No hope in being human

21:54, Sep 22 2013
Joe Bennett
Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

On this spring morning, with the daffodils trumpeting, the buds bursting, a bellbird chiming in the kowhai and my dog's nose twitching because he's caught wind of a possum, I'm sorry to have to report that there's no hope.

But there isn't. You see, I've been reading a book.

I know, I know, it's never wise. Instead of reading I should be making money or love or the world a better place. But I caught the reading habit young and I've never managed to shed it. And I know few greater pleasures than finding a book that arrows in on something I have sensed and skewers it with words .

The book I've been reading is 246 pages long but the last 46 pages comprise a bibliography and an index, which I didn't read. Rather, when I reached page 199 I turned back to page 1 and read it again. In this I am not alone.

In the blurb on the back, Will Self wrote: "I read it once. I read it twice and took notes. I arranged to meet its author so I could publicise the book - I thought it that good." I do, too.

So I would like to thank the gentleman who sent me the book: John McLean. And I would like to thank the gentleman who wrote it: John Gray. Despite the coincidence of names they are not related. The book is called Straw Dogs. It has nothing to do with dogs.


Mr Gray was Professor of Western Thought at the London School of Economics. When he wrote Straw Dogs he effectively did himself out of a job. For he demolished Western thought.

Any summary I attempt will do no justice to his argument. I urge you to read the thing yourself, but the nub of it is this. Western thought had been dominated for centuries by Christianity. Christianity taught that human beings were different and special. God cared for them and offered them hope.

Then along came Charlie Darwin who demonstrated that human beings had evolved in the same way as every other beast. They were just vehicles for genetic replication, in the light of which you had to do some pretty nifty theology to maintain the Christian position. Most thinkers didn't.

But what they substituted for faith in God was faith in humanity and, particularly, faith in science. Human beings were still different and special. There was still hope, hope of a better future, of creating peace and prosperity on earth, a sort of secular Christianity, in other words. That's been the orthodox Western mindset for 100 years or so.

Humanism assumes we are special because we can alter the world to suit us. And the reason we can do so is that we are uniquely conscious, and uniquely capable of choice, and uniquely capable of reason and, perhaps most importantly of all, uniquely endowed with free will.

But no, says Mr Gray, sorry but no. And he goes on to demolish these assumptions one by one. Fundamental to his argument is that if you accept the truth of Darwin's theory, and you have to be pretty stubborn not to, then you have to accept the corollary of Darwin's theory. Which is that because we evolved in the same way as billions of other species we are unlikely to differ from them. And we don't.

He demonstrates what a ruthless, predatory, murderous, selfish and myopic organism we are, just like all the others.

In our success we have caused the extinction of other life forms at a rate not seen since the cataclysm that wiped out the dinosaurs. We have become a plague on the planet.

In the last half century our numbers have doubled. The graph of our population increase forms the left-hand side of a bell curve. There are no bell curves in nature consisting only of a left-hand side.

Straw Dogs is no green manifesto. It shows the green movement to be just another form of self-deluding humanism. Even if there were a way for 7 billion human beings to live sustainably on the planet, we wouldn't follow it. We are bound in the same blind and cyclical pattern as all evolved life forms. There is no hope.

So is this a gospel of despair? Yes, but also no. We cannot change the way we are. What we will do we will do.

Meanwhile, he implies, we should enjoy the sensuous world of daffs and buds and birds, with all of which we are one. There is pleasure to be had from a twitching nose.

The Southland Times