sentient beings

The last word on Speciesism

By AC Grayling, The Guardian UK, April 2000

Animals are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time. – Henry Beston

A striking fact now rendered familiar, even platitudinous, by the triumphs of recent genetic science is how closely all living things are related. Humans share more than half their genes with worms and fruit-flies, and almost all their genes with chimpanzees.

Yet this intimate familyhood of life does not stop people from spearing worms on to fish-hooks, or testing drugs on chimpanzees. Nothing surprising there, you might say, given the way humans treat humans; in the face of gas chambers, racism, war and other avocations, what chance has a monkey or a cow? There are lessons to be learned from the way humans justify their treatment of animals, not least of those evolutionarily closest to them – the apes.

We locate a difference that we find threatening or that we despise; we thereby make the other fully Other, so that we can close the door of the moral community against him, leaving him outside where our actions cannot be judged by the same standards as apply within.

Continue reading “sentient beings”

what have you done with your brother?



It is an irony that although racism is a reality, and a harsh one, race itself is a complete fiction.

– AC Grayling

The last word on Racism by AC Grayling
Racism is on its deathbed – the question is, how costly will racists make the funeral? – Martin Luther King

Just as a jury in upstate New York acquits four police officers of wrongdoing in the Harlem shooting of Amadou Diallo – they said they thought his wallet was a gun, and fired 41 bullets at him – so a human rights commission in South Africa begins to investigate systematic racism in the country’s media.

Here, meanwhile, the fall-out from the Lawrence tragedy continues, and tensions simmer between British Muslim youth and the surrounding majority society. Everywhere one looks, race and racism make angry welts on the body politic, and deep wounds.

It is an irony that although racism is a reality, and a harsh one, race itself is a complete fiction. It has no genetic or biological basis. All human beings are closely related to one another, and at the same time each human being is unique. Not only is the concept of race entirely artificial, it is new; yet in its short existence it has, like most lies and absurdities current among us, done a mountain of harm.

The first classification of humans into races was mooted by Linnaeus, who recognised it as a mere convenience with no basis in nature. He employed the same criteria as in his botanical classifications, namely, outward appearance, giving rise later to the simplistic typing of all humans into “Caucasoid”, “Negroid” and “Mongoloid”. But advances in genetics have demolished such taxonomies, by taking DNA as the criterion of classification. Linnaeus’s system says that one of Buddhism’s holy plants, the lotus, is related to the water lily; DNA comparison says it is related to London’s familiar and beloved plane tree.

It is an irony that although racism is a reality, and a harsh one, race itself is a complete fiction.


In human terms, DNA analysis dismantles the idea of race completely. “Race has no basic biological reality,” says Professor Jonathan Marks of Yale University, “the human species simply doesn’t come packaged that way.” Rather, race is a social, cultural and political concept based on superficial appearances and historical conditions, largely those arising from encounters with other peoples as Europe developed a global reach, with the slavery and colonialism that followed.

It was not only Linnaeus who knew that “race” is a fiction. In the mid-19th century EA Freeman famously discredited the whole of idea of “community of blood”, as did Ashley Montagu in the mid-20th century. Even Hitler knew it, despite making the concept central: ” I know perfectly well… that in a scientific sense there is no such thing as race… but I as a politician need a conception which enables the order which has hitherto existed on historic bases to be abolished and an entirely new and antihistoric order enforced and given an intellectual basis… And for this purpose the conception of races serves me well…”

All human beings have the same ancestors. Human history is a short one; it is less than a quarter of a million years long, with the first migrations from Africa beginning half that time ago. The physical diversity of human populations today is purely a function of geographical accidents of climate and the isolation of wandering bands.

The distinctions which have since been drawn between peoples are, accord ingly, arbitrary and superficial, even those relating to skin colour – for, as a moment’s attention shows, there is simply no such thing as “white”, “black” or “yellow” people; there are people with many shades and types of skin, making no difference to any other aspect of their humanity save what the malice of others can construct.

To advance beyond racism one has to advance beyond race. But that goal is not helped by what Sartre called “anti-racist racism”, as with the Black Power movement and its cognates. It is understandable that communities which suffer prejudice and abuse should shelter behind a protective identity; but identities grow rigid and become a source of new pieties, new excuses to repay evil with evil; and they indirectly entrench the very idea that lies at the root of the problem.

Racism will end when individuals see others only in individual terms. “There are no ‘white’ or ‘coloured’ signs on the graveyards of battle,” said John F. Kennedy; and there is a significant moral in that remark.

I concur with Grayling’s view and yet would want to add an emphasis – that while race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real. 


