Straw Dogs, a really REALLY poor book

Change of plan

Now, I was going to sort-of take apart the first few pages of this book line-by-line. However, after reading a few more pages – amusing in the same way that watching a car crash unfold on one of those police chase series is – I’ve decided to change that. (Because I’d already written that and I don’t like the fruits of my labour go to waste, I’ve put that part below the fold, just in case someone is curious.) The author, John Gray, just keeps repeating a handful of arguments, based on his wrong assumptions (either deliberately or because of ignorance).

Instead I’ll just point out the three (maybe four) things that are wrong with this book, before admitting that I do share one concern with the author.

1. He misrepresents humanism

Looking for salvation? Really?

Gray somehow has the idea that humanism is a post-Christian Quest For Salvation, preoccupied with liberating humans from the shackles that keep other animals down and aimed at realising some sort of Utopian Paradise On Earth.

Now I’ve read quite a bit about humanism, and by humanist authors – and I’ve never read anything that points towards such a quest, or paradise.

In my experience, to the vast majority of humanists, humanism means living a good, moral life without the need for supernatural beings or religious, dogmatic rules. If I pick up the latest copy of the British Humanist Association magazine, one random staff member says that to her, the most important thing of being a humanist is ‘living a good, rational life without the need for god or superstition’ and she says she supports campaigns ‘to ensure everyone is free from discrimination, on grounds of belief or any other aspect’.

Other items in the magazine cover topics such as protesting the pope’s visit to the UK, comments on homeopathy, reforming the House of Lords, sex & relationship education in the school curriculums, and comments on the government’s plans for religious education. All very much down-to-earth with not a trace of this Quest For Salvation that Gray tries to portray.

It barely needs pointing out that equating the christian salvation – gained after death by entry into an eternal kingdom of heaven and by virtue of adhering to a set of religious rules – can in no way be compared to any humanist endeavour – which would always be aimed at the here and now, with rules flexible by definition, and not aimed at pleasing a non-existent deity but fellow humans (and often animals, which brings me to the next point).

Humans versus animals? Really?

On top of that he portrays humanism as somehow putting humans ‘above’ other animals and creating some ‘conflict’ between them. Again, funny that, but the most staunch defenders of animal rights tend to be humanists and assorted rationalists – correct me if you’ve got evidence to the contrary.

The various world religions all provide handy phrases that put humans above other animals; anyway all of them say it’s OK to eat animals (how about the animals’ right to live?).

In contrast, it is precisely because humanists free themselves from these dogmas ,and they know about Darwin (see below) that they can see animals as related and therefore worth giving rights to.

2. He misrepresents ‘Darwinism’

‘Darwinism’? Really?

To start off grumpy, there still is no such thing as ‘Darwinism’ – just like there is no ‘Galileism’ to describe planetary motion or ‘Einsteinism’ as a synonym for relativity. However it seems it’s increasingly common for people either pro or contra evolution to use this term, so I have to forgive the author formally

‘Darwinism’ is actually meant to provide our lives with meaning? Really?

Unfortunately his use of the term seems deliberate (whereas in everyday use it is just a ‘mimic’, because people pick it up from teh interwebs or their peers), because to Gray, Darwinism is not the scientific theory that explains how lifeforms came to be. Instead it is just another way of looking at the world, giving meaning to our place in it; he makes direct comparisons to Shintoism and animism (to which I shall return in a bit).

I can’t even begin to explain how WRONG that view is. In fact, Darwin’s theory couldn’t be further removed from the mystical hand-waving of these religious worldviews and ‘explanations’ of our place in it all – and ‘after Darwin’ they made no sense anymore – so to lump it in with them shows that the author just doesn’t have a clue.

3. He misrepresents science

It’s not just ‘Darwinism’ he gets wrong, it’s science in general.

Science is EVIL, don't you KNOW!?

Humanism versus science? Really?

This one just has me baffled. I honestly don’t know where he gets the crazy idea from that these two are somehow at odds with each other. Science has always been the main ally, or tool, for humanism in the fight against religion.

(And since Gray tries to portray both humanism and science as faiths, he should even reach the conclusion they are two of a kind :p.)

Science is a faith? What the…?

In another amazing feat of mental acrobatics, gray represents science as a faith, including him using the eternal ‘scientific fundamentalists’ (that is getting sooooo tiring, it having been used by creationists, climate change sceptics, alternative medicine proponents and who else).

Like he does with humanism (see the bit below the fold), he basically redefines science to fit his terms, then proceeds to attack that particular image of science. This is logically called a ‘straw man’ fallacy and I can’t help but think this is weird irony given the title of the book).

