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on 2 December 2017
Anti-almost everything we take for granted (without realising that we do). A little too much like religious propaganda -- assertions made without evidence to support -- but meat enough to get you thinking outside the box.
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on 12 July 2016
I have enjoyed John Gray's erudite talks on BBC radio 4, so I bought this entertaining book.
It is really just an essay about human self-deception and arrogance bulked out with snippets of oriental twaddle (Tao Te Ching) and worn out 'new age' pseudo science (Santayana, and Lovelock's 'Gaia hypothesis'). Gray is a Malthusian who believes that humans will reject population control and proceed to rape the planet until we wipe ourselves out. The Earth might be better without us, he argues.
There are many brilliant one-liners and as many absurd generalisations.
Gray is a philosopher, not a scientist, so he does not really 'get' science. He thinks science is as likely to be as shoddy as religion because the early scientists were muddled and torn between their religious upbringings and their findings. This is fair comment on Copernicus and Newton (the latter experimented with alchemy as well as refraction) but few modern scientists find their energies dispersed in this way. Science is a method of enquiry and has served us well.
Gray repeats a literary device which tires in the end; there are long quotes from writers we believe he is trying to support, only to discover that he nails them with a pithy arrow to the heart. This artificial postponement of the 'coup de grace' becomes contrived and shows that the author is more interested in style over substance.
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on 5 November 2017
This is one of the finest works of philosophy I have read in years. It challenges almost all the preconceptions of the Western world and while in many ways its view of humans are deeply depressing its devastating attack on human hubris is unanswerable.

It trashes the dogmas of positivism every bit as much as the creeds of religious believers.

Gray covers a wide range of topics in a very accessible and readable way. My only criticism would be that perhaps some topics would be well worth developing in greater detail and depth.

But I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
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on 20 March 2014
The philosophical stance adumbrated in this book is one with which I have a considerable degree of sympathy, but this volume is at the same time immensely frustrating. Most modern atheists are humanists, that is, they have accepted the Enlightenment idea that human societies are capable of indefinite improvement through the spread of reason and science, and that history represents on the whole a tale of progress. At the same time, most humanists would also subscribe to some version of philosophical naturalism, that is, to the idea that humans are a product of blind Darwinian forces within the context of an indifferent and uncaring universe. What is interesting about Gray is that he holds that these two views – humanism and naturalism, that is – far from complementing each other, are incompatible. If you fully take on board the consequences of naturalism, so Gray contends, one must reject humanism with its attendant optimism about the human species. It is this view which is adumbrated in this book with great verve.

However, at the same time, this book is incredibly frustrating. The positions are not very rigorously argued, the reader is carried forward more by rhetoric than by logic. There is far too much hand-waving by the author. As other reviewers have pointed out, whole fields of human endeavour ('philosophy', 'religion', etc.) are reified as homogeneous blocks of doctrine and dismissed with a single remark. The discussion of individual philosophers is very inadequate, all of them being treated as scarcely worthy of notice – except Schopenhauer, whose philosophy is praised for anticipating Gray's. Too much is just stated as though it didn't require any argument. For example, Plato is castigated for reifying human language into transcendent Forms. But Gray doesn't deal with the philosophical difficulties which led Plato to posit Forms. There are certain inconsistencies in Gray's writing. He sometimes talks as though self-awareness were a burden that we would be better off without, and that the animals are more fortunate in this regard, but I doubt whether he would really like to exchange his life for that of a dog if he had the opportunity. Perhaps, then, there is something to be said for personhood after all. On p. 151 he writes that the human species is “not obviously worth preserving”, but at other points in the book he writes disapprovingly of genocide. Now it may be that Gray's various statements can be reconciled, but Gray does not bother to tell us how this might be done. He prefers to formulate his views in an impressionistic fashion, flitting like a hummingbird from one subject to another, in each displaying a mood rather than following a rigorous line of argument.