“… I see that everything I’ve done, thought or been is a species of delusion or madness. I’m amazed at what I managed not to see. I marvel at all that I was and that I now see I’m not. All that I’ve done,  thought or been is a series of submissions, either to a false self that I assumed belonged to me because I expressed myself through it to the outside, or to a weight of circumstances that I supposed was the air that I breathed. In this moment of seeing I suddenly find myself isolated, an exile where I’d always thought I was a citizen. At the heart of my thoughts I realised I wasn’t I.”



straw men

The Argei were purification rituals in ancient Rome in which effigies or simulacra – made of straw, rushes and reeds – were gathered from 27 sacred sites or sacraria around the city. The effigies were intended to absorb the evil and pollution of the city, before finally being thrown into the river Tiber. The ceremony appears to have been as much a mystery to the Romans as it is for to us today. The ritual quite possibly relates to an even more ancient, pre-roman tradition of human sacrifice. Karl Jung said that myths express universal aspects of the human psyche. (citation needed). The “straw man ritual” seems to find parallels in the scapegoat of ancient Judaism – insofar as the sin of the people is symbolically placed upon the spotless creature which is then driven into the desert to die. The Christian antitype of course is Christ the lamb of God who takes upon himself the sins of the world. The substitutionary death of a ram in place of Moses’ son Isaac also comes to mind. Is there a parallel in these ceremonies – the need for a substitutionary sacrifice or at least some common element to the burning of the Guy Fawkes effigy of England and the effigy of Judas Iscariot that is burnt annually in Cyprus? The burning of “The Guy” may have it’s origins in Irish and Scottish cultic rituals of the Samhain and Beltane when bonfires were lit in pagan purification rituals.

“Some tales may suggest that offerings or sacrifices were made at Samhain. In the Lebor Gabála Érenn (or ‘Book of Invasions’), each Samhain the people of Nemed had to give two-thirds of their children, their corn and their milk to the monstrous Fomorians. The Fomorians seem to represent the harmful or destructive powers of nature; personifications of chaos, darkness, death, blight and drought. This tribute paid by Nemed’s people may represent a “sacrifice offered at the beginning of winter, when the powers of darkness and blight are in the ascendant“. According to the later Dindsenchas and the Annals of the Four Masters—which were written by Christian monks—Samhain in ancient Ireland was associated with a god or idol called Crom Cruach. The texts claim that a first-born child would be sacrificed at the stone idol of Crom Cruach in Magh Slécht. They say that King Tigernmas, and three-fourths of his people, died while worshiping Crom Cruach one Samhain. Other texts say that kings Diarmait mac Cerbaill and Muirchertach mac Ercae both died a threefold death on Samhain, which may be linked to human sacrifice”

The making of a ritual effigy – male or female – seems ubiqitous: in The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion by James George Frazer the author describes how in Bohemia and Selesia an effigy of Death made of straw and rags is thrown into the water at sunset to symbolise the vanquishing of death (winter) and heralding new life (spring). In Lusatia the effigy is pelted with stones, carried out of the village and thrown into the water. In Transylvania and Moravian customs a young girl wears the garments from the recently destroyed effigy to symbolise the resuscitation of the being represented by the effigy. In Gross-Strehlitz in Poland the straw puppet – Goik – is thrown into the river. Life-giving power is ascribed to the power of the death-effigy: buried in a field it protects and nurtures the crop. In Austrian Selesia the brushwood and rag effigy is burned yet paradoxically is supposed to have powers of fertility, protection and renewal. To this day, An effigy of a woman – “La vecchia” – (“the old lady”) is burnt in parts of Northern Italy. Each New Year’s eve in Peru, stuffed figures of politicians, sportsmen or celebrities are burnt – although admittedly this is an act of political or social protest, not reverence for the god’s. Amongst the Celts, the Romans encountered The Wicker Man – a giant figure that was set ablaze in an ancient ritual. Some historians believe that live prisoners were placed inside the huge structure as a burnt sacrifice to the gods of the Druids.

There seems to be something universal which requires the destruction by fire or water of an effigy of straw – even when the reason is lost in the mists of time.

a world of broken symbols and images

the Hollow Men by TS Eliot

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.

A penny for the Old Guy

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper

קֹהֶ֫לֶת (qoheleth)

“A collector of sentences, Gatherer, Assembler or Collector.”

The Book of Qoheleth…  Is designed to reflect the paradoxical and anomalous nature of this present world. The difficulty of interpreting this book is proportionally related to one’s own readiness  to adopt Qoheleth’s presupposition-that everything about this world is marred by the tyranny of the curse which the Lord God placed upon all creation.” –ARDEL B. CANEDAY

Everything Is Meaningless

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? … All things are wearisome, more than one can say.The eye never has enough of seeing,nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”?It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.

Wisdom Is Meaningless

I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.  I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind!  I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”