Straw dogs book cover

Quick Review: Straw dogs by John Gray

Read Time:5 Minute

In Straw Dogs John Gray makes a brutal attack on humanists’ belief in human progress. The idea that with the power of scientific knowledge, combined with technology, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals, and that we can be masters of our own destiny.

“Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth.”

– John Gray, Straw dogs

Gray argues we are not masters of our fate. We are just like other animals, and we are driven by Darwinistic forces that only care about the reproduction of our genes. On top of that he adds that faith in progress and humanity is just a secular version of the Christian Faith. That salvation is possible for each and all.

“Darwin showed that humans are like other animals, humanists claim they are not. Humanists insist that by using our knowledge we can control our environment and flourish as never before. In affirming this, they renew one of Christianity’s most dubious promises – that salvation is open to all. The humanist belief in progress is only a secular version of this Christian faith.”
“Humanism is not science, but religion — The post-Christian faith that humans can make a world better than any in which they have so far lived.”

The book is divided into short essays on different topics and it is a book that kept me up at night with its uncomfortable, provocative and harsh pessimism. I couldn’t put it down.

”Humans cannot live without illusion. For the men and women of today, an irrational faith in progress may be the only antidote to nihilism.”

“The idea of progress is only the longing for immortality given a techno-futurist twist. Sanity is not found here, nor in the moth-eaten eternities of the mystics.”

Video Review of Straw Dogs by John Gray

Video Review of Straw Dogs by John Gray

The more things change the more they stay the same

Reading Straw Dogs, and Civilized to Death before that — and hearing both books criticizing the modern blind faith in progress— got me to think a lot about how “progress” and “technical advancements” have impacted my life. One recent event came to mind:

I work with building worlds for video games and one of the main restrictions we have as game artists is maxing out how much shit we can show on the screen at the same time before the computer hardware reaches its limits.. We have to create optimized content in order to make the most of our graphics budget in order to make the games as visually impressive as possible. In short, we spend a lot our time figuring out how to build stuff that not only look nice but is also friendly for the graphic cards and processors to compute. It’s alot of work.

Recently a technological advancement— a huge leap in software and hardware capabilities— made it possible for us to have almost infinite detail in the environments we construct. Which meant almost all work we usually put into optimizing our 3d content disappeared over night. Which was almost 50% of the work. 

Finally, algorithms and machines had lessened the load of our labor! Life got easier, right?

No, what happened instead was that the bar for visual quality within the games industry went up a few notches— new expectations were born over night.

Just like any tool that helps us become more productive, the more we expect to get done in a day. So what is progress? What is its ultimate aim? Sometimes it feels like we want progress for progress own sake, but it also feels like The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Personal takeaway

So what can we make of all this? If progress is a myth, and man is just an animal among other animals in an indifferent world. Are we doomed to be nihilists?

For if this is the harsh truth, and I’m getting more and more convinced that the truth about the human condition is in line with what gray describes in Straw Dogs, them I’m much more inclined to make up my own meaning. I’d rather find an illusion strong rnought to  sustain me than live a cynical and nihilistic truth.

”Human knowledge is one thing, human well-being another. There is no predetermined harmony between the two. The examined life may not be worth living.”

Maybe what we have to do is to choose a level of delusion that works for us. One that sustains us and is strong enough to keep us from despair in face of the terrible truth.

Book Verdict: Straw Dogs

This is a book I both love and hate. It will probably be the most impactful and memorable book of this year. Yet, I’m not sure anyone is better off by reading it. Unless what you look for is sleepless nights and existential angst. We might be doomed on a collective basis in the end, by I still like to believe that on an individual basis it still makes sense to strive for the good.

This review of Straw Dogs falls short in covering all interesting aspects of this book, but if what I’ve talked about piqued you interested then you will do well by checking out the book in-depth.

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ out of 5

Find more great book to read on my book reviews page and the Great Books List
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Further reading:

Two books that provide somewhat of an antidote to a meaningless existence are:

  • The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James (Full Review)
  • By adopting a religious attitude, a belief in a higher order and faith in a supreme power, one can live a fulfilling life. 

    Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Full Review)
  • Flow is a state of optimal experience. 8 components needs to be in place for Flow to occur. In Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes how you can turn ordinary tasks and activities into flow experiences. Spending time doing activities that produce flow might be one of the best way to spend your short life here on earth.

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