Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray

Straw Dogs is thought provoking, sometimes challenging and well worth a read. But be prepared for a frustrating read because Gray often fails to follow through on his ideas, leaving them flapping in the wind as unrealised jottings or, perhaps, little challenges to the reader’s own world view.

That said, if you’re prepared to do some thinking of your own, Straw Dogs often makes for an exciting and stimulating read.

Gray’s opening gambit is that humans are simply the most evolved animals, rather than (as Christians, Jews, Muslims and others would have it) something created by God quite separately from the beasts. Gray mocks those atheists who continue this tradition of seeing other animals quite separately from humans, but spends the whole book repeating this mistake himself!

We learn that termite colonies respond to outside stimuli and adapt to their environments by working as a whole, leaving individual termites with no sense of self. Okay. But then we’re told this means only humans have a sense of self, as if what’s true of termites is true of all other animals. And so it goes on, with Gray continually lumping all other animals together in an attempt to separate man from the beasts in the same way as those he initially condemns.

Yet there is insight trying desperately to get out. If Gray had developed his idea, he may have suggested that termites represent an extreme in which a sense of community is absolute and the self non-existent. Developing this idea further, he may have considered that other animals (Iberian Lynx, perhaps) appear to have an extreme sense of self, but little or no sense of community. He may have concluded that there a continuum on which all species, including humans, may be placed. He may have excitedly asked what other measures might be developed from studying other animals to help us better understand the human animal.

Sadly, Gray fails to develop this or any other thoughts. So Straw Dogs is a collection of jumping off points: unfinished ideas to stimulate great debates.
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(originally posted to Amazon December 3, 2003)
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