September 15, 2003


The importance of being wrong: Nicholas Lezard is driven to making an anti-recommendation after reading John Gray's Straw Dogs, an aphoristic blow to humankind's self-importance (Nicholas Lezard, September 13, 2003, The Guardian)

The important subject is this: man is not important. He is no more in charge of his destiny than a whale or a gorilla. Man is an animal, not like an angel in apprehension. Free will is an illusion, self-consciousness a dangerous distraction, humanity is inclined to genocide as it has always been. Humans do not just believe in progress, they "cling to the hope of progress... not so much from genuine belief as from fear of what may come if they gave it up". Meanwhile, mankind is getting on with the business of turning the Earth barren; sooner or later, but more likely sooner, Gaia will shrug us off and the Earth will carry on as if we had never been. All this and more, in 200-odd pages of aphoristic prose.

Very bracing, agrees everyone. And so should I. I have absolutely no trouble at all with the idea that humans are worthless, or at least in no better an ethical position than elephants. But to pound away at the issue demands a consistency and rigour which is strangely absent from Straw Dogs. At one point he quotes the far more consistent EM Cioran, comparing the Buddhist idea of the end of selfhood after several incarnations with the idea of suicide after one: "What is there to put an end to? To this unique and infinitesimal duration? It is obviously too brief to deserve the exertion of withdrawing from it." (I think Cioran puts it even better in The Trouble with Being Born: "It's not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.") [...]

Your view of humanity's lack of specialness, or otherwise, may also be tinged by your awareness that you are reading Gray's misgivings in a book. One strains to think of any animal, besides Roy Hattersley's dog Buster, which has written, let alone published, a book at all.

The one great saving grace of the intellectual/rational/secular/scientific/materialists--and the feature that makes them so endlessly amusing--is their steadfast refusal to follow where their faith leads. So we get a Mr. Lezard who begins by saying that he has no problem accepting Man's cosmic unimportance but ends by essentially dismissing every species and thing in that universe that can't read and write, leaving only us. The hostile reaction of the Lezard's to John Gray's book--a book, after all, which merely extends what they claim to believe to its logical conclusion--is a heartening example of the inconsistency that some might call hypocrisy but that we find charming.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 15, 2003 11:19 AM

We believe our purpose is to reproduce. You believe it is to honor an imaginary being who rewards us by slaughtering us.

I agree. We are more charming, plus we get to have sex.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 15, 2003 3:07 PM

You're just following orders: Go forth and multiply.

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2003 3:11 PM


Do not falling fertility rates explode your faith in our purpose and thus in Darwinian theory?

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2003 6:22 PM

Assume that the neo-pagans are correct, and that man is "just another animal." How does this change anything? Flesh eats flesh, and flesh that can speak and read and write and make weapons can eat anything it wants. Perhaps there is no Supreme Being Who told men that all living creatures shall be meat to us and that the fear and terror of us shall be upon them all, but animals still taste good and they are still afraid of us.

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 15, 2003 6:23 PM


Let's strike a bargain. You stop waving this stick of barking mad fools, and I won't bring up the World Church of the Creator.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 15, 2003 7:19 PM

Ah, but you're speaking of our exceptions, while your side is all foolish.

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2003 7:24 PM

No, Orrin. Darwinism makes plenty of room for going extinct.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 15, 2003 9:58 PM


Not by a willful failure to reproduce and murder of one's own young. After all, it's not like we're succumbing to a predator species or a climatic change.

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2003 10:04 PM

Under both G-d and Darwin, we are our own predator.

Posted by: David Cohen at September 15, 2003 10:50 PM

Which defies Darwinism.

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2003 11:42 PM

Darwinism doesn't care, Orrin. Once consciousness evolved, it became another factor in the mix.

The mix is never still. The winners are the winners. You cannot predict them.

Dogs do not have the capacity to choose not to breed. We do. That's something new, but natural selection works on the new as well as the old.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 16, 2003 2:53 PM


Darwinism doesn't care that some species may not be driven by survival pressures? That's particularly odd since you asserted that it does above: "We believe our purpose is to reproduce."

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2003 3:09 PM

Falling fertility IN NO WAY contradicts Darwinism. As such rates are only measured over populations, it means that some members are not reproducing, and other, "more fit", members, are passing on their genes.

The human race has never been further from extinction. At this point, total thermonuclear war, weaponized Ebola et al, or even a dinosaur-killing asteroid wouldn't do the trick. The only thing that'd work, would be a WHOMPIN' big rock, kinda like the one that hit Jupiter a few years ago.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 17, 2003 8:31 AM

It would be more precise, Orrin, to say that darwinism does not prefer one strategy over another absolutely.

k-selection works for some species, R-selection for others.

All species show population rises and falls on a more or less sinusoidal curve. As long as the low points don't go below zero, then the population will climb again.

If not, extinction.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 17, 2003 6:04 PM