John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

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John Gray, Straw Dogs


All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency.
—Jacques Monod


Most people today think they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny. This is faith, not science. We do not speak of a time when whales or gorillas will be masters of their destinies. Why then humans?

We do not need Darwin to see that we belong with other animals. A little observation of our lives soon leads to the same conclusion. Still, since science has today an authority that common experience cannot rival, let us note that Darwin teaches that species are only assemblies of genes, interacting at random with each other and their shifting environments. Species cannot control their fates. Species do not exist. This applies equally to humans. Yet it is forgotten whenever people talk of 'the progress of mankind'. They have put their faith in an abstraction that no one would think of taking seriously if it were not formed from cast-off Christian hopes.

If Darwin's discovery had been made in a Taoist or Shinto, Hindu or animist culture it would very likely have become just one more strand in its intertwining mythologies. In these faiths humans and other animals are kin. By contrast, arising among Christians who set humans beyond all other living things, it triggered a bitter controversy that rages on to this day. In Victorian times this was a conflict between Christians and unbelievers. Today it is waged between humanists and the few who understand that humans can no more be masters of their destiny than any other animal.

Humanism can mean many things, but for us it means belief in progress. To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive.

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 us by Darwin, there is nothing that can be called progress. To anyone reared on humanist hopes this is intolerable. As a result, Darwin's teaching has been stood on its head, and Christianity's cardinal error—that humans are different from all other animals—has been given a new lease on life.


Humans are the most adventitious of creatures—a result of blind evolutionary drift. Yet, with the power of genetic engineering we need no longer be ruled by chance. Humankind—so we are told—can shape its own future. According to E.O. Wilson, conscious control of human evolution is not only possible but inevitable:

... genetic evolution is about to become conscious and volitional, and usher in a new epoch in the history of life. ...The prospect of this 'volitional evolution'—a species deciding what to do about its own heredity—will present the most profound intellectual and ethical choices humanity has ever faced ... humanity will be positioned godlike to take control of its own ultimate fate. It can, if it chooses, alter not just the anatomy and intelligence of the species but also the emotions and creative drive that compose the very core of human nature.

The author of this passage is the greatest contemporary Darwinian. He has been attacked by biologists and social scientists who believe that the human species is not governed by the same laws as other animals. In that war Wilson is undoubtedly on the side of truth. Yet the prospect of conscious human evolution he invokes is a mirage. The idea of humanity taking charge of its destiny makes sense only if we ascribe consciousness and purpose to the species; but Darwin's discovery was that species are only currents in the drift of genes. The idea that humanity can shape its future assumes that it is exempt from this truth.

It seems feasible that over the coming century human nature will be scientifically remodelled. If so, it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organised crime, and the hidden parts of government vie for control. If the human species is re-engineered it will not be the result of humanity assuming a godlike control of its destiny. It will be another twist in man's fate.


James Lovelock has written:

Humans on the Earth behave in some ways like a pathogenic organism, or like the cells of a tumour or neoplasm. We have grown in numbers and disturbance to Gaia, to the point where our presence is perceptibly disturbing ... the human species is now so numerous as to constitute a serious planetary malady. Gaia is suffering from Disseminated Primatemaia, a plague of people.

Around 65 million years ago the dinosaurs and three quarters of all other species suddenly perished. The cause is disputed, but many scientists believe the mass extinction was the result of a meteorite colliding with the Earth. Today species are disappearing at a rate that is set to surpass that last great extinction. The cause is not any cosmic catastrophe. As Lovelock says, it is a plague of people.'

'Darwin's dice have rolled badly for Earth,' Wilson points out. The lucky throw that brought the human species to its present power has meant ruin for countless other life forms. When humans arrived in the New World around twelve thousand years ago, the continent abounded in mammoths, mastodons, camels, giant ground sloths and dozens of similar species. Most of these indigenous species were hunted to extinction. North America lost over 70 per cent and South America 80 per cent of its large mammals, according to Diamond.

The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, 'Western civilisation' or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate. Throughout all of history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation.

It is true that a few traditional peoples lived in balance with the Earth for long periods. The Inuit and the Bushmen stumbled into ways of life in which their footprint was slight. We cannot tread the Earth so lightly. Homo rapiens has become too numerous.

The study of population is not a very exact science. No one forecast the population collapse that is occurring in postcommunist European Russia, or the scale of the fall in fertility that is under way in much of the world. The margin of error in calculations of fertility and life expectancy is large. Even so, a further large increase is inevitable. As Morrison observes, 'Even if we assume a declining birth rate due to social factors and a rising death rate due to starvation, disease and genocide, the present global population of over 6 billion will grow by at least 1.2 billion by the year 2050.'

A human population of approaching 8 billion can be maintained only by desolating the Earth. If wild habitat is given over to human cultivation and habitation, if rainforests can be turned into green deserts, if genetic engineering enables ever-higher yields to be extorted from the thinning soils—then humans will have created for themselves a new geological era, the Eremozoic, the Era of Solitude, in which little remains on the Earth but themselves and the prosthetic environment that keeps them alive.

