The philosopher of pessimism. John Gray is one of the most daring and original thinkers in Britain. But his new book, a bold, anti-humanist polemic, fails to convince Edward Skidelsky

Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals

John Gray <em>Granta Books, 240pp, £12.99</em>

Like certain hedge funds, John Gray speculates on disaster. As the market plummets, his personal stock soars higher than ever. This past year has been especially kind to him. He is well known as a critic - from a sceptical, conservative standpoint - of global capitalism. For the past decade, he has hurled thunderbolts of indignation against the view that the western system of free markets under the rule of law represents the "end of history". The events of 11 September and the subsequent economic downturn saw his pessimism triumphantly confirmed.

Vindicated in the political arena, Gray's scepticism has now taken on a more universal dimension. Straw Dogs is a bold departure for an academic writer; it is an attempt to articulate a total view of the world, a Weltanschauung. It comprises a series of essays and quasi-philosophical aphorisms, ranging in length from a few pages to a few lines, on subjects as diverse as Chuang-Tzu, the white ant and al-Qaeda. From such various sources, Gray has tried to construct a new myth for the age.

The aim of Straw Dogs is "to present a view of things in which humans are not central". The target is the Judaeo-Christian view of man as a special creation, singled out from other animals by the gifts of choice and reason. Detached from its original mythological expression, this picture of man continues to underwrite all forms of secular humanism. If we reject the Abrahamic faith - and Gray takes it for granted that we do - we must in all consistency reject any view of man as different in kind from other animals. Philosophers, sociologists and literary critics must abandon their insistence on the autonomy of human culture. "Cities are no more artificial than the hives of bees," he writes. "The internet is as natural as a spider's web."

These reflections form the basis of Gray's political pessimism. "The idea of humanity taking charge of its destiny makes sense only if we ascribe consciousness and purpose to the species; but Darwin's discovery was that species are only currents in the drift of genes. The idea that humanity can shape its future assumes that it is exempt from this truth." This remark is directed equally against Marxism and contemporary liberal universalism. Both vainly aspire to remake the world in the image of reason. The state itself, the first attempt at the rational organisation of society, is in collapse across much of the globe. Terrorist and criminal networks are sprouting up from under the rubble. Dangerous new technologies spread, germlike, beyond the control of any central agency. Gray's tone is apocalyptic, yet his stance is one of passive resignation. What else, given his bleak view of human nature, could it be?

Gray is entitled to his gloomy Weltanschauung. But he is wrong to accord it the authority of science. The fallacy is an old one; it is the fallacy of 19th-century materialism. Gray mistakes conjecture for certain truth, heuristic principles for insights into the ultimate nature of reality. Darwin did not "show that humans are like other animals". He - or rather his successors - assumed that human beings are in some respects like other animals, hoping by means of this assumption to reveal their organisation and behaviour, a hypothesis that may yet prove fruitful. But the supposition that humans are like other animals is just that - a supposition. Gray, like so many before him, has surreptitiously elevated it to a metaphysical truth. Science has been transformed into mythology.

In a similar manner, Gray argues that science has abolished the unitary, continuous self. "Recent cognitive science and ancient Buddhist teachings are at one in viewing this ordinary sense of self as illusive. Both view selfhood in humans as a highly complex and fragmentary thing." But science can never establish the existence of a unitary self. The self is not a substance, a possible object of scientific investigation; it is, as Kant realised several centuries ago, an ethical ideal. When I assert that I am the same person I was five years ago, I am above all claiming responsibility for what I did five years ago. Selfhood, like freedom, is not discovered within us; it confronts us as a demand.

As if acknowledging that science cannot provide him with the support he needs, Gray turns to Indian and Chinese mysticism. Here, he claims, we find that harmony with nature which western civilisation has so continuously striven to disrupt. Buddhists assert the unity of all life; Taoists enjoin us to lay aside the burden of consciousness and live as spontaneously as plants and animals. None of this has anything to do with science. Gray is quite right that western humanism has its roots in Jewish and Christian mythology, yet his own anti-humanism is no less mythological in inspiration. Our choice is between two rival myths, not between myth and science.

It is very difficult for any westerner to gauge the real meaning of eastern mysticism. But what is certain is that it has played a generally sinister role in western culture. If, as Christian doctrine asserts, there exists a radical breach between us and the rest of nature, if we are "strangers and pilgrims" on the earth, then all talk of harmony with nature is nothing but false solace. Freedom is our fate; we must live it through to the end. The Taoist ideal of spontaneous, animal existence is alluring but ultimately dangerous. Its secret promise is to free us from the irritating constraints of conscience and responsibility. Hence its appeal to Nazis and modern management gurus. Gray's approving summary of Taoist doctrine could also stand as the formula of modern totalitarianism: "The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose."

Edward Skidelsky is an NS lead reviewer