate sensibilities of liberal societies are fruits of war and empire.

Nearly everything that is most important in our lives is unchosen. The time and place we are born, our parents, the first language we speak – these are chance, not choice. It is the casual drift of things that shapes our most fateful relationships. The life of each of us is a chapter of accidents.

The common man cannot see things objectively, because his mind is clouded by anxiety about achieving his goals. Seeing clearly means not projecting our goals into the world; acting spontaneously means acting according to the needs of the situation.

For people in thrall to ‘morality’, the good life means perpetual striving. For Taoists it means living effortlessly, according to our natures. The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose. Rather than agonising over alternatives, he responds effortlessly to situations as they arise. He lives not as he chooses but as he must. Such a human being has the perfect freedom of a wild animal – or a machine.

If the world had remained polytheist, it could not have produced communism or ‘global democratic capitalism’.

Drug use is a tacit admission of a forbidden truth. 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.

Our 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.

Fernando Pessoa writes:

Only if you don’t know what flowers, stones, and rivers are

Can you talk about their feelings.

To talk about the soul of flowers, stones, and rivers,

Is to talk about yourself, about your delusions.

Thank God stones are just stones,

And rivers just rivers,

And flowers just flowers.


Any society that systematically uses science and technology to achieve its goals is modern.

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.

Goronwy Rees, A Bundle of Sensations: Sketches in Autobiography, London, Chatto and Windus, 1960. For a later account of his life, see Goronwy Rees, A Chapter of Accidents, London, Chatto and Windus, 1972.

An Experiment in Mindfulness, New York, Samuel Weiser, 1972.

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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