Thursday, January 12, 2006

Gray’s anatomy – a sceptical view

Interspersed I hope with other things, I’m planning to devote several posts to a book by John Gray, apparently a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. The book’s title is Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals.

Novelist Jim Crace described the book as enraging and engaging, and I heartily concur, especially in the order of those two words. Author Will Self raved about it, though that’s hardly a recommendation. J G Ballard described it is as ‘exhilarating’ and the best he’s read since The Selfish Gene (a book which incidentally had a great impact on me). Exhilarating isn’t a word I would’ve used, though it has certainly exercised me, and that's a big positive.

Let’s start with the first lines of the book, and the first to give me trouble. It’s in the first section, ‘science versus humanism’, of the first part, ‘the human’.

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?

My first response on reading the first sentence was to ask – do they? I certainly have never, or rarely, felt that I belonged to such a species. Nor do any of the people I know, as far as I know. Of course there are times, especially in youth, when particular human achievements, such as landing on the moon, leave a thrilling, even hubristic impression of overcoming improbabilities. And there’s also the individual sense of achievement and mastery that comes when you solve a problem, make a good score, even have a good shit, which you naturally hope to apply to other areas of your life – and after all, you’re human.

When I read this first sentence out to my down-to-earth friend Sarah, however, she responded that yes, most people did think they could be masters of their destinies, with a little application, a little more discipline. That accounted for the perennial popularity of self-help and self-improvement books – the marketing of a myth of self-mastery, and other-mastery.

Not that this had much to do with science, so why was Gray bringing science into the picture? Hardly anyone would consider science when they contemplated individual mastery. Only in terms of the species would it come up, but only then, I would contend, among a small percentage of the most avid ideologues. In any case, there’s no warrant for Gray claiming to know what ‘most people today think’. I can only assume that he uses the term to give the impression that he’s a brave thinker swimming against the tide, rather than the bandwagon-jumper he may well turn out to be.

This isn’t to say that I strongly disagree with him. Like, I suspect, most people, I don’t believe we can be masters of our destiny, either as individuals or as a species. However, I suspect that we’ll always try to be, and for good reason. We’ve probably all experienced the benefits of achieving mastery in some small sphere of our life. And this sphere often grows in proportion to our mastery, and comes to dominate our life. Think of Tiger Woods. Think of anyone in fact – think of John Gray, who no doubt believes himself to be a master of Impressive Thinking, and so engages in Impressive Thinking as often as possible.

I’m sure that this striving for mastery can be explained in terms of evolutionary theory, and as such can be applied to other species. Bearing this in mind, the questions which end the first paragraph of Gray’s book, which I’ve quoted above, and which are intended to be rhetorical, are not rhetorical at all. Of course, Gray has traded on the gap between the pretentious-sounding, all-too-human term ‘master of their destiny’, and our ideas of whales and gorillas, but if you think of it in terms of greater control of their immediate environment, don’t all species indeed strive for this?

Yesterday I fed two of my cats, a mother and a son. The son is almost half again the size of the mother, and has for a long time eaten first from the bowl, with the mother sitting back and waiting. On this morning, on the way to the food bowl, the mother hissed at and attacked the son, much to her boy’s surprise. When the food came out, it was the son who held back, allowing the mother to eat first. So the mother had asserted herself and regained a modicum of control over her environment. No doubt this will be temporary, the son will recover from the shock and seek to regain control. Doubtless neither will gain complete mastery over the situation, but both will strive to achieve it. This is the simplest observation imaginable.

It isn’t a matter of faith or science, it’s completely outside the dichotomy Gray has tried to set up from the outset. It’s about human psychology, or evolutionary psychology if you will.


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