Category: Human Nature

Review of “Straw Dogs: Thoughts on humans and other animals,” by John Gray

“Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” (–John Gray, in “Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Human and Other Animals, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York 2003) Thus, the closing paragraph of a book by Gray once again reflects his pleasure in poetic, but oblique narrative. I find it appealing, an intellectual challenge to extract his meaning. But for those less inclined to mental effort, he might have ended more explicitly: “There is no purpose to life. Get over it!” Gray generally interchanges meaning and purpose, and his arguments seem directed at the human tendency to seek or create either.  More correctly, his premise is that there is no more meaning to human life than to that of non-humans. Granted, many seem to find it in everything, but Gray is not buying it. He’s talking about a fundamental, existential reason for human existence that sets us apart from the rest of the biosphere. He is more inclined to say that, if it’s there, it is beyond us to perceive it. Apart from the minor existential challenge of abandoning all hope, Gray’s book is an insightful work, if a difficult one to review. Ironically, its most maddening aspect was also its most enjoyable. The entire book is...

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I’ve decided that the purpose of civilization…

…is to allow the human spirit to flourish.  All the while I am reading John Gray and his empirical argument that humans are nothing more than other animals, I am at odds with myself.  On the one hand, I have to agree with him intellectually, empirically.  But on the other, I know in my gut that it is not true.  There is something more there, something intangible, but real nonetheless.  You see it more than anything in art and music and math, in the prodigies, the anomalies, the young children who seem to be from another planet, who seem to channel Chopin or Mozart, Picasso or da Vinci, or Fermin or Descartes.  You sense it in any truly transcendent human being.  We all know them when we see them, when we meet them.  There are psychic connections, spiritual connections, charismatic connections that transcend the physical.  And you know, even if you can neither understand nor articulate it, that there is something else going on, something beyond the physical, beyond DNA, beyond proteins and neurons.  There is something in the human spirit, when it is at its best, that transcends words and science.  I am convinced of it....

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Reflecting on my past…

…the realization I could have lived different lives is only now becoming real to me.  The one I chose (or that chose me, whether by fear or fate or circumstance), is only this I know. Even as I write this, I only now understand Frost: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”.  The question is, what would I have become in a different life, under different choices or different circumstances? I say that remembering the controlled chaos of family life as a boy and teen, how much I liked it and wanted the same. But no, I’ve grown instead into someone solitary who prefers, even needs, long silences. Obviously, the “me” I am today was always there, waiting. But reflecting, I don’t think he was the only one. Perhaps, as in the proverb about the two dogs, I grew into the one I fed.   But there were more “me’s” than just the one other. I know because, as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to see their shadows. They drift just beyond my vision or consciousness, lamenting their own unrealized dreams.  ...

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Will the last to go please turn out the lights…

I once heard author Jared Diamond speak about his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” As he was addressing Easter Island, a once forested isle that was eventually denuded by its inhabitants (leading to their demise), Diamond wondered aloud about the last tree. What must the guy who cut it down have been thinking? Now, as the global human population exceeds seven billion, and we watch real and potential cataclysm unfold around us—civil war, collapse of ocean and tropical ecosystems, global warming, storms and floods, the emergence of new pathogens, nuclear holocaust—I can’t help but  ponder the eventual extinction of our species. And I can’t help but wonder what it will be like for the last man or woman left...

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Maybe he was just bored…

Authorities are having trouble with motive behind the Las Vegas shooter.  None of the usual apply.  Here’s a comfortable white guy, no criminal history or history of violence, relatively wealthy, stable, has a girlfriend.  Not political or religious, not angry.  So why did he do it?  Maybe they’re looking too hard. Maybe the truth is more frightening yet.  Instead of fringe, maybe he was mainstream.  Maybe, like the masses, he was just bored....

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I’m reading “Straw Dogs,” by John Gray…

…and he is describing the fiction of the self, the fictive self. He posits that life is really only a series of discreet but connected perceptions tied together by the capacity for reflection we call consciousness. The crux of his view is that the self I think of as me does not exist. It is an illusion. Instead, I am only a series of analog moments that came about through subconscious stimulus-response reactions. What we attribute to decisions, whether the habitual decisions of living day-to-day or ethical decisions based on some moral code, are really responses to ingrained genetic, biological and cultural programming. Nor do I remember more than a nanoscopic (my word) subset of the responses I have made. Indeed, those conscious moments I have assembled into a “self” are only the few I actually recall, whether by choice or otherwise. As such, this illusory self has neither a future nor a past (as we tend to think of these), and never has had. Instead, we exist (we, that is, as in our thoughts, not our physical bodies) only moment to moment. Our construction of those moments into a past, like our projection of them into a future, is only an unconscious intellectual exercise.  [Note: Gray does not say this (maybe because he didn’t think if it), but he makes me think of Alzheimer’s patients…of whom we often...

