10 July 2013

Straw dog arguments

My interest was piqued by a review of John Gray's recent book The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths [see also a shorter and less charitable review, by Thomas Nagel], so I started with his Straw Dogs (published in 2002). The main interest of the exercise was making sense of the reasoning (at times, a challenging task).

Gray states his position openly in the foreword: "Outside of science, progress is simply a myth", where progress means 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." Beyond this succinct definition, however, he seems to have in mind a very specific type of process, organized and deliberate, leading to a profound transformation of the human being.

When reading the book, one must keep in mind that it is this (very strong) concept the author attempts to refute, and not the reality of scientific and technical progress. Gray's arguments attack his version of progress from various directions, e.g.:
  1. Humans are not fundamentally different from animals
  2. Free will is an illusion
  3. The human species does not act coherently
  4. Scientific progress has enabled the most hideous crimes in history
  5. The defenders of rationality are as mystical as any religious believers
He mainly illustrates these points with quotations from philosophical and literary works or from various celebrities, all set at the same level. Gray does not do nuances: either he approves of the position he cites or he dismisses it summarily. His own conclusions are stated with the same assurance, e.g.: "Happily; humans will never live in a world of their own making.", "A human population of approaching 8 billion can be maintained only by desolating the Earth.", or even "The Internet is as natural as a spider's web." We also learn that Neolithic hunter-gatherers lived better than poor people in the modern world (even in developed countries).

Some of Gray's points are legitimate, but his discussion has all the intellectual sophistication of a Malcolm Gladwell book (and none of the storytelling talent). Straw Dogs can be skipped without regret.

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