There are some ideas in this book which are interesting, and could be developed further. For example, the idea that what we call morality is not a set of timeless truths 'out there' which all reasonable men of good will can agree on, but something we inherit from our past. There is the interesting idea that ethics should not be about 'morality' at all, but individual virtue, and that virtue consists in living skilfully. But nothing is ever properly elaborated, all these remain seeds of ideas that are not further developed. Gray seems to prefer skating over the surface of things; he does not have the patience for philosophical spadework of any kind. This is true of all his previous writings as well, which accounts for why he has never really written a great philosophical work, but at the same time accounts for his current popularity with a wider reading public. The reader who is already sympathetic to the ideas expressed in this book, therefore, will find himself nodding in agreement, enjoying the author's criticism of Dawkins-type atheists, and delighting in the occasional aperçu. But the vaunted claims that have been made for this book by its partisans (including on the blurb on the back cover) are nonsense.
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on 15 September 2013
In this book, John Gray attacks every modern, western value that is bigger than the self, plus the very idea of the self. This is more rewarding than it sounds. The pessimism on display is bracing and it's always enjoyable to see those preachy Humanists get a good kicking.

Gray's style is light and breezy and the text is chopped into bite-size chunks, like a nihilism sampler. This makes it easy to read, but it also means the arguments are presented with less rigour than they deserve, given their profundity. There is too much hand waving. However, this is clearly intended as an introductory work and a comprehensive reading list is provided, should you wish to depress or invigorate yourself further.
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on 30 April 2008
Like a few of the other reviewers here, I found myself for a while in the 'either or' camp with this book; loving it passionately or finding it a non-starter. In the end, it left me feeling indifferent. I kept waiting for the big revelation that is claimed elsewhere (or at least a modest one), but it never came. Instead, there was a lot of recycled material - good in this day and age, I suppose; but nothing that seemed to stack up against anything like close examination. For all his apparent rigour, Gray is free and easy in his use of big terms that just cry out for a bit of definition. Consciousness and unconsciousness. Language. Understanding. Christianity - which form? There's no attempt to qualify any of these or a hundred others.

How seriously can you take a book whose project is analysis, but which won't analyse its own terms of reference? This book has been billed as an essential companion to modern living, and an indispensable guide to modern thought. Accidentally spot on, if modernity consists in lazy thinking and polemic on the basis of half-understood source material. Given Gray's CV, he's obviously not poorly read; but that only makes it worse. It's down to length, I suppose, and commercial viability. Who reads The Republic on the bus? On the other hand, everyone can have a stab at 200 pages of rowdy, edited highlights, and can come away with some dinner party apercus and a handful of quotes to throw around. But this book is not the coherent, devastating thesis that is being claimed by apparently serious thinkers - would that it were. It's a rant, with about as much intellectual rigour as Naomi Klein exhibited in No Logo. Entertaining and provocative, as a good rant should be, but ultimately reminds you that it's not really doing anything much beyond drawing attention to its author.

As to answering the big questions, it doesn't. Which is a shame, as I get the feeling he could have a good go at at least one, had he not spread himself so thinly. Maybe, after a lifetime in the trade, he just wants a few quid and a bit of media attention, and is (understandably) bored with academic nitpicking, or scholarship; as you prefer.

So we are as unthinking or as thinking as animals (and certain organisms) - depending on which chapter you're on - part of the cycle of nature and just biding our time until we're wiped off the face of the planet. That's all taken as read, and no great revelation (cf. Book of Revelations, et al). But we do also - as well as eat, sleep, reproduce, covet each other's oxen and kill each other - demonstrably create things of beauty, fall in love, behave greatly, have meaning - in the sense that people love us, enjoy our company, remember us when we're dead. Albeit obviously edited by memory, however you define that.

If anything, my dead father is more meaningfully alive now than he was when he drew breath. But that's me doing what? Reacting to a subconscious trigger, responding to my social conditioning, or constructing meaning from snapshot fragments of things I never understood in the first place? I'm fine with all that. And I'm more than unconscious, reactive food for worms as well. Not vanity or an attempt to create meaning for myself - just the same mass of philosophically frustrating contradictions as everyone else. But hey, it was a good read.
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The religious impulse, Gray argues in a later work elaborating on the themes first set out in 'Straw Dogs' (Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions: p7), is as universal as the sex drive. Like the latter, when repressed, it re-emerges in the form of perversion.