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On significance (or lack thereof)…

Remember Genesis 1:28? “…God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'” As I write, the remnants of Harvey continue to wreak havoc in southeast Texas. Even as I sympathize, I remember the adage, “There but for chance…”.  My own home on a hill won’t flood, and we don’t get hurricanes in Tennessee. But tornados? Hail storms? Fire and lightning? As a certain ex-governor would say, “You betcha!” Harvey reminds us how wrong-headed we are about nature. Consciously or not, Genesis 1:28 still holds sway in Judeo-Christian and related cultures. But thinking we are in charge of anything is laughable. The lessons just keep coming: Chinese floods, 1931: 3.7 million to 4 million dead. Galveston Hurricane, 1900: 6,000-12,000 dead. Spanish influenza, 1918-1920: 50 to 100 million dead. Bhola Cyclone, modern Bangladesh, 1970: 500,000 dead. Indian Ocean tsunami, 2004: 230,000 dead. Haiti earthquake, 2010: 50,000 to 200,000 dead, depending on sources. Hurricane Katrina, 2005: $108B damages. Tōhuko earthquake and tsunami (i.e., Fukushima), 2011: $300B in damages. Superstorm Sandy, 2012: $75B damages. Hurricane Harvey, 2017: possibly $190B, per USA Today And what’s on the horizon? In the U. S. alone, we’ve yet to flood Biloxi or Miami or...

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Review of “the soul to the marionette: a short inquiry into human freedom,” by John gray

Uber-marionettes do not have to wait until they can fly before they can be free. Not looking to ascend into the heavens, they can find freedom in falling to earth. — John Gray, in “The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom.” (Farrah, Straus and Giroux, New York. 2015) From the title, one might expect Gray’s book to explore the concept of free will. But it does not, at least not directly. It is much more than that. Instead, the author explores a central premise of all modern religions: the idea that we can know who we are, from whence we come, the meaning of life and death. Or that, not knowing, we can somehow find out. His backdrop for the inquiry is the current secular faith in knowledge and science, which he interprets as the modern incarnation of ancient Gnosticism. In essence we either put our faith in the mythologies of religion, or in the equally groundless belief that we can rise above our limitations through knowledge.   Gray neither affirms nor denies arguments for either side. Rather, he simply explores how civilizations both ancient and modern have approached them. The breadth of his sources is intimidating, and his style can be oblique to the point of obfuscation. But to the curious, he is eminently readable. You stay with him because you have to wonder...

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Thinking and drinking…

In today’s world, critical thinking can get you branded as “elitist.”  A bit of irony, that, as thinking critically is the only way one could understand what a silly idea that is.  But one thing is certain, truly critical thinking will set you up for being alone, at least existentially.  At the very least, it can lead to desperation at times as you cast about for someone to understand you.  And it will certainly limit the satisfying conversation you can have over a bottle of whiskey....

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The good and the bad…

“When I tried day after day to do good and to relieve the suffering of my patients, I was myself. And when I let myself go and plunged into shameful activities, I was also myself. My scientific studies forced me to the following truth–man is not truly one person, but actually two.” –Dr. Henry Jekyll, in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” by Robert Louis Stevenson (various publishers). Thinking about human cruelty these past few weeks, I found myself reading Stevenson’s classic allegory of good and evil, the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Like many, I suspect, I knew something of the story but had never actually read it. Doing so after the last two posts was discomfiting. “Jekyll and Hyde” is an allusion to the very things we’ve been considering. In a sense it’s a parable, because of its implicit warning. Jekyll is a respected, upper class physician with a bent towards tinkering. He’d always lived within cultural norms. But, having long sensed his personal darkness, he wondered how it would feel to indulge it. So he developed a potion to allow himself to do that. The heart of the story is that his dark side proved stronger than his good. Eventually it began to take him over without the potion. The more it indulged itself, the greater became it’s greed and disregard...

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The eternal struggle…

Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it. It is a trait that is not known to the higher animals. –Mark Twain, “The Lowest Animal,” (an essay). Those ideals and convictions which resulted from historical experience, from the craving for beauty and harmony, have been readily accepted in theory by man — and at all times, have been trampled upon by the same people under the pressure of their animal instincts. –Albert Einstein (“Ideas and Opinions,” Broadway Books, reprint edition 1995. A friend read my last post and pointed me to Mark Twain’s essay, “The Lowest Animal.”  It’s a commentary on Man’s singular penchant among other animals for cruelty greed, rapaciousness, and other uniquely human hobbies. Twain pushed me to consider this further. Somewhere in our evolutionary ascent (or, per Twain, descent) humans seem to have gone over the edge.  We changed from instinctual automatons to objective, sentient beings who can consciously participate in overt acts of extreme selfishness, regardless of their effects on others.  Recognition of this penchant for personal excess predates, or at least coincides with, the origins of Judaism. The modern western idea of good and evil probably originated in ancient Zoroastrian dualism, around Persia, some three thousand years ago. Original Sin, a Christian invention, was the early...

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Oh, the humanity!

I’m following news about the latest radical Islamist atrocity, this one in Manchester.  And I see once again that most ubiquitous term of self-deception by our species:  “Oh, the inhumanity…!” Or some variant of that, anyway.  After 5,000 years of recorded history, you’d think we know by now that such behavior is nothing if not human.  In fact, mass intraspecific murder is probably uniquely human.  I certainly can’t think of another species that engages in it.  And religion, while not the only cause we kill for, certainly seemed to kick things off. Presaged by prolific Old Testament slaughter of enemies by Jews (or their god), the Jews (using the Romans) tortured and killed Christ, catalyzing the big BC/AD time change.  Over the next two or three hundred years, the Romans tortured and killed Christians.  But then Constantine converted around 315 and took all the fun out of it, so Catholics (the home team, now that Constantine had bought them), killed the gnostics.  But then Islam turns up three hundred years later and takes over, killing pretty much anybody who didn’t agree with them.  They had a good run for a couple hundred years, from China and India, clear across the Middle East to Spain.  By the end of the millennium, though, the Catholic Church got its second wind and started killing Muslims.  When that got tiresome, it went north...

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