He starts off by claiming ‘scientific fundamentalists [note the loaded wording] claim that science is the disinterested pursuit of truth’. I challenge him to find a ‘non-fundamentalist’ scientist to disagree with that. Apparently I’m fundamentalist – because that is indeed what science is.

Then he replaces this with his own arbitrary, straw man definition of science: ‘Among us*, science serves two needs: for hope and censorship’. (*his use of ‘us’ is baffling throughout the book, see also the example below the fold).

Er, hope, well, sure, if you say so, but hope has little to do with the everyday of scientific experiments (aside the hope that they work :p). But censorship, that just cracked me up laughing. The argument from Gray to support that ludicrous claim is hilarious (and later on he gets even more loopy, near with me):

Science alone has the power to silence heretics. (…) It has the power to destroy, or marginalise, independent thinkers. (Think how orthodox medicine reacted to Freud, and orthodox Darwinians [note again the use of loaded words] to Lovelock)

I won’t go into too much detail, but this, as well as the recent climategate scandal, only shows that science is done by human beings. Time has shown Freud to be mostly wrong, scientifically; Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis has in modified form reached considerable acceptance among science, albeit without any of the vagaries like a planetary consciousness that some hippies want to ascribe to Earth). Science itself IS indeed the search for truth; it cares not for the humans and their opinions.

Gray makes this mistake even more grotesquely a bit further on, but first I’ll continue the quote of this bit, where Gray explains what he means by censorship:

In fact, science … by censoring thinkers who stray too far from current orthodoxies it preserves the comforting illusion of a single established worldview.

Excuse me while I HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAWHAAWHAHAHAA HAH oh stop I’m dying HAHAHAHA WHAHAHAHa oh fuck man that’s hilarious.

To quote Dara O’Briain:

Science doesn’t know everything. And it knows that it doesn’t know everything – otherwise it had stopped.

We, the scientists, know what we do know, too. Everything that is ‘too far from current orthodoxies’ […trying not to get annoyed by all these loaded words] is wrong, because we know it’s wrong. It may be very free-thinking and unorthodox to propose that the sun is made of orange ice cream… but you’d be wrong.

Fortunately for me, Gray goes on to flat-out contradict himself only a couple of pages later, when he writes

According to … Popper, a theory is scientific only in so far as it is falsifiable, and should be given up as soon as it has been falsified. By this standard, the theories of Darwin and Einstein should never have been accepted. When they were first advanced, each of them was at odds with some available evidence.

Never mind that he is factually wrong again at several points  – where were these theories at odds with available evidence? Plus he doesn’t get the concept of falsifiability – but he doesn’t see that a few pages earlier, he complained that thinkers that stray too far from current orthodoxies are censored by science. Now he complains… that they weren’t.

John Gray is a very confused man.

Science is determined by rhetorical skills? Really?

Even funnier, and another occasion of mixing ‘science’ (objective increasing truth) with ‘scientists’ (subjective human beings), is in between these passages, when he tries to argue that science is really based in irrationality. I’m getting bored with debunking all his crap, so I’ll give that pass whilst saying that THAT IS WRONG, and go straight to this:

Galileo did not win in his campaign for Copernican astronomy because he conformed to any precept of ‘scientific method’ [oh god I can’t let this one pass either – that would be because in these days that concept had yet to be developed – oh why do I even bother, it’s like shoving shit with my bare hands]. (…) he prevailed because of his persuasive skill – and because he wrote in Italian.

Galileo won out not because he had the best arguments but because he was able to represent the new astronomy as part of a coming trend in society.


Just WOW.

It may just have slightly helped in the very short time span around the emergence of this theory that he was a savvy writer, but apart from that… his theory survived because it was correct, full stop.

Galileo could have been the best persuader in Earth’s history, but if he’d argued that the Sun went around Jupiter in a square orbit, he’d not have won for longer than, I don’t know – well actually I think he wouldn’t have won at any time.

Gray seems to buy into the nowadays oft-heard idea that science somehow calls for ‘equal representation’ and that the best ideas then win not because they are true, but because the majority of people agree with one theory or the other. This, of course, is getting the horse behind the cart.

4. He supports some vague form of animism

Throughout the book he keeps giving nods to animism, that vague hippie belief that We Are All One, or something, but I’m getting a bit bored with all the debunking, so I’ll just throw up my hands here and say ‘whatever’.

Summary please, Marcel?

Well, funnily I do agree with the author on the points where he considers humans dangerous and destructive animals, and to some extent I agree that it will be difficult to save our planet from all sorts of self-inflicted disaster.