Thus the Marxist faith in our passage into socialist utopia after revolution represents a perversion of the Christian belief in our passage into heaven after death – the former, heaven-on-earth, as unrealistic than the latter. Thus, Marxism is, as Edmund Wilson first observed, 'the opiate of the intellectuals'.

The same is true, Gray contends, of what he regards as the predominant 'secular religion' of the contemporary West – namely 'humanism'. Its secular self-image notwithstanding, Humanism is, for Gray, a substitute religion that replaces an irrational faith in an omnipotent god with an even more irrational faith in the omnipotence of mankind himself (p38).

In doing so, humanism renounces the one insight that traditional religion actually got right – namely the notion that humans are "radically flawed" as captured by the doctrine of 'Original Sin' (Heresies: p8).

Like Christianity, "humanism is a doctrine of salvation – the belief that humankind can take charge of its destiny" (p16). However, "we do not talk of a time when whales or gorillas will be masters of their destinies – why then humans?" (p3).

Progress and Other Delusions
Of course, in its ordinary usage, the term 'humanism' is hopelessly broad, pretty much encompassing anyone who is neither a Christian nor a Nazi.

For his purposes, Gray defines humanism as a "belief in progress" (p4). More specifically, he seems to have in mind a belief in the inevitability of social, economic and political progress.

Belief in the inevitability of progress is, he argues, a faith universal across the political spectrum – from neo-conservatives who think they can transform Islamic tribal theocracies and Soviet Republics into 'First World' liberal capitalist democracies, to Marxists who think Islamic tribal theocracies and 'First World' liberal capitalist democracies will themselves ultimately give way to communism.

Gray rejects this belief. "Looking for meaning in history," he contends, "is like looking for patterns in clouds" (p48).

Scientific Progress and Social Progress
Although early in the book (p20-23) Gray digresses on the supposed 'irrational origins' of modern science, Gray does not doubt the reality of scientific progress. Instead, what Gray questions is, not the reality of scientific progress, but rather the assumption that social, moral and political progress will necessarily accompany it.

Progress in science and technology, he argues, does not invariably lead to social and political progress. On the contrary, he observes, "without the railways, telegraph and poison gas, there could have been no Holocaust" (p14). Thus, according to Gray's criteria, "death camps are as modern as laser surgery" (p173)

Scientific progress is unstoppable and self-perpetuating. After all, "any country that renounces technology makes itself prey to those that do not" (p178).

However, the same is not true of political, social and economic progress. On the contrary, a country excessively preoccupied with moral and ethical restraints would surely be defeated by an enemy willing to cast aside moral constraints for the sake of victory.

In other words, "technology is not something humankind can control" but rather simply "an event that has befallen the world" (p14). Thus, "humans are no more in control of machines than they are of fire or the wheel" (p185).

As a consequence, Gray predicts, "even as it enables poverty to be diminished and sickness to be alleviated, science will be used to refine tyranny and perfect the art of war" (p123) and "if one thing about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on humanity by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it" (p14).

Human Nature
Gray reaches this apparently pessimistic conclusion because, according to him, although technology progresses, human nature itself remains stubbornly intransigent.

Thus, "though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive animal that is also one of the most predatory and destructive" (p4) and therefore "the uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked as humans are themselves" (p28).

Therefore, the fatal flaw in the humanist theory that political progress will inevitably accompany scientific progress is, ironically, its failure to come to grips with one particular sphere of scientific progress – namely progress in the scientific understanding of human nature itself. In particular, sociobiological and evolutionary psychological theory and research suggest that a degree of selfishness and nepotism is universal and innate among humans and likely incompatible with the societal utopias envisaged by reformists and revolutionaries.

Evolutionary psychologists like to emphasise how natural selection has paradoxically led to the evolution of cooperation and altruism. They are also at pains to point out that innate psychological mechanisms are responsive to environmental variables and hence amenable to manipulation. This has lead some thinkers to suggest that, even if utopia is forever beyond our grasp, nevertheless society can be improved by social engineering and well-meaning reform (see Peter Singer's A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation).