It is a hideous vision, but it is only a nightmare. Either the Earth's self-regulating mechanisms will make the planet less habitable for humans or the side effects of their own activities will cut short the current growth in their numbers.

Lovelock suspects four possible outcomes of dissemintated primatemaia: 'destruction of the invading disease organisms; chronic infection; destruction of the host; or symbiosis—a lasting relationship of mutual benefit to the host and invader'.

Of the four outcomes, the last is the least likely. Humanity will never initiate a symbiosis with the Earth. Even so, it will not destroy its planetary host, Lovelock's third possible outcome. The biosphere is older and stronger than they will ever be. As Margulis writes, 'No human culture, despite its inventiveness, can kill life on this planet, were it even to try.'

Nor can humans chronically infect their host. True, human activity is already altering the planetary balance. The production of greenhouse gases has changed global ecosystems irreversibly. With worldwide industrialisation, such changes can only accelerate. In a worst-case scenario that some scientists are taking seriously, climate change could wipe out populous coastal countries such as Bangladesh and trigger agricultural failure in other parts of the world, spelling disaster for billions of people, before the end of the present century.

The scale of the change afoot cannot be known with certainty. In a chaotic system even the near future cannot be predicted accurately. Yet it seems likely that the conditions of life are shifting for much of humankind, with large segments of it facing much less hospitable climates. As Lovelock has suggested, climate change may be a mechanism through which the planet eases its human burden.

As a side effect of climate change, new patterns of disease could trim the human population. Our bodies are bacterial communities, linked indissolubly with a largely bacterial biosphere. Epidemiology and microbiology are better guides to our future than any of our hopes or plans.

War could have a major impact. Writing at the turn of the nineteenth century, Thomas Malthus named war as being one of the ways—along with recurrent famines—in which population and resources were kept in balance. Malthus's argument was satirised in the twentieth century by Leonard C. Lewin:

Man, like all other animals, is subject to the continuing process of adapting to the limitations of his environment. But the principal mechanism he has utilised for this purpose is unique among living creatures. To forestall the inevitable historical cycles of inadequate food supply, post-Neolithic man destroys surplus members of his own species by organised warfare.

The irony is misplaced. War has rarely resulted in any long-term reduction of human numbers. Yet today its impact could be considerable. It is not only that weapons of mass destruction—notably biological and (soon) genetic weapons—are more fearsome than before. More, their impact on the life-support systems of human society is likely to be greater. A globalised world is a delicate construction. A vastly greater population than hitherto is dependent on far-flung supply networks, and any war on the scale of the larger conflicts of the twentieth century could have the effect of culling the population in the way Malthus described.

In 1600 the human population was about half a billion. In the 1990s it increased by the same amount. People who are now over forty have lived through a doubling of the world's human population. It is natural for them to think that these numbers will be maintained. Natural, but—unless humans really are different from all other animals—mistaken.

The human population growth that has taken place over the past few hundred years resembles nothing so much as the spikes that occur in the numbers of rabbits, house mice and plague rats. Like them, it can only be short-lived. Already fertility is falling throughout much of the world. As Morrison observes, humans are like other animals in responding to stress. They react to scarcity and overcrowding by tuning down the reproductive urge.

Many other animals seem to have a hormone-regulated response to environmental stress that switches their metabolism into a more economical mode whenever resources become scarce. Inevitably, the energy-hungry processes of reproduction are the first to be targeted ... The telltale hormonal signature of this process ... has been identified in captive lowland gorillas, and in women.

In responding to environmental stress by ceasing to breed, humans are no different from other mammals.

The current spike in human numbers may come to an end for any number of reasons—climate change, new patterns of disease, the side effects of war, a downward spiral in the birth rate, or a mix of these and other, unknown factors. Whatever brings about its end, it is an aberration.

...if the human plague is really as normal as it looks, then the collapse curve should mirror the population growth curve. This means that the bulk of collapse will not take much more than one hundred years, and by the year 2150 the biosphere should be safely back to its preplague population of Homo sapiens—somewhere between 0.5 and 1 billion.

Humans are like any other plague animal. They cannot destroy the Earth, but they can easily wreck the environment that sustains them. The most likely of Lovelock's four outcomes is a version of the first, in which disseminated primatemaia is cured by a large-scale decline in human numbers.


'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.

At present there are nearly two hundred sovereign states in the world. Most are unstable, oscillating between weak democracy and weak tyranny; many are rusted through with corruption, or controlled by organised crime; whole regions of the world—much of Africa, southern Asia, Russia, the Balkans and the Caucasus, and parts of South America—are strewn with corroded or collapsed states. At the same time, the world's most powerful states—the United States, China and Japan—will not accept any fundamental limitation on their sovereignty. They are jealous of their freedom of action, if only because they have been enemies in the past and know they may become so again in the future.

