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Thoughts on Humans And Other Animals
By John Gray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 247 pp., $15


Given that you're reading this magazine, you must be a right-thinking person. You're for liberty, equality, democracy, and let's throw in wise environmental stewardship and sustainable development too. You want the next generation to thrive and to inherit a healthy planet. For these beliefs it is well worth fighting the bad guys -- the powerful, the greedy, the shortsighted, and the prejudiced. Progress, though some-times difficult, is possible, worthwhile, and right. You're on the side of the angels.

And yet. Now and then, alone at night, or in the heat of an argument, you might feel an unwelcome twinge, a thought you'd rather not acknowledge: What if there are no angels? After all, your opponents have a troubling way of describing you in the same way that you talk about them. To them, you're the powerful bully, and what you consider a good deed -- say, eliminating dangerous pesticides -- is, to someone else, condoning death by malarial mosquito bite.

We prosperous citizens of prosperous nations fight our intramural fights with one another, but seen from a distance, we're pretty much alike: We have more money and more weapons than the people of Afghanistan, Brazil, or Nigeria, and so the world speaks our language of markets, human rights, and civil society. You'd like to think it's because those ideals have merit, but sometimes you wonder if it's not really about the money and the weapons.

This kind of mood passes. You see a sign of hope, a sliver of decency, a government decision that goes the right way, and once again you're back in the world of meaningful action, glad to leave cynicism behind.

Ah, but the British political philosopher John Gray has seen you coming, and his response is Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Ani-mals , a book that addresses environmental concerns -- and all humanistic woes -- from a singular doomsday perspective. The book, which cites an abundance of philosophers, scientists, and writers from ancient times to today, is relentlessly clear about its theme: The aim of life should be not to change the world "but to see it rightly." Gray believes "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." Gray wants you to see that all moral convictions -- yours too! -- are "shallow" and "transient." So your actions on behalf of this principle or that are, in the end, meaningless.

Enjoying this? If so, you will love Straw Dogs . It's an occasionally stimulating but ultimately daft "attack on the unthinking be-liefs of thinking people," the goal of which is to provide the reader with a lens for viewing the world that is free from the distorting effects of humanity's self-serving beliefs. Gray's point is simple: We perceive a world in which societies make progress, moral beliefs are based on princi-ple, individuals have free will, and life has purpose. And all of these perceptions are absurdly wrong. Buddhists, don't nod in agreement: Gray thinks you, too, are fooling yourselves, especially when you say enlightenment comes from seeing that all is illusion.

All this is presented with an acid gloom that is reliably, almost comically extreme. The philosopher Bertrand Russell once "believed ful-fillment was in love, the pursuit of truth and working for a better world," Gray writes. But life during World War I, he asserts, taught Rus-sell that "for average humanity happiness is found in none of these things, but in the desperate, world-forgetting play of war."

What is truly glum about the book, though, is Gray's failure to answer the question he begs, which is a classic logical problem: the liar's paradox. It can be traced back to the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, who said, "All Cretans are liars." If that's true, then the Cretan Epimenides is a liar, which means the statement is false, which means this Cretan is telling the truth, and back around we go.

Gray, who is a professor of "European Thought" at the London School of Economics, would have you believe that European thought itself is an illusion. Philosophy is pointless, ethics is mere fashion, progress a myth, and science began "not in rational inquiry but in faith, magic and trickery." Even in modern times, Gray writes, "the greatest scientists have never been bound by what are now re-garded as the rules of scientific method." Yet science is the basis for Gray's claims that "free will is a trick of perspective" and "morality is a sickness peculiar to humans."

In sum, all human knowledge is illusion. How does Gray know this? He has evidence, of course -- evidence that comes from human knowledge. Which is not to be trusted. Back around we go. Many an intellectual debunker has addressed this paradox of self-reference by citing some favored form of knowledge that is special and therefore not subject to illusion. Buddhists believe the trained mind can attain a clearer vision, for example; many neuroscientists say their methods give a por-trait of the mind that is reliable in a way that philosophy and religion are not. But Gray has brushed off Buddhism and scoffed at science's confidence in its practices, and he offers no other justification to replace them. And so Straw Dogs , though fitfully engaging, is ultimately untrustworthy.
-- David Berreby

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OnEarth. Fall 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council