However, this analysis ignores the reality that the social engineers themselves (i.e. politicians, civil servants etc.) are possessed of the same essentially selfish and nepotistic nature as those whose behaviour they are seeking to engineer. Thus, even if they were able to improve society in this way, they would do so for their own ends, not for those of society or humankind as a whole.

Of course, human nature itself could be altered through genetic engineering or eugenics. However, even this will offer no panacea to the problems that beset humanity and the world – because, once again, those charged with doing the work (scientists) and those from whom they take their orders (politicians, big business) will, at the time their work is undertaken, be possessed of the same nature that which it is their intention to improve upon.

Therefore, Gray concludes, even if human nature itself is remodelled, "it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organized crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control" (p6), and hence reflect the interests, not of humankind as a whole, but rather of those responsible for undertaking the project.

The Future
In contrast to the prevailing humanist vision of inevitable progress towards utopia, Gray offers a vision of the future decidedly more pessimistic.

"The human population growth that has taken place over the past few hundred years," he argues, "resembles nothing so much as the spikes that occur in the numbers of rabbits, house mice and plague rats" and "like them, it can only be short-lived" (p10). Thus, "humans… like any other plague animal…cannot destroy the earth, but… can easily wreck the environment that sustains them" (p12).

The future, according to Gray, will see a return to resource wars and "wars of "scarcity... waged against the world's modern states by the stateless armies of the militant poor" that are "certain to be hugely destructive" (p181-2).

This is an inevitable result of a Malthusian trap. "So long as population grows, progress will consist in labouring to keep up with it," he explains, and the only way humanity can prevent this is by "limiting its numbers" (p184). However, "limiting human numbers clashes with powerful human needs" (p184) – not just the sociobiological imperative to reproduce, but also the interests of various ethnic groups in ensuring their survival and increasing their military and electoral strength.

Therefore, "zero population growth could be enforced only by a global authority with draconian powers and unwavering determination" (p185). Unfortunately (or perhaps not, depending on your perspective) "there has never been such a power and never will be" (Ibid.).

He thus darkly prophesizes, "we may well look back on the twentieth century as a time of peace" (p182).

As Gray points out in his follow-up book, "war or revolution... may seem apocalyptic possibilities, but they are only history carrying on as it has always done" (Heresies: p67). In contrast, "what is truly apocalyptic is the belief that history will come to a stop" (Ibid.).

Morality
While Gray doubts the inevitability of social, political and moral progress, he perhaps does not question sufficiently its reality. For example, citing improvements in sanitation and healthcare, he concludes that, although "faith in progress is a superstition", progress itself "is a fact" (p155).

Yet every society, by very definition, views its own moral and political values as superior to others. They will therefore view the recent changes in moral and political values that led to the development of their own moral and political values as a form of progress.

In reality, however, what constitutes moral, social and political progress is entirely a subjective assessment. The Ancient Romans, transported to our times, would surely accept the superiority of our technology and, if they did not, we would out-compete them economically and militarily and thereby prove it ourselves. However, they would view our social and moral values as decadent and we would have no way of proving them wrong.

In other words, while scientific and technological progress exists objectively, what constitutes moral and social progress is a mere matter of opinion.

Gray occasionally hints in this direction (namely 'moral relativism'), declaring in one of his many countless quotable aphorisms, "ideas of justice are as timeless as fashions in hats" (p103). He even flirts with 'moral nihilism', describing "values" as "only human needs and the needs of other animals turned into abstractions" (p197), and, at one point, venturing that "the idea of morality" may be nothing more than "just an ugly superstition" (p90).

However, on this point, Gray remains somewhat confused. For example, he protests that "morality has hardly made us better people" (p104). But the meaning of 'better people' is itself dependent on a moral judgement. If we reject morality, then there is no grounds for determining if some people are 'better' than others and therefore this can hardly be a ground for rejecting morality itself.