However, why he specifically picks on humanism and science is beyond me; it’s science that have been warning against overpopulation, global warming, energy crises and suchlike disasters for decades; and it’s non-scientist humans, overwhelmingly non-humanists too, that have been deaf to these calls.

On top of all that it’s difficult to take a book and its message serious when it gets so many of its facts and premises so amazingly wrong.

The author, John Gray, knows fuck-all about either humanism, science or ‘Darwinism’ and that shows on every page (multiple times) yet he pretends he does. He has clearly done his ‘research’ in a very blinkered manner, only reading these sources that confirmed his preconceived notion of what he wanted to conclude (I’m sure his intended audience will be just as preoccupied and will swallow this crap hook, line, and sinker). These are all pretty cardinal sins in what pretends to be a non-fictional book, but because of these errors would better be classified under fiction (I just realise that indeed, it was in the religion section, so Brighton Library has got that right).

Avoid this piece of subsubstandard writing, it’s really not worth it, apart from having a laugh.

If you still haven’t enough, here’s a line-by-line ‘analysis’ of the first few pages:

Straw Shit – a small deconstruction

It is my modest *cough* opinion that this book is so full of (half-)truths, poor, deceiving rhetorical devices, and wrongness in general, that I just have to pick through it (almost) line-by-line to deconstruct it. Apart from being a torturous job, this would take forever but for the fact that Straw Dogs is also so bad that I won’t feel any need to read past the first couple of pages, thus saving myself (and whoever reads this) a lot of time.

1 – Science versus humanism

(I never realised that these were opposing forces, but OK, I’m open-minded and prepared to be convinced.)

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?

I’d say that’s because we are humans. I personally say nothing about whales or gorillas simply because I’m not one of them, therefore I cannot think on their behalf. Maybe they are masters of their destiny, maybe they are not, but I’m agnostic to that. So me only talking about humans is simply because I am one. Mind you, I haven’t even said that humans are masters of their destiny!

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.

OK, that sounds perfectly right to me.

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.

Oops. Double fail. I’m not sure whether he’s just overstretching his metaphors or being ignorant, but it’s pretty bad either way.

First, Darwin as a person knew (and therefore said) absolutely nothing about genes. (Aside, I don’t like the loaded use of ‘teaches’, giving undue weight to his opinion – he’s been dead for a while after all.) If it is meant as a metaphor (‘Darwin = evolution’) it’s still wrong, and maybe he should read (among others) The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins, to understand that species are a lot more than just their genes. No-one in modern evolutionary biology equals species to their genes.

Second,’ interacting at random’, reading that as a scientist just makes my blood boil. Genes do NOT randomly interact with each other, nor with their environment. Over 4 billion years of evolution has taken care of that. The genes that make up modern species are highly adapted to each other AND to their environment – a point I don’t feel needs belabouring. While you’re in the library at the ‘D’ of ‘Dawkins’ to get The Extended Phenotype, you might want to get out The Selfish Gene, too.

In any case, he was only trying to make the point, apparently, that ‘even science’ shows that we are not separate from animals, but animals ourselves, which is true, just that he didn’t show it very convincingly.

Species cannot control their fates.

Er… a bit of a mysterious remark, this, like that one above about being masters of destiny.

The first thing that springs to mind is humans blasting the planet to smithereens with atomic bombs; how’s that for controlling your fate, albeit in a negative way? More generally, I think one can make the point that to a large extent every species is capable of controlling its own fate; that’s what it is evolved to do after all. If it can’t, it certainly isn’t for lack of wanting or trying!

Species do not exist.

Hurrah! He finally gets something right. Indeed, species is simply a definition by humans to make sense of (part of) the biological world. Similarly, mountains do not exist, nor do rivers, or planets.

This applies equally to humans. Yet it is forgotten whenever people talk of ‘the progress of mankind’.

Ahh… what a shame, he immediately goes wrong again. Aside from being a remark so confusing I’d rack it up as a non-sequitur, just because ‘species’ (or any definition) is a human invention doesn’t mean it’s utterly useless. If you are about to be eaten by a tiger, trying to argue that it doesn’t exist in the real world isn’t going to help you much. We can talk about the ‘progress of mankind’ easily, because whatever is progressing is what we have decided to call mankind. It’s very simple really, no need to get confused (or trying to baffle the reader with rhetorical tricks!).

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.

The only person I can see putting too much faith in (his own) abstractions is Mr Gray. The other remark leaves me baffled, so I won’t comment on it yet, and let him explain to me what these ‘cast-off Christian hopes’ are.

If Darwin’s theory 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.

And if so, they’d be totally WRONG.