Yet it is not the number of sovereign states that makes technology ungovernable. It is technology itself. The ability to design new viruses for use in genocidal weapons does not require enormous resources of money, plant or equipment. New technologies of mass destruction are cheap; the knowledge they embody is free. It is impossible to prevent them becoming ever more easily available.

Bill Joy, one of the pioneers of the new information technologies, has written thus:

The 21st century technologies—genetics, nanotechnologies and robotics—are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them. Thus we have the possibility not just of weapons of mass destruction but of knowledge-enabled mass destruction (KMD), this destructiveness hugely amplified by the power of self-replication.

In part, governments have created this situation. By ceding so much control over new technology to the marketplace they have colluded in their own powerlessness. Nevertheless, the proliferation of new weapons of mass destruction is not in the end a result of errors in policy. It is a consequence of the diffusion of knowledge.

Controls on technology cannot be enforced. The genetic modification of crops, animals or humans may be forbidden in some countries, but it will go ahead in others. The world's powers can pledge that genetic engineering will have only benign uses, but it can be only a matter of time before it is used for purposes of war. Perhaps the world's most unstable states can be prevented from acquiring nuclear capability. But how can biological weapons be kept out of the hands of forces no government controls?

If anything 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. If it becomes possible to clone human beings, soldiers will be bred in whom normal human emotions are stunted or absent. Genetic engineering may enable age-old diseases to be eradicated. At the same time, it is likely to be the technology of choice in future genocides.

Those who ignore the destructive potential of new technologies can do so only because they ignore history. Pogroms are as old as Christendom; but without railways, the telegraph and poison gas there could have been no Holocaust. There have always been tyrannies; but without modern means of transport and communication, Stalin and Mao could not have built their gulags. Humanity's worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.

There is a deeper reason why 'humanity' will never control technology. Technology is not something that humankind can control. It is an event that has befallen the world.

Once a technology enters human life—whether it be fire, the wheel, the automobile, radio, television or the internet—it changes it in ways we can never fully understand. Cars may have been invented to make moving about easier; but they soon came to be embodiments of forbidden desires. According to Illich, 'The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles an hour'—not much more than he could travel on his own feet. Which is more important today: the use of cars as means of transportation, or their use as expressions of our unconscious yearnings for personal freedom, sexual release and the final liberation of sudden death?

Nothing is more commonplace than to lament that moral progress has failed to keep pace with scientific knowledge. If only we were more intelligent or more moral, we could use technology only for benign ends. The fault is not in our tools, we say, but in ourselves.

In one sense this is true. Technical progress leaves only one problem unsolved: the frailty of human nature. Unfortunately that problem is insoluble.


Green thinkers understand that humans can never be masters of the Earth. Yet in their Luddite struggle against technology they renew the illusion that the world can be made the instrument of human purposes. Whatever they say, most Green thinkers offer yet another version of humanism, not an alternative to it.

Technology is not a human artefact: it is as old as life on Earth. As Brian J. Ford notes, it is found in the kingdom of insects:

The industry undertaken by some leaf-cutter ants is close to farming. They excavate large underground nests which the colony inhabits. Workers go out foraging for leaves which they cut with their jaws and bring back to the nest. These leaves are used to grow colonies of fungi, enzymes from which can digest the cellulose cell walls of the leaves and render them suitable for eating by the colony ... The garden is vital for the ants' survival; without the continuous farming and feeding of the fungal colonies, the ant colony is doomed. These ants are indulging in an agricultural enterprise which they systematically maintain.

Cities are no more artificial than the hives of bees. The Internet is as natural as a spider's web. As Margulis and Sagan have written, we are ourselves technological devices, invented by ancient bacterial communities as means of genetic survival: 'We are a part of an intricate network that comes from the original bacterial takeover of the Earth. Our powers and intelligence do not belong specifically to us but to all life.' Thinking of our bodies as natural and of our technologies as artificial gives too much importance to the accident of our origins. 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.

Humanism is a doctrine of salvation—the belief that humankind can take charge of its destiny. Among Greens, this has become the ideal of humanity becoming the wise steward of the planet's resources. But for anyone whose hopes are not centred on their own species the notion that human action can save themselves or the planet must be absurd. They know the upshot is not in human hands. They act as they do not out of the belief that they can succeed, but from an ancient instinct.

For much of their history and all of prehistory, humans did not see themselves as being any different from the other animals among which they lived. Hunter-gatherers saw their prey as equals, if not superiors, and animals were worshipped as divinities in many traditional cultures. The humanist sense of a gulf between ourselves and other animals is an aberration. It is the animist feeling of belonging with the rest of nature that is normal. Feeble as it may be today, the feeling- of sharing a common destiny with other living things is embedded in the human psyche. Those who struggle to conserve what is left of the environment are moved by the love of living things, biophilia, the frail bond of feeling that ties humankind to the Earth.

The mass of mankind is ruled not by its intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth—and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction. What could be more hopeless than placing—the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet's wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter.
« Last Edit: 06 Sep, 2008, 20:42:08 by spiros »


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