Free Will
On the issue of free will, Gray is more forthright and consistent. Relying on the controversial work of neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, he contends, that "in nearly all our life willing decides nothing – we cannot wake up or fall asleep, remember or forget our dream,summon or banish our thoughts, by deciding to do so" (p69). On the contrary, "we just act and there is no actor standing behind what we do" (p69).

Thus, "our lives are more like fragmentary dreams then the enactments of conscious selves" (p38) and "our actual experience is not of freely choosing the way we live but of being driven along by our bodily needs – by fear, hunger and, above all, sex" (p43). In short, "we spend our lives coping with what comes along" (p70).

Yet, in expecting humankind to take charge of its own destiny, "we insist that mankind can achieve what we cannot: conscious control of its existence" (p38).

What separates us from the remainder of the animal kingdom is not 'free will' or 'consciousness', but rather merely self-awareness. However, this is, at best, a mixed blessing. After all, it is well-known that musicians and sportsmen perform best, not when consciously aware of their movements, but rather when they are momentarily lost in what positive psychologists refer to as 'flow' or 'the zone' (p61).

Meanwhile, rejection of free will is a further reason for rejecting morality. Whether one behaves morally or not, and what one regards as the moral way to behave, is, he contends, entirely a matter of the circumstances of one's upbringing (p107-8). Thus, "being good is good luck" and not something for which one deserves credit or blame (p104).

Thus, he concludes, "the fact that we are not autonomous subjects deals a death blow to morality – but it is the only possible ground of ethics" (p112).

The Gaia Cult
One problem with Gray's analysis is his tendency to pontificate about subjects beyond his own sphere of expertise. As a result, although his overall thesis is persuasive, Gray's gets it completely wrong on certain specific issues.

A case in point is his discussion of James Lovelock's 'Gaia theory'. According to Gaia Theory, the world as a whole is analogous to an harmonious self-regulating self-sustaining organism - which is in danger of being disrupted only by environmental damage wrought by man.

Given his otherwise cynical and pessimistic outlook, not to mention his penchant for sociobiology, Gray's enthusiasm for Gaia Theory is curious. As Richard Dawkins explains in Unweaving the Rainbow (p221), the adaptation of organisms to their environment (which consists in large part of other organisms) may give the superficial appearance of eco-systems as harmonious wholes, as some organisms exploit and come to rely on the presence of other organisms for their own survival and sustenance.

However, a Darwinian perspective demonstrates that, far from existing in benign harmony with one another, organisms in fact exist in a state of continuous competition and conflict. Indeed, it is precisely this exploitation of one another that gives the superficial appearance of harmony.

In other words, "Individuals work for Gaia only when it suits them to do so – so why bother to bring Gaia into the discussion" (Unweaving the Rainbow: p225).

Dawkins thus concludes that, far from being a science, Gaia theory is more like "a cult, almost a religion" (Unweaving the Rainbow: p223). It is therefore better viewed, within Gray's own framework, as, like humanism, yet another secular perversion of humanity's innate religious impulse.

Perhaps Gray's own curious enthusiasm for this particular pseudo-scientific cult suggests that Gray himself is no more immune from the religious impulse than those whom he attacks. If so, this merely strengthens his case that the religious impulse is universal and innate.

Other Philosophers
Gray rejects most of the philosophical tradition that has preceded him. "As commonly practised," Gray contends, "philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs" (p37). Thus, "in the Middle Ages, philosophy gave intellectual scaffolding to the Church", whereas "in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it served a myth of progress" (p82).

He reserves particular scorn for moral philosophers. Moral philosophy is, for Gray, "an exercise in make-believe" (p89) and "very largely a branch of fiction" (p109), albeit one "less realistic in its picture of human life than the average bourgeois novel" (p89), which explains why "a philosopher has yet to write a great novel" (p109).

In other words, compared with outright fiction, moral philosophy is simply less realistic.

Like Schopenhauer, Gray's pessimist precursor, (who is, along with Hume, one of the few Western philosophers he mentions without disparaging), Gray purports to prefer Eastern philosophical traditions. These and other non-Western religious and philosophical traditions are, he contends, unpolluted by the influence of Christianity and therefore see mankind as merely another animal, no different from the rest.