The author doesn’t seem to grasp that Darwin’s theory of evolution is a scientific theory; it has no more to do with ‘mythology’ than the theory of gravity, or electromagnetism. I’m not entirely sure what the author thinks the theory of evolution is, but equating it with an animist culture’s mythology is, to be frank, quite an insult (to the theory of evolution, lest I be jested :p).

In these faiths humans and other animals are kin.

Ah yes, again the implied equation of Darwin’s theory to a faith. Boy, this is getting embarrassing.

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.

Er… no, actually, it didn’t. Not by any means to the extent the author implies. Victorian Christians overwhelmingly accepted his theory as correct (as do still most Christians today, at least in Europe), and a nice way to explain how god had created all the species on Earth. Without going into details, the controversy that still rages was started early in the 20th century, deliberately, by a very small subset of Christians trying to push their specific agenda. Getting assertions like this wrong doesn’t earn the author much respect with me, especially if he later uses these (wrong!) assertions to make any truth claims.

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.

Ooooo… the first stab-below-the-belt arrives. First off it strikes me that the battlefield has become fairly small, from all Christians versus all unbelievers to just the humanists (seriously, how many are there?) and the self-proclaimed ‘few who understand (&c)’. Second, there’s an unsupported assumption in there (two, even), nice rhetorical trick, but spotted: without any evidence the author simply posits that (1) it is the truth ‘that humans can no more be (&c)’ and – even if we accept that as true without evidence – (2) humanists do NOT understand that (&c). Sneaky. Any evidence for either claim? Thought not. Fail.

Humanism can mean many things, but for us it means belief in progress.

‘For us’? Who’s us? He hasn’t asked me for my opinion, so he’s not talking on my behalf. Humanists? But he has just (I assume) put himself in the camp of those few who, as opposed to humanists, ‘understand that humans’… well, you got that.

To me, humanism apparently means one of the ‘many things’, namely a belief that we can live moral and fulfilling lives without the aid of a supernatural supervisor. I furthermore believe science is a great way of making sense of the world, but also that whatever science discovers is not inherently good (‘progress’) or evil; it is up to humans to decide how to use it.

Technically, and pedantically, this also seems to me to be two logical fallacies on one; firstly it is a straw man argument: the author declares ‘something’ to be humanism, then proceeds to attack that ’something’. Secondly it is something akin to a division fallacy; just because humanism may include (something the author doesn’t even provide evidence for, but I’ll grant him that) a ‘belief in progress’ doesn’t mean that that is a general trait of humanism.

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.

Hm, more waffle. Not sure what ‘freeing oneself from the limits that frame the lives of other animals’ really means. Because we have invented stuff, I presume, and science, and like, things, you know?

In any case, either way I interpret this it is a pretty vacuous statement.

The more contentious interpretation is that humans are deemed ‘more than’ animals because of their inventions. Maybe I’m an atypical humanist*, but I don’t agree with that view at all (*actually I think many humanists don’t agree with it either and therefore care deeply about the environment, other species and the planet at large). Granted, if I have to choose whether I value the life of a human over that of, say, a field mouse, the mouse goes.

That’s however nothing specific to humans; without again going into detail this is simply genes at work. Genes tend to want to preserve copies of themselves even when these are present in other individuals and since there are more of ‘my’ human genes in another human than in the mouse, my genes ‘force me’ (not literally of course) to choose the human. Vice versa I suspect most species generally to do the same for members of their own species (species by the ‘weak’ human definition, but it works, of course, no matter what we call it).

Humans, given their brain, are of course the only species that actually care for other species from which they derive no benefit, a fact that I say strongly undermines John Gray’s point.

The other interpretation of the statement about limits and frames is trivial; since humans have antibiotics and medicine and such (as a fact), they are already free from some limits that animals still do have, such as dying from cancer (chemotherapy) and drowning (learning to swim, or getting on a boat, or leaving the flood area). Fact. Duh.

After the interlude, back to the book!

This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless.

Groundless? Yeah, unlike your assertions, which come with plenty of supporting evidence?

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.

True, true, humans are all of that… but still it’s a non sequitur. Just because we are laying waste to the planet and destroying all in our path doesn’t mean that generally, human life hasn’t improved overall over the last few, say, centuries.Or couldn’t improve more in the future.

But, admittedly, I must concede this point to the author: I agree that it is likely that humans will eventually ruin the planet, because the average human being is indeed a stupid, selfish animal. That, however, has little to do with MY view of what humanism is, a view the author conveniently ignored somewhere up there (‘for us, it means belief in progress’). It should also be noted that the vast majority of people, doing the vast majority of destruction,are devoutly religious. As I already said, how many humanists are there, really?

[here I stopped, having had enough]


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