John Gray contra humanism

Over the weekend I started reading John Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. Gray, a British political philosopher, has gone from being a free-market Thatcherite to a critic of global capitalism to a proponent of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. If there is a connecting thread here it’s Gray’s resolute opposition to utopianism of every kind, whether it’s communism and socialism, “global democratic capitalism,” or humanisitic progressivism. (In his latest book, Black Mass, he takes on neoconservatism.)

Straw Dogs is somewhat loosely organized around the theme of human uniqueness. While Gray dismisses Christianity without devoting much argument to it, he reserves the majority of his scorn for post-Christian humanism. It’s cardinal error, he says, is that it wants to maintain an ideology of human uniqueness and progress which is completely undercut by the naturalistic and Darwinian foundations of secular thought. Humanists think that scientific progress will translate into progress in the moral and social spheres, but Gray demurs: “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” (p. 4).

The problem as Gray sees it is that humanists aren’t naturalistic enough. They still maintain a view of human nature that is essentially Platonic and Christian: that we are defined by our possession of reason and free will and that these qualities allow us to take charge of our destiny as a species.

Some of the more extreme versions of this hope envision us “transcending” our humanity, either by means of bio-engineering or artificial intelligence. However, Gray points out, whatever post-human forms of life we may engineer will inherit the “crooked timber” of their creators, since technology is deployed by frail humans. C. S. Lewis made the same point in The Abolition of Man when he said that “the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means … the power of some men to make other men what they please.”

On naturalistic, post-Darwinian premises, Gray contends, the idea of “the species” transcending its own limitations is abusrd. Moreover, technology is not deployed by disinterested philosopher-kings, but by a confused melange of human interests, some sordid and some noble. It’s just as likely to be used for destructive ends as for beneficial ones.

Humanism, in other words, is still trying to live off the moral and metaphysical capital of Christendom. A thorough-going integration of the teachings of biology with our world view would lead us to see ourselves not as standing over nature, but as part of it. And an increasingly destructive part of it at that. Gray thinks it just as likely that humanity will face a major die-off as Gaia reasserts herself as that humanity will somehow “master” its environment:

Darwin’s theory shows the truth of naturalism: we are animals like any other; our fate and that of the rest of life on Earth are the same. Yet, in an irony all the more exquisite because no one has noticed it, Darwinism is now the central prop of the humanist faith that we can transcend our animal natures and rule the Earth. (p. 31)

The teachings of modern science – from Darwinian evolution to neuroscience – tend to show that human beings are actually far less free and less rational than we – influenced by our Christian heritage – would like to think. The only “salvation” possible, Gray thinks, is to recognize our status as one animal among many, as part of the natural world. Though Gray thinks that perhaps some of the illusions we have about ourselves are ineradicable.

Though humanism is Gray’s main target, I think it’s worth thinking about what a proper Christian response would be to a view like his. He seems to think that Christian belief is necessarily fading for “modern” people, but I obviously think he dismisses it far too easily. Still, I think that Christian theology, even where it accepts the general outlines of the Darwinian picture, hasn’t yet fully absorbed it. For instance, can theology continue to maintain the sharp distinction between humanity and other creatures? What does theology do with the virtual certainty of the human race’s eventual extinction? How does it address the picture of human beings suggested by some science as far more conditioned by both biology and environment than many traditional theological anthropologies would have it?

7 thoughts on “John Gray contra humanism

  1. Hi there!

    I actually think sociology give a fine response here. Peter Berger begins The Sacred Canopy with the argument that what makes humans different is that humans are born incomplete and it is interaction and creation of the environment that completes them in psycho-social development. So a horse is born, walks and is balanced with their environment through instinct. A human is born and must create the environment that effectively holds intelligence for it to develop. Therefore determinism is intrinsic as well as extrinsic. Human beings are not externally determined as much as they are developed in interaction with cultures and societies that they create. This constructionist argument is as lucid as I have seen to explain why humans are different. It is not just intelligence, but in culture and society making at the level humans do that is fundamentally different from all other creatures.

  2. Hi Drew,

    Thanks for the comment – I think you raise a good point. Though, I’m not sure the distinction between human and animals even in this respect is necessarily a bright one. Aren’t there animals (I’m thinking of certain primates in particular) who transmit knowledge through socialization?

    p.s. Thanks for reminding me of the Sacred Canopy – I’ve been meaning to read that for a long time.

  3. That is the question – especially with apes and dolphins – and perhaps a weakness. Some monkeys might establish culture, but nowhere near the degree that humans do. But arguing on the basis of degree is kind of weak too. I might have to read read the exact language Berger uses, but the continued development of complex structures of symbols and information is necessary for human equilibrium with the environment whereas with other creatures it is not.

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