I do not have sufficient familiarity with Eastern philosophical traditions to assess the accuracy of this claim. However, I suspect that anthropocentrism and the concomitant belief that humans are somehow special and different from all other organisms is universal and innate.

Indeed, it may not even be limited to humans. I suspect that, to the extent they were or are capable of conceptualising such a thought, earthworms and rabbits would probably conceive of themselves as special and unique over and above all other species in just the same way we do.

At any rate, despite his initial praise, Gray ends up by rejecting the prescriptions of eastern philosophical and religious traditions as well as those of the West.

There is no need, he contends, to spend lifetimes striving to achieve nirvana and the cessation of suffering. Instead, "death brings to everyone the peace Buddha promised only after lifetimes of striving" (p129).

All one needs to do is to let nature take its course, or, if one is especially impatient, perhaps hurry things along by suicide.

Writing Style
I generally dislike books written in a pretentious aphoristic style. They typically replace the argumentation necessary to substantiate their conclusions with bad poetry. Moreover, sometimes the poetic style is such that it is difficult to discern what these claims are in the first place.

This is not, however, the case with 'Straw Dogs'. Perhaps, for once, the aphoristic writing style is appropriate because Gray's arguments, though controversial, are straightforward and therefore not requiring of excessive additional explication. Indeed, one suspects the inability of earlier thinkers to reach the same conclusions reflects a failure of the Will rather than the Intellect – an unwillingness to face up to and come to terms with the reality of the human condition.

'A Saviour to Save us from Saviours'?
Beware that there is no sugar-coating to Gray's philosophy. "At its worst", he contends, "human life is not tragic, but unmeaning... the soul is broken but life lingers on... what remains is only suffering" (p101).

Someone expecting a 'Hollywood Ending' will be disappointed. Unlike other non-fiction works dealing with political themes, he does not conclude with a chapter proposing solutions to the problems he has identified in the preceding pages. Instead the conclusion of 'Straw Dogs' is as bleak as the pages that preceded it.

For me, however, it is refreshing that, unlike other self-important self-appointed gurus and saviours of mankind, Gray does not attempt to portray himself as a saviour.

He does, however, discuss the Buddhist notion that we require "A Saviour to Save Us From Saviours" – but eventually renounces even this role.

We do not, he argues, take our saviours seriously enough to require saving from them. We look to our saviours, not for salvation, but rather merely "for distraction" (p121).

He thus relegates our self-appointed saviours – from philosophers and religious leaders to self-help gurus and political leaders – to little more than glorified competitors in the entertainment industry.

Distraction as Salvation?
According to Gray, it is not only saviours who function as 'distraction' for the masses. On the contrary, towards the end of 'Straw Dogs', Gray seems to view 'distraction' as central to life, at least in the affluent West.

In modern western societies, standards of living have improved to such an extent that obesity is now a far more widespread health problem than starvation, even among the so-called 'poor' (indeed, one suspects, especially among the poor). Yet, on the other hand, clinical depression is rapidly expanding into the greatest health problem of all.

Thus, Gray contends, "economic life is no longer geared chiefly to production", but rather "to distraction" (p162).

In other words, where once, to acquiesce in their own subjugation, the common people required only with 'bread and circuses', now they seem to demand cake, ice cream, alcohol, soap operas, Playstations, Premiership football and reality TV.

Indeed, Gray views most human activity as little more than escapism. Thus, he contends, "it is not the idle dreamer who escapes from reality" but rather "the practical men and women who turn to a life of action as a refuge from insignificance" (194).

Indeed, even "the meditative states… cultivated in Eastern traditions", though "often described as techniques for heightening consciousness", are "in fact… ways of by-passing self-awareness" (p62).

Yet Gray does not disparage distraction and escapism as a superficial diversions from more important concerns and objectives. On the contrary, he seems to see distraction, or even escapism, as the key to, if not happiness, then at least to the closest we are able to come to this elusive state.

Most people instinctively recognise this. "Since happiness is unavailable", he writes, "the mass of mankind seeks pleasure" (p142).

Thus, "fulfilment is found," he concludes in a passage which is perhaps the closest he comes to self-help, "not in daily life, but in escaping from it" (p141-2).

In other words, escapism may not be quite as bad as it is made out to be. Perhaps then something is to be said for sitting around watching TV all day, after all.

By his own thesis then, it is perhaps as a form of 'distraction' that Gray's own work ought ultimately to be judged. In this light I can only say that, with its thoroughly invigorating and unrelenting cynicism and pessimism, 'Straw Dogs' distracted me immensely – and, according to the precepts of Gray's own philosophy, there can surely be no higher praise than that.
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VINE VOICEon 3 December 2003
Straw Dogs is thought provoking, sometimes challenging and well worth a read. But be prepared for a frustrating read because Gray often fails to follow through on his ideas, leaving them flapping in the wind as unrealised jottings or, perhaps, little challenges to the reader’s own world view.
That said, if you’re prepared to do some thinking of your own, Straw Dogs often makes for an exciting and stimulating read.
Gray’s opening gambit is that humans are simply the most evolved animals, rather than (as Christians, Jews, Muslims and others would have it) something created by God quite separately from the beasts. Gray mocks those atheists who continue this tradition of seeing other animals quite separately from humans, but spends the whole book repeating this mistake himself!
We learn that termite colonies respond to outside stimuli and adapt to their environments by working as a whole, leaving individual termites with no sense of self. Okay. But then we’re told this means only humans have a sense of self, as if what’s true of termites is true of all other animals. And so it goes on, with Gray continually lumping all other animals together in an attempt to separate man from the beasts in the same way as those he initially condemns.
Yet there is insight trying desperately to get out. If Gray had developed his idea, he may have suggested that termites represent an extreme in which a sense of community is absolute and the self non-existent. Developing this idea further, he may have considered that other animals (Iberian Lynx, perhaps) appear to have an extreme sense of self, but little or no sense of community. He may have concluded that there a continuum on which all species, including humans, may be placed. He may have excitedly asked what other measures might be developed from studying other animals to help us better understand the human animal.
Sadly, Gray fails to develop this or any other thoughts. So Straw Dogs is a collection of jumping off points: unfinished ideas to stimulate great debates.
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on 24 April 2016
I really wanted to like this book, and was attracted by the gushing reviews on the cover, the fact that Will Self was so interested in the idea(s) that he arranged to meet John Gray to discuss etc. Sadly the reality was very different: almost impossible to follow in places, ranging incoherently from one idea to another without explanation or rationale. Complex philosophical idea are dismissed at a stroke (free will) leaving the reader flailing in its wake. I was left with the sense that the random approach to argument, evidence etc was of itself an attempt to make a point about the limitations and failures of "conventional" thinking. If so it failed and left nothing for the sympathetic and open-minded reader to hang on to. Perhaps I am missing something but if not it looks like a case of the Emperor's New Clothes. Two stars is probably too generous...
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on 22 August 2007
If you like your philosophy analytical, in the Anglo-American tradition, this is not for you. If, on the other hand, you're prepared to give a philosophical work the latitude to be completely bats, as long as it's stylish and thought provoking, this is for you.

Gray's book is a series of only loosely connected mini-essays which - as other reviewers point out - argue against a sort of anthropocentrist exceptionalism and in favour of a sort of misanthropic, deep-ecological nihlism. Will Self, predictably enough, loves it.

Whether or not you think the evidence is as strong as it claims to be (it isn't, quite); or whether you think, even if true, it necessarily supports Gray's conclusions (it doesn't); this is nevertheless an absolutely wonderful book. Read this as a work of literature, not philosophy. Some wonderfully challenging and thought provoking questions are lobbed at the reader in volly of intellectual non-conformism. From Lord Jim, to the organisation of ant societies, the Rwandan genocide to what it is to think of one's self as a coherent person, Lao Tzu to Karl Marx and pre-modern anthropology... just read it, it's fun!
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